Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge reflects on ups and downs of first half
Things started in a promising fashion for the Seattle Thunderbirds and new general manager Bil La Forge this season.
Armed with a top-six made up of veteran forwards, the Thunderbirds went 7-2-1-0 in their first ten games and were averaging over four-and-a-half goals per contest. That’s when Seattle started to lose guys to injuries, seemingly every night.
The injuries exposed the youth of the roster’s depth and the wins have been tougher to come by. Since that hot start the team has stumbled through a 4-14-3-0 finish to the first half and find themselves a point out of a playoff position in the Western Conference.
The injuries have been a major factor.
“You don’t want anyone to get hurt but it seems like the wrong guys got hurt at all the wrong times,” La Forge says. “It’s been an odd start to the year, just when we start to get everyone back then we start to get some more injuries again. I think, hopefully in the second half we have lots of health and our team can play together the way I know it can.”
They started the season without veteran defenseman Jarret Tyszka, who was injured in camp with the Montreal Canadiens. Fellow 19-year-old blue liner, Reece Harsch has been in an out of the lineup with injuries as have forwards Payton Mount and Dillon Hamaliuk.
Noah Philp has also missed time and his injury may have impacted the team the most.
With Philp manning the second line center spot, the Thunderbirds were able to get favorable match ups with his line and the top line made up of Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Zack Andrusiak. Philp came back to the lineup Nov. 30th and Seattle won three of five games. Unfortunately, he was re-injured and Seattle lost the last three games heading into the holiday break.
“There is a good team here,” La Forge says. “We are still really young. I think we’re the third youngest team in the league so there are going to be some bumps and some nights that aren’t great, but I think that if we’re healthy we have a chance to be a good team.”
The injuries have forced the youth to step into roles normally manned by older, more veteran players. As La Forge mentions, there have been some growing pains but also signs that some of those young guys can play.
Being thrown to the fire, while tough at times, can pay off in the future as they are gaining valuable experience.
“I think it is a silver lining, not one I wanted to see,” La Forge says about the youth. “I’m really happy with the way our older guys have played too, when they’re in the lineup. Weds and Volcan have just been unbelievable all year, (Andrusiak) has been scoring and (Liam) Hughes’ been probably our MVP. I think a guy like (Tylelr) Carpendale, seeing him play the way he’s playing right now, he’s showing he can have an impact.”
La Forge also likes what he sees in some of his younger charges.
“(Tyrel) Bauer, from almost game one this year, has been a revelation how good he is,” La Forge says. “I liked him when I was scouting back in the day…just watching him, being around him day to day, seeing how much of a pro he is, the way he treats his body, the way he does everything, he’s been impressive.”
The 16-year-old Bauer has been forced to play big minutes on the blue line with the injuries to Harsch and Tyszka. He has played with maturity and has become a physical presence not normally seen out of a defenseman his age.
La Forge also likes what he’s seen out of 2017 first-round pick Mount.
“Payton Mount has been really good,” he says. “We lost him for a little bit which really hurt us. People sometimes think you’re 16 you’re supposed to come in and have an impact but it’s not a 16-year-old league. He’s getting chances…and I think he’s going to start getting more chances. He’s reading the play really well and the coaches are teaching him the smaller parts of the game that you don’t learn when you’re in Bantam, scoring at will every night.”
Mount has a pair of goals along with six assists in 20 games so far but those numbers don’t accurately reflect on his play. He has shown a strong hockey sense with a good shot and the ceiling should be high on him.
La Forge also likes the effort he’s seen from Jared Davidson and defenseman Cade McNelly – two guys who have had to play more minutes than perhaps planned at the start of the season.
Two other young players, Jake Lee and Hamaliuk, are in their draft years and strong starts have resulted in the two being selected to play in the CHL Top Prospects Game.
“It’s hard work,” La Forge says of the two. “Lee was a first-round Bantam pick so you want to help him get to where you think he should be. Hammer’s a guy who came from way back and I always love those stories, shows how hard they’re working and shows the coaching they’re getting too. I think (Steven) Goertzen coming in, as well as the work the assistant coaches and Matt (O’Dette) do on a day-to-day basis, is really helping with those guys.”
When play begins after the holiday break, the Thunderbirds have some work to do to get back into a playoff position.
The struggles in the first half lead up to an interesting January trade deadline but don’t automatically assume that Seattle is going to throw in the towel and sell.
“The playoffs will be my goal right up until the last minute,” La Forge says, “But, I do see you have to see beyond. We have a vision, we know what we want to do, and we know the type of players we want to bring in and if I can find something that makes sense then I’ll obviously look at it. I take a lot of phone calls.”
Seattle will begin that playoff push this coming Friday night when Prince George comes to the accesso ShoWare Center.