Monday, January 26, 2015

Best of Luck Mums!

I was going to write about this past weekend and the T-birds moving up into fifth place in the Western Conference standings after the 2-0 win in Spokane Sunday. Then news broke Monday morning regarding Danny Mumaugh and the Seattle goaltending situation.

If you haven't heard by now, Mumaugh opted to end his hockey career, stating he had lost his drive to keep playing. Mumaugh had only seen action in eight games this season, last playing in mop up duty January 17th in a 6-0 loss up in Everett. For his career, over parts of three seasons, the Centennial, Colorado native appeared in 61 games posting an 18-21-4-4 record with one career shutout, respectable numbers for a guy who never was a number one goaltender. His biggest win came two seasons ago when he bested Tri-City at the ShoWare Center, a win that clinched Seattle a playoff spot and ended a three year postseason absence for the franchise.

For someone like Mumaugh to lose his drive, says a lot because as mild-mannered and upbeat as he was off the ice, on the ice he was a fierce competitor. He wanted to play and he wanted to win. I've never seen a goalie as happy to get a shutout as when Mumaugh got his one and only shutout last season in Vancouver against the Giants. Watching the final minutes of that game it was clear he was going to do everything in his power to preserve that goose egg.

Unfortunately for Danny, he was caught between a rock and a hard place. When Seattle initially traded for Taran Kozun in January of 2014, I think the original plan was to split the goaltending job between the two. Seattle brought in Kozun because Justin Myles couldn't stay healthy and Mumaugh was carrying too much of the load. But from the first moment he hit the ice as a T-bird, Kozun stole the job. He just started playing lights out and Seattle rode the hot hand. As a result Mumaugh saw less and less of the ice, which stifled his development and for a guy as competitive as Danny is, not playing is a tough position to be in. I've said from day one, the toughest job on the team this season has been being the backup to the league's #1 goalie. Danny just had he unenviable task of occupying that job.

And this season Kozun picked up where he left off. He's been the best goaltender in the WHL this season. When you are in a battle for playoff position and nearly every game is against a team you're fighting in the standings for positioning, you ride that hot hand.

Then, in the rear view mirror, is the goalie of the future, Logan Flodell. Seattle spent a third round pick in the 2012 Bantam Draft on the Regina product. He had a superb training camp and was solid in his one start this season before the Thunderbirds sent him to Nipiwan of the SJHL for seasoning. All he did down there was go 8-4-0 with a .901 save percentage and a 2.44 goals against average. Last week he was named the SJHL Rookie of the Week after leading the Hawks to two wins by stopping 52 of 55 shots he faced. Even if they started next season with Mumaugh and Flodell splitting duty in net, at some point Flodell was going to be the number one guy.

Meanwhile, I had the chance to speak with Seattle's goaltending coach Ian Gordon back in November when Seattle was on their six game road trip through the east. When I asked him about the T-birds goaltending situation post-Kozun, Gordon was very complimentary of Mumaugh, sang the praises of Flodell, but he was also very optimistic about a couple of other of the T-birds listed goalies that he has worked with or scouted.


Selfishly, for me, the best thing about Danny Mumaugh was how well-spoken he was. If I could, I would have interviewed him before every game. He always has something to say and says it well. But that was also true when he was out in the local community, speaking before young elementary students at local Kent schools. He is very comfortable with the spoken word and very at ease in front of groups. He was confident enough to wear his favorite Denver Broncos jersey before last season's Super Bowl in a sea of Seahawk blue. That is the kind of confidence that should make him a success in whatever he chooses to do with the rest of his life.

My T-birds three stars for the just completed weekend:

Third Star: Matt Barzal. No points in the three games but upon returning from his three month layoff due to injury, he is showing no ill affects. He's right back to playing like we expect. It's just a matter of time before the points start coming after hitting a post, a crossbar and getting robbed on the door step by Spokane's Tyson Verhelst. If his teammates had finished on some scoring chances he set up, he could have picked up 4 or 5 assists. The best part was he did not shy away from any physical play.

Second Star: Calvin Spencer/Donovan Neuls Combo pack. These two finished the weekend with one goal and four assists. Spencer may have played his best game as a T-birds Saturday in the overtime loss to Portland. He earned two big assists but may have been his best on the forecheck and the penalty kill as the T-birds were a perfect 9-for-9 on the PK in the last two games. Neuls meanwhile accounted for three points (1g, 2a) including the game winner Sunday. The rookie from Grenfell, Saskatchewan leads the team in plus/minus at +9.

First Star: Ryan Gropp. Gropp started his weekend Thursday with an assist for the winning team in the Top Prospects Game back in Ontario. He missed Friday's 4-0 loss in Kennewick but returned to finish the weekend with three points (2g, 1a) and was +3. He was the third member of the very productive Spencer-Neuls-Gropp line that was on the ice for four of Seattle's five goals on the weekend. He continues to lead the team in scoring with 36 points (18g, 18a).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Opposites Don't Always Attract

I'm so emotionally spent from that unbelievable Seattle Seahawks win Sunday. I almost forgot the T-birds played twice over the weekend as well. It was a weekend that started well for Seattle but finished with a thud.

I've seen a lot of post game commentary regarding the T-birds 5-2 road win over Kelowna Friday night. The gist of it is that Seattle was badly outplayed for 60-minutes and stole two points only because of the play of goalie Taran Kozun. Wrong! Kozun was the reason Seattle escaped the first ten minutes still in the scoreless game. Definitely could have been two or three to nothing had he not done what he did after Kelowna put the game's first ten shots on goal. Remember though, neither team had any shots on goal the first couple of minutes of the game. It was the Rockets first power play where they started to generate shots. But other then a glaring turnover right in front of the Seattle net that put the Rockets in on a 2-0 break that Kozun stoned, most of the shots were from the outside.

The bigger discrepancy for me was puck possession. It just seemed the T-birds didn't have their stick on the puck that first ten minutes. But after that first ten or so minutes the game balanced out. Seattle actually outshot the Rockets the second half of the first period, and most importantly outscored them 2-0. The rest of the game was fairly even. There were a few stretches where both teams were controlling play in the last two periods. The difference was Seattle took advantage of their scoring opportunities.

Remember, this was a Kelowna roster that features seven NHL draft picks, including two first rounders. Seattle features just one NHL draft pick in Shea Theodore. Seattle is still without Matt Barzal and it was their first game since losing Alexander True to his wrist injury. So it's possible the young T-birds may have been a little in awe when the game started. But once they settled in, they played a very good road game. So yes, the T-birds did get outplayed early, they did get a terrific performance from Kozun, but by no means was this a one-sided game with a fluke of a result.

Here's what WHL teams sometimes have to face over the grind of a 72-game schedule. Friday night road game with a late 7:45 start to accommodate TV. two and a half hour game. Finish game just after 10 p.m., shower, dress, load the bus then eat a post game meal at the arena restaurant. Depart the arena at approximately 11:30 pm. You now hop on board the iron lung for a four hour-plus bus ride to the border as you try to catch a few hours of sleep, either sitting up or lying on the bus floor. You stop at the border at approximately 3:30 in the morning. Everyone is awakened and herded inside the border station for a passport check while border agents inspect the bus costing you another 25-30 minutes of shut eye. You then pile the team back on the bus for the hour and a half ride to your next destination as you try to sneak in a little more sleep.

You arrive at the hotel at five in the morning for check-in, get room assignments and keys and head to bed while the training staff jumps back on the bus to go to the arena to unload the gear. You get a 9:45 a.m. wake up call for a team breakfast at the restaurant across the street after which you go back to your hotel room hoping to get a few more "z's" until a 1:30 p.m. pregame meal. After eating you hope to get in a quick nap before you board the bus at 4:30 in the afternoon and head to the rink for that night's road game. Your opponent meanwhile, has been snug in their own beds all night uninterrupted after playing a home game the night before.

That's what faced Seattle going into the Saturday game versus Everett. But Seattle knew this would be the case going into the weekend well before the weekend was here. And they actually played a very good first period. But once they got behind, they stopped moving their legs. They made too many defensive zone mistakes. The fatigue started to set in. I think the problem was that so many of Seattle's players have not gone through a travel weekend like that yet. It's a learning process. They spent a lot of emotion and energy in beating the Rockets the night before.

They need to learn to prepare their bodies physically and their minds mentally to be ready to go again less then 24 hours later with less then ideal rest in between. When you're 17 years old it is hard to hop on a bus right after a big win and get right to sleep. You're too jazzed up and the body is going on adrenaline and you don't want to shut it down, you want to spend time with your buddies and celebrate a big win. Your family and friends who just watched you on national TV are texting you.

Despite splitting the two games, I think in the big picture it was a successful weekend considering it was two games on the road against the top two teams in the Western Conference and in the end, Seattle did pick up two points in the standings on Spokane.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Luke Osterman. The 17 year old Stillwater, Minnesota rookie, playing on the T-birds fourth line, doesn't get tons of ice time. But he makes the most of what he gets. It has gotten to the point where I don't worry when he, Nick Holowko and Kaden Elder are out against an opponents top line. They don't get overmatched and play a simple game. There were three or four times Friday night in Kelowna when Osterman was able to get the puck up ice, then get it deep into the Kelowna end so his team could make a line change. He didn't shy away from a tilt with Rocket's 20 year old Tyrell Goulbourne and while he lost the battle he must have a face made of concrete because there wasn't a mark on him afterwards. Saturday in the 6-0 loss in Everett he may have been the team's best and most consistent forward.

2nd Star: Roberts Lipsbergs. Rusty after having played so little with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, the 20-year old Latvian is starting to get his game legs. When everyone else started slowly Friday he was the one player outside of Kozun who had a good start. It paid off as he scored the first goal and then made a beautiful saucer pass to Scott Eansor on the second. Brought in to pick up the slack for the absence of Justin Hickman, he's averaging a point a game (1g,4a) and is +3. On top of that he and another newcomer, Cory Millette, have developed instant chemistry.

First Star: Taran Kozun. Forget the game Saturday in Everett. Not his fault. Friday in Kelowna he stole the first ten minutes from the Rockets. That first ten minutes was like the first half of the Seahawks-Packers NFC Championship game. The Rockets had a chance to put that game away early but Kozun went all Legion of Boom on them and kept them off the board.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

No Middle Ground

The Thunderbirds hadn't had a period like the second period Tuesday night against Spokane since, well, possibly since last season. I'm not saying they've been playing textbook, perfect hockey all year. There have been periods this year where the opponent got the better of them. The game in Moose Jaw back in early November would be a good example. But not to the extent they got outworked, outhustled, outhit and outscored by the Chiefs for 20 minutes last night that turned a 2-1 Seattle lead into a 4-3 deficit.

Tuesday in that second period, it seemed the T-birds lost every 50/50 puck battle. They constantly turned the puck over in their own end or in the neutral zone. The passing was not sharp and they struggled to move the puck up ice against the Chiefs forecheck. And this came after a pretty solid first period by the T-birds. That second 20 minutes was so out of character for this team which has played some very inspired hockey over the past three weeks, compiling a 7-1-0-1 record. Maybe they were just due for a period like that. Maybe the law of averages just caught up with them. Whatever it was, it just wasn't the brand of hockey the team has been playing the second half of the season.

I'm sure part of it was Spokane head coach Don Nachbaur giving his team a little inspirational talk during the first intermission as the Chiefs definitely played that second period with a purpose. And yet when that 20 minutes of subpar hockey was over for Seattle, up on the scoreboard, they were still in the game. They were only down a goal. They were only outshot 12-8 and had actually scored to briefly take a 3-2 lead. And when the period ended they found themselves on a power play that would carry over to the start of the third.

Now it was Seattle head coach Steve Knowalchuk's turn for a some inspiring intermission talk. I don't know what was said in the dressing room between periods. On the radio postgame show I think assistant coach Tyler Alos called it "motivational words". But whatever words were spoken, they relit the fuse under the T-birds attack. They came out on fire to start the period. Using the power play they peppered the Spokane net with six quality scoring chances in the first minute and a half. If not for the stellar work of Chiefs goalie Garret Hughson, Seattle would have tied the game much earlier then they did.

Just a few minutes after the power play expired, Nolan Volcan took a feed from Lane Pederson on a 2-on-1 rush and erupted for the tying goal, shooting it in off Hughson's glove. Seattle would end up outshooting Spokane, 15-5 over the final 25 minutes before winning on Keegan Kolesar's shootout goal.

Under normal circumstances you'd lament giving up that point Spokane earned in the shootout loss since they are one of the team's your trying to chase down in the standings. But considering how poorly the Thunderbirds played that second period, I think they'll appreciate the win no matter how it was accomplished. Seattle was still able to gain ground on every team in front of them in the Western Conference and U.S. Division. In fact their 8-1-0-1 stretch is the best record in the league over the last ten games.

Finding instant chemistry on a forward line that has never played together before is a rare thing, especially when they get thrown together for the fist time mid-season. But Seattle may have discovered just that with the line of Roberts Lipsbergs, Donovan Neuls and Cory Millette. In two games together they have combined for six points (2g, 4a) and are +7. I'd say that is picking up the slack for the loss of the team's second leading scorer, Justin Hickman, to season-ending shoulder surgery.

Heck of a weekend on the road coming up for the T-birds as they face the top two teams in the Western Conference on back-to-back nights. First up it's Friday in Kelowna against the team with the league's best record, the Rockets. Then it's a quick turnaround to get down to Everett to face the U.S. Division leading Silvertips Saturday night.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Shall We Play a Game?

Remember the early 1980's Matthew Broderick movie "War Games"? Remember the scene near the end of the movie when they let the computer, the WOPR, simulate all the different scenarios for a nuclear launch? What is it professor Falken says as the computer speeds up faster and faster through all those scenarios and everyone in the war room believes World War III is about to commence?

Professor Falken is asked by Broderick's character, "what is it (the computer) doing?" To which professor Falken replies, "It's learning." I remember that scene as I watch the Thunderbirds play since coming back from the Christmas break. Seattle has been missing players and not just any players but key players. The fear is that putting the young, untested players on the ice will lead to bad results. Why? Because you fear the unknown. But how do you know if you don't play it out?

So because of the circumstance; players injured, suspended or away at international tournaments, the T-birds put the young players out on the ice. And guess what? They didn't falter. They haven't been perfect, but as Professor Falken would say, they're learning. They've learned how to compete night in and night out at the WHL level. They've learned to play as a team and for each other. Most importantly they've learned what it takes to succeed in this league. They've learned how to win.

And now, slowly, the team is getting those top end players they've been missing, back in the lineup and putting them together with those young players who learned so many valuable lessons the first half of the season.

Over their last 16 games, the T-birds are 11-4-0-1. In the eight games since their return from the Christmas break, they are 6-1-0-1. They just got Shea Theodore and Alexander True back from World Juniors. They lost captain Justin Hickman to season-ending surgery but replaced him with last season's leading goal scorer, Roberts Lipsbergs. This year's leading scorer,Ryan Gropp, is back after missing four games. They used a late round draft choice to pick up some veteran depth up front with the acquisition of 19 year old winger Cory Millette. By next weekend they should get Calvin Spencer back in the lineup and then in a few weeks, Matt Barzal. Just maybe then, we'll finally get to see what this team can do with a full roster available. Something that hasn't happened yet this season.

It's never a good thing to have your best players out of the lineup but for Seattle, there is a silver lining. It helped speed up the development of those ten rookies on the roster. And now, as they battle for a playoff spot the second half of the season, they are a better team for it.

My T-bird Three Stars for this past weekend:

Third Star: Nolan Volcan. It wasn't just his goal in the Sunday win that I liked. It is the energy he brings to every shift. He flies around and throws the body but never seems out of control. He's hard on the puck and on numerous occasions this weekend I saw the 16 year old from Edmonton win puck battles against bigger and older opponents. He plays with no fear.

Second Star: Taran Kozun. Continues to do what your number one goalie needs to do; give his team a chance to win every night. He never makes any save look complicated. Continues to lead the league in GAA at 2.24, third in save percentage at .918, yet hasn't posted a shutout yet. It's called consistency.

First Star: Shea Theodore. Two games back from winning gold with Team Canada at World Juniors and all he's done is register five points on three goals and two assists. He's put the power back in Seattle's power play. To top it off the coach's named him team captain, replacing Hickman who is lost for the season.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Back on the 'Cane Train

Seattle made one final roster move before the WHL trade deadline came and passed Saturday. They sent defenseman Scott Allan to Lethbridge for a 2016 5th round Bantam Draft selection. You may recall the T-birds acquired Allan from the Medicine Hat Tigers back in mid-October at a time the team was short on the back end because of injuries and suspensions. The cost to get Allan from the Tigers? A 5th round pick in the 2016 draft.

Allan played in 24 games with Seattle registering three points, including a game winning goal in Everett in a 3-2 win over the Silvertips back on November 28th. In fact, Allan had two of his three points in that game as he also recorded an assist.

I think Allan's age worked against him as far as his place on the T-birds roster. Allan is a '96 born (18 year old) and the T-birds have two younger defenseman on the roster in 17 year old Turner Ottenbreit and 16 year old Sahvan Khaira. Khaira actually just celebrated his 17th birthday one week ago, but this is his 16 year old season. These two are developing at a faster pace. They also have some top 17 year old defensemen prospects who could be with the team next season. With the return of Shea Theodore the T-birds were carrying eight d-men. That means two of them were going to be healthy scratches each night. Allan was the odd man out. It doesn't help his development to sit an 18 year old as a healthy scratch, thus the trade to the Hurricanes.

The good news is Allan should get the opportunity to earn ice time with Lethbridge. While the 'Canes now list eight defensemen on their roster, two of them are 20 year olds who won't return next season, so Allan will have a chance to help anchor their back in next season too.

Meanwhile Seattle has recouped the 5th round pick they spent to acquire Allan and probably improved their draft position in the 5th round of that 2016 draft as well. Allan came to the t-birds at a time they needed help on the back end. He Gave them what they needed but now that they are fully healthy on the back end, there just wasn't room for him in the rotation. He'll run into a familiar face in Lethbridge as former T-bird Florian Baltram is now a 'Cane as well. I believe this makes seven, the number of one-time T-birds traded to or added to the Lethbridge roster over the last 14 months.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

T-birds Add Some Seasoning

With the WHL trade deadline coming up this Saturday, Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell has made a move, doing exactly what he said wanted to do earlier this week. Farwell, speaking on 1090 The Fan's Seattle Thunderbirds Weekly Coach's Show with host Bill Swartz, said he wanted to add some veteran depth at forward, but only if the price was reasonable. He wasn't willing or inclined to trade any of the young talent currently on the roster.

So Thursday he sent a conditional 6th round pick, in either the 2015 or 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, to the Price Albert Raiders for 19 year old left winger Cory Millette. With the acquisition the T-birds double the number of '95 forwards on the team. Prior to the deal they had exactly zero. Millette (pronounced MEE-yet), who began his career with Red Deer, played last season in Saskatoon, scoring a career best 17 goals. The Blades dealt him to Prince Albert this past November. In 206 regular season WHL games he has produced 92 points (44G, 48A). So far this season with his two teams he has a combined 18 points (8G, 10A) in 39 games.

Back on October 18th, while still with Saskatoon, Millette, a native of Storthoaks, Saskatchewan, was made an honorary captain for the Blades game on "Pink the Rink Night". Millette lost his father Adrien to leukemia back in 2011. He told the website panow.com that his father was and continues to be his inspiration. He sounds like a good character guy, someone you want to have in the locker room.

What this move really says though is just how much Farwell and Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk and his staff believe in their young roster. I'm sure in phone calls around the league other G.Ms were asking for those young T-birds in any trade scenario. Farwell stuck to his guns and so far has refused to part with any of them. That is a tremendous vote of confidence in that group.

Back on September 27th, I wrote the following as the season was barely a week old, when discussing whether they needed to add veteran depth up front: If they do decide to make such a deal I personally would prefer it be done using just draft picks rather then surrendering any of the young talent currently on the roster. That's what I believed back then and with the trade deadline just a few days away, I still believe it. So far, that is how it has played out. I'm not saying Farwell is no longer taking or making phone calls; he'll always look to improve his team if it is the right deal, but don't be surprised if this is the only trade the team makes before Saturday afternoon rolls around.

This weekend's biggest move for the T-birds is probably going to be the return of Shea Theodore to the lineup. Theodore played in only ten games the first half of the season, just 1/4th of the team's games. In the past couple of days they've added last season's leading goal scorer, Roberts Lipsbergs, back into the fold and now Theodore, who was their top point producer last season, returns. In a few weeks, they get back Matt Barzal who was averaging over a point a game before he got hurt back in early November. Theodore is an NHL first round draft pick, Barzal is projected to be an NHL first round draft pick. Seattle is adding them both back to the roster this month at no cost. What other WHL team is doing that?

As for Millette, I haven't seen enough of him to make an educated, or for that matter uneducated, guess as to what he brings to the table. He should help the team's playoff push. And since Seattle has so few '95 born players on the roster, he will be in the mix for one of the three 20 year old spots on the team next season.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Oh Captain, My Captain.

To steal the first line from Charles Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities"; it was the best of times it was the worst of times. The Seattle Thunderbirds are getting their leading goal scorer back from each of the past two seasons with the return of Roberts Lipsbergs. But the reason they are bringing him back is because they've lost their captain, and this season's second leading scorer, Justin Hickman, who will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. And oh by the way, in order to add Lipsbergs to the roster they had to release Austrian Import Florian Baltram.

Hickman was actually initially injured back in September, during training camp/preseason. It is why he missed a chance to go to camp with the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL and why he missed the first six games of the season. It is remarkable that he was able to play the first half of the year with the injury and register 28 points (9G,19A) in 31 games, second only to Ryan Gropp on the team in that department. He was serving his second season as the T-birds captain. It's unfortunate the last thing he did for Seattle was receive a two-game suspension for a spitting incident down in Portland because that is so out of character for him. He's been a great leader for such a young roster. But just like that, his T-birds career comes to an end.

But in the end the surgery is the right way to go. As much as he was playing through the pain, as much as he was contributing to the success of the team, in the end they had to do what is best for his future. He's only 20 and can still earn a pro contract once he completely heals.

As for Lipsbergs; each of the past two seasons he was the leading goal scorer for the club with 33 in 2012-13 and 30 last year. He's particularly deadly on the power play where he has registered 38 percent of his goals so far in his WHL career. Lipsbergs is a left wing so I will be curious to see what line he is on. With Hickman gone and Matt Barzal out with injury, the T-birds are down two of their first line centers.

It's a tough break meanwhile, for Florian Baltram. The native of Vienna, Austria worked hard. He really picked up the physical part of the game well. He just couldn't find his scoring touch and Seattle was in need of offensive punch, something Lipsbergs has a history of delivering. I think we forget that Baltram is just 17, a rookie and playing away from his native Austria for the first time in his life. I think he's good enough to play at the WHL level. He just needed more time to get going; time the T-birds unfortunately did not have to give once Hickman's fate was determined.