T-Birds Notebook: Golden bird, a win streak and the trade deadline
What a difference a couple of days can make.
A day after the Seattle Thunderbirds had their six-game win streak snapped in Portland, everything broke loose, as the T-Birds experienced both the highs and lows that sports can offer you on Monday afternoon.
The good news was the return of Roberts Lipsbergs to the fold. The 20-year-old was returned by the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, where he had been playing this season. With him comes his electric shot and pure goal-scoring touch to a team that has struggled to score this year. But on the same day they learned that their leader, Justin Hickman, would be out for the rest of the year, effectively ending his junior hockey career. To make room for Lipsbergs they also had to say goodbye to Austrian import Florian Baltram, who was picked up by the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Tuesday afternoon.
Lipsbergs and his 30-goal scoring potential will be a huge boost to the T-Birds. The loss of Hickman is tough, though. While he was not the pure scorer that Lipsbergs is, he brought so much more to the team. He was the captain, the leader and an extension of head coach Steve Konowalchuk. The Kelowna, British Columbia native played four-plus years in Seattle and played every shift like it was his last. The T-Birds will miss his grit and competitiveness on the ice and his leadership off of it.
As the WHL trade deadline approaches, the T-Birds are opening an unforeseen chapter in this season. Here’s what’s new with the team.
Gold for Theodore
Monday night also saw Team Canada and Shea Theodore win the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championships. The Canadians defeated a tough Russian team 5-4 in one of the most thrilling hockey games you could imagine. The Canadians jumped out to a 5-1 lead only to watch the Russians pot three goals in three minutes late in the second period. Canada stiffened in the third, held roff the Russians and ended their five-year gold drought at the tournament.
Theodore becomes the fourth T-Birds player to win gold at the World Juniors, joining Thomas Hickey, Brendan Witt and Stewart Malgunas. Known more for his tremendous offensive abilities, Theodore was asked to take on a different role for Canada. He was paired with Darnell Nurse from the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds of the OHL as Canada’s top defensive pairing. Theodore played more of a stay-at-home style to allow Nurse to make offensive rushes.
It paid off as the two were the only defensive pair for Canada to not allow an even-strength goal, and it said a tremendous amount about Theodore’s progress in the defensive end. He ended the tournament with a goal and an assist, and should be back in the lineup for the T-Birds on Friday night.
The anatomy of a win streak
Six straight wins. The win streak that ended this past weekend was the longest of the year for Seattle. It was quite remarkable when you consider the circumstances under which it occurred. During the six games they were missing Theodore, Mathew Barzal, Alexander True, Ryan Gropp for two games, Donovan Neuls for three games and Justin Hickman for one.
Scoring first was key for Seattle, as it got the first marker in all six wins. In fact, Seattle only trailed for a total of 4:18 during the streak – which came in the third period of the first win against Victoria.
They also scored more during the streak. Seattle averaged 3.5 goals-per-game over the six wins, nearly a goal above their season average of 2.6 goals per game.
Giving up power-play goals has been an issue for Seattle this year, with 31 percent of the goals they’ve allowed coming from the opponents’ power play, and their penalty-kill unit has a 79 percent average over the season. But during the win streak the T-Birds only gave up four power-play goals and killed off 83 percent of their short-handed chances.
Scoring goals and killing penalties are usually a good recipe to winning games, so it should come as no surprise that the T-Birds saw increases in these areas during the win streak. If they can trend closer to these numbers as they start to get players back they will make some noise in the second half.
Trade deadline Jan. 10
The WHL trade deadline is this Saturday at noon. There was a flurry of trades announced early this week, and in the West the Kelowna Rockets made a huge statement. They already had acquired Josh Morrissey from Prince Albert, and on Tuesday they picked up Leon Draisaitl from the Raiders. Draisaitl was the third overall pick in last June’s NHL Draft and had been playing with the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers decided to return him to the WHL to gain more experience. Kelowna already has a league-best 31-6-3-0 record, and these moves scream that they are not looking to just win the WHL Championship but the Memorial Cup as well.
Seattle general manager Russ Farwell said before the break that he would like to add some experience to the forward group, but don’t expect the T-Birds to make any monumental moves. Farwell does not seem interested or willing to give away any players on the roster. If he can get a forward with only having to give up draft picks, he might pull the trigger.
The week ahead
After a frantic schedule, Seattle only has two games this week. It will play a home-and-home series with the Tri City Americans, starting Friday in Kennewick and closing in Kent on Sunday afternoon. The Sunday game was originally scheduled for Saturday night, but the teams agreed to push it to Sunday to avoid competition with the Seattle Seahawks playoff game.
Tri City has been struggling of late, losing four straight. Over that stretch it has given up eight goals or more twice, but it will be getting some help on their back end in time for Seattle. Goalie Eric Comrie will return from the World Juniors, as will defenseman Brandon Carlo. The Americans are a tough defensive club and Seattle will need to grind out two games and get a ton of traffic in front of Comrie if it wants to come away with two wins.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.