April 05, 2012
When the Portland Winterhawks traded two first-round bantam draft picks and forward Seth Swenson to the Seattle Thunderbirds on Jan. 10 for forward Marcel Noebels, the collective reaction around the WHL was a resounding "uhhh, what?"
It wasn't surprising that the struggling Thunderbirds decided to trade Noebels, as this is likely his last year in the WHL. Additionally, rumours persisted that he didn't see eye-to-eye with first-year Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk, and he struggled to shed the "soft" label from scouts.
But Portland paid a price usually reserved for a true superstar when they acquired the 6-foot-2 German, a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010. Eyes rolled at the suggestion that a player with 10 goals and 24 points in 31 games with a -22 rating could command such a haul.
Three months later, Portland coach and general manager has no regrets and once-skeptical fans seem to be coming around to the idea that Noebels may in fact be a player that could elevate the Winterhawks to WHL title contenders for the second straight season.
"He added size and depth to our roster right away, and he's a high-character guy," Johnston said. "Sometimes you overpay to a degree at the trade deadline, but if you feel you need it you either have to do it or sit there with a hole in your lineup."
Noebels has found a home on a line between offensive heavyweights Sven Baertschi and Ty Rattie, and he's not just along for the ride. Some might dismiss Noebels's eight assists in a four-game sweep of Kelowna in the first round as a product of being on the ice with two stars.
Those who watched the series know, however, that several of those goals were created by Noebels's speed, skill and/or tenacity. In particular, Noebels has excelled since coming to the Winterhawks at pressuring opposing defensemen and creating turnovers. Against the Rockets' young defensive corps, Noebels had a field day.
"I like to read defensemen and see where their eyes are going," Noebels said Wednesday. "Maybe I cheat a little, but I'm a guy who wants to steal pucks and find Sven or Ty."
Noebels has 10 goals and 42 points in 35 games since coming to Portland, including his first-round playoff output. Over those 35 games, he's +29. His +19 rating in 31 regular-season games was better than all but two other Winterhawks over the full season.
Noebels admits that playing with Seattle was sometimes difficult, and that there was pressure for him to perform there.
"We were in a lot of close, one-goal games there in Seattle and fighting for a playoff spot," he said. "Somebody had to score, and so maybe there was pressure for me to come through."
With Portland, he's experiencing a different kind of pressure:
"We have high goals here, aiming for the Memorial Cup. There's pressure to play well in the playoffs, and if the top line isn't scoring that's tough for our team."
Noebels isn't quite sure why his line is on such a roll right now, and actually says he tries "not to think too much" on the ice.
"We're using our speed and making the most of our chances on the ice," he said. "We're playing hard in our own end and running the cycle well, and that gives us more time to work in the offensive zone."
Despite the chemistry shown by the top line right now, Johnston has no plans to install Noebels on the first power-play unit against Kamloops. The Winterhawks have used 42-goal scorer Brad Ross with Baertschi and Rattie all season, and Portland led the league with the man advantage.
"I'm not going to fix something that isn't broken," said Johnston.
The Winterhawks and Kamloops Blazers kick off a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series Friday night in Portland.
Scott Sepich is a WHL contributor to Buzzing the Net. Follow him on Twitter @SSepichWHL