Defense figures to be team's strength, at least in early season

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ty Rattie, the Portland Winterhawks' leading scorer last season, leads the team into its season opener Friday at the Rose Garden against Seattle. After back-to-back appearances in the Western Hockey League finals, expectations are high for the Portland Winterhawks heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. season opener with Seattle at the Rose Garden.

The Hawks have scored more than 300 goals in each of the past two seasons, a feat they hadn’t accomplished since 1996-97 and 1997-98. Stars such as Sven Bartschi and Brad Ross have graduated to the pros, though, and in a league where the window for players is short, Portland is in the inevitable rebuilding process at forward.

“We’ve brought in a lot of new faces,” says assistant coach Travis Green. “Any time you’ve gone deep in the playoffs for a few years, you know you’ve had an older team. But I like our nucleus.”

Some new faces shined in the preseason. Import draft pick Oliver Bjorkstrand tallied four goals and three assists in four games. And coach-general manager Mike Johnston says the Hawks’ young forwards “have great potential to be a top-end group, both this year and as we go forward for the next two years.”

Still, Johnston is cautious about the chances of a third consecutive trip to the finals.

“There’s a lot of youth, so mistakes are going to be made,” he says.

The returnees will help with the progression. The forward vets include Ty Rattie (team-high 121 points last season), Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier, who will miss the first couple weeks of the season with an abdominal injury.

“I know we’ll be able to lean on them,” Green says. “They’ve had a strong taste of what it takes to win in this league.”

Johnston says the team has enough depth at forward for the 72-game regular season.

“It’s not like there’s going to be a top two lines or there’s going to be a big drop-off,” he says. “There’s going to be good depth through our four lines, which will be hard for other teams to play against.”

In goal, the Hawks might have to replace Mac Carruth, pending his tryout in the American Hockey League. But last year’s backup goalie, Brendan Burke, appears ready to play a larger role, and Portland’s defense is largely intact.

One of only two defensive additions is Seth Jones, and he played the last two years with the U.S. U-18 team and is projected to be a top pick in the 2013 NHL draft.

“When you look at our team on paper, it’s easy to see where our strength lies,” Green says. “We have a lot of good defensemen. We have seven capable guys, and four top-end guys.”

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