By Andrew Eide
Without a doubt, last season was a struggle for the Seattle Thunderbirds. They had a tough time scoring and gave up way too many shots and goals and missed the playoffs. The good news? Everyone is tied for first, hope springs eternal and there is reason to be optimistic.
That optimism starts with head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who is headed into his second year with the Thunderbirds and believes the team will be much improved this season.
"I have high expectations for this team. The second half of last year we were battling, especially coming down the stretch, the last 20 games, and the guys that were stepping up for us are the guys who are coming back into this locker room," he said. "Those are the guys that you can see were the guys that wanted to get us there. Now they're a year older, more experienced, we've added some guys and we have a different mentality now."
Konowalchuk said that he wants to do more than merely make the playoffs; he wants to be a top team in the Western Hockey League.
"I would be disappointed if we just made the playoffs. Do I want to make the playoffs? Yeah, but I have a higher goal for our team," he said. "I'm ready to go. I like where we're at with our players. We have some very good inter-competition."
The Thunderbirds have a young defense and were forced to play a lot of 16-year-olds on the back end last year, which led to defensive breakdowns. Konowalchuk thinks that might have been a blessing in disguise.
"Last year was a great opportunity for our defense. Our young D, they were playing and if you want to get better you need to practice and all that, but there is nothing better than game experience. Based on where we were last year we had 16-year-olds getting a ton of ice time and sometimes not have success," Konowalchuk said of his blue line. "That creates character and they did a really nice job of staying confident. They really just kept battling and trying to get better and trying to learn from their mistakes."
Konowalchuk points to Shea Theodore as one defenseman who raised his game to the next level and feels strongly that there will be two other defensemen who will step up and surprise everyone. He feels that he has many candidates to take that step.
The coach also feels that the Thunderbirds will be improved offensively as well and has high hopes for some players who showed promise last year. One of those players is Connor Honey, who really picked up his game in the second half of last year.
"He's a competitive kid, smart hockey player, wants to win. He also has really good hands and a good shot. I really think he's going to have a good year," Konowalchuk says of his young forward.
Seth Swenson is another player who came on after being traded to Seattle from the Portland Winterhawks.
"I think when we got him he wasn't playing much and wasn't in his top shape and I think he had lost confidence," Konowalchuk said about his big forward. "He came here and a situation where he had a new chance and could take advantage of it. He came and worked hard, got in better shape, his consistency picked up and he scored some goals and I know he's excited for this year."
Konowalchuk went on to say that he felt that Justin Hickman and Branden Troock have the ability to have big seasons for the Thunderbirds as well.
As a first-year coach last year, Konowalchuk said that one of the big challenges for him was to learn the players and instill his system. This year he knows the players and is confident that the returning guys are fluent in the system and will help the new guys pick it up. He made a point of commenting on the hard work and great effort the team gave him last year which makes him excited for their prospects this season.
"Our guys worked hard last year. Almost every guy put an effort in and I didn't have a problem thinking these guys weren't giving me all they can. As frustrating as it is to lose sometimes, that's all a coach can ask for. If you watch the details of the game you'll see how hard the guys were working," he said of his returning players.
Seattle is in a tough division as Portland and Tri-City return powerful teams. Last year Seattle struggled against the top dogs in the U.S. Division but Konowalchuk thinks that will improve this year, despite the tough teams they will face.
"Last year we had a little bit of a problem showing them too much respect," he said of their encounters with Portland and Tri-City. "I don't care if you think they're better than you are, you are going to play a certain way against them and worry about the results after. We, at times, were standing like as a deer in the headlights against them. Portland will be good again, Tri-City will be good again, and Spokane has a good core coming back. We can compete with those guys."