For Mike Johnston, the first few months of any hockey season are a time of discovery. The Winterhawks VP/GM and coach traditionally believes he won't understand the strengths and weaknesses of his club until winter arrives.
But as the Winterhawks begin the 2017-18 Western Hockey League season, Johnston feels good about the talent and the depth on his team.
"Last year, there were a lot of unknowns. This year, there are a lot of knowns," he says.
Every indication is the Winterhawks — who open their 42nd WHL season Saturday at Everett — can be championship contenders.
Once Johnston has all of his players — 11 attended either rookie camps or full training camps for NHL teams and several were still there this week — he will be working with plenty of high-end players.
"I don't anticipate having our true team together maybe for another two weeks," Johnston says. "So that's always a challenge when you get the players back from pro camp a little bit later in terms of gelling your team."
Last season, Johnston's return to the helm produced a surprising 40 wins and a first-round playoff upset of Prince George.
Led by the breakout season that turned Cody Glass into the first draft pick of the NHL Las Vegas Knights, Portland scored the fifth-most goals in the WHL — and second most in the Western Conference — with 278.
In addition to returning Glass and many of the top scorers from that team, the Winterhawks added Keiffer Bellows. The 19th pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the New York islanders, Bellows struggled last season as a freshman at Boston University but scored two goals in the gold medal game at the World Juniors Championship to help the United States beat Canada.
Before heading to Las Vegas for training camp, Glass thought about the prospect of playing alongside Bellows.
"If he happens to be on my line, I know I'm going to be giving him the puck a lot. We're going to have a really good year together, I think," Glass said. "I know we have a really good shot at making a run at (a championship) this year."
The son of 17-year NHL forward Brian Bellows was not the only key addition over the summer.
Danny Flynn, a veteran coach who last season was head coach for a Saint John Sea Dogs team that won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title and reached the Memorial Cup semifinals, has joined Portland as an assistant coach.
One of Johnston's questions for Flynn: "What do we have to improve to have a chance to go to the Memorial Cup?"
Those moves, plus the addition of former Hawk and NHL standout Paul Gaustad as a special assistant coach, caught the attention of returning Winterhawks.
"Mike's done a lot of strong recruiting. We have a lot of great young players in, and great veterans coming in," says defenseman Brendan De Jong, who is entering his fourth WHL season. "I think everyone has confidence about the team and confidence in themselves."
Assuming everyone returns from NHL camps, the Winterhawks will have plenty of firepower.
Glass (32 goals, 62 assists) led Portland with 94 points, a 67-point improvement from his 16-year-old season. Skyler McKenzie (42 goals and 42 assists) improved by 59 points, and Ryan Hughes (27 goals and 30 assists) improved by 44 points.
"Last year, we were a young team that had a lot of guys step up in positions they probably weren't comfortable in off the start, but they got comfortable — including myself," Hughes says. "I got a lot more confidence as the year went on, and I thought I could do stuff that maybe I didn't think I could do at the start of the year.
"As a team, the bar is set pretty high and we have pretty high expectations as for ourselves and our team."
One experience the Hawks can build upon is winning their first-round playoff series over an experienced Prince George team.
"That was a really cool experience. Playing in those pressure situations sets you up to have more confidence in the future," De Jong says.
"We're excited not to be the underdog anymore. We're excited to be the big dogs going in there and having some fun."
Portland must replace two of its top four scorers in forward Keegan Iverson (aged out) and defenseman Caleb Jones (turned pro). But Europeans Joachim Blichfeld and Henri Jokiharju are NHL draft picks who return after strong rookie seasons. Bellows has the potential to put up big numbers. And, with a group of second-year forwards with burgeoning potential, the offense should be as potent as ever.
Among the second-year forwards, 18-year-old Jake Gricius led the Hawks with four goals and four assists in his five preseason games.
"Are (the second-year forwards) going to do what Hughes, (Glass) and McKenzie did? Probably not, but we need them to take a big step in their development," Johnston says.
Rookie forwards Ty Kolle, Reece Newkirk and Mason Mannek are pushing for playing time.
If Evan Weinger returns to Portland, the team will be above the league limit of three 20-year-olds. Johnston and his staff will need to decide by mid-October whether Weinger's speed or Alex Overhardt's work rate is the best fit.
Defenseman Keoni Texeira, entering a rare fifth season with the Hawks, and goalie Cole Kehler will be 20-year-olds on the roster. WHL teams are limited to three overage players, which is why Portland parted this week traded popular forward Colton Veloso to Kootenay.
Johnston feels better about his roster of defensemen, even with the talented Jones gone. Assuming Jokiharju, as expected, returns from the Blackhawks, the top four D-men figure to be Texeira, Brendan De Jong, Jokiharju and smooth skating Matthew Quigley.
Johnston says De Jong and Quigley are stronger and more confident this season. De Jong was a sixth-round pick of NHL Carolina in June and attended the Hurricanes' rookie camp.
"I have more responsibility and more opportunity, and I'm going to take full advantage of it," he says.
D-man Conor MacEachern is entering his third season with the Hawks, and at least three of four promising rookies — John Ludvig, Nick Cicek, Ryan Miley and Clay Hanus — figure to stick with the team.
Goalie might be a position that separates Portland from rivals Tri-City and Spokane in what looks like a talented U.S. Division.
Kehler was one key to Portland outperforming expectations last season. After playing only 32 games in two seasons with Kamloops, Kehler went 32-17 for Portland with a 3.10 goals-against average. And, after appearing in 10 games last season, Shane Farkas came to training camp stronger and more confident according to Johnston.
Johnston is more confident about the state of the overall roster — both for this season and beyond — than he was a year ago.
"I believe we're a more experienced team, for sure," he says. "We've got a little bit more depth in talent. So I like where we're at."