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Winterhawks building for continued success
Most of defense will return, with offense likely to retool lines
Is more winning ahead for the Portland Winterhawks? That’s the plan. That’s the expectation. That’s also hard to predict. The Winterhawks, champions of the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division and Western Conference, hope their newfound winning ways continue under the direction of owner Bill Gallacher and General Manager/coach Mike Johnston. Portland won 50 regular-season games and 13 more in the WHL playoffs before being eliminated in five games by the Kootenay Ice in the WHL finals. “Mike told us at the end of the year, ‘Now that we got this far, there’ll be higher expectations every year,’ ” forward Ty Rattie says. “Nothing else is acceptable.” “We’re trying to develop a winning tradition and standard,” forward Taylor Peters adds. “The expectation from Mike on down is that we should win everything every year.” On paper, the Hawks could be as good next year, if not better, depending on where their two premier, signed NHL prospects, Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, end up. Both will be only 19 and eligible to play junior, if their NHL teams don’t keep them. Johnston expects both to attend NHL camps, get at least nine regular-season games with their clubs — Johansen with Columbus, Niederreiter with the New York Islanders — and then the Hawks will know their status. Johansen led the Hawks in regular-season scoring (40 goals-52 assists-92 points) and playoff scoring (13-15-28). “It’ll be close,” says Johnston, of his star center making the Blue Jackets. “He’s ready to play (in the NHL).” Niederreiter had 41-29-70 in 59 regular-season games and added 9-17-26 in the playoffs. “He’ll do the same as this year,” Johnston says, of Niederreiter starting the season with New York. “It depends on how many young guys they want around and how they want to structure their team.” As of now, Johnston expects both players to stick in the NHL. Still, the Winterhawks should have offensive firepower, led by expected NHL first-rounders Sven Bartschi and Ty Rattie. Bartschi had 34-51-85 in the regular season and 10-17-27 in the playoffs; Rattie had 28-51-79 and 9-13-22. Johnston says both players need to get stronger; Bartschi is 5-10, 185 pounds, Rattie 6-0, 170. “I want to put on some weight, so I don’t get pushed around as much, and just get a little faster,” Rattie says. Rattie envisions 5-8, 155 Brendan Leipsic, a standout rookie with 19 total goals this season, to be a center contender to play alongside him and Bartschi. The 6-3, 210 Peters, who had 27 points playing as the third-line center, could be bumped up to one of the two scoring lines. But, the Hawks also return Pearce Eviston, a late-season addition at center, and talented Nicolas Petan, who saw some shifts as a 15-year-old. Brad Ross, linemate of Johansen’s and Niederreiter’s, also will return, as will Seth Swenson. Eligible to return are Riley Boychuk and Oliver Gabriel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury, as overage 20-year-olds; Gabriel is signed by Columbus, Boychuk has not been signed by Buffalo. Another rookie, Californian Chase De Leo, has drawn praise from Johnston, and he can play center or wing. Defensemen William Wrenn and Taylor Aronson also are 20-year-old candidates; Wrenn isn’t signed by San Jose, Aronson was signed by Nashville. Johnston expects defenseman Brett Ponich, who missed the second half of the season with a knee injury, to play for St. Louis or its minor-league affiliate. He’s signed. The defensive corps that played down the stretch could return intact — Joe Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, Wrenn, Aronson and Derrick Pouliot, with 17-year-old Josh Hanson essentially taking Ponich’s place. Goalies Mac Carruth and Keith Hamilton are expected back as 19-year-olds, joined at training camp by rookie Brendan Burke, the son of former NHL goalie Sean Burke. Johnston plans to try to recruit high-end skaters on the team’s 50-player list, namely Paul Stoykewych, Troy Stecher, Reece Willcox, A.J. Michaelson, Rocco Grimaldi, Destry Straight and Tanner Sorenson. If the coach lands one or two of them, he would be happy. Grimaldi is highly ranked for the June NHL draft. Then, in August, the Hawks reconvene for training camp, hoping to take the next step to the Memorial Cup tournament. The Hawks will be a year older, and possibly wiser. “It’s mainly consistency,” says Morrow, of what the Hawks learned in the 2011 playoffs. “We had a phenomenal team, but talent can only take you so far. You have to focus on 110 percent effort all the time. It really shows in the playoffs.” Adds Peters: “Kootenay showed us you have to be committed to everything — teammates, team, team plan. They stayed committed for 100 (regular-season/playoff) games and it paid off. They had everybody going for the same goal.”