Thursday, March 26, 2015

Seattle-Portland Playoff Preview Part 2: Position by Position

In my previous pieces this week, I've taken a look at the history of Portland and Seattle in the playoffs and I also took a look at the head to head stats. Now lets take a look at how the team's match up position by position.

Ryan Gropp (58 pts) and Mathew Barzal (57) led the way this year for the Thunderbirds and are the two that really create the most in the offensive zone. Gropp's 30 goals are 11 more than the next scorer, so they have relied upon him all year. Barzal has a ton of speed and during the regular season match up proved to be troublesome for Portland's D-men who are somewhat slow afoot (especially the 5-6 paring of Josh Hanson and Adam Henry). In his 16 year old season, Portland's D-men made it their mission to play him physically causing him to really struggle. This season, he's done a much better job of not getting himself into spots where Portland's defense can body up on him. Also, his hockey sense is insane and his ability to find Gropp or Roberts Lipsbergs in shooting areas. Lipsbergs and Barzal have played together on the same line frequently ever since Roberts was sent down by the Stockton Thunder, the ECHL affiliate of the N.Y. Islanders in January. Lipsbergs has played fantastic since being returned in his over-age season: scoring 36 points in 33 games. He is great at winning board battles and once he gets in a shooting lane, he has a very good wrist shot. Seattle really needed consistent scoring at the time he was sent down, as Barzal was out and Gropp wasn't getting a lot of help. It's fair to say Roberts has provided that.

Another great addition for Seattle; this one through a trade is 19 year old Winger Cory Millette. Since being traded over from Prince Albert he has 29 points in 32 games, despite being shuttled all around to different lines. One thing that Millette excels at that is worrisome for Portland is his ability to get into shooting lanes and tip shots past Goalies. The Hawks are not great at getting out on the point and preventing the shot and also are not known for their physicality in moving players like him out of these areas. In the playoffs, it's often like Millette who provide the pivotal goal in a series. It will be interesting to see if Millette plays with Barzal and Lipsbergs as he has often since being acquired, or if Seattle wants to load up that top line by putting Gropp in that spot.

The line that will likely be tasked with attempting to shut down Portland's top line is Center Scott Eansor and some combination of Wingers: Calvin Spencer, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan. Eansor is a gritty player who sometimes contributes offensively but usually gets the assignment vs. the other team's top Center-man. Look for him to try just about anything to get Nic Petan off of his game. How well Eansor does against Petan will be a huge storyline in this series and if him and his line-mates are able to walk away from the series with a positive plus/minus that will likely mean a Seattle series win. Spencer is an 18 year old, Neuls is a 17 year old and Volcan is a 16. Spencer has a large frame so might be assigned on this shut down line, but both Neuls and Volcan have more quickness to keep up with Oliver Bjorkstrand and pester him None of these guys will be expected to provide consistent scoring, but if they are able to score the odd goal on top of their regular duties that will be huge for Seattle.

Some other forwards that will play a role are 1997 born and draft eligible: Center Alexander True, Center Lane Pederson and wingers Luke Osterman and Nick Holowko. The bigger role they play in this series and the deeper Seattle goes in the playoffs will mean more attention for them from NHL scouts and likely a late draft selection for some of them.

Oliver Bjorkstrand and his 13 goals against Seattle in 7 games, will likely lead the way in this series. While Eansor has done a remarkable job in slowing down Petan at times, Seattle has not found a way to slow down the Danish sniper. Even when they think they have him in a position where he cannot get a shot off, he finds a way and lights up the goal lamp. The specific goal that comes to mind for me is the one fairly early in the season where he walked right around Seattle's Jerret Smith and roofed a backhand shot past Goalie Taran Kozun. It does seem that the more familiar he is with how a Goalie positions himself, the more successful  he is and there is no Goalie he's faced more than Kozun.

Nic Petan was absent for large stretches of last year's playoff run, often changing his game into that of an agitator instead and spending time in the penalty box. For Portland to win this series, he needs to keep his frustration in check and just make plays. If Seattle finds that he susceptible to taking a bad penalty, they will keep at him. He is just too good of a set up man to have him away from the NHL caliber shot that Oliver has for too long. Rounding out the top line is Paul Bittner, who in his draft year has had ups and downs offensively, but has stayed consistent with playing a tough and rugged style of play in the corners; using his big frame to give him time and space. He then is able to uncork his very solid wrist shot, which has become more accurate as the season has gone on.

De Leo
Portland's next two lines could be jumbled up as LW Alex Schoenborn should return to the lineup soon. Schoenborn, at times this year was one of Portland's best players, but he also played large stretches where he took bad penalties and played awful. If he is healthy, I would expect him to be eased into a 4th line role depending on his health and how the top three lines are faring. Once he is healthy, he will probably play with Center Chase De Leo on Portland's 2nd line, along with either Keegan Iverson or Miles Koules. De Leo's role has really been pivotal for Portland this year. He's the best possession player outside of the top line and really drives the play into the other team's zone when he is on the ice. Portland really needs him to outwork Barzal or True (whomever he's on the ice against.) and set up one of the gifted scorers that will be playing with him. Iverson has been a wrecking ball since January, scoring 24 of his 39 points in those three months. I really like how he has developed and started to realize how to use his large frame in winning corner battles and screening the Goalie in front. Koules, meanwhile, is one of the best players I've seen at keeping a D-man on his hip, while he brings the puck out of the corner and into a shooting lane. I'd like to see him get more accurate with his many shots at the net, but you cannot discount how much depth scoring he brings to the Hawks.

When Portland does well, it's often due to 3rd line Center: Dominic Turgeon doing a solid job defensively vs. the other team's top Center. Turgeon has a big frame and though  he does not throw a lot of hits, his reach can make it hard on talented players in Portland's zone. At times he can add in goals as well, but in this playoff run, will be asked to play a more defensive role. Often playing with him is 16 year old Skyler McKenzie, who reminds a lot of Hawk's fans of a young Brendan Leipsic. While he is a small player, he does not back down and is one of the leaders on the team in hits.

Depending on where they slot in Schoenborn, Evan Weinger cold be moved down to play on the 4th line, but will likely start the series playing with De Leo. The growth that we've seen in Weinger's game this season is impressive. He has a lot of speed and has developed a couple different moves while streaking in on the wing; allowing him to slip past defenders and get in alone on Goalies. He is a player I will look for consistent scoring next year, but if he is able to go on a run like Edmonton's Brett Pollock, his draft stock will rocket.

Rounding out Portland's Forwards are Alex Overhardt, Mitchell Walter, Jack Flaman. It's the playoffs and Portland plays their top line a lot of minutes, so I really would not expect them to see a whole lot of ice, but when they do Overhardt's probably the guy that will have the most impact. Walter played on a Memorial Cup winning Edmonton Oil Kings team last year.

Advantage: Portland
-So who has the advantage between Portland and Seattle up front? You have to go with the team that sports the WHL's leading scorer and four players that averaged more than a point a game.

Discussion has to start with the Anaheim Duck's first round pick: Shea Theodore. Last year, Portland seemed to have their ay with Theodore, going in and around him in Seattle's zone. This year, however, he has improved a lot in his own zone this season. If you add that to his already elite level puck moving skills and shot, he is very dangerous at all times. He is the Seattle D-man most likely to try and go on an end to end rush. Often paired with him is 19 year old: Jerret Smith, who has also improved a lot this year. He actually doubled his point production from last year (from 19 to 38). Right handed shots can sometimes be hard to find in the WHL and Smith is a good one.

Evan Wardley and Jared Hauf are also paired together a lot and act as the team's shutdown D-pairing. As we all know, Wardley can often go too far and has been suspended many times (like in the video below for his hit on Petan) for his indiscretions. Hauf is 6'5" 223 lbs, so spending much time in front of the net, while he is on the ice can be painful.

Rounding out Seattle's defense is usually Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit. Bear is in his draft year and could go as high as the 2nd round. He is Theodore's heir apparent as far as scoring from the blue line. He probably has one of the harder shots from the blue line in the Western Conference, as his 13 goals would attest. Ottenbreit has been a great find for General Manager Russ Farwell. He was acquired from Saskatoon in September for Adam Henry, who Saskatoon then traded to Portland. Turner is only 17 and should grow into a larger role next season, but is still a pretty good depth D-man this year.

The Hawk's top D-pairing is Anton Cederholm and Layne Viveiros. Cederholm has been Portland's most consistent D-man; does not make a lot of mistakes and uses his large frame to make life difficult for forwards in the corners. Viveiros' improvement this season has been a godsend for Portland. While his positioning is not always the best, he makes up for it by being really good with his stick and sweeping the puck off of opponent's sticks as they are trying to take him one on one. He also is the Hawk's best point producer from the back end, though he only has 8 goals.

The next pairing is usually Keoni Texeira and Blake Heinrich. Since Heinrich was paired with Texeira during the East Division run, Texeira has looked a lot better at both ends. Both of them are pretty solid in their own zone and have good chemistry in regards to when each one of them will pinch and jump up into the play. Heinrich is easily Portland's second best defensive D-man and gets the  role of top Penalty Killer along with Cederholm.

Recently, Adam Henry and Josh Hanson have been paired together as the 5-6 D-men. Henry has recently shown the best offensive ability from the back end, which was sorely missing for most of the year. Hanson, had a terrible start to the season but has rounded into form as the season has gone on.  Early on, he seemed to try too hard and often turned over the puck while trying to throw a long outlet pass. Since about January, he has done much better at using the boards to get the puck out of the zone safely when warranted.

Advantage: Seattle
-Though this position is a whole lot closer than forwards, I have to give the edge to Seattle, who has done a great job at allowing the 2nd least amount of goals this season.

Taran Kozun notched a 2.41 GAA and 0.915 Save % this year and was recently named the Western Conference Goalie of the Year and the nomination for WHL Goalie of the Year. While his numbers have not been as good vs Portland this year, you could probably say that about a lot of U.S. Division goalies. If there is a Goalie in the West that could carry his team further than they probably should go, it's Kozun. He just does not have many bad games and can go on long runs of stopping just about everything thrown his way.

Adin Hill gradually took over the job as the season has gone on and force the Hawks to trade away 19 year old Brendan Burke at the trade deadline. While he has no playoff experience in the WHL, he is the type of Goalie who does not seem too affected by the last goal, even if it was a bad one. This is the type of guy you want to tend your net in the playoffs when it really matters. His style may not be textbook but he just uses his large frame to let the puck hit him and is at his best when he is aggressive at cutting down shooting lanes.

Advantage: Seattle
-While Hill has had the better numbers, despite facing way more shots in the regular season, Kozun has more experience and already knows what it takes to carry his team to a series victory as he did last year against Everett.

While Seattle has the advantage at two of the three positions, the difference between Portland's forwards and Seattle forwards is more than Seattle's advantage in the other categories.

My final prediction along with some keys to the series will follow tomorrow.

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