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By Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/Rookies, seasoned vets lay groundwork for exciting season

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Jake Gricius (left), battling for the puck in a game last season, is among the key returnees for the 2019-20 Portland Winterhawks, who open their Western Hockey League season Saturday night at Moda Center.A decade ago, the Portland Winterhawks were the surprise of the Western Hockey League.

Led by rookies Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, a club that had won 45 games total over the three previous seasons won 44 games in 2009-10 and beat Spokane in a dramatic first-round playoff series.

One year later, the Winterhawks made the WHL finals, the first of four consecutive Western Conference championships for Portland.

Entering the 2019-20 season — which begins with games at 6 p.m. Saturday against Tri-City and 5 p.m. Sunday against Kamloops at Moda Center — comparisons to that 2009-10 team seem appropriate.

Nine WHL rookies are on the roster, a group of second-year players is poised to make significant improvement, and a Swiss forward in build and temperament might remind fans of Niederreiter.

Mike Johnston, the head coach/GM/VP, is excited about the skill level of his newcomers, but emphasized it is too soon to make comparisons to past Winterhawks teams or players.

As always, he believes it will take 20 games to get a good idea about this team and where it fits in the competitive-as-usual U.S. Division.

"I like our group," he said. "I'm always cautious this time of year about speculating about our team and where it might fit in the division."

With the nine rookies and only three 19-year-old skaters, the Winterhawks probably are too young to challenge for a championship this season. But, for the first time since his return to Portland after coaching the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins, Johnston believes the Winterhawks have the skill and depth in the age groups younger than those born in 2000 to be positioned for another stretch of championship contention.

This season's Winterhawks need to replace 2018-19 WHL Most Valuable Player Joachim Blichfeld and Cody Glass, two studs who will begin their pro hockey careers this season.

But Johnston is comfortable that Portland will be able to meet his annual target of 260 goals from the 68 regular-season games.

To get there, Portland will need leadership and production from 20-year-old forwards Jake Gricius and Lane Gilliss. Both are coming off of strong 19-year-old seasons. Gricius had 27 goals and 34 assists, more than doubling his total in two seasons with the Hawks. Gilliss, whose role for three years has been as a checking forward, face-off guy and penalty-killer, had career highs of 15 goals and 19 assists last season and is excited both about the opportunity to score more as a 20-year-old and about helping rookies adjust to the day-to-day grind of the WHL season.

"It's early, but I can tell a lot of the younger guys are very talented," Gilliss said. "If not next year, the year after this team's going to be unbelievable. I can already tell."

Fourteen forwards, eight defensemen and two goalies were on the roster at the start of this week. The plan is to settle on 13 forwards on a 23-player roster once all of the players who attended NHL rookie camps return. As of Monday, goalie Joel Hofer (St. Louis) and forward Reece Newkirk (New York Islanders) remained in NHL camps.

Josh Paterson, an impact forward the second half of last season, chose to play for the University of Alberta rather than as a 20-year-old in the WHL. That saved Johnston from deciding which three overage players to retain.

The only 19-year-old forward on the team is Mason Mannek, who will look to improve on the 10.5 goals and 13 assists he's averaged in his two seasons.

The forwards entering their age-18 and age-17 seasons offer plenty of reason to be excited.

Newkirk, 18, made the most of playing alongside Blichfeld to improve by 48 points last season (23 goals, 36 assists) and to be drafted in the fifth round of June's NHL draft by the Islanders.

Helped by physical growth and a year's experience, the Winterhawks will look for significant production jumps this season from second-year forwards Seth Jarvis (39 points last season), Jaydon Dureau (29), Cross Hanas (22) and Robbie Fromm-Delrome (14). Dureau is 18. Jarvis, Hanas and Fromm-Delorme are 17.

Jarvis and Hanas are both seen as potential first- or second-round picks in the 2020 NHL draft.

"I try not to think about (the draft), just come to the rink every day and have fun and get better and let the chips fall where they may," Jarvis said.

Jarvis is listed as 5-10 and 172 pounds, two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than the start of last season.

"It's going to be harder to be pushed off the puck, and it will help my game in all the areas on the ice," Jarvis said.

Portland starts the season with six rookie forwards, three of them 16 and including 17-year-old Simon Knak. Like Niederreiter a decade ago, Knak (6-1, 190) is a strong forward from Switzerland. The comparison might not be fair as Knak adjusts to life in America, the smaller ice surface and the speed of WHL hockey. But it's a comparison that's tough to ignore.

Johnston cautions that it took Niederreiter and Sven Baertschi, another of his former star players from Europe, at least one-third of their rookie seasons to settle into their new life and new team.

The 16-year-olds on the opening roster are left winger Gabe Klassen (5-10, 160), right winger James Stefan (5-11, 155) and center Jack O'Brien (6-0, 155). Tyson Kozak (5-11, 160) is a 17-year-old center who played in five games plus four playoff games with the Winterhawks last season. Left winger Kishawn Gervais (5-8, 150) is an 18-year-old rookie.

The experience is on defense — and it starts with 19-year-old Hofer in goal. The Hawks will rely on the Blues' prospect, acquired last January, to carry the load after Shane Farkas was traded to Victoria in the offseason. Hofer was mostly solid after coming to Portland, but will look to improve on a 3.18 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.

Backing up Hofer will be 17-year-old Dante Giannuzzi, who played in four games last season.

Six of the eight D-men on the opening roster return from last season. A strong skater and reliable puck mover, 20-year-old Matt Quigley will look to add offensive production. He focused in the offseason on his strength, adding 12 pounds to his 6-0 frame to help him with physical battles.

Portland also seeks improved offense from 19-year-old John Ludvig, a third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in June who has seven goals and 18 assists through two WHL seasons. 

Nick Cicek, 19, and 18-year-olds Kade Nolan, Nick Perna and Clay Hanas return on defense.

Newcomer Jonas Brondberg, 18, was the captain of Denmark's under-18 team and was Portland's second-round pick in the CHL import draft. Kurtis Smythe is the lone 17-year-old defenseman on the roster.

Quigley noted that Portland's speed and puck movement out of its defensive zone was a strong part of the preseason.

"I was actually really surprised (in the last three preseason games) how our team transitioned. We were fast, and we were quick," Quigley said.

Portland will have some early team-building time. After the games Saturday and Sunday, the Winterhawks are on the road for their next seven games.

In addition to bonding, the early-season focus for Johnston and his staff will be determining line and defensive partnerships, along with power-play and penalty-killing units.

Portland did not add any players from college hockey, but it was a victory for Johnston to keep his coaching team together. Associate GM/coach Kyle Gustafson is back for his 15th season, and Don Hay — who holds the WHL career record for wins as a head coach — returns for a second year on the staff.

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