Thunderbirds first in U.S. Division after first half full of ups and downs
The first half of the season was a rollercoaster for the Seattle Thunderbirds. A six-game winning streak early in the year had some thinking that this team was the real deal, ready to contend for a WHL championship despite being relatively inexperienced when compared to past contenders.
Eight days later, Seattle trudged through a four-game losing streak during its annual Eastern Conference road trip, reversing popular opinion and leading many to wonder whether this was a group that could play consistently enough at a high level to make a title run.
Question marks aside, the Thunderbirds sit in first place in the U.S. Division at the holiday break. While not technically the halfway point of the season – Seattle has played 33 of 72 regular-season contests – the break falls just before the league trade deadline and provides a good opportunity to take a step back and evaluate where this team currently stands.
Most of Seattle’s top players are producing at or above the level expected of them. With 43 points in just 25 games, Mathew Barzal should be in consideration for first-half MVP. He missed time early while he was with the New York Islanders, and his absence was noticeable. When he left for World Junior Championship festivities, it looked as though Seattle was a step slower on the ice, especially in the offensive zone. Barzal’s importance is impossible to understate, as he’s consistently scored despite facing the opposition’s top defensive lines.
Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp, who have spent most of the first half on Barzal’s wings, have developed into point-per-game players, potential that’s been seen the past couple of seasons but hasn’t been realized until this year.
Kolesar has become one of the league’s premier power forwards with 40 points – already a career high – and 61 penalty minutes through 33 games.
Gropp, while still seeking the consistency that has eluded him for his first couple of seasons, has 32 points in 30 games and leads the team with 18 goals.
On the blue line, Ethan Bear and Jerret Smith have stood out.
Bear is having a career year and has been perhaps the WHL’s best defenseman through the first half. His 36 points, which are tied for the league lead, are just two short of his career high in 36 fewer games played. He’s been a force on the power play and his cannon shot has fooled many of the league’s best netminders.
Smith’s presence has been felt in a different way. A 20-year-old defenseman whose first few years were spent in the enormous shadow of Shea Theodore, Smith has provided stability for Seattle’s defensive group. Nineteen points and a plus-seven rating while playing against the opponent’s top forwards, usually alongside fellow 20-year-old Jared Hauf, have earned Smith the attention he rightfully deserves.
Seattle’s performance on the road has not been where it needs to be if they hope to contend. While they’ve been dominant at home, their .472 win percentage on the road is the worst of any of the WHL’s division leaders. At 8-9-1-0, their poor performance away from the ShoWare Center has negated some of the success that they’ve seen at home, where they’re 11-2-2-0. Seattle’s 55 goals on the road are three fewer than they’ve scored at home, despite playing in three more games. They’re also the only division leader that has been outscored in opposing buildings.
Part of the reason for the T-Birds’ struggles on the road has been the lack of cohesiveness of their second line. When Scott Eansor, Jamal Watson, and Nolan Volcan are on the ice together, good things happen. However, it’s been rare that all three have been in the lineup with each suffering an injury at some point.
The injuries to what was expected to be one of the league’s best defensive lines has forced Steve Konowalchuk to play others in unfamiliar positions with unfamiliar linemates. On the road, where Seattle doesn’t have the privilege of the final line change, it’s meant that Konowalchuk hasn’t been able to be as flexible with who he puts on the ice. The return of a healthy second line will mean that Seattle has two lines that are capable of playing in every zone in every situation.
Before the season, Seattle’s biggest question mark was in net. Two inexperienced 18-year-olds in Logan Flodell and Taz Burman would both be getting their first significant taste of WHL action, and no one was really sure how they would perform.
Neither goalie has firmly established themselves as the No. 1 guy, as neither has been able to maintain a save percentage over .900 at this point in the season. Flodell has played in 23 games to Burman’s 15, and his 2.79 goals-against average to Burman’s 3.27 looks better, but neither are putting up numbers at this point that show they’re ready to lead this team to a championship.
Does all of the blame belong on the shoulders of the goalies? No. Hockey is a 200-foot game and defense starts at the other end of the ice, far away from the goalie’s crease. Seattle has spent too much time on the penalty kill, which isn’t helping its netminders in the slightest. Blame for any pucks that cross the goal line, whether Flodell or Burman are in net, should be placed on the shoulders of everyone on the ice.
Goalies can steal games for you on occasion, but they can’t steal you a championship. Neither goalie has recorded a shutout this season, and I would argue that neither has stolen a victory yet for Seattle. Both have played well at times, and both have struggled at times. For the T-Birds to find notable success, they’re going to need to find consistency throughout the lineup and in net.
Matthew Wedman, at just 16 years old, has shown that he has a very bright future in this league. He’s slowed down a bit points-wise from the torrid pace at which he started the season, but is still contributing on a nightly basis. With Seattle’s top three centers absent for the World Junior Championship, Wedman has been forced into the No. 1 center role, a spot no one could have predicted he’d be ready for before the season began.
Even when a rookie is scoring, as Wedman has done at a reasonable pace, they often miss the finer nuances that make a complete player. That hasn’t been the case for Edmonton, Alberta native, who has done consistently well in the faceoff circle, battles for loose pucks, and isn’t at all afraid to crash the net or mix it up in the corners.
With Wedman firmly in the mix for the next few seasons, it appears that Seattle will continue to be strong up the middle.
Nick Holowko is another player who has been a pleasant surprise for Konowalchuk and the T-Birds. Spending most of his time on the fourth line last season, Holowko has bounced around this year, filling in on every line and doing well in the variety of roles he’s been asked to play. His nine points through 33 games match the total he set in 63 games as a rookie, but his skating, forechecking, backchecking, and non-stop motor have been welcome on a team that has lacked consistency.
Jarret Tyszka, also 16, was asked to make probably the toughest transition for any rookie on this team. Defenseman generally have a steeper learning curve than forwards, and it’s much more difficult to hide the flaws in a rookie D-man’s game than it is a forward who gets three or four shifts per game on the fourth line.
An offensive defenseman by trade, Tyszka’s five points through his first 33 games may not have anyone immediately forgetting Shea Theodore, but the Langley, British Columbia native has shown impressive skating ability and poise for a rookie. Usually paired alongside another young defenseman – either fellow rookie Brandon Schuldhaus or second-year man Sahvan Khaira – Tyszka hasn’t been buried on Seattle’s blue line. He’s received minutes on the power play and is slowly being groomed to play a much larger role as a 17-year-old.
One player that Seattle likely expected more out of before the season was Watson, a 20-year-old wing who almost averaged a point per game last season in Lethbridge. It was thought that joining a stronger roster, and with an extra year of experience, Watson was ready to break out and would surely be playing his way to a professional contract at the end of the season.
However, the going has been a bit tougher for Watson, who has acknowledged that he’s a streaky player and needs to find more consistency in his game. His 14 points in 27 games is below his career average, and even further behind the breakout that many expected him to have after a dominant training camp.
That’s not to say that Watson hasn’t made an impact on this team. He’s a great skater and, when his game is on, good things are happening for him and the Thunderbirds. He also has rarely skated alongside the linemates that he was so dominant with during training camp. It will be interesting once everyone returns to see if he can find the consistency that has eluded him so far.