There were so many positives in the past 12 months that is hard to list them all – a 44 win season (after totaling 47 wins the previous three years); sweeping the 12 game series against their I5 rivals from Seattle; a first round playoff win in Game 7 over Spokane; the emergence of Nino Niederreiter on a national stage at the World Junior Championships; having two players selected in the top five of the NHL Entry Draft and a total of eight players selected overall; and, most importantly, a return to prominence and respectability in the eyes of those that follow junior hockey.
This year, there are expectations – high expectations – to take the franchise to the next level. The stage has been set to improve upon the growth from last year and for the team to contend for the big prize. While that is certainly the ultimate goal of any franchise, there has to be a process and focus on the details to make it happen.
From being around Mike Johnston, Travis Green and Kyle Gustafson, I’ve learned that they are very focused on the details and not getting too far ahead of themselves. They will make sure this team is prepared heading into each and every contest with as much information as they can provide.
So, without further adieux, let’s break the team down by position and see where they sit with training camp about a week away. I’m going to focus on the players that are eligible to return and those that have already signed with the Hawks prior to camp starting. There will always be surprises at camp and those surprises could earn their way onto the roster, that is what makes training camp fun, but for right now, here is how it looks (age listed is hockey age, not actual age):
Eligible to return:
1990 Age Group (Overage 20 year old players):
14. Luke Walker – 61 GP, 27-30-57, 103 PIM
16. Spencer Bennett – 71 GP, 19-21-40, 53 PIM
55. Tayler Jordan – 62 GP, 2-4-6, 131 PIM
1991 Age Group (19 year old players):
11. Oliver Gabriel – 41 GP, 10-14-24, 28 PIM
17. Riley Boychuk – 66 GP, 14-16-30, 157 PIM
1992 Age Group (18 year old players):
18. Bradley Ross – 71 GP, 27-41-68, 203 PIM
19. Ryan Johansen – 71 GP, 25-44-69, 53 PIM
22. Nino Niederreiter – 65 GP, 36-24-60, 68 PIM
24. Gasper Kopitar – 10 GP, 0-0-0, 0 PIM
25. Taylor Peters – 32 GP, 4-3-7, 15 PIM
1993 Age Group (17 year old players):
8. Ty Rattie – 61 GP, 17-20-37, 38 PIM
23. Seth Swenson – 40 GP, 1-3-4, 4 PIM
Analysis – The Hawks lose leading scorer Chris Francis and top defensive forward Stefan Schneider to graduation (both signed professional contracts) but have a tremendous nucleus eligible to return. I guess “eligible” is the key word in that sentence because there is a chance that not all will return to Portland. Walker has a legitimate shot, IMO, to earn a deal with the Colorado Avalanche after being selected in the 5th round this past June. He would be eligible to play in the AHL as a 20 year old, so that may make the decision for Colorado to sign him a bit easier (much like Dan DaSilva prior to the 2005-06 season). Bennett is in the same boat with the Calgary Flames and Tayler Jordan is going to get a look from the Vancouver Canucks in their preseason tournament in Penticton.
The other questions revolve around the Hawks two first round NHL selections in Johansen and Niederreiter. Both players should get long looks in their first NHL camps and if Columbus and the Islanders feel their ready to step up to the show this year, that could have a huge impact on the Hawks top returning line with those two and Ross (who will also get a good look by Toronto). If all three return, that could be the top line in the WHL. If not, the Hawks will need some players to step up to fill their spots. If I were a betting man, I would bet all three will be back in Portland where they will get a chance to play leading roles for a potentially contending team and also have a chance to represent their countries in the World Junior Championships.
Regardless, the Hawks are returning a top of depth on the forward lines and I expect players like Gabriel, Boychuk, Rattie, Peters and Swenson to play a big part in what happens this season.
From that list, if everyone returns, there won’t be a ton of spots open on the forward lines, but here are some players that have signed with Portland and could make the opening day roster:
Sven Bärtschi – 1992 born – 37 GP, 6-5-11, 10 PIM with SC Langenthal Tigers of the Swiss National League last year. The Hawks first round Import Draft selection from Switzerland. He is described as highly skilled and a flashy player with good hands. He will look to make an impact much like his countryman Nino did last year. A late birth date, making him first year eligible for the 2011 draft.
Teal Burns – 1992 born – 55 GP, 23-33-56, 82 PIM with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL last year. Part of the tremendous 1992 Bantam Draft class and a late birth date, making him eligible for the 2011 NHL Draft. Appeared in three games for Portland after Christmas and didn’t look out of place at this level.
Taylor Leier – 1994 born – 41 GP, 17-24-41, 30 PIM with the Saskatoon Contacts of the SMAAAHL last year. The Hawks second round selection in 2009 is a skilled forward who played in preseason games last year with Portland and practiced with the Hawks during the playoffs last year.
Brendan Leipsic – 1994 born – 41 GP, 23-40-63, 38 PIM with the Winnipeg Wild in the MMHL last year. The Hawks sixth round selection in 2009 is a small, feisty forward with good scoring touch. He impressed last year at main camp and had a solid midget campaign, finishing fifth in league scoring.
Adam Smith – 1994 born – 38 GP, 7-8-15, 65 PIM with the North Island Silvertips of the BCMML last year. The Hawks ninth round selection in 2009 is a big, strong power forward type of player that impressed at main camp last year with his physical play and a nose for the net.
Eligible to return:
1990 Age Group:
5. Luca Sbisa – 29 GP, 4-14-18, 29 PIM
1991 Age Group:
6. Brett Ponich – 66 GP, 1-13-14, 87 PIM
37. Taylor Aronson – 71 GP, 5-25-30, 65 PIM
1992 Age Group:
2. Troy Rutkowski – 71 GP, 12-31-43, 70 PIM
7. Joe Morrow – 63 GP, 7-24-31, 59 PIM
1993 Age Group:
26. Tyler Wotherspoon – 43 GP, 1-4-5, 21 PIM
Analysis – Eric Doyle graduated and moved on to pro hockey and it is as good as gold that Sbisa will move along to the Anaheim Ducks organization as well, leaving five returning defensemen from last year, and it is a quality group.
Ponich has signed a contract with the St. Louis Blues, but as a 19 year old, he should be back as the veteran leader unless he makes the Blues NHL roster. Aronson is coming off the shoulder injury suffered in the playoff series against Vancouver at the end of last year, but he should be ready to build upon a tremendous rookie season with the Hawks and be a leader on the back end.
Rutkowski and Morrow are two key players as both are tremendous puck rushing players and Morrow may have the hardest shot from the point. They combined for 19 goals and 74 points last year, and I would expect those numbers to go up in 2010-11.
Wotherspoon really was steady in limited time as a 16 year old last year and he should be ready to make the jump up to what will most likely be a regular shift in his second season.
There are a few open spots on the blue line and here are some candidates to fill those roles:
Derrick Pouliot – 1994 born – 43 GP, 14-29-43, 38 PIM with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the SMAAAHL last year. The Hawks first round, first overall, selection in the 2009 bantam draft, he got into seven games last year in Portland, picking up one assist. He plays a poised, smart game for a young player, making good decisions with the puck. He will be a power play leader in the years to come.
Josh Hanson – 1994 born – 38 GP, 0-8-8, 22 PIM with the LA Selects midget team last year. The Hawks eighth round selection in 2009. A big body at 6’2 and close to 200 lbs as a 16 year old, he is described as a steady, stay at home type d-man with some offensive upside.
Kyle Madsen – 1992 born – Did Not Play in 2009-10 due to a knee injury suffered in a preseason game last year. He is a big, physical d-man at 6’3 and over 200 lbs, and a bit of an unknown right now after missing last season. He impressed the Hawks coaching staff last year and will have a chance to do the same this year.
Eligible to return:
1990 Age Group:
34. Ian Curtis – 38 GP, 21 wins, 3.25 GAA, .908 save %, 3 shutouts
1992 Age Group:
31. Mac Carruth – 26 GP, 14 wins, 3.41 GAA, .893 save %, 1 shutout
Analysis: Carruth came in partway through last season from the NAHL and earned the confidence of the coaching staff and was the starter in the playoffs last year. He put up respectable numbers and improved as the season progressed, playing his best hockey at the end of the regular season.
Curtis had a good season but was hampered by lingering injuries through a large portion of it. He may get caught in the numbers game as well if the Hawks return their overage players on the forward lines.
There could be a battle for the Hawks second goaltender position in camp with some free agents trying to make their mark. Right now, the Hawks have one other goaltender signed for the next year and that is:
Keith Hamilton – 1992 born – 33 GP, 11 wins, 4.92 GAA, .869 save % and 1 shutout with the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL last year. One of the Hawks second round selections in 2007, he played sparingly in his 16 year old season in Portland before moving to the BCHL last year. His team in Merritt struggled last year (finishing seventh in a nine team division) and Hamilton faced a ton of shots (averaging almost 38/game).
As I started out this piece, there are ton of reasons to be optimistic about the 2010-11 season for the Portland Winterhawks. There are still some questions that need to be answered prior to the puck dropping on the regular season on September 25th in Kent…and those answers will start to formulate at training camp beginning next week.
The anticipation has made it a long summer, but the wait is just about over….I’m ready, are you?