Winterhawks acquire defenseman
Mike Johnston knew he couldn't afford to acquire two elite players at the Western Hockey League trade deadline.
But the Portland Winterhawks VP/GM/coach also understood it was important to add one impact player to give his team the opportunity to contend for a league title.
He added that piece just before the trade deadline on Wednesday, acquiring one of the top offensive defensemen in the league — Detroit Red Wings prospect Dennis Cholowski — in a trade that sent two players and four bantam draft picks to Prince George.
Cholowski (6-1, 200 pounds) is a 19-year-old mobile defenseman who fits Johnston's style of play. He was the 20th pick in the 2016 NHL draft by the Red Wings.
"When I saw him play against us early in the season, he was a guy that we thought played our style and, depending on what happened with Prince George, was somebody we would like to have," Johnston said.
The Winterhawks also received 18-year-old goalie Ty Taylor in the trade.
Going to Prince George were forward Ilijah Colina, forward prospect Connor Bowie, second-round bantam draft picks in 2018 and 2019 and a first-round and a third-round bantam pick in 2020.
With multiple teams in the league positioned to compete for big things this season, Johnston knew he would not be able to add both an impact forward and a top-notch defenseman.
"We felt adding a defenseman and trying to control the game from the defense point of view into the offense would be the best strategy," Johnston said.
His calculation had to consider this season — with top players such as Kieffer Bellows and goalie Cole Kehler who will not be back next season — while not risking what Johnston considers to be a bright future.
"Our division is very, very strong," said Johnston, noting that Tri-City and Everett added impact players to already strong lineups. "But you don't know how long you'll have a Cody Glass and a Henri (Jokiharju), and obviously Bellows is only here for one year. Not too often, at least when I've been coaching, have we had four NHL first-rounders in our lineup."
Cholowski, a left-handed shot, is in his first WHL season. He played one season of college hockey at St. Cloud State in Minnesota after he was drafted by the Red Wings following a breakout 17-year-old season in the British Columbia Hockey League with the Chilliwack Chiefs.
A native of Langley, British Columbia, Cholowski was the team captain for Prince George this season. His 13 goals rank second this season among WHL defenseman, and his 39 points in 37 games rank sixth among WHL D-men.
The goalie Taylor (6-3, 200) is playing this season with Vernon in the BCHL. He has a 16-3 record with a 1.90 goals-against average and a 92.9 save percentage.
The 17-year-old Colina heads to Prince George after contributing four goals and 23 assists in 83 games for Portland over a season and a half. Three of his goals came on power plays.
The 16-year-old Bowie (6-1, 179) is a key piece in the trade for the Cougars. Playing this season in the Northern Alberta Midget AA Hockey League, Bowie has 20 goals and 35 assists in 18 games.
By adding Cholowski and 18-year-old power forward Lukus MacKenzie, acquired on Monday, the Winterhawks boosted the experience on one of the younger rosters in the WHL. Portland now has six 19-year-olds on its roster (plus the maximum three 20-year-olds).
MacKenzie, acquired from Red Deer for a sixth-round bantam draft pick in 2020, brings needed strength to the forward line for Portland. When he was forced to play young players in key roles recently, Johnston said he realized his roster needed more size.
But Johnston is looking for more than only physical play from the 6-2, 200-pound 18-year-old.
"When he was younger, we had him earmarked as a big guy with good skill," Johnston said. "I'm hoping we can help him regain some of that scoring touch and offensive ability he had before, but also provide us with a big-body guy, a strong guy — a different look."
Sharp, traded to Everett on Wednesday, played in all 38 games this season for Portland and had two goals and one assist. He had two assists in 40 games as a rookie last season.
Johnston said he feels good about the Hawks' group of 2001- and 2002-born players from the two most recent bantam drafts. And Portland holds 10 picks for the 2018 bantam draft, which Johnston sees as a great opportunity to further build for the future.
• Team captain Keoni Texeira, sidelined for the last six games with a lower body injury, is skating this week and could return to the lineup this weekend. Jokiharju and Bellows should be back in the lineup on Friday, when Portland plays at Tri-City. The status of Joachim Blichfeld, who was injured in Denmark's final game at the World Juniors, will be determined after he gets back to Portland late this week.