Grading the Americans at midseason

December 25, 2012 

It was Christmas Eve, and I had just arrived at the Red Cross in Richland to donate a triple offering of platelets.

A nice man was outside handing out samples of beef jerky, which were quite tasty. He asked how often I donated.

“Every 2-3 weeks,” I replied.

Did I get paid for my donation?

“No,” I said.

Then why do you do it?

“Because there are people in need, and I am able to help,” I told him.

He wished me a merry Christmas and went on his way.

The holidays are a time for giving, whether it be of one’s self or a gift to a loved one.

Me, I get to hand out midseason grades to the Tri-City Americans.

Kind of like Santa, only there’s no way my sizable butt is fitting down a chimney, and the players have yet to leave me milk and cookies.

I used to hate this part of the job, but one year I gave Aaron Boogaard a D, and he thanked me. He turned his season around in the second half.

Glad my gift was useful.

This year, the Americans are 20-12-1-2 (43 points) at midseason. They won their last two games to hit 20 wins at the holiday break for the fifth time in six years.

One thing I had to remember about grading this year’s team is that it is not last year’s team. When the going gets tough, there are no Brendan Shinnimins and Adam Hughesmans to come to the rescue.

The Americans are young. The average age is 18, and they have six rookies. I had to base my grades on what this year’s players are capable of without comparing them with last year’s team.

You might think I was a bit generous at times, or too harsh. But someone must get the proverbial loaf of fruitcake.

Maybe, like Boogaard, they will be inspired.

General Manager Bob Tory: He made the right decisions when it came to the overage players, and the trades for Phil Tot and Brodie Clowes looked to be solid deals, but the players haven’t panned out. Can’t foresee injuries, but Clowes was damaged goods when he arrived. Tory has been able to sign most of his bantam draft picks over the last two years, which a lot of GMs can’t say. He runs a tight ship, and his teams have been more than competitive over the last six years. Grade: A-

Coach Jim Hiller: It is what it is — a rebuilding year. This year’s team is young with an average age of 18 — including eight 17-year-olds. The Americans lost 133 goals when Shinnimin, Hughesman and Patrick Holland took their game to a higher level. That left the offensive cupboard pretty bare. Justin Feser has been the glue holding things together up front for Hiller, who also has a young goalie manning the net in Eric Comrie. Though he has been solid, Comrie needs a night off every now and again. Hiller’s defense is stingy, but the goals are few — Tri-City ranks 13th in goals scored with 105. The penalty kill is solid at 82.9 percent (ranks seventh in the Western Hockey League), but the power play is missing power (ranked 14th, 18.8 percent). Grade: A-

Goalies Eric Comrie: Seventeen-year-old starting goalies in the WHL are hard to come by, but Comrie has settled in nicely. In 32 games, he is 17-12-1-2 with two shutouts, a 2.59 goals against average, a .915 save percentage and three assists. He recently lost six consecutive starts, but he picked up two big wins to end the first half. Was on the losing end of six one-goal games — with the Americans averaging two goals in each loss. Played in the Subway Super Series and will play in the Top Prospects Game in January. It’s his draft year, and he looks to be a first- or second-round pick. Grade: A-

Luke Lee-Knight: In two games, he is 2-0-0-0 with a 2.50 GAA and a .943 save percentage. His wins came over Portland and Vancouver. His personality livens up the dressing room. Wish I could give him more, but the games aren’t there. Grade: Incomplete.

Defensemen Brodie Clowes: Who is this kid, you ask? From what I’m told, he’s a pretty good D-man, but a shoulder injury (which he had when he arrived from Victoria) limited him to two games before surgery shut him down. Grade: Incomplete.

Drydn Dow: In my opinion, the right man to keep at the overage deadline. A solid defenseman with an offensive upswing. Best D-man with the puck most nights. His two goals and nine assists are solid numbers, and his plus-12 rating is second on the team. Grade: A

Clint Filbrandt: A victim of numbers in a solid corps of D-men. In eight games, he has one goal and one assist. When he gets ice time, he does not disappoint. Grade: Incomplete.

Justin Hamonic: After playing just half of last season, he dedicated himself to the game over the summer and won the team’s fitness award during training camp. Has played every game in the first half. He has one goal and three assists, but as a classic stay-at-home D-man, the numbers don’t tell the story. He blocks a ton of shots, isn’t afraid to mix it up and is reliable (reminds me a bit of Clayton Stoner). He told me he thought his play was worth a B. It’s Christmas, and I like to give presents. Grade: A-

Michal Plutnar: The Americans’ defense has allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league with 96 (Edmonton leads with 86), and Plutnar is a big part of that. Very conscientious about his work, he has a good mix of stay-at-home play and chipping in offensively. Has one goal and 11 assists, and leads the team with a plus-16 rating. Grade: A-

Wil Tomchuk: The rookie has played all but three games the first half. He’s still getting his feet wet and has made mistakes, but the WHL is not midget hockey. He has one assist and two fights to his credit and has shown marked improvement. Grade: B

Mitch Topping: A great leader, he has a good offensive side to his game with five goals and 10 assists, but — isn’t there always a but? — his minus-13 rating speaks to his play at times. His carelessness with the puck, which has led to a couple of easy goals for opponents, has him on the naughty list. I know he’s capable of so much more. Grade: B-

Zach Yuen: I’m tempted to take out a classified ad looking for the Zach Yuen who made opponents change their game when he was on the ice. Yuen led the WHL in plus-minus last year (plus-45), but he’s a less-than-pretty minus-6 at the moment. He’s a talented kid who could be the best in the league at his position, but he isn’t showing the level of play that prompted Winnipeg to take him in the fourth round in 2011. On the bright side, he leads the D-men in scoring with three goals and 14 assists. Grade: B

Forwards Parker Bowles: A feisty player who isn’t afraid to take it to the net. Has eight goals and one assist, but plenty yet to learn. Grade: B

Ryan Chynoweth: Came over from Everett early in the season. Has played 18 games (missed a few because of an injury) and is struggling to put his game together. Has one goal and one assist, but his greatest strength is as a faceoff man. That could pay dividends down the road, but for now, there is much work to be done. Grade: B-

Tyson Dallman: Started the season playing good hockey, but somewhere along the way, lost his way to the net. He has two goals and five assists, but he hasn’t scored a goal in 16 games and has three points in his last 18 games. He’s a rugged player with great offensive potential — he just needs to find that groove. Grade: B

Justin Feser: The team captain leads the team in goals (19) and points (41), and he plays every facet of the game from a regular shift to the power play to the penalty kill (has two short-handed goals). Ranks 16th in league scoring, and every coach in the league would like to have a player with his work ethic. He hasn’t missed a game in almost four years. The problem? Consistency. He recently went eight games without a goal, and he has six points in seven games in December. But without him, the Americans would not be where they are. Grade: A-

Justin Gutierrez: Was the final player cut last season, but he stuck around this year and has been a pleasant surprise. In 26 games, he has two assists and a couple of fights. Like most rookies, he has plenty to learn, but he’s willing to do his part. Grade: B

Beau McCue: Who knew there was this caliber of hockey player hanging out in Montana? With 11 goals and eight assists, he’s tied with Connor Rankin for third on the team in scoring. He ranks 10th in league rookie scoring and is third among rookies in goals scored. He had a bit of a slow start to the season, but he has found his game. Has six goals and two assists in seven games in December, and has a plus-11 rating. I don’t give many rookies an A, but I think he has earned one. Grade: A-

Marcus Messier: Hate to say it, but his game has improved since his brother Jordan was traded at the overage deadline. He has missed a few games because of an injury, but in 28 games, he has eight goals, four assists and a plus-11 rating. A tenacious player who has been missed since he got hurt Nov. 30 in Kamloops. Should return to the ice after the break. Grade: A-

Jesse Mychan: Not many players could (or would) come back from a severed Achilles’ tendon, but he was determined to play this season. He earned a spot as an overage player, wears an alternate captain’s letter and is not afraid to let opponents know who is in charge (six fights). His scoring is not where he or the team would like it to be — one goal and five assists — but he offers much more than points. It’s just a matter of time before it all comes together. Grade: A-

Lucas Nickles: The kid was on fire at the start of the season, but he has just one goal over the last 22 games. He went 15 games without a goal before scoring against Vancouver on Dec. 1. His one goal is the only point he has in December. He has five goals and eight assists in 34 games. His game needs to come around as the Americans enter the second half of the season four points behind Spokane and 16 behind Portland in the U.S. Division. Grade: B-

Connor Rankin: I expected big things this season. It’s his third year in the league — and his draft year. Eleven goals and eight assists is not the start I envisioned. If the Americans want to contend for another division title, they need him to get his game together and consistently put the puck in the net. He’s a strong player and takes a beating on the ice, but he never backs down. The talent is there — put it to good use. Grade: B+

Malte Strömwall: Consistency is a running theme this season. Twelve goals and 16 assists is not shabby over 29 games — he’s second in team scoring behind Feser. He has four goals and six assists in December, but he had just two goals in 11 games in November. Another player who must step it up if the Americans are to make a push in the second half. Grade: A-

Phil Tot: He has played 15 games — just five at home. A mysterious upper-body injury has sidelined him since Oct. 26. Has two goals and five assists. Who’s to know what he could have done had he remained healthy? I have no choice here. Grade: Incomplete.

Lukas Walter: You want this guy in your corner in a dark alley or in a line brawl on the ice. He has six fights to go along with one goal and two assists in 33 games. He does what must be done, but he could make better decisions. Grade: B

Brian Williams: He’s a pitbull in a Chihuahua body. Add in nine goals and seven assists, and he’s a solid player. He works hard, has speed to spare and is fun to watch. Would like to see a little more scoring. Grade: A-

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