Clay Hanus, Portland Winterhawks, finding the right balance
The way Portland Winterhawks' captain Clay Hanus sees it, the team's recent success is a reflection of growth throughout the team.
"The past 10 games, 15 games, our forecheck has been a lot better than it was at the beginning of the year. We've been scoring more goals, getting more production from the whole team," Hanus said. "And I think we've just been harder to play against defensively. We've been getting good box outs, blocking shots and just been a really hard team to play against."
The Winterhawks have won nine of their last 10 games and five in a row entering a weekend that features three games. With a 17-11-3-1 record for 38 points, Portland is fourth in the Western Conference at the midpoint of the Western Hockey League season.
As long as there are no postponements, the Winterhawks play at Seattle at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 14 (TV on KRCW), then home at 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15 against Tri-City and 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16 against Kamloops.
Early in the season, Portland struggled for wins, and to score goals. Mike Johnston, the teams's vice president, general manager and coach, chalked that up to the number of young players in his lineup learning to play at Western Hockey League speed and intensity.
"A lot of those (young) guys have turned the corner," Johnston said, adding that many players showed improvement before December's holiday break.
One of those tasked with helping young teammates adjust to the WHL is defenseman Hanus. A 20-year-old from Excelsior, Minnesota, Hanus is a team captain, along with forward Tyson Kozak. When the results weren't going Portland's way early in the season, he reminded teammates to stick with the process and not to lose confidence.
"Being a leader, you have to keep all the young guys, and even some of the older guys, in check and make sure everyone's putting their best foot forward every night. Because that's all you can control," Hanus said. "It's not like we were playing bad at the beginning of the year. We were playing good hockey. We were just losing some tight games. But we're playing playing well now and that's what matters."
The balance in Hanus' play has improved, mirroring the growth process the team has experienced this season.
Johnston's teams always want to have at least a couple smooth-skating, offensively-skilled defenseman. As his 28 points through 32 games (seven goals, 21 assists) indicate, Hanus fits that role. Just halfway through the regular season, Hanus' 21 assists and 28 points are career highs, as is his average of three shots on goal per game.
Growing up in Minnesota, Hanus played forward until he was asked to fill in on defense for one game with his bantam (ages 13-14) team.
"I guess I always thought it was kind of cool to play defense and I was a good skater. I just played the one game and I did well, so the rest was history and I just stayed back there," Hanus said.
"It probably took me a couple of years to get a little bit of forward out of me and to be a better backward skater and learn to defend," Hanus said. "It's definitely a skill. It's not something you just pick up quickly."
Pushing the offense is a vital role, and Johnston describes Hanus as one of the top offensive defensemen in the league. Equally important, Johnston said, Hanus "has added a lot of balance to his game" and become a well-rounded player who takes his defensive responsibilities to heart.
"Defense wins games. As you get older, you realize that," Hanus said. "I'm at the point of my career where I think I've found the type of player I am. And, I have to be good defensively if I want to play at a higher level."
Listed at 5-foot-10, 168 pounds, Hanus is smaller than many pro defensemen. He is undrafted and doesn't know where hockey will take him from here.
"I don't have the slightest clue of where I'll be in a year from now," Hanus said. "But wherever I am, I hope I'm still playing hockey and I hope that I am just the best person that I can be."
The COVID-19 pandemic taught Hanus that the future is tough to predict. Because the 2020-21 WHL season started late and was abbreviated, Hanus and other American players on the Hawks' roster spent last season in the USHL before returning to play a few games in Portland. In 36 games with the USHL's Lincoln stars in 2020-21, Hanus had seven goals and 20 assists.
This season, the Winterhawks have had a few games postponed, including two of a scheduled three last weekend in British Columbia.
"With the issues in the world today, there's not there's not much that you can control. The only thing you can control is keeping your head on straight. Just focusing on the present and doing what you can, and what the team can do, to be better when you get that opportunity to play again," Hanus said. "Even with games getting postponed, these are great weeks for us to get good practices in and just grow even more as a team."
Hanus came to his first Winterhawks' training camp in 2016 as an invited 15-year-old, then signed his WHL contract. Becoming a 20-year-old Winterhawks' captain wasn't on Hanus' radar back then, but he's thankful he played his junior hockey in Portland.
"Meeting lifelong friends and having the best coaches and best staff throughout the whole organization, I can't be more grateful for what they've done for me as a hockey player, and more importantly a person," Hanus said.
•The WHL trade deadline is Monday, Jan. 17. Johnston said anything is possible, but that he'd be happy to stand pat unless an ideal offer comes along.
Johnston's big move came on Dec. 27, an exchange of 20-year-olds. Portland sent defenseman Jonas Brondberg to Prince George for goalie Taylor Gauthier.
"Giving up Brondberg was very, very tough," Johnston said. "But I thought it was important with the (younger players) we have to have two experienced goaltenders."
Johnston said he has always liked Gauthier, noting that he always was steady while playing for some struggling teams in Prince George.
Gauthier, who played 166 games for Prince George, had a strong Portland debut with 38 saves in a 3-1 win at Kelowna on Jan. 8.
• It's been a challenging season for 19-year-old forward Robbie Fromm-Delorme, who has missed half of the Winterhawks first 32 games because of injuries. He missed more than a month early in the season, then suffered another injury on Dec. 31. He has not played since. According to Johnston there is no timeline yet for Fromm-Delorme's return, but the injury is not season-ending.
• NHL Central Scouting released its midseason rankings of NHL Draft eligible players on Jan. 12. Portland defenseman Marek Alscher, 17, was ranked 177th among skaters in North American leagues. Forward James Stefan, 18, is ranked 205th. Stefan leads Portland in goals with 15 and is tied for the points lead with 31 through 32 games.
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