Back to normal? Winterhawks expect to contend
Plenty has changed since the Portland Winterhawks last played a regular season. Those changes start at the top with a new ownership group and include a sharp new crest that gives the Western Hockey League club a clear identity.
One thing that won't change are the high expectations for a club that enters its 46th season in Portland with a roster built to compete for the U.S. Division crown — and maybe a lot more.
The season begins Friday, Oct. 1, with a road game at Tri-City. The following night, the team welcomes Seattle to Veterans Memorial Coliseum for the first home game with fans since March 8, 2020, when 7,777 watched Portland beat Victoria at Moda Center.
Mike Johnston, entering his 12th season guiding the franchise, was pleased with the commitment players showed in the offseason.
"A lot of guys took big steps. I thought our players had a real focused summer," he said.
Forward will be a position of strength. The Winterhawks went 4-0 in preseason without eight forwards who were at NHL developmental camps.
"Our forward group is pretty deep and pretty talented," Johnston said.
Just how strong the forward group can be depends in part upon the fate of three veteran players: Carolina Hurricanes' prospect Seth Jarvis, Tampa Bay prospect Jaydon Dureau and New York Islanders prospect Reece Newkirk. As 20-year-olds, Dureau (163 games with Hawks, including playoffs) and Newkirk (222 games including playoffs) are likely to start their professional careers this season, but could return to Portland at some point for playing time/development. In his 19-year-old season, Jarvis will be with the Winterhawks unless he sticks in the NHL with Carolina, which made Jarvis its first-round pick in 2019.
Even without that trio, Portland is well stocked up front. Detroit Red Wings' prospect Cross Hanas, Buffalo Sabres prospect Tyson Kozak and Robbie Fromm-Delorme are in their 19-year-old season. In their 18-year-old season, James Stefan, Gabe Klassen and Jack O'Brien should be key contributors. Another 18-year-old forward, Dawson Pasternak, joins the Hawks after playing 51 games in 20-21 with a Chicago Steele team that dominated the USHL.
On defense, Portland opens the season with a mix of real veterans —Â 20-year-olds Clay Hanus, Jonas Brondberg and Kade Nolan among them — and players whose WHL experience is limited to last spring's abbreviated 24-game schedule. The younger group includes 18-year-old Ryan McCleary, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2021 NHL Draft by Pittsburgh after playing 18 games with Portland last season.
Marek Alscher, a 6-3, 198-pound 17-year-old from the Czech Republic, arrived last week and could earn a key role on the blue line. Alscher and Brondberg are Portland's two import players.
Should Newkirk or Dureau return to Portland, one or two of the overage defensemen will need to be traded or dropped.
Now 19, Dante Giannuzzi is the No. 1 goalie. Two seasons ago, Giannuzzi was an understudy to Joel Hofer. He had some big games in the abbreviated spring season and a strong preseason. Backup Lochlan Gordon is a WHL rookie who, at 18, had a solid preseason allowing only one goal in 80 minutes.
For the first time in memory — ever? — Portland won't have a 16-year-old on the full-time roster. With no season last winter for 2005-born players, Johnston said it is critical for those players to get regular playing time before jumping to the WHL.
Portland is well positioned to compete for the U.S. Division title, especially if Jarvis returns and chases a WHL scoring title. Seattle, which has transitioned from a power team to a more skill-based roster that includes five NHL-drafted players, also is considered a contender in what could again be the WHL's most competitive division.
Everett, which has been among the top WHL teams for five seasons, has a young roster. Stu Barnes, who played for the Americans prior to his 16-year pro career, is the new coach in Tri-City.
With the ownership change —Â Michael Kramer and Kerry Preete head the group — Johnston has taken on more business-side duties. A veteran staff that includes coaches Don Hay and Brian Pellerin (replacing Kyle Gustafson, who joined the Vancouver Canucks), strength and conditioning coach Rich Campbell and new equipment manager Clayton Johns means Johnston has the flexibility for to take on some business-side duties.
Johns, who replaces retired equipment man Mark Brennan, worked last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs after three seasons as the equipment manager for the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League.
With the pandemic ongoing, Portland's 68-game schedule will be limited to Western Conference opponents. The Winterhawks face each U.S. Division team 12 times and each B.C. Division team four times.
Currently, U.S.-based teams can travel to Canada, but Canadian teams cannot come to the United States. The first scheduled home game against a British Columbia club is Nov. 19 (Kelowna), so there is time for the border restriction to ease.
All 34 Winterhawks home games are scheduled for Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where a series of new policies are in place for fans.
Fans must prove they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or have a negative PCR test within 72 hours of game time. All transactions are cashless and fans cannot bring bags into the venue. There is no smoking anywhere on the Rose Quarter campus.
Among seven WHL rule changes this season is the opportunity for a coach to challenge a goal when he thinks the play was offside. Also, teams now cannot change players any time they ice the puck, even from the neutral zone.
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