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Talent is there, but inconsistency is plaguing T-Birds

After trailing for nearly the entire game last weekend, the Americans scored two goals in two minutes to beat Seattle. (Brian Liesse, Thunderbirds)

By Tim Pigulski

As fans of any sport are well aware, inconsistency and up-and-down performances are trademarks of young teams. It’s something that is expected, as the talent those players possess is expected to lead to bigger and better things in the years to come.

Being one of the youngest teams in the Western Hockey League, expectations were similar for the Thunderbirds. Especially on defense, where Seattle doesn’t feature a single 20-year-old and only one 19-year-old in Jesse Forsberg, giving up a large number of goals seemed like a foregone conclusion. Surrendering over four goals per game, the anticipated struggles on the blue line have manifested themselves as the conclusion of the regular season draws near.

My goal isn’t to hang out the young defense to dry and place all of the blame on them. At risk of sounding like a member of the ever-disappointed Chicago Cubs’ fan base, this is a unit that had a lot of pressure placed on them and should be much improved next season. The younger rearguards will have another season of experience, and with the emergence of prospect Ethan Bear, it’s possible that one of the team’s current everyday players may be moved for assets next season to make room for the talented young D-man.

It seems that the hope was that an influx of offensive talent, including import picks Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs, as well as the trade for Riley Sheen and return of Branden Troock from injury, would improve an offense that scored the second fewest goals in the WHL last season and help offset some of the scuffles the young defense was sure to face.

With the exception of Troock, who has only played in 19 games this season, the new additions have lived up to expectations and perhaps exceeded them. Lipsbergs is tied for second in rookie scoring in the league, Delnov is sixth, and Sheen has already set his career high in points by 31 and counting. With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the T-Birds are only 14 goals shy of matching their output from 2011-12.

What has undoubtedly been the most frustrating part of watching this team has been the overall inconsistency. There was foreshadowing of a rollercoaster season opening weekend, when a determined team came out firing and defeated the powerful Portland Winterhawks 5-2 in front of a hostile crowd. The very next night, the exact opposite happened, as the ‘Hawks came to Kent and walked away with a 6-2 victory.

Such has been the story of the season. After a four-game winning streak that included victories over three very good teams in Kelowna, Kamloops, and Tri-City, Seattle went on the league’s longest losing streak of the year when they lost 15 in a row. The streak was broken against none other than the same Portland Winterhawks, who had beaten Seattle 5-0 in their previous meeting three weeks earlier.

It seems as though when one player or line is playing well, it’s been tough for the others to keep up. Defenseman Shea Theodore, one of the top prospects in the entire league and a potential first-round NHL draft choice, was benched by head coach Steve Konowalchuk for a game and a half earlier in the year. Delnov suffered the same fate despite being one of the team’s biggest offensive threats.

After a huge month of November in which he scored 16 points in 11 games, Lipsbergs continued his hot play by notching 10 points in eight games in December. His strong play in December coincided with both the team’s four-game winning streak and the beginning of the losing streak, demonstrating what the Thunderbirds of capable of when everyone is meeting expectations, as well as how quickly things can fall apart.

Lipsbergs left for the World Junior Championships, causing him to miss a few games, and since returning has cooled down considerably.

These are a few of the team’s better players, which makes them stand out more, but no single individual is to blame for the hardships the team has endured. It’s gotten ugly again lately, as the team has lost four in a row and seven of its last eight. On any given night, it seems as though Seattle is capable of either upsetting one of the elites, or getting blown out by a middle-of-the-road opponent.

For this team to be successful and provide a challenge to whomever it might face in the first round of the playoffs, it’s going to be necessary to figure out how to get everyone on the same page at the same time.

The team certainly has the talent, as they had a WHL-high six players (Theodore, Lipsbergs, Sheen, Connor Honey, Jared Hauf, and Jerret Smith) named to NHL Central Scouting’s mid-season NHL Draft rankings. Of course, those six players are all relatively young and provide hope for the future, but that most certainly shouldn’t, and I don’t believe is, the focus of the team at this point.

Judging by the emotion of the players as they left the ice after a tough overtime loss to the Tri-City Americans last week, they haven’t given up on this season yet and are still seeking answers. The frustration experienced by the fans is shared by the team and Konowalchuk, both of whom take each loss personally.

One must also consider the factors that have been out of the team’s control — the injuries to Troock and backup goalie Justin Myles, an early-season injury that forced Tyler Alos into retirement, and brief stretches where the team was without Lipsbergs and Honey.

With just over a month remaining in the regular season, the ‘Birds don’t have much more time to find the answers they’ve been seeking. They currently hold the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed, but Prince George is hot on their tail, sitting only three points back in the standings with a game in hand. Seattle still controls its own destiny as far as reaching the playoffs go, but finding some sort of identity before then has to be a priority.