Defenseman Shea Theodore has been a bright spot for Seattle in the first half (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds kick off the second half of the WHL season Friday night as they travel to Everett to play the Silvertips in the first of an important home-and-home series. For the T-Birds, they completed a streaky first half in which they fought through a six-game losing streak in November only to finish strong by winning nine of their last ten contests.
Just prior to the end of the first half, general manger Russ Farwell sat down with us to talk about the season so far.
"Its been very up and down and we're still feeling our way…although we've had a pretty good stretch, pretty consistent there, made us a little better," he said. "We've been a little hard to predict but we've seen some guys get steady and improve of late."
Seattle has been up and down as mentioned but lately there has been signs that some of the key players on the team are starting to gel and play consistently.
"Theo's (Shea Theodore) an improved player and getting better," Farwell says. "(Branden) Troock's had a real jump in the last six weeks and that's good…there's been some good positive signs. It took a little while for the Lethbridge guys to get in the groove but they've given us some depth. Having Yak (Jaimen Yakubowski) out right now really hurts us so I think we see that they've given us depth and a real hard to play against third line.
We like our defense when everyone's healthy and our goaltending's held up so at this point in time we're positive about our team."
Health has been an issue for Seattle, especially at the end of the first half. Seattle saw Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar and Yakubowski all get banged up in the last few games before the break. They've also been dealing with the injury to Connor Honey for most of the season.
Honey has been out of the Seattle lineup since October 5th and only has appeared in seven games for the club. As one of Seattle's top scorers their depth would be greatly improved, as would their already dangerous offense, with his return. Out with an 'upper body' injury, Honey's return would be huge for the team.
Farwell thinks we might see the Alberta native soon.
"We're optimistic," he says. "We're not treating a concussion, we're not looking at concussion, we're treating his neck injury with a series of injections in his neck. He's of the opinion and they've told him that he might be uncomfortable, but he can play. He wants to get going and we're thinking after Christmas but it's a matter of proving it to your self and getting some success."
One of the biggest surprises of the first half has been the play of Seattle's two goalies. During the summer it was assumed that the T-Birds would need to go and find an upgrade. Farwell said before the season that they were comfortable with the guys they had - so far that has played out to be true.
Both Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles have seen action in Seattle's net and both have played strong.
"There are very few goalies that you could go and get that you think you were upgrading," Farwell said. "With Danny, we've had some thresholds and he's stepped up every time and both guys have been pretty darn consistent. It was very much an unknown, it was unproven, but both guys have shown to be prospects before. Our goaltending has not cost us any games, we've been flat and didn't compete but I just don't think our goaltending has cost us and they're giving us a chance by not giving up soft goals."
Head coach Steve Konowalchuk has alternated between the two goalies and has relied on which ever one had the hot hand. Farwell says that with the schedule getting busier in the second half, having two capable goalies will be a benefit for the T-Birds.
Seattle has had a lot of players step up during the first half. Defenseman Shea Theodore has really come on this year and the Anaheim Ducks first round draft pick is tied for the team lead in scoring and is the WHL's top scoring blue-liner.
Theodore's game has taken big strides since being thrown to the wolves as a 16-year-old and this year he has improved his play in his own zone and looks like a much more mature player.
"We look to him to be our absolute lead dog as he's 18," Farwell says. "He still has more to be an NHL defenseman but I think he knows that, he's got a plan and he's progressing. He's taking it on. We always expect so much from him… We expect Theo to be good every night and that's what makes players."
Branden Troock also came on strong in the first half of the season. Healthy now, the Dallas Stars prospect is playing at a high level and has become a scoring machine. Just before the break he tied Theodore for the lead in the team's scoring and he is anchoring what has become the T-Birds most consistent line.
"You can always see when a player gets a new level of confidence, he expects good things to happen," Farwell said about Troock. "Every time he's out he expects to get a chance and he's excited about trying to do something…There are still parts of his game that need to be filled in but as an offensive player he's getting noticed around the league. He's a threat, I'm sure he's on the blackboard for the team's we're playing against."
The T-Birds roster is a nice mix of veteran players and some pretty promising looking 16-year-old rookies. Mathew Barzal has been the most talked about of those rookies and the former Bantam Draft top pick has been as advertised this year. Playing beyond his age he sees the ice well, is smart with the puck and has shown to be a top level play-maker
Keegan Kolesar, another first round pick, has also looked good, and has logged some quality minutes for the T-Birds. He has seen some regular time parked in front of the opposing team's net and as he grows and get stronger there could be big things out of the big rookie.
The third player from the 2012 draft class is defenseman Ethan Bear. While Bear didn't have the high profile coming into the year that Barzal and Kolesar had, he has been pretty impressive. At only 16 he is playing big minutes in the top-six defensive pairings and getting time on the team's power play.
Farwell praised all three of the rookies for their play in the first half and really likes Bear's common sense approach.
"All three guys have been really good ," he said. "Bear has given us real solid minutes. He just plays the game with common sense. He plays well on the power play, with common sense, moves the puck well, advances it, there are no flaws…His coach last year, Jeff Odgers, who was an NHL player, coached the midget team in Yorktown last year kept saying he's got 'old man strength'."
The WHL trade deadline is on January 10th and since Seattle has already made some pretty significant trades it will be interesting to see if they do anything more. The T-Birds picked up Adam Henry, Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie from Lethbridge and all three have had a positive impact on the team.
Seattle has some young assets that could bring back some players but the cost of trading away future building blocks may not be worth it. It's a fine balance that Farwell and the T-Birds will have to weigh.
"We're not going to give away our future so to speak," He said. "We think we could compete right now if things all fell together. So if we could improve we would look to improve. I've had two or three teams ask me for guys like (Lane) Pederson and I'm not interested in that so I'm not sure if its even possible."
Farwell thinks there could be an active trade market at the deadline - most likely involving over-age players. With the departure last month of 20-year-old Eric Benoit the T-Birds have an open spot for an over-ager. The possibility is there for Seattle to be involved with one of those guys who will be changing places --Farwell said that's something that they might consider.
The future that Farwell speaks about not giving away does look bright.
With the progression of Barzal, Bear, Kolesar and Ryan Gropp the team looks like it will be strong again next year. This past years draft picks look like they can be contributers next season as well.
Two of their top picks, Kaden Elder and Nolan Volcan, are already signed and Farwell is optimistic that first round pick Dante Fabbro, whom he feels is the top prospect in Western Canada, will eventually follow suit. There was a story a few weeks ago that Fabbro had visited the University of Wisconsin with his family but as we saw with both Barzal and Gropp, many families want to explore all options.
"I think they're trying to understand it all, see it all, know it all…we're still optimistic that he'll play," Farwell says of Fabbro. "I think in his case he's too good of a player. He can't put his career on hold to wait, to have the slower path. I think he will be one of the top picks in his age group. I think he's real competitive player, he's given us no indication that he's not interested."
The second half of the season has not been kind to the Thunderbirds in recent years and they get a good test right out of the gates with the two games against Everett. Farwell feels that staying healthy and the team's overall depth will be big down the stretch.
"I think we have three really good lines and if we get everyone healthy we could have four real good lines," he said. "I think our depth is the key, and a strength to our team. I don't know if we can match Portland's one or two top guys but I think overall we can compete from a depth standpoint and get everyone chipping in. We've got guys, like Gropp, that are getting better and we've just got to keep developing and that will be key for us in the end."
Seattle's next home game is against Everett on Saturday night at the ShoWare Center.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide