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Winter Hawks hot, but race still young

WHL team ponders moves as Monday's trade deadline nears

Don't look now, but the hottest Western Hockey League team resides in Portland.

Of course, being hot in January means about as much as losing six consecutive games in December Ñ not much. The Winter Hawks are 8-2 in their last 10 games and can add to their streak tonight against Kelowna and Saturday against Kamloops on home ice.

The Hawks (22-12-3-4) are tied for the sixth-best point total (51) in the WHL. They are closing in on U.S. Division leader Spokane.

Still, General Manager Ken Hodge and coach Mike Williamson are worried, because they cannot point to one complete game by the Hawks. That leaves Hodge with a difficult decision: pull the trigger on a trade or trades by Monday's noon WHL deadline or stand pat and hope that the current group plays to its potential.

'Right now, we have the pieces,' Williamson says. 'It's a matter of making them mesh. With the guys we have, we're as good as anybody.'

Hodge says he would rather stand pat than mortgage part of the team's future to get an experienced, presumably overage player.

'We're talking to a lot of people,' Hodge says. 'We would like to add a physical presence; it's the No. 1 thing we'd like to do. But, so does everybody else.

'I don't know if there'll be a lot of player movement,' he adds, referring to Western Conference teams. 'We've got more buyers than sellers.'

The Winter Hawks have an open 20-year-old spot, having traded Dean Beuker and Jesse Ferguson. Beuker would still be here, Hodge says, had Kelowna bit earlier on a deal that would have swapped Ferguson and Kevin Young for Richie Regehr. Hodge wanted to keep Beuker, who went to the Regina Pats early in the season, and ship Ferguson, but the timing didn't work out.

Some 20-year-old players, 'but not necessarily a lot of good ones,' are on the market, Hodge says.

Clearly, the Winter Hawks' fate will be determined by certain players, the primary three being NHL draftees Jozef Balej, Josh Olson and Paul Gaustad.

Balej, who leads the WHL in goals (35) and is second in points (59), has set the league ablaze lately with 17 goals in nine games. Balej needs to do the same down the stretch and, especially, through tight-checking playoff defense.

'He's more of a complete player, a concerned player,' Hodge says. 'He's doing the little things, like chasing loose pucks, battling in the corners and going to the net. He's also being unselfish, although most of the time we want him to shoot.

'Unfortunately, he's a bit of a streak scorer. A drought is not a one-game drought for him. As long as he continues to interact at the level he is now, (a drought) could disappear quickly for him.'

NOTES: The X factor will clearly be Olson, the Florida Panthers' prospect who has 23 goals and 24 assists. The Hawks still haven't seen consistently aggressive play from Olson and, thus, they don't know what to expect come playoff time. 'We have to poke and prod Josh,' Hodge says. 'He has to poke and prod himself. He's made strides. The coaching staff (Florida) and fans should be appreciative of how far he's come. When he's motivated and playing out of his personality, he can almost be dominating.' É Hodge and Williamson point to one guy, captain Gaustad (25 goals, 28 assists), as the pre-eminent junior player, a player who never takes shifts off, the epitome of hard work. 'He's like the horse who keeps running until his heart explodes,' Hodge says.

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