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A stretch of 11 games that runs through mid-December could buoy a young Portland squad.

COURTESY PHOTO: MEGAN CONNELLY   - Clay Hanus is one of two 20-year-olds anchoring the Portland Winterhawks defense, and also is among the team's top scorers.One quarter of the way into the regular season, the Portland Winterhawks aren't where they'd like to be in the Western Hockey League standings.

But the big picture is promising.

So, in one respect, is the immediate future.

Portland is in the midst of a rare 11-game home stand that began Nov. 16 and runs through Dec. 14. This week, Portland is hosting British Columbia Division opponents. Kelowna visits for games Nov. 19-20. Home games against Vancouver and Kamloops on either side of Thanksgiving are followed by visits from Prince George Dec. 1 and Victoria Dec. 4.

This stretch against Canadian teams — the first time they've come south since the pandemic began — is a welcome change from the regular battles with Everett and Seattle that marked the first quarter of the season. Ten of Portland's first 16 games were against the top three teams in the Western Conference: Everett, Seattle and Kamloops. Those teams were a combined 35-5-1-1 through Nov. 16.

For a Portland team that has 14 players in their first WHL season, it's been a challenging start —but one that might speed up the development process for players making the jump from youth hockey to major junior hockey.

Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks VP/GM/head coach, said his team has the potential to improve more as the season progresses than do more veteran teams.

"We know we can be better," Johnston said. "But I feel the upside for our group, because of the age and the inexperience, is higher than for a lot of teams in the league."

With youth hockey shut down last season because of COVID-19, young teenage players lost a key year of development. It's why the Hawks sent all of their 2005-born players back to their youth teams. They recently recalled forward Josh Zakreski.

For young players, Johnston noted, one of the big adjustments to WHL hockey is puck battles. The ability to maintain possession, and to win battles for possession, is necessary to succeed in this league.

"How competitive are you when you have the puck, and when you're getting the puck? That's the key part of it," Johnston said. "It's an ongoing process to get your guys to that level. But our competitiveness is coming. I'm starting to see some real positive signs there."

COURTESY PHOTO: MEGAN CONNELLY   - Cross Hanas (71) led the Winterhawks in scoring through the first quarter of the season. On defense, 20-year-olds Clay Hanus and Jonas Brondberg lead a group of young players who Johnston believes have a strong upside. Eighteen-year-old Ryan McCleary (a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick) and 17-year-olds Luca Cagnoni, Ryder Thompson, Marek Alscher and Josh Mori expected to be here for two or three more seasons.

The goaltending has been inconsistent, with second-year netminder Dante Giannuzzi and rookie Lochlan Gordon each turning in some strong games and each enduring struggles.

The Winterhawks have been solid in special teams. Through 16 games, the Hawks have 15 goals on 72 power plays and have allowed 13 on 75 opponent power plays.

Of course, nothing would buoy the Hawks more than the return of 19-year-old Seth Jarvis. But, the more the NHL rookie shines for the Carolina Hurricanes, the less likely that becomes.

Playing on Carolina's top line and power play, Jarvis had two goals and one assist in his first seven NHL games — and had several goals disallowed. By all accounts, the Hurricanes and coach Rod Brind'Amour love Jarvis.

The catch is that if he doesn't play in 10 NHL games, Jarvis' three-year rookie contract won't start until next season.

The Hurricanes are on a road trip that hits Seattle on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving. If Jarvis hasn't played in a 10th game by then, odds of him returning to the Hawks look better. Johnston said the Canes told him they would reevaluate Jarvis at the end of November.

Another player who could potentially return to Portland is 20-year-old forward Reece Newkirk. He is with the Bridgeport Islanders in the AHL. Johnston does not expect a decision soon on Newkirk returning to Portland.

The Winterhawks got a significant boost with the return of 20-year-old Jaydon Dureau from the American Hockey League for a fourth season with the Hawks.

"He's a game-breaker type of player," Johnston said. He can score. He can break the game open with his speed and his skill. That's what we need right now. A lot of games are decided by one goal. It's important that we have a player who can do that."

Johnston also is looking forward to the return from injury of 19-year-old Robbie Fromm-Delorme. The fourth-year Winterhawk was off to a strong start but has been sidelined mid-October.

"He'll be a real big addition," Johnston said.

Hossa to Hall — Marian Hossa officially became the third former Winterhawk inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 16. A key member of Portland's 1997-98 Memorial Cup champions, Hossa's one season in Portland saw him produce 40 goals and 45 assists in 53 regular-season games and 19 points in 16 postseason games. He joins Cam Neely and Mark Messier (whose time as a Winterhawk was only seven playoff games in 1978) in the Hall of Fame.

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