For a dozen of the 34 Portland Winterhawks who saw action, last weekend's preseason games at Everett were their first taste of Western Hockey League competition.
Three 15-year-olds and five 16-year-olds got onto the ice as the Hawks lost to Spokane (7-1), beat Tri-City (2-1) and lost to Everett (3-0).
"Everett and Spokane dressed really good lineups against us, so it was good for our young guys to play against their best players and see that level," Winterhawks GM/VP/coach Mike Johnston says. "It's like our guys going to an NHL camp and getting to play exhibition games or regular-season games. They get to see the level, the intensity. It's just invaluable coming away from that to know what they have to work on and get better at."
Portland will take 22 players to Kennewick this week for games on Friday against the Americans and Saturday against Kootenay. Those will conclude the preseason slate two weeks before the WHL regular-season opener.
One of the battles for a roster spot is at goalie, where 17-year-old Evan Fradette and 16-year-old Dante Giannuzzi are competing to back up Shane Farkas. Each will play one game this weekend.
At Everett, Fradette played in the Hawks' 2-1 win against a Tri-City lineup that mirrored Portland's group of rookies. Giannuzzi split time with 15-year-old Lochlan Gordon against a veteran Everett lineup.
All three young goalies performed well, according to Johnston, who was impressed with how Gordon did against a talented Everett lineup.
"For a 15-year-old goaltender, he looked really good, really good. He's going to be a good goaltender for us in the future," Johnston says.
All three 15-year-olds already have been sent home in order to begin their school years.
Four 16-year-olds remain with the Hawks and could earn spots on the regular-season roster. They are forwards Seth Jarvis, Cross Hanas and Robbie Fromm-Delorme and defenseman Kurtis Smythe.
Five players depart this week for NHL rookie camps and will not play in the games at Tri-City: Cody Glass (Vegas), Brendan De Jong (Carolina), Jake Gricius (San Jose), John Ludvig (Boston) and Farkas (Calgary).
Johnston says the games at Kennewick will continue the player-evaluation process while allowing for some more game-situation work.
"It gives us live action to try to work on our systems and our structure of play and get that down," he says.
With players at NHL camps and with forward Ryan Hughes still recovering from offseason surgery, one thing the coaches can't yet focus on is line combinations.
Hughes, who had a minor procedure to clean up the area that was surgically repaired after his ankle injury last October, should begin skating in a couple of weeks.
Nick Perna, a 17-year-old rookie defenseman, did not play at Everett because of injury. He is skating and might be able to play this weekend.
In the two weeks between the games at Tri-City and the regular-season opener on Sept. 22 at Seattle, Johnston says the Hawks will work on conditioning, team building activities including a weekend retreat, and implementing systems.
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