Hawk offense wont scare many in WHL
Portland may have to rely on goaltending and defense to make an impact
Not much will be expected of the Portland Winter Hawks, whom many around the Western Hockey League foresee being one of the worst teams. They could be punchless offensively.
If goaltending and defense become their trademark, however, things could be different.
'Collectively, our team game and work ethic have to be very strong,' coach Mike Williamson says. 'We're really going to have to establish a strong work ethic early if we're going to be successful.
'And, definitely, we have to take advantage of the experience we have in the net and on defense. Defensemen will have to create some offense for us, and our special teams have to be good.'
The Winter Hawks open their season Friday at Kamloops and Saturday at Vancouver. The home opener is 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 against Kelowna in Memorial Coliseum.
Last spring, Portland won its first playoff series since 2001. But five top forwards moved on, and another, Kelly Friesen, will be out this season with a degenerative hip problem.
Center Kyle Bailey returns from surgery and rehabilitation to repair a broken ankle suffered in the Game 7 playoff win against Seattle. Veteran forwards Nicholas Hotson, Sasha Golin and Frazer McLaren need to step up and be factors - they combined for only 62 points last season.
But much of Portland's success could depend on the forward play of youngsters Colton Sceviour, 17, and Thomas Frazee, 16, arguably the two best playmakers on the team, and rookie playmaking centers Chris Francis and Tristan King, both 16.
'We're asking 16- and 17-year-olds to compete against 18- to 20-year-olds,' Williamson says.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Sceviour has been the best playmaker in the preseason, and the 6-3, 175 Frazee has picked up where he left off late last season and in the WHL playoffs with his competitiveness and skills. Frazee has teamed well with Golin in the preseason, and Sceviour and Swede Viktor Sjodin showed some chemistry together before Sjodin went to Nashville's NHL camp.
Sjodin and Frazer McLaren, who went to the L.A. Kings' camp, will be back soon.
'Once we get McLaren and Sjodin back, we'll get a better idea of who plays with who,' Williamson says.
Brayden Nargang and Libor Gazdik appear to be in line for playing time, although Williamson says, 'they won't just play in our top nine (forwards) just because they were here last year.'
The Winter Hawks have 11 rookies, including Frazee, Matt Betker and Ty Ariss, who had stints with the team in the WHL playoffs, and two Europeans.
Despite the youth, 'I'd like to play 12 forwards and play a high-tempo game,' Williamson says.
On defense, injuries continue to be an issue. Veteran star Michael Sauer appears to be recovered from his concussion and 'he should be ready' by the weekend, Williamson says. Max Gordichuk (wrist), Jordie Fike (knee) and Scott Gabriel (groin) are still on the mend, with Gordichuk the only question mark for the regular season. Cameron Cepek sat out most of last season with a broken wrist.
The preseason play of the German defenseman Stefan Langwieder has really helped the Winter Hawks.
'He's a really good, two-way defenseman,' says Williamson, who will rely on Langwieder to be a leader. 'He's extremely competitive, talks a lot and is a mature player - he played with pros and with men who had won the Stanley Cup in Germany.
'He's a guy we're already pairing with people to get their game level up. He's a very good (European) draft for us.'
Williamson also likes the play of rookies Lucas Alexiuk, Devon Marshall and Ariss, which will help ease the loss of Lenny Thunderchild, who quit the team.
Williamson says incumbent starting goalie Kurtis Mucha has looked solid in camp, but he and Dustin Butler will each get starts early in goal. The inconsistent Butler 'has had a strong camp,' the coach says. 'He wants to put last year behind him.
'What we're hoping is to have a very strong tandem and for them to push each other.'
Everett appears to be the runaway favorite to win the U.S. Division and contend with Vancouver in the WHL Western Conference. … Williamson believes officials will call more obstruction, per the WHL's orders. 'I think they'll do a better job of remaining consistent,' he says.