Winterhawks make the most of short season
They didn't hoist a cup. There will be no banners added to the rafters at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
But, it's wrong to describe the Portland Winterhawks 2020-21 season as anything but a success. And a significant one.
For the record, Portland finished with 13 wins, eight regulation losses and three overtime losses. Their 29-point finish was tied for eighth best in the 22-team league. Their .604 winning percentage was ninth best.
Playing exclusively against U.S. Division teams because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland finished second behind Everett (19-4) in the division standings.
The most significant number? That was 24 (and not because it's the jersey worn by Seth Jarvis).
The Winterhawks were one of only nine teams in the WHL to play all 24 scheduled games — and the only team in the Western Conference to do so. In part, that was the way the calendar fell. Tri-City was the only U.S. Division club to experience a COVID-19 pause and it happened when Portland was not scheduled to face the Americans.
Still, playing every game is a badge of honor.
"There's a lot of people to thank," Mike Johnston, Winterhawks VP/GM/coach, said.
Johnston's thank-yous list began with the players remaining disciplined and with the billet families who housed the players for following strict protocols. The list includes the WHL and its medical team, and Winterhawks support staff including trainer Rich Campbell and retiring equipment manager Mark "Peaches" Brennan.
It also includes new ownership group, led by Michael Kramer and Kerry Preete. Johnston noted their first season of ownership required funding the operation without any ticket revenue.
For a long time, it seemed the WHL might not be able to pull off any season. The challenge of navigating changing COVID-19 restrictions in the two states and four Canadian provinces prohibited a normal schedule, so the league shifted to division-only competition and canceled the playoffs.
Players' parents and WHL fans had to watch games remotely (through an updated platform that worked pretty well).
The impetus to play this abbreviated season was to fulfill the WHL's role as a developmental league.
"Without playoffs, there was still a lot to play for," Johnston said. "Individually, each person had a lot to play for and it was a great year for a lot of our players."
Playing — and playing well — gave draft-eligible Winterhawks such as Simon Knak an opportunity to improve their stock ahead of the 2021 NHL Draft, which is scheduled for July 23-24. It gave 20-year-olds Nick Cicek and Mason Mannek one last shot to play in the WHL and perhaps earn an opportunity in pro hockey.
And, this season gave younger players a chance to develop.
Among the draft-eligible Winterhawks, Knak was the breakout star. Motivated by not being drafted in 2020, the native of Zurich, Switzerland scored a team-leading 16 goals. His 29 points were second to Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Jaydon Dureau (10 goals, 21 assists).
A couple of NHL Draft-eligible forwards, 2002-born Tyson Kozak and 2003-born Gabe Klassen finished strong after missing time to injuries in this shortened season. Kozak finished with three goals and eight assists in 18 games and was a key faceoff guy for the Hawks in his second WHL season. Klassen finished with eight goals and three assists in 19 games, four of his goals coming in the final week.
Portland scored the most goals in the U.S. Division (96), fourth most in the WHL.
All of those statistics are encouraging, since many of the key contributors figure to be back in Portland for the 2021-22 season.
That includes Seth Jarvis. The Carolina Hurricanes' 2020 first-round pick will return to the WHL for the 2021-22 season unless he is playing in the NHL, which is true for any player younger than 20.
Jarvis is part of what could be a championship-level group of 2002-born Winterhawks.
That group includes forwards Cross Hanas, Knak, Robbie Fromm-Delorme and Kozak, defenseman Curtis Smythe and goalie Dante Giannuzzi. As a first-time WHL starter, Giannuzzi finished 9-7-3 and proved he belonged in the role backing a group of young Portland defensemen.
Six Winterhawks were in their 19-year-old season this year. At least three of them will not be back because WHL rules limit teams to three 20-year-old "overage" players.
Johnston said that situation likely will sort itself out, as some players inevitably move onto pro hockey — as goalie Joel Hofer and defenseman John Ludvig did this season — or look for other opportunities.
That said, Johnston and his staff might have some tough choices.
Players who will be in their 20-year-old season are forwards Dureau and Reece Newkirk, defensemen Clay Hanus, Kade Nolan and Jonas Brondberg and goalie Brock Gould.
Newkirk last week signed a three-year entry level contract with the NHL's New York Islanders, who in 2019 selected him 147th overall. Newkirk, who could return to Portland for a fifth season, has 69 goals and 93 assists in 205 regular-season games with the Winterhawks.
Dureau rejoined the AHL's Syracuse Crunch for their final game on May 14, producing one assist in a 5-3 win, and was to stay with that club on an amateur tryout for additional practices. He could soon sign an entry-level deal with Tampa Bay, which selected him in the fifth round last year.
This season was a valuable one for eight Winterhawks rookies, four of them 16-year-olds and four in their 17-year-old season. Because Portland loaned four United States-born players to the USHL's Lincoln team — a move made before the WHL season was announced so that Cross Hanas, Clay Hanus, Jack O'Brien and James Stefan were guaranteed an opportunity to play — many of those rookies saw significant ice time. Among them, 16-year-olds forwards Kyle Chyzowski and Marcus Nguyen and defensemen Ryder Thompson and Luca Cagnoni all appear to have bright futures after getting more ice time than most players their age.
Johnston said he does not anticipate adding any current college hockey players to the roster before next season. The team anticipates signing several 2005-born players, and depending upon the overage decisions might need to add a goalie to backup Giannuzzi. But Johnston said the roster is "pretty full right now, to be honest."
The 2021-22 Winterhawks will rely on that core of 2002-born players
The other U.S. Division team that used the abbreviated season to give younger players significant ice time was Seattle. On paper, the Winterhawks and Thunderbirds look like teams positioned to push for a division title come 2021-22 — a season everyone hopes is a lot more normal than the one just completed.
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