T-Birds notebook: Special teams an issue, and Barzal watch continues

Oct 6, 2016, 12:02 PM | Updated: 12:40 pm

The Thunderbirds’ season is just beginning, but it’s clear that they have a bit of work to do.

Three games into the campaign the T-Birds find themselves with a 1-2 record, and it’s what happened in those two losses that surely has the attention of head coach Steve Konowalchuk.

Both losses have come against the rival Portland Winterhawks, and both have had ugly decisions. Seattle was outscored 13-4 in those games and there are some improvements to be made, with special teams being the main issue.

In those two games against Portland, the T-Birds allowed six power-play goals. While the penalty kill has struggled, the T-Birds have yet to find the net on their own power play, starting the season 0 for 11.

While playing five-on-five, Seattle has been OK. In the three games the T-Birds have played they have outscored their opponents 8-7 at even strength and have been a pretty decent possession team. The lack of production out of either special teams unit is what has been costly.

The true victim of the struggles on the penalty kill have been goalie Rylan Toth. The 20 year old has given up 10 goals in his two starts and has a save percentage of just .800. It’s hard to fault Toth on too many of those goals, however, as five have come on the power play and many were easy backdoor tap-ins by a wide open player.

This does seem fixable.

Seattle featured the top penalty-kill unit in the WHL last season and most of the important players in that facet of the game are back on the roster. Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Cavin Leth are some of the team’s key penalty killers and you can bet it was a focus in practice this week.

The power play may take a little more time.

Last season, Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar were staples on Seattle’s top unit but right now they’re not in Seattle. The T-Birds will need to find some chemistry with the players they do have moving forward. We have seen Konowalchuk use a bunch of different combinations so far and so far, none have worked.

With two good teams in Victoria and Spokane coming into town over the next few days, the T-Birds will have to find a way to be better on special teams if they want to get back on the winning track.

Barzal Watch

While nearly every other NHL prospect has been returned to their respective WHL club, Barzal is still in New York. He’s had a productive preseason, leading the Islanders in scoring on a goal and four assists. Barzal raised eyebrows further when he picked up the game-winning goal for New York earlier in the week against the Washington Capitals on a nice greasy goal from in close.

He’s generating a lot of excitement for Islanders fans who are eager to see their top prospect crack the lineup this season.

But will he stay?

There is no question that he has the offensive skill but there has been some chatter recently that he still has some work to do in his own end if he wants to stick in the NHL. His head coach Jack Capuano spelled it out a few days ago and TSN’s Bob McKenzie even said that it was more likely than not that he will be returned.

The prevailing theory is that Barzal is a top-six forward and that for him to stick at 19 years old, he would have to be the second-line center. Arthur Staple of Newsday in New York seems to think it will be tough for Barzal to accomplish that. Working against Barzal is that the Islanders were a playoff team last year that got into the second round. This isn’t a bad club looking to rebuild. If it were, these conversations would be moot and Barzal would be looking for property in Long Island.

Despite the trending thought that he will be sent back at some point, until the team or general manager Garth Snow say that’s what is happening, nothing is for sure.

T-Birds prospects selected

Hockey Canada announced its rosters this week for the 2016 Western Canada U16 Challenge Cup to be held later in October. This is an annual tournament that features the top prospects in Western Canada, many of whom are headed to the WHL in the near future.

The T-Birds were well represented as five of their prospects were named. 2016 first-round Bantam Draft pick Jake Lee will be playing for Team Alberta. Layton Ahac and goalie Alex Swetlikof will be suiting up for Team British Columbia while Eric Fawkes and Nakodan Greyeyes will represent Team Manitoba. All five of these players were in training camp with the T-Birds in August.


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