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Hawks biggest strength is their defensive corps

Team may need to make a trade for scorer or playmaker

Mike Williamson succinctly describes the Portland Winter Hawks.

'We graduated a heckuva lot of players,' the coach says. 'And we can't rely on six or seven top-end defensemen for 72 games.'

Sporting perhaps the most unbalanced roster in team history, the Winter Hawks could be exceptional on defense and impotent on offense. The defense has the Hawks believing they can repeat as Western Hockey League U.S. Division champs. The offense has media around the league forecasting the team to be among the WHL's worst.

'Some nights our forwards will be outmatched,' Williamson says, 'and our defense will make up for it.'

Five of six forwards have departed. But every defenseman returns, Euro import David Turon has been added to the blueline, and Portland has two older goalies.

The situation screams for General Manager Ken Hodge to swing a trade or two.

'If something becomes available, definitely,' Williamson says when asked about adding a playmaker or sniper.

The Winter Hawks open the regular season on the road in British Columbia Ñ today at Kelowna and Saturday at Kamloops.

In the first WHL media poll, Portland is ranked 18th out of 19 teams.

'I don't want to bash anybody, but how can they make that assumption?' winger Brad Priestlay says. 'Every year, people step it up. Everybody in this room wants to do well. We're going to have the heart and desire to do well. We're not going to give up.'

A year ago, the Hawks were loaded with forward talent and got shot down in seven games by Seattle in the playoffs. The rebuilding upfront starts with center Craig Valette, left wing Priestlay and right wing Matt Girling, who had 20 goals last year even though he didn't realize his potential.

With one Czech player unexpectedly departed Ñ Jakub Klepis opted to play at home Ñ the Winter Hawks got another. Roman Prazak, a 6-foot, 190-pound winger, reminds some of Marcel Hossa.

'He's been our best playmaking forward, our most dangerous with the puck,' Williamson says. 'Great work ethic, good tools, he just hasn't found the touch, yet. He fits in great with the guys; Turon the same way.'

Some key names are Aaron Roberge, a second-year player expected to be the second-line center; three rookies, including Daniel DaSilva; C.J. Jackson, a hulking 16-year-old at 6-3, 242 pounds; Cody McLeod, maybe the team's best hope to put up points; and 17-year-old Brian Woolger.

Rob MacGregor, 19, 'could be the best guy on the ice,' Williamson says, 'if he played in traffic and with a physical presence.' If he doesn't play well, a young guy will get his minutes.

The unknowns up front force Williamson to give defenseman Joey Hope a try at forward. Hope, 20, who returned from Detroit training camp Wednesday, has asked for the opportunity to play on offense, and Williamson will give it to him.

Expect the Winter Hawks to play a defensive-oriented system, anyway. Although Williamson downplays it Ñ 'we'll still be an aggressive hockey team' Ñ the Winter Hawks are fully preparing to implement a trap as part of their scheme.

A trap would commit one forward to the forecheck and leave two forwards and two defensemen in the neutral zone to force turnovers and start odd-man rushes. It is a conservative approach, meant to keep the scores low.

'You get clogging in the neutral zone. The D-men get it and the wingers bust for the open spot,' Priestlay says. 'The transition game is going to be huge for us.'

On the backline, the Winter Hawks seemingly will have an answer for any matchups.

Hope returns as one of the WHL's best offensive defenseman, a slick passer with good moves. Braydon Coburn, 6-5 and 208 pounds, will be heavily scouted all year; Red Line Report recently named him the fourth-best prospect for next year's NHL draft.

A year after sending three veteran defensemen away for Richie Regehr and Matt Fetzner, the Winter Hawks will reap the benefits of the deals. The Hawks like Regehr because he's safe with the puck and steady. Seeing Fetzner, 15 pounds lighter and still eager to fight, 'you wouldn't believe he was the same player,' assistant coach Blake Wesley says. 'He's got better foot speed, and he's a tireless worker. Matt has made tremendous strides.'

And Patrick Wellar, a third-round pick by Washington in last summer's NHL draft, isn't exactly a slouch. Add Turon to the mix, and the Hawks appear to have six solid defensemen. However, Turon, a 6-2, 200-pounder returned by Toronto on Wednesday, will miss six weeks with a broken clavicle.

Playing time for Dustin Bauer may be sparse, if Williamson wants rookies to get involved.

'It's a gifted group,' says Wesley, the Winter Hawks' first-year assistant. 'Lot of versatility for special teams, even strength. I don't know of any team in the league that has our experience on the backend.'

Lanny Ramage, 20, returns at goal. Will he be the Ramage of two years ago, or the inconsistent Ramage? Williamson hasn't committed to a No. 1 goalie and says Ramage and Krister Toews could split time. At what point does the team trade one for a younger netminder?

Still, the problem will be scoring. When the Winter Hawks went 16-49-7 in 1999-2000, they scored only 173 points, a franchise worst, and seemed to hit their low point as an organization.

It is hard to imagine the Hawks being any worse offensively, especially with some potential on the forward lines and the defense backing them up. The Hawks want to work hard and get themselves in front of the net and maybe some 'dirty goals,' as Coburn calls, them, will come.

'Nobody's emerged as a natural goal scorer,' Williamson says.

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .