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All-American Clashes

The Thunderbirds look to turn their fortunes against US Division opponents around with three games against Tri-City this week.

Seattle Thunderbirds v Vancouver Giants Photo by Ben Nelms/Getty Images

A lot (but not all) of the rust was shaken off the Seattle Thunderbirds this past week. After scoring seventeen goals in their first five games the team combined for sixteen in their two games this week, following up a frantic 9-6 win up in Kelowna against the Rockets with a 7-3 victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings in front of the home faithful on Saturday night.

While the scoring wasn’t entirely spread out amongst the team (only six players tallied those sixteen goals), Seattle received multi-goal games from Zack Andrusiak (against Edmonton), Simon Kubicek (both games) and Noah Philp, who lead the way with six goals, including a four goal outburst against Kelowna. Dillion Hamaliuk did not slow down this week. Despite being held to just one goal in the two games, Hamaliuk added six assists, four of which came against the Rockets. Fellow 2019 draft eligible teammate Jake Lee also continued his strong start to the season. Lee put up seven points this week with seven assists (three against Kelowna and four against Edmonton).

Seattle’s draft eligibles have been putting on a show early on. Dillion Hamaliuk’s fifteen points puts him in second behind Saskatoon star Kirby Dach, but his 2.14 points per game is ranks first overall among draft eligible prospects in the WHL this year. Conversely, while it’s been Vancouver’s Bowen Byram or Edmonton’s Matthew Robertson getting the early season shoutouts on several 2019 mock drafts, it’s been Jake Lee who’s skyrocketed to the top of WHL scoring among defensemen. With ten points in seven games, Lee is currently the only draft eligible WHL defenseman producing at over a point per game. and sits on top amongst his peers assists (9) and points (10) as well. Second in points per game? Teammate Simon Kubicek with four goals (tied for first) and seven points (tied for second) in Seattle’s seven games.

Goaltending remained a strength for Seattle this week, but it did take a bit of a hit (as one would expect in a game where nine goals are allowed in two games). Liam Hughes took the net for both games, and while he was admittedly nailed out by his offense against Kelowna (Seattle with the rare edge in shots at 39-33 in that one), Hughes would go on to return the favor on Saturday, stopping 38 of 41 Oil King shots. An .878 save% on the week doesn’t look that strong on paper, but when faced with 74 shots in just two games, some leeway must be given to the man in goal.

Defense continues to be a struggle for the Thunderbirds early on. While this can be explained away (Jarret Tyszka has yet to play, Reese Harsh is just recovering from an injury, the team aged out their top two defensemen from last season), the Thunderbirds also haven’t been improving as they move forward on the calendar. After allowing 32.5 shots against in their first three games, the Thunderbirds have gone on to allow an average of 40 shots against per game over the last couple of weeks (160 shots against in 4 games).

Though it is still early, Seattle doesn’t appear to be trending in a positive direction early on. After respectable numbers in their first three games, the Thunderbirds have become somewhat reliant on goaltending in recent weeks. And while that’s all well and good when you’re getting the goaltending, on nights where you don’t, it can become quite frustrating. Liam Hughes and Cole Schwebius (in his lone start) have been incredible to start the season, but the tandem have played a combined 50 games in the WHL, and in spite of their early success, there may come a time where asking the pair to continue playing .929 goaltending while being hammered with 35+ shots a game may become unreasonable.

Up next, the Thunderbirds have three games against US Division opponent Tri-City. The Americans enter the week last in the division (as most expected at the start of the season), but are still hovering over .500 in competitive US Division with a 4-3-0-0 record. After going all in on a contender last season, the Americans are icing a depleted roster for the 2018/2019 season. Their top four scorers from last season (Morgan Geekie, Jordan Topping, Dylan Coghlan and Michael Rasmussen) have all either aged out or turned pro. Michael Rasmussen is the only one left with WHL eligibility, but it appears as though he will be sticking with the Detroit Red Wings and won’t be back to help his junior club. The team also took a big hit defensively, losing not only major trade acquisition Jake Bean to the pro ranks, but also Import Juuso Välimäki, who patrolled the Tri-City blue line for three stellar seasons before making the jump to the NHL with the Calgary Flames this season.

This year, there is a heavy reliance on veteran scoring for the Americans, with four of their top six scorers being ’99 borns and the other two ‘98s. Sasha Mutala has generated a fair share of buzz as a potential first round pick in the 2019 NHL draft, and has performed at just under a point per game in the early stages of the season with three points in five games. The Americans aren’t getting much scoring from their blueline, with 2000 born Import Roman Kalinchenko leading their defense with three points in seven games to start the season. In goal, it’s Beck Warm getting the lion’s share of starts. Starting in six of the American’s seven games, Warm has a fairly average 3-3-0-0 record, with an .897 save% and an even 3.00 GAA.

Stylistically, these games should be interesting to watch. While both teams sit in the top ten (Seattle 6th and Tri-City 8th) in goals against, they’ve done so in drastically different ways. Where the Seattle Thunderbirds haves played a more run-and-gun style and rely on their goaltending, Tri-City likes to slow things down. While they are getting outshot on average, it’s by a meager one shot per game. Tri-City is averaging 27.7 shots per game while allowing 28.8 in comparing to the Thunderbirds who take 31.3 while allowing 38.1. Goal scoring looks to be the Americans struggle early on. Though they have a positive goal differential, it’s a mere 5 goals (27 goals scored, 22 against), which places them 13th in the league in the category. Seattle’s goal scoring prowess mirrors their ability to keep the puck out of the net, as the team ranks sixth with a +11 goal differentials (31 scored, 20 allowed). There is potential here for Seattle to use these games against a low event team to try and right their own ship defensively, but it’s also just as likely that the Thunderbirds free flowing game opens Tri-City up for more offense of their own.

Despite starting the season 5-1-1-0, the Thunderbirds two losses have come at the hands of division opponents. With Tri-City at the bottom of the standings in the division, Seattle looks to turn things around against their US Division counterparts.

Weekend Thoughts:

-The power play was a big struggle for Seattle early on with the team starting 4-for-27 on the man advantage (14.1%). In two games this week, Seattle went 7-for-9, and boosted their power play% up to 30.6, good for second in the WHL (Portland, 36.4% is first)

-Shots faced is probably a more accurate number to look at when judging a goalies workload instead of games played. That said, if the defense doesn’t tighten up for Seattle, I’d hope Matt O’Dette looks at giving Cole Schwebius more starts to rest Liam Hughes.

-On the topic of Liam Hughes, if his strong start carries into the later stages of the season (or even into the playoffs), he could, in all likelihood, force his name into the conversation surrounding the final overage slot next season.

-Graeme Bryks has quietly become one of my favorite players to watch this season. While he hasn’t been finding the score sheet, he’s made a few smart plays to keep the puck in the offensive zone and has been a very strong 59.7% in the face-off circle, which puts him at 6th in the WHL amongst those who have taken at least 50 faceoffs.