WHL blog: Barzal back, Rockets still seeking synergy

Thunderbirds forward Mathew Barzal had three assists in the clinching game. (Christopher Mast/Everett Silvertips)

Another week is in the books for the WHL and it leaves us with some questions. For starters, is there a reason to be concerned with the Kelowna super team? They’ve played three games with all of their new pieces and lost two of them, both at home.

The big additions of Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey to an already stacked team made the Rockets the favourites to win the WHL championship this year. This last week reminded us all that the rest of the league is not going to just roll over for them.

Bringing in new players—especially ones who are going to be key parts—is not as easy as it may seem. There is timing to work out, familiarity with new linemates and a new environment. The fact that they have yet to click, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. They also lost two games to formidable opponents. The first was to the Central Division-leading Medicine Hat Tigers who pulled away with a couple of third period markers. This past Friday they lost to the Seattle Thunderbirds who came in as the hottest team in the WHL.

Seattle Thunderbirds on Twitter

These losses are no reason to panic, yet.

Draisaitl is off to a hot start with six points in the five games that he’s played with Kelowna. Friday night against Seattle he was held off the score sheet but was dangerous all night, hitting a crossbar and generating chances. When a player gets sent back to junior so late it makes sense to wonder where he is mentally. Is he down that he’s no longer in the NHL, or is he ready to make the best of it? Friday night, he made a play coming back hard into his own end to catch and break up a chance by Seattle’s Keegan Kolesar—indicating that he’s ready to play hard and play in both ends. That has to excite the Kelowna coaches and their fans.

As the Rockets get more practices and games in they will be fine. They still are the top offensive club in the WHL and are second in goals allowed—numbers that will not change. There is no reason to panic in Kelowna.

Here’s what’s of note in the rest of the ‘Dub:

Cracked Ice?

Before the trade deadline, the Kootenay Ice were on fire. They’d won eight straight despite missing Sam Reinhart, who was with Team Canada at the world juniors. Holding on to the last playoff spot they seemed like a team on the verge of being a contender in the East.

But they also needed a couple of upgrades. While Reinhart, Tim Bozon and Jaedon Descheneau give Kootenay three of the top forwards in the league, the Ice struggle on defence. Speculation was that they would be in the market for a defenceman or a goaltender. But GM Jeff Chynoweth wasn’t able to make any significant moves to upgrade these areas.

Since the trade deadline, and Reinhart’s return, the Ice have struggled. They’ve lost four out of the past five and are clinging to the last playoff spot in the East. Overall they allow 3.6 goals per game, a number that is going to cause trouble and may just keep them from doing anything in the post-season. If only they had upgraded.

The art of discipline

The Everett Silvertips continued to have a strong season. They came home from their 5-1 Eastern swing to win two division games. Nikita Scherbak is the biggest name on the Everett roster and looking at the rest of it you might wonder just how they’re doing what they’re doing.

Well, the Silvertips are well coached and stick to their game plan night in and night out. They play solid defence, not allowing a ton of shots or chances and you have to stay patient and grind out goals against them. They’re getting enough scoring from Scherbak and guys like Carson Stadnyk and Ivan Nikolishin. They also are the most disciplined team in the WHL.

With only 406 penalty minutes on the year, Everett is the least penalized team in the league. Head coach Keven Constantine preaches discipline to his charges, and so far they’re listening. The Silvertips have only been shorthanded on 131 occasions this season—also a league low—and just don’t make anything easy on their opponents. Only the Tri City Americans allow fewer five-on-five goals than Everett and the fact that you don’t get many power-play chances agaist them makes it nearly impossible to score.

The Silvertips’ penalty kill is not the best, in fact they are near the bottom from a percentage standpoint. But you just don’t get any opportunities. They give up an average of 2.9 power-play chances to their opponents, compared to getting 4.3 of their own. Their power-play unit is third best in the WHL at 23.7 percent and nearly a third of their goals come with the man advantage.

Everett frustrates their opponents with tough defense and then further frustrates you by not taking penalties and making you pay for taking any on your own. That’s usually a good recipe for victory and the main reason that Everett is leading the U.S. Division and second in the Western Conference.

Player of the week Winnipeg

Adam Helewka, LW, Spokane Chiefs The Chiefs’ leading scorer did not score in his last game on Saturday against Tri City. But he gets our POW award for the previous nine games he played—scoring a goal in each. The nine-game scoring streak tied a franchise record and Helewka now has 26 goals to lead the surprising Chiefs.

Spokane Chiefs Live on Twitter

2015 NHL Draft tracker

Mathew Barzal, C, Seattle Thunderbirds Coming into the season, Barzal was the WHL’s top-rated NHL Draft prospect. He hasn’t played since November after cracking a knee cap while wrestling around with a teammate in the room. It appears that the Thunderbirds star is set to return at some point this week. He is targeting this coming weekend to play, but will miss the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Thursday.

Nick McBride, G, Prince Albert Raiders Well he did not have the best weekend—giving up seven goals on 17 shots in two games—McBride will be at the Top Prospects Game as well. McBride has shown good signs this year as a young 17-year-old and will be playing for Team Orr.

Noah Juulsen, D, Everett Silvertips On a strong defensive club, Juulsen is Everett’s best. Not only is he a plus-19 on the season but he’s chipping in nicely on offence. The Abbotsford, B.C., product has 32 points in his 44 games. Juulsen will be on display during the Top Prospects Game this week as well.

Jake DeBrusk, LW, Swift Current Broncos DeBrusk continues to have a strong draft-eligible season with 25 markers and 46 points this year. He’s a point-per-game player for the Broncos and will be skating for Team Cherry at the Top Prospects tilt.

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