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Portland rookies made strides in 2016-17 under returning coach/GM Mike Johnston

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cody Glass emerged as a premier scorer this season for the Portland Winterhawks and will be one of their key returnees in 2017-18.If the Portland Winterhawks' learning curve continues to trend upward at the angle it did in the 2016-17 season, the team soon could be back among the Western Hockey League's elite.

The Hawks were full of surprises in the just completed season:

• 40 wins with nine rookies on the roster

• A breakout scoring year for Cody Glass and Skyler McKenzie

• A playoff series win over B.C. Division champion Prince George

All of which signals that the return of Mike Johnston to run the show gives the Winterhawks a chance to compete again for league titles.

"I feel we're on track," Johnston says. "Getting 40 wins this year was huge. If we can nudge that up a little bit next year, that will be important for our teams going forward.

"For every organization, when you have several years where you're competing for a championship, you're in the finals, generally you're going to have a rebuilding, retooling two or three years. We're a little bit ahead of schedule. Our scouts have done a great job drafting."

Upon returning to Portland last summer — replacing Jamie Kompon after spending a season and a half coaching the NHL's Penguins — Johnston wasn't sure who would score goals this season. But Glass jumped from 27 points as a 16-year-old to 94 points at age 17. Linemate McKenzie finished with 42 goals and 42 assists after totalling 12 goals and 29 assists over his first two seasons.

McKenzie's output surpassed even his own expectations. He credits playing alongside Glass and team captain Keegan Iverson — and Johnston's trust — for his big year.

"This team has helped me with my self-confidence," McKenzie says. "And Mike Johnston — he's given me nothing but opportunity. He's helped me with my self-confidence and put me in roles where I need to produce in order for us to win, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do that this season."

The WHL is populated by teenagers with big dreams, and every year the teams depend upon the emergence of players who grow physically and emotionally as they move from rookies at 16 or 17 to team leaders at 18 and 19.

The 2016-17 Winterhawks, though, relied more than most teams upon rookies — nine of them played significant minutes along the way.

Notable among them were Portland's two European players.

Forward Joachim Blichfeld from Denmark, a San Jose Sharks prospect, finished fifth on the team with 58 points. He played on the top lines and was a regular power-play forward.

Defenseman Henri Jokiharju from Finland took a big jump in the second half of the season after playing elevated minutes while Caleb Jones was away at the World Juniors tournament.

"The hardest thing is there are so many games, and you have to show your best in every game. That was the biggest thing I had to learn," Jokiharju says.

With Jones headed for professional hockey, Jokiharju figures to play a more prominent role next season, including more power-play time. He is looking forward to taking on a bigger role, but first comes the NHL draft. He was among a group of Winterhawks whose draft projection improved late in the season.

With both Jokiharju and Blichfeld on the roster, Portland won't participate in this summer's Canadian Hockey League import draft. Should Jokiharju be a first-round NHL pick, Portland can make one pick as insurance in case Jokiharju were to turn pro.

Jones, who Johnston believes was perhaps the top defenseman in the WHL, is one of six players who won't return next season. Three players — team captain Iverson, forward Matt Revel and defenseman Shaun Dosanjh will be too old to play junior hockey next season. Iverson, who played 364 games (playoffs included) over six seasons, joined the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League on a trial basis when the Winterhawks playoffs ended.

One of the interesting decisions for Johnston and his staff will be who stays with Portland for their 20-year-old season. Jones won't return, but defenseman Keoni Texeira, goalie Cole Kehler, and forwards Alex Overhardt, Colton Veloso and Evan Weinger could.

Teams are limited to three overage players, though, so at least two of them likely won't be in Portland next season. Johnston says those decisions won't be made until early next season, after training camp and when they know if they have pro opportunities.

Kehler was solid in his first season as a WHL starting goalie. 

"Kehler had a real good year and showed he can be a top goaltender in the league," Johnston says. "Just the number of wins he got and how he played in the playoffs and being able to rebound from a tough game — he developed his overall game."

Younger goalies include Shane Farkas, Ethan Middendorf, who will be 18 next season, and Evan Fradette, who will be 16. But if Kehler returns, he again will get most of the playing time.

On defense, Texeira played as a rookie for Johnston in 2013-14. His presence would help ease the loss of Jones on defense, and he would be a strong candidate to be the Hawks' team captain.

"He is a real leader for our team, for sure," Johnston says of Texeira.

"It all depends on how our group settles out and what opportunities there are for each player. (Texeira) may get a pro opportunity to play in the American Hockey League. I'm not sure what each of the guys are going to get over the next couple of months, so we'll sort that out as time goes along."

Figure the competition for the six or so roster openings will be intense when training camp arrives in August. Johnston has a track record of developing NHL prospects that makes Portland a popular option for young players.

Johnston says it is too soon to project who among the current 15- and 16-year-olds on Winterhawks contracts might emerge next season. But the fate of the 2017-18 Winterhawks will depend upon the growth of the 16- and 17-year-olds who gained their first WHL experience this season. That group includes forwards Ryan Hughes, Brad Ginnell, Ilijah Colina, Lane Gillis, Jake Gricius and Bronson Sharp, and defensemen Matthew Quigley and Conor MacEachern (who will be 19).

If a few of those young players make the kind of jump Glass and McKenzie did this season, the Hawks figure to be back competing with the top teams in the U.S. Division.

McKenzie is confident it can happen.

"They did unbelievably well. They knew they were rookies, and they knew their roles. That's really important in this league," McKenzie says. "Those guys did that. They took on roles that maybe they weren't used to. They got outside their comfort zone and played really well for us all season, including playoffs."

The natural growth of teenagers will help, but they will be spending the summer building muscle and sharpening their skating. There is little down time for players with big dreams.

At 5-8 and 160 pounds, McKenzie isn't big, But McKenzie points to his work last summer for the strength that carried him through the 72-game schedule and to a productive 18-year-old season. He plans again this summer to work out for two hours a day, with two or three on-ice sessions per week.

"You work toward the explosive power, the quickness and the agility," McKenzie says. "You're not working to bulk up, you're working to be that explosive player."

Portland seems well-positioned to build on its 40-28-1-3 regular season and fifth-most goals (278) in the 22-team league. The 72-game total was second in the Western Conference to Kelowna's 283 and 50 more goals than Portland scored the previous season.

And the Hawks' confidence will include an experience most of them lacked when 2016-17 began. That experience is a playoff series win.

Portland's six-game series win over B.C. Division champion Prince George should pay dividends, even though the Hawks then lost to a strong Kelowna team in five games.

After Portland's clinching win over Prince George, Johnston compared it with a series win against Spokane in 2010 that he said set the stage for the Winterhawks reaching four consecutive league championship series beginning in 2011.

"Nothing's ever for sure, but (beating Prince George) definitely helps," Johnston says. "Any experience you have throughout the year is going to help you.

"The confidence of being able to win a series is big. We didn't have many guys in our dressing room that had actually won a playoff series before. So that's important."

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