• Will youthful returnees learn from playoff mistakes? Perhaps
Oh, the pain in losing.
'We deserved a different ending,' says Brad Priestlay, one of three players to conclude their careers when the Portland Winter Hawks were bounced from the Western Hockey League playoffs in the first round last week.
Priestlay hopes the young players Ñ 20 are eligible to come back next year, plus prospects Ñ realize the value of teamwork and hard work, two things that were lacking in the postseason.
'Just work hard every game, and don't take anything for granted,' Priestlay says. 'Guys have to fill roles and realize what they mean to the team.'
Enter the youth, including 16-year-old goalie Dustin Butler, the heir apparent to the departing Krister Toews. Defenseman Richie Regehr joins Priestlay and Toews as ex-Hawks.
'I can't wait to get started,' says Butler, who had two shutouts among his six wins and 14 appearances. 'I've got to go home, work hard off the ice, gain weight and work on how to get mentally ready to go.'
The Winter Hawks went 34-29-6-3 and finished ahead of Tri-City in the WHL U.S. Division standings but lost to the better team in the playoffs. The Americans, explosive with the likes of Ryan Kinasewich, Dylan Stanley and Shawn Belle and solid defensively, simply outperformed Portland and won the best-of-seven series 4-1.
It could have easily been a sweep. And the Americans showed the Hawks one formula that can work in the playoffs: an experienced team fronting an inexperienced goalie. Carey Price, 16, shut down the Winter Hawks, and many consider Butler to be a better prospect.
Each played for Team Pacific in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last winter; Butler had the better stats, but Price started in the final. 'Had to answer that question 1,000 times,' says Butler, about why he didn't start.
Butler, a native of High River, Alberta, expects to compete with Kevin Opsahl for playing time. Opsahl played briefly in Portland while Butler recovered from a broken collarbone.
The Hawks will miss the steady Toews, their most valuable player this season. Butler is like Toews in that he's tall and calm. Portland will also miss the grittiness that Priestlay showed against Tri-City. In Regehr, a captain in 2002-03, the Hawks will miss their best all-around defenseman and one of their leaders.
He had nine goals and 34 assists, and his toughness and work ethic were worth much more. The returning defensemen Ñ Braydon Coburn, Michael Funk, Alex Aldred, Taylor Sutherlin, Brendan Mikkelson, Derek Poplawski Ñ will get their opportunity to replace him as point man on the power play, but 'they have to show they're not going to get pushed around,' Regehr says.
Regehr says the Americans played the right way, Portland the wrong way. 'They put their egos aside,' he says.
The Hawks have plenty of youth but many question marks. Leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky struggled against Tri-City's tight defense in the playoffs, and the line of Daniel Da Silva, Darrell May and Brian Woolger was a nonfactor, coach Mike Williamson says.
Plagued by inconsistency
Robin Big Snake scored two goals, equal to the number of penalties he had. The third line of Garrett Festerling-Kyle Bailey-Priestlay played decently, as did Cody McLeod.
Dubinsky had two assists in five games.
Da Silva had no goals and one assist. 'It's not a shock, but I'm mad at myself,' he says. 'It's my job to put pucks in the net.'
Dubinsky says the Winter Hawks lacked 'preparation' for the playoffs. They took many bad penalties.
On defense, critics expect more out of the 6-5 Coburn, who prides himself on being 'steady' and not mean. He had a team-worst minus-19 rating.
'I'm not the enforcer type,' says Coburn, who wants to be captain again next year. 'My game is to control the tempo. I want to make sure I'm a solid defenseman who's reliable and can dominate.'
McLeod and Big Snake appear to be strong contenders to return as 20-year-old players, with May possible and defenseman Tomas Fojtik virtually gone. General Manager Ken Hodge says of McLeod: 'Very good leadership skills and works very hard and brings it hard every night.' Hodge adds that 'we really liked the way Big Snake played for most of the season.' May was good in the regular season but had a minus-6 rating in the playoffsÉ Rookie Shane Halifax and Frazer McLaren played well at times, and second-year player C.J. Jackson showed flashes. É The Hawks must decide whether to keep import Ivan Dornic. É Hodge, on his team: 'The playoffs reveal character flaws and attitude. Playoffs are about playing with a mature attitude. (Tri-City) played the best I've seen all year Ñ most physical within the rules, passing precisely and shooting the puck.' É The recruitment period starts almost immediately, with the Winter Hawks hot after defenseman Jonathan Sigalet, who played last year at Bowling Green. 'He made the comment that he would like to play with Coburn,' Hodge says. Portland also wants forward Rhett Rakhshani and defenseman Cameron Cepek, teammates on the California Wave who would be 16. They are projected to be great players. É Committed prospects are right wing Sasha Golin, 16, the first pick of the 2003 bantam draft, right wing Nicholas Hotson and defensemen Michael Sauer and Jordie Fike, all 17. É Priestlay has joined the East Coast Hockey League's Fresno Falcons.