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Roster, still shaking out, features experienced forwards, young talent on defense, as Western Hockey League play begins.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS/CHRIS MAST - Portland Winterhawks defenseman Luca Cagnoni, pictured in a recent preseason game, is considered a rising NHL Draft prospect enteroing his second full WHL season.The Portland Winterhawks open the 2022-23 Western Hockey League season where every team in major junior hockey hopes to end up: In Kamloops, British Columbia.

That will be the site of the 2023 Memorial Cup Tournament, the event that brings together the champions of the Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League.

There is a lot of hockey to be played between Friday, Sept. 23, when the Winterhawks face the Kamloops Blazers in the first of 68 Western Hockey League regular-season games, and the Memorial Cup in May. Portland also plays Saturday at Kelowna, and the Hawks play the first of 34 home games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 1 against Tri-City.

Portland isn't a preseason favorite to win the WHL title. But the Winterhawks always are in the mix in the competitive U.S. Division and again figure to be one of the faster, more entertaining teams in the league.

As always at the start of the season, the roster is still rounding into shape. Forward James Stefan (Kings) and defensemen Mark Alscher (Panthers) and Ryan McCleary (Penguins) were still at NHL camps as of Thursday, Sept. 22, so a few young players remain with the Hawks.

Head coach, general manager and vice president Mike Johnston said he is glad the schedule is light over the first couple weeks, allowing time for the roster to solidify and to work in practice on systems and players' roles.

Here are a few early storylines for the 2022-23 Portland Winterhawks:

Who will be the overage trio? The 2002-born players on the opening roster are goalie Dante Giannuzzi, forward Robbie Fromm-Delorme and defenseman Kurtis Smythe. Though not expected, Tyson Kozak (Buffalo) or Cross Hanas (Detroit) could be return as overage players if their NHL teams see benefit in one more year of WHL seasoning rather than sending them to the AHL. If either returns, Portland will face roster decisions to stay within the limit of three 20-year-olds.

Experience up front: Six of the seven 19-year-olds on the opening roster are forwards. Stefan, who as of Sept. 22 was still in camp with the Kings, had 79 points last season (34 goals, 45 assists), second on the team behind Hanas. The 2003-born group includes top returning center Gabe Klassen and experienced forwards Jack O'Brien, Aidan Litke, Dawson Pasternak and Jonah Bevington. Litke had offseason shoulder surgery and is expected to return in mid-October. Pasternak played in only 34 games last season and 20-year-old Fromm-Delorme only 38 as each dealt with injuries. A full season from that pair will add firepower.

Youth serves on defense: Most of Portland's defensemen are 18 or younger, the exceptions being 20-year-old Kurtis Smythe and 19-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Ryan McCleary. The 18-year-old defense group is strong with Marek Alscher, Luca Cagnoni, Josh Mori and Ryder Thompson returning with plenty of experience. Alscher was a third-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers this summer. Cagnoni, with a late birthday, is entering his first NHL draft year after putting up 36 points and a plus-32 rating last season. Mori swung between forward and defense last season because of injuries up front but is ticketed to be a full-time defenseman this season.

Competition in goal: Giannuzzi enters his third full season with the Winterhawks and will again likely split time in goal. He has played in 68 regular-season games for Portland and has a 2.88 career goals-against average. He was the No. 1 goalie last season until the Hawks acquired Taylor Gauthier (now a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect). At 18, Jan Spunar is a big goalie (listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds) who comes to the WHL from Czechia looking to improve his NHL profile. Spunar attended the Edmonton Oilers rookie camp and practiced with the Winterhawks for the first time on Thursday, Sept. 22. Last year, he was rated the third best European goalie by NHL Central Scouting. The Winterhawks selected Spunar in the CHL Import Draft.

Which newcomers might emerge?

On defense, 17-year-olds Rhett Ravndahl (6-foot-1, 169 pounds) and Carter Southern (6-4, 201) are among the rookies hoping to make an impression. Alex Thompson and Diego Buttazzoni are the only 16-year-olds on the opening roster. Thompson is billed as a mobile defenseman, a quality the Winterhawks always seek. Buttazzoni, who Johnston believes will develop into a strong WHL player who will contribute for several years, was acquired from Medicine Hat, which drafted the left-handed shooting center with the 37th pick in the 2021 WHL Draft.

New look, familiar face and place: The Winterhawks have new jerseys. A year after changing the logo, the ownership group led by Michael Kramer introduced a new look. The primary dark jersey is black (worn at home for the first half of the season and away for the second half and playoffs). A blue-gray toned stripe (branded as "squall gray") has been added to the sleeves and as the outline for the numbers. Red appears only as trim.

… A familiar face is back behind the bench as Kyle Gustafson returns from a season with the Vancouver Canucks to serve as associate coach. As was previously the case, Gustafson will work primarily with defensemen and the power play while Brian Pellerin's focus will be forwards and penalty kill.

… Veterans Memorial Coliseum will host all events involving ice again this winter, including all Winterhawks home games.

How to follow: All Winterhawks games, home and away, will be available in the Portland market on a dedicated Evoca TV channel. Evoca is a new over-the-air TV service — marketed as NextGen TV — recently rolled out in Oregon. Games will continue to be streamed live through the CHL TV subscription service with audio play-by-play available via winterhawks.com and the Winterhawks app.


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