Depth key for Thunderbirds moving forward
By Tim Pigulski
Without a bona fide superstar on the team, the Thunderbirds have instead relied on their impressive depth to remain competitive this season. The ability to ice four functional forward lines has given the coaching staff a luxury not afforded to most teams.
How the team would respond to injuries was a question that reared its ugly head early in the season, as forwards Tyler Alos and Branden Troock were both lost long-term after only a few games. Both were being counted on in different capacities to be important contributors to the team this year.
While Troock’s return had been in question most of the season — a comeback this year now seems very improbable — replacing the leadership and grit that Alos provided became an immediate priority for the front office upon his retirement in December.
Adam Kambeitz was eventually brought in from Saskatoon at the trade deadline in exchange for a draft choice. According to general manager Russ Farwell, both have very similar styles of play.
“Kambeitz can play against the other team’s best players and gives us a solid, experienced player in that role,” Farwell said.
Acquiring Kambeitz, as well as Andrew Johnson, helped shore up the hole in the middle that had been left by the unexpected departure of Alos and once again give the Thunderbirds four lines capable of impacting the game.
“I’ve been playing a lot with (Riley) Sheen and (Connor) Sanvido and our main role has been to shut down the other team’s top line,” Kambeitz said of the responsibility that he has assumed. “We have four lines that can play with anyone and push the pace against teams who are maybe more reliant on one or two top lines.”
When viewing the Thunderbirds roster, it seems that every player’s role is pretty clearly defined. Whether it’s Alex Delnov providing an offensive spark or Mitch Elliot being relied on to change the pace of the game with a big hit, each player is counted on to bring something a little bit different night in and night out.
The emergence and flexibility of Taylor Green in particular has given head coach Steve Konowalchuk much more room to work when assembling his lines, as Green has willingly moved back and forth from defense to forward.
A defenseman by trade who is still hoping to establish himself full-time, the towering 17-year-old has been willing to play any role asked of him this year in order to increase his ice time.
“Defense is where I want to be going forward and it’s been where I’ve trained and played all of my life,” Green said. “But having the ability and flexibility to play forward too keeps me in the lineup and if I can contribute there I’m happy.”
While he’s seen more time at forward lately, as a result of the team’s stockpile of young defenseman, Green often doesn’t know where he’ll be playing on a particular night until shortly before game time.
“I don’t really know where I’m going to be until I arrive at the rink, so it can be tough to prepare for just one of the roles,” Green said. “I’ve tried to maintain the same type of preparation going into each game no matter where I’m playing.”
Defenseman Jerret Smith’s emergence and consistency, along with the rest of the young talent on the blue line, are part of the reason that Green’s primary role has been redefined.
Smith, a 17-year-old rookie, has 20 points in 66 games and will likely be drafted by an NHL club this summer.
“Green is still adjusting to the speed of the game and will need time to get comfortable as a full time defenseman in this league,” Farwell said of the WHL’s tallest player. “Smith has been very good lately and solid all year. He’s assuming a bigger role all the time.”
One can easily look at a team like Portland and identify its top line made up of WHL superstars like Ty Rattie, Nic Petan, and Brendan Leipsic. At this point, the Thunderbirds don’t have the luxury of relying on a single line night in and night out that can put points on the board.
The hope seems to be that some of the players waiting in the wings for the T-Birds will be able to be point-per-game, top-line players. But until that happens, getting contributions from everyone will be necessary for success.
In their most recent victory over the Spokane Chiefs, four different Thunderbirds scored goals, three being forwards from different lines. In all, nine different players had points in the game and only one, 20-year-old captain Luke Lockhart, appeared on the score sheet more than once.
Without the go-to scorer that many of the league’s top teams have, spread out scoring and sustained pressure from all four lines seem to be the main ingredients in the Thunderbirds’ recipe for success.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski