5 Takeaways from the T-Birds' 2018-19 ScheduleJul 12, 2018
In the first of a series of written thoughts this offseason, "Voice of the Thunderbirds" Ryan Smith chimes in with his five big takeaways from the Springfield Thunderbirds' 2018-19 schedule, which was released on July 11:
1 - Atlantic Division play will be instantly vital:
With 11 of their first 13 games coming against the Atlantic Division against six of their seven divisional foes, the Thunderbirds can assert themselves quickly in the 2018-19 season as one of the most improved teams in its conference.
The re-addition of Paul Thompson will undoubtedly add leadership to a group that was mighty young at the beginning of 2017-18. Jacob MacDonald was one of the best offseason signings that may have gone overlooked everywhere but Binghamton, where the Devils will be missing their All-Star defenseman immensely. MacDonald was the only AHL defenseman to hit 20 goals a season ago. The Phantoms’ T.J. Brennan is the only other AHL defenseman to hit 20 goals in the last five years.
Let’s also not forget the addition of Michael Hutchinson, who very well could end up in Springfield to start the season. Stuck behind Connor Hellebuyck and Steve Mason a season ago in Winnipeg, Hutchinson proved his worth at the American league level, losing only five times in regulation out of 26 decisions (17-5-4). His .935 save percentage was second best in the AHL, and his 2.08 goals against average was third behind only Toronto’s Garret Sparks and Providence’s Jordan Binnington. Hutchinson should provide another great veteran presence to compliment the high-upside of Sam Montembeault.
2 - Lots of home cooking in the first half, and a need to be road warriors on the back end:
The Thunderbirds will play 24 of their first 38 games inside the walls of the MassMutual Center, where Springfield was exponentially better in 2017-18 than they were on the road. The Thunderbirds are seven games over .500 in two seasons at home, and they will need to defend the Thunderdome to put themselves in a position of strength in what figures to be another loaded Atlantic Division.
Of course, while the first half is very friendly on the Thunderbirds odometer, the second half is not as easy. The longest road trips of the first half are just a pair of three-gamers, and each of those has a week of practice at home to break up those stretches.
However, in the second half of the season, the Thunderbirds have two different four-game road weeks (Jan. 13-19 & Mar. 10-17), and Springfield also has the unenviable task of ending the season with six of their final nine contests away from home – and when you factor in five of those games requiring hotel stays, the team’s focus will need to be dialed in. Then again, in the heat of a playoff push, sometimes it is not the worst thing to be in a hotel, away from distraction.
Regardless of those details, the Thunderbirds will need to be a far better road team than they were in 2017-18 if they want to be challenging for a Calder Cup come April and beyond.
3 - Make sure you get to bed at a reasonable time, team!
The Thunderbirds are geographically fortunate to play in the Atlantic Division, where, save for Charlotte, the furthest divisional opponent is Hershey at 5 hours away – everyone else is within 3 ½ hours on a good day. This becomes important when you notice that Springfield will play 11 three-in-three weekends. It is a reality for most teams in the Atlantic to deal with three-game weekends. Importantly, just five of these three-game weekends will require a hotel stay and/or overnight travel, so that will be a saving grace.
What won’t be so easy? A run of three consecutive three-game weekends beginning just three days after the Christmas holiday, with eight of those nine contests against Atlantic Division rivals.
If the Thunderbirds could come away close to .500 or a little above .500 in their 33 games across their busy three-in-three weekend slate, that should put them in a position to be in the hunt for the franchise’s first-ever playoff berth.
4 - More familiarity with the North Division – yay or nay?
One byproduct of the Thunderbirds not facing the Cleveland Monsters or Belleville Senators this upcoming season is the chance for greater familiarity with more North Division foes. Last season, the Thunderbirds faced the Utica Comets four times, but only saw the other North Division squads two times each. That will change this season, as four matchups loom with Laval, Binghamton, and Syracuse.
Laval and Binghamton had treacherous seasons in 2017-18, but the Rocket stand to be much-improved thanks to changes in management and player personnel, among them the additions of former Thunderbirds All-Star Alex Grenier and 2016-17 AHL MVP Kenny Agostino.
Syracuse is two years removed from a Calder Cup Finals trip, and they bowed out to the eventual champions once again in 2017-18 against Toronto. The additional meetings with the Crunch will be a good barometer for Springfield to see how far they have progressed after some trying times in each of their first two seasons. It surely won’t hurt to have MacDonald as a minutes-eater on the blue line, as he is plenty familiar with the North Division through a season and a half with the Devils.
5 - You didn’t think I’d forget All-Star Classic weekend, did you?
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Pardon me for going into the first-person mode here, but I cannot emphasize enough how proud I am to be a part of the Springfield hockey community. I knew what hockey meant to this city when I entered Western Massachusetts two summers ago, but the support and dedication I see from our fan base does not go unnoticed. Our entire organization – on the front office and hockey sides – feed off that energy. It is by far the most rewarding part of working in sports, where there is no such thing as a “normal” day.
The AHL All-Star Classic coming to Springfield would not have been possible without two record-breaking seasons, and none of that happens without our fans and partners. If an All-Star game has been a bucket list item for you, do not wait for another second to check this one off. To remind you of some current NHL superstars who have participated in AHL All-Star Classics, feast your eyes below:
Jake Allen, Patrice Bergeron, Ben Bishop, Ryan Callahan, Zdeno Chara, Logan Couture, Connor Hellebuyck, Braden Holtby, Tyler Johnson, Martin Jones, Jonathan Marchessault, Zach Parise, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Bobby Ryan, Cory Schneider, Jason Spezza, P.K. Subban, Mats Zuccarello.
Who knows? Maybe 20 years from now, we will be able to say we witnessed a Hockey Hall of Famer before he was winning Stanley Cups. Cherish this third season of Springfield hockey, Thunderbirds fans. We cannot wait to have you along for the ride!