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Hockey Challenge 2014

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Here’s What I Saw

Some general weekend comments and then some comments on the players specifically. I did get to see all but the 1st period on Sunday as the brand new (not so new) NeuLion PPV system for the WHL was not broadcasting the first period of the game last night before finally getting fixed.

For the most part it was a pretty decent weekend. Friday night in Everett the Tbirds played a mostly solid game jumping out in front of the Tips 2-0 before coughing up the lead, regaining the lead, losing the lead again and finally making a mistake in the final minute of the game that led to a loss. Intensity was good, checking was good, the passing was decent in parts and the Power Play looked downright dangerous. Until…. They weren't able to convert on a 5 minute Power Play with 6:30 to play in the game and it seemed as though everyone in the building knew the Tbirds would be extremely fortunate to survive regulation after they could not cash in on the man advantage. In fact… I hate to admit that I turned to my buddy at the game with 0:51 left and remarked "It would seem bittersweet after how decent they have played… but I would feel really happy if we could get this game to Overtime." Unfortunately, 20 seconds later the Tips made sure the game didn't get to Overtime after a miscue between the Bobbee - Dillon defensive combination. To be quite honest, Seattle got what it likely deserved as Calvin Pickard made no less than 3 unbelievable saves to keep Everett out of the net. The score could have quite easily have been 6-3 in favor of Everett and Tbird fans would have likely left the building unhappy about the effort.

Saturday night the Tbirds opened their home schedule in grand fashion welcoming back my personal hockey hero Glen Goodall and picking up a well earned 4-1 win over a depleted Portland Winterhawks team. Let's not get too carried away thinking that Seattle might be better than Portland just because of this first home game. Portland was missing several key players who were away at NHL camps. There is no question that Seattle was the better team on Saturday night but I don't think any of us should think that Portland's roster is going to look like that a month from now. Certainly it was a fun night for everyone and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the Tbirds won't be going winless against the Winterhawks this season.

Last night, Seattle looked tired in getting dominated by Tri-City. The players should be commended for staying with the program and keeping the game close into the 3rd period but when you look up at the scoreboard and at some point in the 3rd period you see that the shots on goal are 32-9 in favor of the opposition, you pretty much know all that you need to know about the game. Pickard again was, at times, brilliant in this game making 2 or 3 outstanding saves to keep the Americans off the board. This was another game where Pickard's play masked how truly lopsided it was and with a mere mortal goaltender in net the score could have easily been 6 or 7-1.

Quick run through the roster as it is listed on the Tbirds website:

Tyler Alos – Still hurt.

Jacob Doty – You gotta love a player like Doty who did his best to make it a 3 fights in 3 games weekend and would have had one if not for Everett's Campbell Elynuik turning down his fight offer in the game on Friday. Why Elynuik turned him down? You're guess is as good as mine. Even though you simply have to love a player like Doty, the simple fact of the matter is that he must improve his skating if he wants to be able to be anything more than a 4th line player. You can't question his heart, but right now he is still a work in progress. Having said that… I look forward to each and every tilt he will have this season. If Rob lets him go he could wind up with 30 fights.

Mitch Elliot – Switched numbers to #7 and I think he looks funny with a small number and he played with Sanvido and Jacobs.

Burke Gallimore – Gallimore kind of drives me crazy and I think he drives a lot of fans crazy. He has one hell of a shot and when he gets time and space to shoot there are few guys in the league who are more dangerous one on one with a goalie. The issue has and always will be whether he can stay focused and hustle all season long as last season he seemed at times to be disinterested.

Justin Hickman – Hickman is out until November but I did select him in the 2nd round of my WHL Sim league… so I'm pretty happy about that.

Colin Jacobs – I'm confused by Jacobs. I love his hustle. I love his swagger. I love his talent… so it pains me to admit that I think he is missing the killer instinct and I was again reminded of that last night when he was stoned by The Russian goalie from Tri (no I am not looking up his name to spell it correctly). Jacobs is still only 17, so it's not like I'm giving up on him… Expectations are a bitch and I just expected him to be more dominant already. I think there are times when he is just trying too hard to make things happen… trying too hard to make one last move instead of taking the simple play or just using his speed to take the puck wide.

Luke Lockhart – Without question he was the most improved Tbird on the ice this weekend. He looked stronger, scored twice and looks poised to be one of the breakout guys who could exceed 50 or perhaps even 60 points this season. He also wore the "C" for one game this weekend and he is without a doubt a Captain in the making.

Chance Lund – Saw one flash of speed from Lund in Everett on Friday and quite frankly didn't see much else. He either needs to get better or just start punching people if he is going to be useful. He is 18 years old now and the window for becoming an impactful player is starting to close.

Marcel Noebels – A lot of things to like about our newest German Import. He passes the puck very well and even kicked his way to an assist on Saturday night. In addition to already showing a really nice passing touch, his goal Friday night in Everett was a top cheddar snipe over the shoulder of Kent Simpson and was an absolute beauty. His chemistry with linemates Charles Wells and Luke Lockhart has already made them the team's top line and I think the chances of him registering more than 50 points is very good.

Brendan Rouse – I still really like Rouse's game, but unfortunately he is stuck on the 4th line with Doty and Ryan Aasman right now making it tough for him to contribute meaningfully. I'm shocked that he isn't on the 2nd PK unit, a unit that is currently positioned with Gallimore and Travis Toomey.

Connor Sanvido – Put a really nice backhand shot/pass on net in Everett on Friday night that led to a goal. The Jacobs/Sanvido/Elliot line just didn't seem to have the right chemistry for most of the weekend. I wouldn't be surprised to see that line changed.

Travis Toomey – I can't say I was blown away by his game this weekend but he did log a couple of assists including a nice drop pass to Gallimore on Saturday night for a goal. From what I understand he is a good locker room guy.

Branden Troock – Injured… might be a while before we see him.

Charles Wells – Rock solid start to the season by Wells. As I mentioned, the Wells/Noebels/Lockhart line was Seattle's best all weekend and he worked the PP and the PK well. Wells is going to have to be an absolute stud this season if the Tbirds are going anywhere and through 3 games he has 3 points and he is +3. Perfect Start.

Ryan Aasman – Played forward this weekend for the most part on the 4th line. Unfortunately, that is probably a sad indication of how the coaching staff feels about his play on defense up to this point. I have no idea where Aasman fits on this team going forward.

Austin Baecker – The Baecker and Erik Fleming pairing was the most dangerous pairing all weekend for Seattle… and by dangerous I mean there was a danger of giving up a goal. Ok, ok… that's probably a little too harsh but Fleming and Baecker were on the ice immediately following the Tbirds taking a 2-0 lead in Everett on Friday night and resulted in a goal cutting the lead to 2-1. Baecker also got himself into a situation where he was challenged by the 5'8" Tanner Olstad last night in Tri-City and while I give Olstad a lot of credit for having the guys to take on the 6'6" Baecker he was really lucky that Baecker didn't seriously rough him up in the fight. Baecker is still a work in progress but as an 18 year old, time is not on his side.

Travis Bobbee – The stats wouldn't seem to indicate it (0 points, -2) but I thought Bobbee was Seattle's best defensemen over the weekend. He generally makes smart decisions with the puck, he's a pretty decent puck mover and most of his shots are of the intelligent variety and tend to make it to the net and create rebound opportunities. I don't think his "poor stats" will last very much longer as he will log plenty of minutes on the PP.

Erik Bonsor – Bonsor was constantly living on the edge this weekend and I believe he still takes way too many chances. Travis Bobbee is what Bonsor should be but hasn't quite figured out how to do it. In some ways, Bonsor might be the key to the entire season. If he makes poor decisions that lead to goals this team might be in trouble. If he can tighten it up and play solid stay at home defense this team probably has a shot at the playoffs.

Brenden Dillon - Dillon will have to be counted on to be a rock at the back end for the Tbirds. I love his physical play and I think he is vastly improved from a couple of seasons ago but I also think he is still far too inconsistent. He failed to mark his man in front of the net on Everett's game tying 3rd goal on Friday and he was involved in the game winner with Bobbee. He is agonizingly close to becoming a really solid player, he just needs to shore up the mistakes.

Erik Fleming - I feel pretty much the same way about Fleming that I do about Aasman. I'm just not sure where he fits on this team going forward and now that he is 18 it's time to start making progress because time is running out.

Austin Frank – Got the big DNP this weekend. I'm honestly not sure if he is hurt.

Scott Ramsay – Still recovering from a concussion he suffered down in training camp. His return is uncertain and the fact that I didn't see him in Everett with the other scratched players is a bad sign.

Dave Sutter – Seattle's other Import showed flashes of talent sprinkled in with some uncertainty. For a guy who is 6'5" and 208 lbs he gets knocked off his feet way too easily but he also generally makes good decisions with the puck and was able to put together 2 assists and a +2 rating over the weekend. I think Sutter is the kind of player who will probably improve the most over the course of the season. By March we could be looking at a very different player.

Calvin Pickard – Picks was a stud for a majority of the weekend, something we have come to take for granted. He was able to keep several excellent chances out of the net on Friday and Sunday that gave Seattle a chance to win.

Michael Salmon – Didn't play. I don't like his new pads. He needs two stripes instead of just the one. Why do goalies not consult me on these things before they order pads??


Weekend Recap Coming…

I'm working on a weekend recap… but I want to make some revisions before it goes up. Hang tight.

Nobody has anything to say about my excellent artwork??


Season Outlook

The season is just around the corner. I don't know about everyone else but I'm super excited to see some meaningful hockey and this group seems prepared to make some dramatic improvements over last year's version of the Thunderbirds.

So just how good do I think the Tbirds will be this season?

Let's walk our way through some well reasoned projections and see what we get.

Team Totals, 2009-2010:

172 Goals For – 255 Goals Against

Last season's defensive struggles has been much chronicled and it is hard to imagine that the unit could possibly be as bad as it was last season. Thus far I have heard nothing but positive reviews about Brenden Dillon and the addition of newly acquired Travis Bobbee, Austin Baecker, Austin Frank and Swiss import Dave Sutter should at the very least improve this unit slightly from last season.

It's also hard to imagine that Calvin Pickard will be better than he was last season but I would expect some marginal improvement as well. The learning curve gets pretty flat when you are already as good as Pickard is, but I'm sure he worked hard in the offseason and will benefit from his experience at Colorado's camp.

I think it's pretty safe to take the under on 255. A 30 goal improvement would be a pretty solid upgrade but I don't think that is out of the question so I'm going to peg goals against around 225.

Seattle's struggles on offense last season have also been discussed at length and I think it's pretty tough be reasonably optimistic about the goal total getting higher this season. Losing 41 goals and 69 points in the form of Prab Rai is a huge loss for a team that only scored 172 goals last season and that should be considered quite heavily in making any kind of offensive projections for Seattle. 2nd leading scorer Charles Wells should be poised for a breakthrough season and should be able to top his 21 goals and 55 points. Wells jumped from 15 points to 55 points last season, but don't expect another 40 point jump. He was close to being a point per game player in the final 3 months of last season so I will call for 25 goals and 70 total points. Beyond that… it's pretty tough to tell. Colin Jacobs should take a step forward in his development but I don't want to get crazy with his projection. His 13 goal, 26 point total wasn't bad for his rookie season but I think we all expected a little bit more and this season Seattle fans will have to hope he delivers. 20 goals and 25 assists shouldn't be out of the question. Other guys who should crack 40 points… Burke Gallimore and newcomer Marcel Noebels. Guys who might crack 40 points… I'd put Tyler Alos, Mitch Elliot, Luke Lockhart, Brendan Rouse, Connor Sanvido, Branden Troock and Travis Toomey in that category.

Unfortunately… that really isn't much. I think the offense will be improved but I can't reasonable project anything very much higher than 195 goals for this unit. It would some guys making huge steps forward and prove me wrong.

So… 195 Goals For and 225 Goals Against. Where does that leave us?

Quick Pythagorean Formula gives us a winning % of .428934 and 61.77 points.

Last season, 61 points would still have Seattle finishing in 9th place and missing the playoffs.

By my own admission though… I think these projections are pretty conservative. If things fall into place the way they could and our 18 year old players really take the next step forward, things could be better. Who knows… maybe Luke Lockhart becomes more of a scorer. Is this the year Chance Lund has a huge breakthrough? We just don't really know and I'm not betting on anything until I see it with my own two eyes.

In my best case scenario… I think the Tbirds defense improves all the way down to 200-210 and the offense surprises and pumps it up to 205-210. That would put the Tbirds closer to 72 points and likely back into the playoffs. I think the basement is probably 9th in the Western Conference and the ceiling is probably 6th at best.


Yard Sale

One of the biggest laments I hear from fans is the lack of fighting in the WHL these days. Long time fans have an especially hard time with lack of fighting because we were accustomed to seeing a lot of fighting back in the day. I used to actually recruit people to come to Tbirds games by telling them "Come to a game against Portland you'll be guaranteed at least a couple of fights and the possibility of a line brawl". Unfortunately, the game has changed and last season's "big" Portland v. Seattle showdown produced a whopping 4 fights back on January 23rd , a home loss to the Winterhawks.

So where has all the fighting gone?

Just 13 seasons ago the Tbirds logged 188 fights led by Chris Thompson who had 35 fights that season followed by Jason Beckett with 19 fights and 5 other players in double figures. Last season, the Tbirds found themselves in just 51 scraps and were led by the pugilistic excellence of Scott Ramsay with a lofty total of 12. Brenden Dillon checked in with 9, just barely missing double digits.

Seattle Thunderbirds fighting totals by year courtesy of

1997-98: 188

98-99: 134

99-2000: 114

2000-01: 119

01-02: 130

02-03: 103

03-04: 85

04-05: 73

05-06: 67

06-07: 47

07-08: 68

08-09: 75

09-10: 51

It's no secret that the league has made a concerted effort to cut down on fighting as they have increased the fines associated with "multiple fight" situations and instituted the absolutely ridiculous "helmet rule" last season only to watch fighters go "oops I knocked your helmet off and you knocked mine off before we started throwing punches… how convenient".

Even with the league wide drop in fighting, Seattle has fallen behind the average. Last season's 51 fights ranked them 20th in the league ahead of Tri-City (49) and Swift Current (46). League average was 74.27 fights and league leaders Prince George dropped the mitts 116 times. Any notion that fighting has a correlation to winning should be thrown right out the door as Seattle was terrible without fighting while the Cougars were terrible fighting all the time.

The real question is whether Seattle can get back to the 60's and 70's (or even 80's???) in number of fights and I think there is a good chance that they will.

Jacob Doty only played 5 games for the Birds last season but already has 3 fights this preseason. Mitch Elliot had only 3 fights last season but will likely have more with the increased playing time and Ramsay should be able to come close to equaling his 12 from a season ago and Chance Lund might best his 7 scraps from last season as well. Of the 51 fights last season all but 6 will "return".

While fighting doesn't seem to have a correlation to actual winning (see Seattle near the bottom and Prince George at the top), I don't think there is any question that a couple of good scraps can give your team a boost. It gets the home crowd more into the game and sometimes it can even give a team a boost on the road and on paper it looks like Seattle will have a small collection of some of the toughest guys in the league.

While it remains to be seen whether the scoring touch that Seattle has shown in the preseason will carry over into the regular season… it seems a pretty good bet that we should see a tougher Seattle team this winter that shouldn't have too much trouble eclipsing the total from last season.


A Change in Philosophy

As many of you know, last season was especially tough in the life of this blogger. No... It wasn't tough in a "lose your job" kind of way. It was tough going through a season trying to stay objective in the face of a team that was pretty darn lousy. There are only so many times you can say "Pickard is awesome, the defense is making too many mistakes and nobody scores besides Rai".

This, coupled with some other "factors", made me consider hanging it up. At the end of the day, I certainly don't need this blog. It's like having a second job that doesn't pay the bills and it really isn't that much fun having Thunderbird "fans" harass you for providing free content to read simply because they don't agree with your point of view.

Summer came and summer went and my energy has been renewed to a certain extent. I was excited to be writing again and I was excited to start working on roster construction articles and mathematically breaking down whether this team could make enough progress to find themselves back in the playoffs again (article soon to follow).

For the past 3 seasons I have "covered" the team like a journalist without a media pass, like a beat reporter with no ability to attend practice and limited ability to travel with the team. As a result, I feel like my role as a "reporter" has suffered. I simply do not have time to attend every prospect scrimmage, training camp scrimmage and every single game. I have a life and that life includes a lot of things outside of Thunderbirds hockey. Does that mean I can't still provide fans with some quality content? I don't think so and I'm betting on the fact that a lot of fans still want to hear what I have to say (maybe I'm wrong!!)

3 years ago, the team issued very few press releases, offered very little information and most certainly didn't have a Facebook profile and a Twitter account to better disseminate basic information to the fans. The team now does all of that. Want to know who was invited to prospect camp? Go check the website. Want to know how former Tbirds are doing? Check their Facebook page. Want to have live updates on scoring from the game when you can't be there? Check their Twitter page.

All of these developments are things I wished the team had done 3 years ago… hence the genesis of Let's Go Birds. So the question is what should I do now that the reasons for starting the website have been fulfilled? Do I quit? Or do I adapt and evolve?

I've always thought to that the model for my website should look like USS Mariner. For those who are Mariner fans and have never visited their (not so) little website, I highly recommend it. If you want to become a more educated baseball fan, check it out. USS Mariner doesn't "report" on the Mariners very much because they have the Seattle Times, P.I. and TNT doing that for them. The Thunderbirds don't really have any traditional media outlets covering them, but most of the basic information fans are looking for can most certainly be found.

So what does this all mean?

It means that from this day forward I am changing the way I write Let's Go Birds. It's going to be less about "covering" the team and more about the analysis of the team. Obviously some topics and events will fall into a grey area between reporting and analysis and the line will become blurred. This will mean more content on big picture things and less about the details. If you want to know who is injured and how long they will be out, look for that some other place. I'm not going to go hunting down that information like a reporter would. If Marcel Noebels is hurt right now (which he is) I'm just not going to harass parents, players or front office staff members trying to find out what exactly is wrong. That is information you're just going to have to find in other places.

The team wants to treat me like any other fan with a blog. No special attention or privileges and no differentiation between myself and anyone else. I don't like it and I don't agree with it… but I don't have to and I'm certainly not going to sit here and cry into my keyboard about it either. Quite frankly, just like I don't really need this blog… I don't need input from players, coaches, front office or anyone else in order to provide the fans with quality content. I learned to skate when I was 4 years old and I've played this game for a total of 17 years between junior and adult recreational hockey. I think my knowledge of the game is strong but I'm also not arrogant enough to believe that I have everything figured out and I constantly strive to learn more about the game, this team and the WHL.

This won't be an easy transition. I'm not entirely sure how to do it, but I'm going to give it a shot and see how it goes.

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