How injuries have impacted the Thunderbirds offensive troubles
Late in the first period of Saturday’s loss to the Everett Silvertips, Seattle defenseman Reece Harsch wound up for a slapper just before crossing the blue line. The shot was steered out of play by Everett goalie Dustin Wolf and the 5000-plus crowd at the accesso ShoWare Center erupted.
A crowd going crazy for a shot from the blue line?
That shot was the first, and only, shot that the Thunderbirds would manage in the first period and induced the sarcastic cheer from the home faithful. Seattle would end up being outshot 18-1 while surrendering three goals in what may have been the worst period of hockey all season for the Thunderbirds.
The end result was a 5-1 loss, extending the Thunderbirds’ losing streak to five straight. In those five games, they have only managed four goals as their offensive has been missing in action.
Is this the same Thunderbirds squad that just a couple of weeks ago lit the lamp 20 times over a three-game stretch? It turns out that, no, it’s not.
Injuries are a part of hockey and the coaches and players are reluctant to allow them to be an excuse, which was reinforced by Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette after Saturday’s game.
“It’s junior hockey,” he said. “That’s where we’re at right now with some guys being out and we’re not the first team ever to have to face that.”
While the coach may not come right out and say it, the fact is that Seattle’s lack of offense is a result of some key injuries. Most notably, the injuries that have come to the top-six forward group.
For most of the season, O’Dette has deployed a top line made up of Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Andrej Kukuca. The second line has mostly included Dillon Hamaliuk, Noah Philp and Payton Mount.
There has been some juggling of course, and Zack Andrusiak has played up and down the lineup in an attempt to spread the scoring out.
When all seven of those players have been in the lineup, Seattle is 7-2-1-0. In the seven games where one, or more, of those guys are out, the record is 0-6-1-0. When all healthy, the Thunderbirds have averaged 4.6 goals-per-game, but that number drops to a paltry 1.14 goals when there isn’t a full lineup.
Heading into Tuesday’s home match up with the Spokane Chiefs, Hamaliuk (19 points) and Philp (16 points) are the top scorers for the Thunderbirds. Philp is currently injured, listed week-to-week, while Hamaliuk has missed a couple games this season, as has the winger Mount.
The loss of guys off the second line are affecting the top line.
Volcan, Wedman and Kukuca combined to average over a goal-per-game in the 10 healthy games as they tallied 11 goals and 39 points. In the seven games where any combination of Hamaliuk, Philp, and Mount have been missing their numbers drop to two goals and just four points. Wedman and Kukuca have also seen their shots-per-game dip down in those seven games as well.
Andrusiak has seen a similar split, picking up 10 points in the healthy games and just two in the other seven.
Without a consistent, and healthy, second line, opponents can throw their top lines and defensive pairings out against the Wedman line as much as possible. This has contributed to lower production for them, as well as the team as a whole. Not only are they scoring less, but they aren’t getting the same number of shots.
When all seven of those top players are healthy, line match ups become more difficult and the opponents have to decide which line is the most dangerous. A choice that resulted in the Thunderbirds scoring goals.
What the injuries have shown is that the Thunderbirds depth has been an issue.
“It’s funny how your depth can kind of disappear real quick when you take three forwards out of your lineup, a couple of your top six,” O’Dette said Saturday night. “It’s tough, we’ve got some young guys filling our last couple of lines and there’s a pretty big learning curve with some of these guys.”
The players that the Thunderbirds have had to move up into the spots vacated by injured players all have talent. But, they are all inexperienced and currently getting a crash course on playing in the WHL.
Samuel Huo was moved up into Philp’s spot as the second line center. The 17-year-old played a handful of games at center during his rookie year last year but spent most of time as a winger. When he did play center, it was in a third, or fourth line, capacity. Now he’s learning how to manage playing against tougher opponents and he has shown some good signs, scoring twice since moving to the pivot.
Graeme Bryks is another center who has looked good and has shown that he can be a player in this league, but he is still green. Coming into this season he only had 10 WHL games under his belt. Guys like Jaxon Kuluski, Brecon Wood, Cody Savey, Keegan Craik and Jared Davidson are all still getting their feet wet in the league as well.
Big Tyler Carpendale would also be in the mix to slide up the lineup but he too, has been injured.
These young guys will need to learn quick as it doesn’t appear that Philp will be back soon. The rookie Mount had been playing with Team Canada at the U17 Championships but apparently suffered an undisclosed injury while there so his status is unknown.
Having talent and skill is part of the equation. The next step is learning systems – something most young players don’t have to deal with growing up – and how to play consistently each shift of each game.
“They’re improving,” O’Dette said about his younger players. “We’re working with them but against some of these top teams in the league, some of our line match ups can be not so much in our favor.”
There are ebbs and flows to every season and while the Thunderbirds depth is an issue now, having the younger players thrown to the fire can pay off as the season progresses. The experience they are picking up is valuable and they will be the better for it with the lessons learned, despite the current growing pains.
The next lesson is Tuesday against the Spokane Chiefs.