The arrival of summer means the next hockey season is fast approaching for the Portland Winterhawks. As of this week, we are closer to the 2019-20 season opener than to the exit from last season's playoffs.
When the Western Hockey League season begins on Sept. 21 with Tri-City visiting Portland, the Winterhawks will be looking for a group of players who showed promise last season to take another significant step.
"I like where we're trending. We're trending in the right direction," says Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks vice president, general manager and head coach. "Sometimes you play kids before they're totally ready to play just so you can get them to take big steps. And that's what we need from our young guys. They need to take big steps next year."
One key offseason event is the Canadian Hockey League import draft, which took place Thursday. The Winterhawks selected Swiss forward Simon Knak and defenseman Jonas Brøndberg from Denmark. In a related move, they released forward Michal Kvasnica.
Knak (6-0, 185) is entering his 17-year-old season. Brøndberg (6-4, 183) is entering his 18-year-old season.
In spite of the first-round playoff exit, the 2018-19 season was productive — and a journey that sets up Portland for potentially big seasons.
Nine Western Hockey League rookies — three 16-year-olds — got significant time for a team that went 40-22-3-3 before falling to Spokane in five games.
Replacing elite players Cody Glass and Blichfeld, who was named Western Hockey League 2018-19 MVP, won't be easy. But forwards such as Seth Jarvis, Cross Hanas, Jaydon Dureau and Robbie Fromm-Delorme showed glimpses of talent, and Johnston says he believes they will blossom into high-quality WHL players. Same for defensemen Clay Hanus, Kade Nolan and Nick Perna.
In Joel Hofer, the Hawks will have an NHL-signed goalie.
If Glass, when healthy the best forward in the WHL last season, had been available, perhaps Portland gets past Spokane in the first playoff round. At the start of last season, Johnston projected Spokane as a title contender and the Chiefs reached the Western Conference finals where they lost to the Vancouver Giants.
Prince Albert won the WHL championship, scoring in overtime to win Game 7 of the title series.
Glass played in only one playoff game for Portland, but was a key player for the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves in their run to the finals of the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs. The Vegas Golden Knights' prospect has seven goals and eight assists in 22 AHL playoff games, including the overtime winner on a breakaway in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
Johnston says the experience gained by returning players in the five playoff games against Spokane will pay off.
The Hawks are lining up to be a WHL championship contender in 2020-21 from now. But that doesn't mean success can't arrive next season.
"I think (2020-21) could be one of our best teams," Johnston says. "But next year, I'm really excited about the talent level in our group, and the youth of our group to work with as coaches is exciting."
In a rarity, no Winterhawks were selected in the 2018 NHL draft. Defenseman John Ludvig and forward Reece Newkirk heard their names called last week. Ludvig went in the third round to the Florida Panthers, while Newkirk went in the fifth round to the New York Islanders.
"(In 2020) we should have some first-rounders, the following year maybe some first-rounders," Johnston says. "So for the fans, I think the horizon looks bright."
On paper, replacing the league-leading 53 goals and 114 points Blichfeld produced as a 20-year-old might seem daunting. Add in the 15 goals and 54 assists Glass provided in a regular season shortened by 30 games, and the challenge seems bigger.
But Johnston says he thinks the Hawks can again meet the club's target of scoring 260 regular-season goals (they had 258 in 2018-19).
"I've done projections on our lineup for next year, and we're right in that neighborhood again," Johnston says. "I think we're going to be fine. We've got a lot of talented players. There's some inexperience. It's still a fairly young group. We're going to need our overage players to really stabilize the group."
Who the three 20-year-old players will be is one of the challenging decisions ahead for Johnston and his staff. Four current players are eligible to play one more season of junior hockey. The decision likely will come down to retaining forwards Josh Paterson, Jake Gricius and Lane Gilliss or only two forwards and defenseman Matthew Quigley.
Paterson, Gricius and Gilliss are versatile players who can contribute in all situations.
Johnston compares the decision to when Portland wound up parting with Colton Veloso and Evan Weinger before the 2017-18 season.
The experience at forward will be important, because Portland's forwards will still be a youthful group. Johnston projects Jarvis will be a first-line player at age 17 after producing 16 goals and 23 assists as a rookie. Hanas (eight goals, 14 assists) and Fromm-Delorme (three goals, 11 assists, plus two playoff goals) played their most consistent hockey late in the season and in the playoffs, an indication that they might be ready for more prominent roles at age 17.
Portland also will need more production from Newkirk and Dureau coming off solid 17-year-old seasons.
Playing on the top two lines throughout his 17-year-old season, Newkirk produced 23 goals and 36 assists in the 68 regular-season games.
"He's still getting bigger and stronger. (Strength) is going to be important for him to play his type of game because he's a gritty two-way player," Johnston says, noting there is size in the Newkirk family so a growth spurt is possible for the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, native who played this season at 5-11 and 170 pounds.
Gaining size and strength is important also for Dureau, a skilled left wing who had 12 goals and 17 assists as a rookie and might make the largest statistical jump next season.
Portland also will want production from three forwards who will be 19 next season, a group led by Mason Mannek, who had 11 goals and 14 assists in his second WHL season.
"Mason impacts our team in many ways. He's a high-character guy," Johnston says.
Mannek has started to figure out how to best use his speed on the forecheck and to create scoring chances, the coach adds.
"I think next year we'll probably see him better," Johnston says. "For some guys, it may take a little longer to learn how to play in our league and within their game — what's the most effective way to play? But he's a key guy because he does play with speed and he does play with energy. He can play a little bit gritty."
"It took him three quarters of the year before he looked more comfortable. But he's big, strong. He can skate. He's got some upside offensively," Johnston says.
Haydn Delorme gradually earned more minutes as an 18-year-old rookie, appearing in 31 regular-season games and four playoff games. Johnston says Delorme is a skilled forward learning to play an all-around game.
Ludvig was Portland's best defenseman in his 18-year-old season, posting a strong plus-38 rating. His toughness was vital for a group that lacked the blue-line firepower of some previous teams.
Johnston says Ludvig can improve his explosiveness on his skates and look to contribute more offensively.
"He's more comfortable defending, but he has some good jump offensively and ability offensively, so I think he'll take a step that way next year," Johnston says.
Three rookies and second-year 17-year-old Clay Hanus got significant time on defense last season and figures to build on that next season. Hanus (eight goals, 19 assists) played every game, often as a top-four D-man.
"I see him being one of our key offensive defenseman, but he takes a lot of pride in how he plays the game defensively," Johnston says. "He wants to kill penalties as much as he wants to be on the power play. Every game, he gets chances. Every time, he's involved in the rush. That's the way we like to play, and I think he's taken nice steps the last two years."
D-man Nick Cicek had a solid rookie season as an 18-year-old, finishing with 13 assists and a plus-22 in 44 games. He figures to have an expanded role as a 19-year-old.
Also on defense, Perna (40 games) and Nolan (36) gained valuable experience as 17-year-old rookies. Perna played through a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, but he will be ready for training camp.
"Those are guys that at 18 years old need to take big steps for us," Johnston says.
The goaltending job will belong to Hofer, who as a 19-year-old will be a candidate to represent Canada at the World Juniors tournament. Portland paid a steep price to acquire Hofer in January, sending six bantam draft picks (including this year's first-rounder) to Swift Current.
Johnston says WHL goaltending has improved dramatically in recent seasons and Hofer will benefit from summer work with the St. Louis Blues.
"He did a good job and added support to (Shane) Farkas and gave us an opportunity to in the future have an NHL-drafted goaltender in his prime," Johnston says. "That was a critical move for us as a team. He's going to get better and better."
Farkas was traded early in the offseason to Victoria, and a deep group of younger goalies led by Dante Giannuzzi (who will be 17) and Evan Fradette (who will be 18) will battle for the Portland backup job.
Hofer (St. Louis) is one of six current Winterhawks attending NHL development camps this summer. In addition to draft picks Newkirk and Ludvig, undrafted players participating in development camps are Gricius (San Jose), Dureau (Florida) and Hanus (Ottawa).
Among young prospects expected to push for Winterhawks roster spots next season are defenseman Kurtis Smythe (who will be 17) and James Stefan, Jack O'Brien and Dawson Pasternak, who will be 16-year-old forwards. Stefan and O'Brien were linemates this season on the Michigan-based Little Caesars U15 team.
Johnston has been in touch with players and their families on Portland's 50-player list, including recent bantam draft picks. So far, there is no indication that Portland will add anyone out of college hockey or the USHL.
Four players on the Winterhawks list who played last season in the USHL were selected in the 2019 NHL Draft, but at this point defenseman Ryan Johnson (31st by Buffalo), forward Bobby Brink (34th to Philadelphia), defenseman Drew Helleson (47th by Colorado) and forward Judd Caulfield (145th by Pittsburgh) all intend to play college hockey.
In early May, the Winterhawks selected 11 players born in 2004 in the WHL bantam draft. Portland's first pick wasn't until the third round, but center Kyle Chyzowski, taken 58th with Portland's first pick, was graded as a late first-round prospect by the Winterhawks.
The club announced this week that assistant coaches Kyle Gustafson and Don Hay have signed contract extensions.
Hay — who owns the WHL record for wins as a head coach — will be in his second season as a Winterhawks assistant coach. Johnston says working with someone of Hay's pedigree, and with Danny Flynn or Travis Green before him, is great for himself and associate coach Kyle Gustafson.
"You want to enjoy your year. You want to enjoy your experience. For me, having a guy like Don or like Danny or these other coaches is really good because they challenge you," Johnston says. "They have good ideas. It's like an education on the fly. If I want to stay sharp, I better have people that can challenge me and push me."
Gustafson, a Portland-area native, just completed his 15th season on the Winterhawks coaching staff and signed a multi-year extension.
"If he decides to stay here for another couple years, it's his choice, because he could be a head coach in our league, and he probably could go and be an assistant at the NHL level if he wanted to," Johnston says.
Everyone on the staff is focused on offseason improvement, Johnston says.
"We're going to look at everything. Each of our coaches is going to dissect the NHL playoffs and bring forward stuff to present to each other, things we see," Johnston says.
The Hawks' staff also studies youth hockey trends.
"Sometimes the NHL teams are afraid to try something. So you might see some neat things at other levels," Johnston says. "We're going to spend the next couple of months trying to see how we can stay on the cutting edge of how we want to play, but can we do things differently?"
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