As players return, WHL favorites build for another big year
by: wotherspoon

(EDITOR'S NOTE: On Friday, the Buffalo Sabres assigned forward Riley Boychuk to their American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. Boychuk still could return to the Winterhawks, if he doesn't sign a pro contract, but the Sabres' move keeps open the possibility that Boychuk won't come back to Portland.) Great? Good? Or, part of the pack?

The Portland Winterhawks, defending Western Hockey League Western Conference champs, won't know where they stand in the junior hockey pecking order until November, even though games start this weekend. The names on paper make Portland maybe the WHL favorite - the Hawks are No. 3 in the first Canadian Hockey League rankings - but the names are not penned in ink.

Star forwards Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen, both 19, will be away with their NHL teams for at least nine games, through the end of October, and both might be gone forever. It depends on whether the New York Islanders keep Niederreiter and the Columbus Blue Jackets keep Johansen and each club commits to paying their full salaries and starting their three-year contracts this season, which would happen after nine games.

The Hawks still don't know whether swift Euro winger Sven Bartschi, 18, will stick with the NHL's Calgary Flames for the nine games before being sent back to juniors.

The Winterhawks, meanwhile, are moving on without three signed 20-year-olds - D-men Brett Ponich and Taylor Aronson and forward Oliver Gabriel - who will probably play in the pro minors. Back is overage defenseman William Wrenn, and expected to be back is overage winger Riley Boychuk, who needs to sign with the Buffalo Sabres and be assigned to the minors to not return.

Fifteen players went to NHL camps and, as of Wednesday afternoon, only Wrenn, defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon, forward Brad Ross and goalie Mac Carruth had returned.

Mike Johnston, general manager and coach, expects others to return this weekend, when the Hawks play three games. Portland probably will have forward Taylor Peters and defenseman Troy Rutkowski, and maybe D-man Joe Morrow in time for the season openers. Ty Rattie will play for St. Louis on Saturday, Johnston says, but all signs point to the 18-year-old winger returning to Portland.

'It impacts what you can do with your team - with lines, defense pairings, power play, penalty kill,' Johnston says, of the absences. 'We've not been able to do it with a full group.'

The first game is 7 p.m. Friday at the Rose Garden against Everett. Portland will play Saturday at Seattle and Sunday at Tri-City. Two more Rose Garden games are on tap the following week -Sept. 30 versus Tri-City and Oct. 1 against Seattle.

When the Hawks get all their players in the lineup, minus Niederreiter and Johansen and the three signed 20-year-olds, they should be good. But great? They should have speed at forward, maybe the WHL's best defensive corps and 19-year-old Carruth minding the net.

'It's going to be an exciting year,' says Wotherspoon, who will be limited for about three weeks after shoulder surgery. 'We could have our ups and downs, because we could be young, but we'll have another strong year.'

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