(photo from Brian Liesse)
The Seattle Thunderbirds conquered the tricky beast that is the WHL, giving their franchise their very first league title. In the 60-team CHL though. there is another step before you can claim to be the best at your level.
While there is plenty for the T-birds to discover about the OHL champion: Erie Otters, the QMJHL champion Saint John Seadogs and the host Windsor Spitfires, they first need to worry about themselves.
I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the things Seattle will be paying attention in order to conquer that next beast and take home another trophy and make this un-questionably, the best team in their 40-year franchise history.
1) How will head coach Steve Konowalchuk manage the lines?The big move Konowalchuk made in the WHL Final was to move Ryan Gropp off the top line with Mathew Barzal and Keegan Kolesar when the trio were struggling to find the net in game 3. Donovan Neuls took Gropp’s place and immediately stepped into the same role he played while Gropp was out with an injury earlier in the post-season. That role was to be the line’s puck-retriever and go to all of the dirty areas. While that line found a little more possession by doing this, the real effect was on the team’s depth. By moving Gropp down to the third line with Alexander True and Tyler Adams, that line got a premier sniper to pair with two hard-working, physical forwards. True went on to score the series-clinching goal and lead his team in playoff scoring with 12 goals. Gropp woke from his scoring slumber to pitch in a goal in each of the last three games of the series. With the extra breaks that come with the Memorial Cup, does Konowalchuk shorten the bench and put Gropp back where he’s had a ton of historical success? Or does he keep his three lines going and count on his strong and deep forward group? I would not be surprised to see Seattle start with Neuls on the top line and rotate Gropp in when they are desperate for a goal late in a game.
2) Is this where Stankowski lets the pressure get to him?
After playing 20 of his 27 career WHL games during this playoff run, it’s quite possible that rookie goalie Carl Stankowski just does not know that the playoffs is where the pressure ramps up. He has been calm and collected throughout the run and has responded with a key save after every goal he has given up. Now, playing nearly 2, 400 miles from Kent, Washington, will he finally start playing like the (hockey age) 16-year-old he really is? Playing on national T.V. in Canada and thus piped into most home in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, he would be forgiven if he let the moment get to him and had a below average tournament. However, skill always wins out and we should probably have been convinced that this kid is just plain good about two playoff rounds ago. Kelowna threw one of the more offensively talented CHL teams at Stankowski and he made spectacular save after spectacular save. There is no way his team advances past the Rockets if he didn’t steal a couple of games early in the series.
3) Will the shutdown line continue to find success against another talented forward group?
One of the things that continues to fly under the national media radar is the play of Seattle’s line of Sami Moilanen, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan. They simply make life a living hell for skilled forwards that are used to finding time and space to work their magic. All three play a speed-oriented game and back-check as a group better than any line I’ve seen at this level in recent memory. The three have not been drafted (though Moilanen could be this June) and they have no problem selling out and doing whatever it takes to frustrate and stifle the other team’s top line. They all combine heavy fore-checking with stick-on-puck skill and they will likely draw the tournament’s most elite players. This is nothing new to them as they have given no quarter to many NHL-drafted and signed players and ended up outscoring them in some of their series. In a tournament where every other team contains more NHL-drafted players than theirs, they will have the opportunity to show their mettle night after night.
4) Will the WHL’s top playoff power play continue to work its magic?
The last time Seattle failed to net a power play goal was in game 4 in the Western Conference final. That was nearly a month ago on April, 25th. They throw out a top power play unit that has an elite player playing each role. Ethan Bear has one of the CHL’s best one-timers and has made great strides in his ice-vision and passing ability. Ryan Gropp mans the left point and can unleash his wicked shot at will as he floats in from the blue line. Mathew Barzal is an extremely creative play-maker who often makes a play that makes you wonder what he was thinking, right before the puck ends up in the net. Keegan Kolesar provides another sniper on the low-wing for the T-birds, while Alexander True provides a massive screen in front and has become a great net-front presence. Konowalchuk does what he can to make sure these five are out there as much as possible on the man advantage. All five have played together on the power play for at least two years now and the chemistry shows.
5) Will general manager Russ Farwell’s patience pay off?
Many WHL viewers were a bit surprised that Seattle did not take the same approach as Prince George by dealing away young players in favor of bringing in players like Buffalo Sabre prospect d-man Brendan Guhle or Chicago Blackhawks power forward, prospect Radovan Bondra at the trade deadline. Besides some key, minor moves to bring in some needed size on the blue line in Red Deer’s Austin Strand and Calgary’s Aaron Hyman and a seemingly insignificant move to bring in Swift Current forward Tyler Adams, Farwell and the T-birds stood pat. Those three players all played massive roles as Seattle was missing several key players for long stretches throughout the season. They provided depth at both forward and defense and showed that their team could win without stars like Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear, healthy and in the lineup. Battling through that adversity, set them up be ready for the playoffs when you need those depth players to capitalize on whatever opportunities they are given. The other three teams in this tournament definitely went out and traded for star-power later in the season and so the T-birds are hoping that chemistry and tight locker room can overcome any talent disparity they face. One thing is for sure, this group has not failed at conquering anything set in their way so far.