New faces making the difference for T-Birds
By Tim Pigulski
After finishing outside of the playoffs for three consecutive years, Seattle general manager Russ Farwell and head coach Steve Konowalchuk made a number of personnel changes to inject some life into a struggling T-Birds franchise.
Although the Thunderbirds hit somewhat of a lull prior to their holiday break, it’s likely that their 16-17-1-1 record would look much worse if not for the acquisitions made in the offseason.
Using the Import Draft and some of his tradable assets, Farwell has brought in a number of faces that have contributed to a more exciting and more successful team.
W Riley Sheen. I’ll be the first to eat my words here and say that Sheen has been one of Farwell’s best acquisitions in recent memory. The recently turned 18-year-old forward has been one of the team’s top offensive weapons, scoring 29 points on eight goals and 21 assists in 35 games.
In trading Jacob Doty, Farwell lost a fan favorite who, at the time, was a one-dimensional player without much of an offensive touch. Doty’s since gone on to improve his offensive output (12 points in 35 games), but it looks like both players just needed a change of scenery to capitalize on their potential.
I questioned the likelihood that Sheen would be able to make much of an offensive contribution when the trade was first made, as he’d only amassed three points in 50 games with Medicine Hat. The scout team did an impressive job here, grabbing the 5-foot-11 Edmonton, Alberta native from the Tigers for a relatively low price.
W Roberts Lipsbergs. During the early parts of the season, Lipsbergs seemed to always be around the puck but couldn’t find the back of the net. Those fortunes have changed over the past month, as the 18-year-old Latvian wing is now tied for the team lead in scoring with 32 points in 34 games, including an 11-game point streak that ran through early December.
Even when he’s not making the scoresheet, Lipsbergs has made an impact in every game with his high-energy play. He’s not big by any means, but he’s not afraid to play in the dirty areas and uses his good speed to his advantage at both ends of the ice.
The line of Lipsbergs, Connor Honey, and fellow import newcomer Alex Delnov has proven to be the team’s best offensively.
C/W Alex Delnov. Originally projected as a wing upon his arrival in the States, Delnov has made a smooth transition to center, playing in between Lipsbergs and Honey on a line that is comprised of three of the team’s top four scorers.
Since he came over from Russia, Delnov has been the team’s most consistent player at both ends of the ice. Over the past couple of months, he’s done a fine job playing out of his natural wing position, demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice for the better of the team.
The Russian sniper is showing why the Florida Panthers made him a fourth-round draft choice – he’s got good size and speed to accompany a cannon of a shot. Import picks are the key to a quick turnaround in the WHL, and Lipsbergs and Delnov are proving that.
D Jesse Forsberg. Forsberg was expected to come in and provide leadership and stability to a young but talented defensive unit. He’s done a good job, already registering a career high in points with 19 in just 35 games played.
When he played in Prince George, Forsberg was known to be a bit of a hothead and that hasn’t changed since he arrived in Seattle. There have been times that his temper has gotten the best of him and Forsberg has taken bad penalties, but that’s something that often comes with playing a physical game. The coaching staff would undoubtedly like it if he could avoid the misconducts that have sat him for significant portions of games, but overall Forsberg has provided talent and leadership to a backend devoid of the latter.
Forsberg will be a strong candidate to wear the “C” next season, as Konowalchuk immediately gave him an “A” upon his arrival in Seattle and he will be 20 years old next season.
The player Forsberg was acquired for, Colin Jacobs, has found success in Prince George as well, scoring 26 points in 28 games. He’s on pace for a career-high this season and, like Sheen, Doty, and Forsberg, appears to benefitting from the change of scenery.
G Brandon Glover. Glover’s numbers won’t scream all-star at you: 3.78 goals against average, .897 save percentage, and a 15-13-1-1 record. However, he’s faced a high number of shots and the opposition is generally able to garner a good number of scoring chances in each game. In his 31 games so far this season, Glover has already faced about 150 shots more than his previous career high for an entire season (he faced 783 shots in 39 games with Calgary last year).
Most importantly, Glover has been able to steal a couple of wins for the T-Birds. Goalies generally aren’t able to steal an entire season, but the few points Glover has been able to win for the team could make the difference when the postseason rolls around.
The acquisition of Glover in the offseason was vital, as without him the team would have been forced to rely on one of a number of unproven goaltenders in Daniel Cotton, Justin Myles, or Danny Mumaugh. Instead, the team was able to essentially trade Cotton for defensive insurance in Griffin Foulk and give Myles and Mumaugh time to develop. In their brief appearances this season, both Myles and Mumaugh have shown that they may have what it takes to play significant minutes next year after Glover has moved on.
One might also consider players such as wings Connor Honey and Seth Swenson newcomers, as they were acquired during the second half of the 2011-2012 season and only went through their first training camp and preseason with the team this year.
Honey currently sits tied with Lipsbergs for the team lead in scoring with 32 points in 34 games. The 6-foot-1 wing has already surpassed his point total from last season, when he scored 10 goals and added 11 assists for 21 points in 46 games. Honey also has been an important factor on the team’s stellar power play, usually lining up at the top of the left circle in the offensive zone and trying to fire his big slap shot through the traffic in front of the net.
Swenson came in late last year in the trade that sent Marcel Noebels to Portland and has maintained about the same scoring pace that he put up in his half season with Seattle. In 34 games last year he notched 17 points, compared to 19 points in 35 games so far this season. Swenson has been an important cog that gives the team three lines that are capable of scoring on any given night. That depth has been a huge part of the success the team saw through the first half of the season.
Had the Thunderbirds been able to fare slightly better during their recent five-game losing streak, they’d be neck and neck with the Tri-City Americans for third place in the powerful U.S. Division. As it stands, they’ll need to come out of the holiday break with fresh legs and firing on all cylinders to put themselves back in a position to make an impact in the playoffs.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski