T-Birds early special teams woes could have been predicted
It’s early in the season, but there’s no doubt that the Thunderbirds have not gotten off to the start that they hoped. Seattle is 2-4-0-1 through their first seven games and currently sit last in the U.S. Division, having been outscored 25-16 so far.
The story so far, however, has been the T-Birds’ serious struggles on special teams. In 2015-16 Seattle made the WHL Championship. It’s no coincidence that they also had the third ranked power play and number one overall penalty kill during the regular season. This year, Seattle is dead last in both categories.
It’s a drastic difference early on that will likely get figured out, but there’s no doubt that some sort of drop off should have been expected.
On the power play, Seattle looks much different. Gone, at least for the time being, is Mathew Barzal, a playmaking center capable of drawing defenders to him and opening up space for his teammates. His ability to slow the game down and give the play time to get set up can’t be understated. When he was on the ice, no defender could stop him one-on-one. This was magnified on the power play, as he would draw a couple of defenders towards him essentially creating a four-on-two elsewhere.
Also out for at least the next few weeks with injury is Keegan Kolesar, the big power forward who had nine power play goals last season. More important than those goals, however, was his ability to park himself in front of the net where almost no defender was capable of single-handedly moving him. T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk has spoken at length about the team’s inability to get traffic in front, and Kolesar’s absence is a huge part of that.
Then you have Ryan Gropp, the 20-year-old left wing who wasn’t expected to be in the lineup this year but is. Gropp didn’t go through training camp with the Thunderbirds then missed the preseason and the team’s first four games. He arrived in Seattle on a Monday night, practiced Tuesday morning, and was thrust into the lineup that night. That’s not much time for him to get used to a power play group that was missing the two forwards he spent most of his time with the season before.
Defensively, each of the three players listed above spent some time on the penalty kill last year. Barzal and Gropp both possessive disruptive speed and active sticks, while Kolesar’s strength was his biggest asset. With those three out of the lineup, Seattle’s usual defensive specialists – guys like Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan – are being counted on for more offense, which means that their defensive responsibilities have had to change.
Add in the important fact that both of your top-pairing defensemen, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, graduated and you have a recipe for a step backwards. Not only were those two your top pairing at even strength, they were also your top penalty kill group whose experience and size are sorely missed.
That’s not to say that all hope is lost. Konowalchuk has proven to be a coach who is good at adjusting on the fly and you can be sure that much of his focus in practice will be on improving Seattle’s special teams play. Kolesar will come back and, assuming he is one of the three 20-year-olds who remains on the roster, Gropp will develop chemistry with his new teammates. Barzal is still up in the air, but if he does return it will improve the Thunderbirds in every situation, whether he’s on the ice or not.
The penalty kill is a bigger question, but solidifying the forward group should only help there. Too often Seattle has allowed someone to sneak in unimpeded in the offensive zone for an open opportunity, a problem that is usually helped as players spend more time together, begin to communicate better and start to understand the tendencies of their linemates.
Special teams rely so much on knowing the players you’re out there with and frankly, Seattle hasn’t had a chance to get that figured out yet.