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Defense leads the way for Winterhawks

Top four defensemen help Portland near goals-allowed record


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon has had his best season with the Portland Winterhawks, helping the team post the best record in the Western Hockey League heading into the final five games of the regular season.The Portland Winterhawks have featured some fine defensemen in past years, but perhaps no other Hawks team has featured four of them as talented collectively as Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, Derrick Pouliot and Seth Jones.

Rutkowski has played the most games in Winterhawks history. He has reached 60 points with 20 goals and 40 assists this season while playing in all 67 games — great numbers for a defenseman.

Wotherspoon, an unsigned Calgary Flames’ prospect, has enjoyed his best year, registering an astronomical plus-56 rating.

Pouliot has returned to the lineup from an injury that kept him out since before Christmas. He was Pittsburgh’s No. 1 pick last summer, and he signed with the Penguins.

And, then you have Jones, the probable No. 1 pick in the June NHL draft who has done nothing to diminish very high expectations.

“I think we have the best top four D-men in the whole league,” Wotherspoon says. “I may be judgmental, but I’m really proud of the defense corps.”

With help from the forwards and goalies and the team’s offensive zone puck possession, Portland is on pace to set a franchise record for fewest goals allowed. The record of 196 belongs to the 1996-97 Hawks — who lost in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs. The current team has allowed 156 goals with five games to play.

But, as the WHL playoffs approach, the players realize that defense will be even more important.

“Our commitment to defense, down to the forwards and (goalie Mac Carruth), has been superb this year,” Rutkowski says.

“Our 5-on-5 play we’ve done really well,” Wotherspoon says. “And, getting Derrick back will be a big jump to our defense. It’ll lead to Jones getting less minutes, helping us out, and keeping him fresh as the game goes along. As a corps, we’ve been playing really well together.

“We’ve got guys who think the game really well. Me and ‘Jonesy’ — he’s a lot more offensive, but he knows what to do back there and stay back. Our defense, we read the play really well. We’ve been good with our decisions. This year, we’ve worked a lot on being a corps and helping each other out.”

The 6-4, 205-pound Jones, who has played loads of U.S. national team hockey and played last year in the U.S. Hockey League, took a couple of games to adjust to WHL speed and style. But he has fit right in, on and off the ice. An excellent skater and cerebral player with a rocket of a shot, he has 12 goals and 40 assists and a plus-41 rating. But, the touted Plano, Texas, product has entered uncharted territory with the number of games played and length of season, which could continue into May.

“I feel really good,” he says. “I’ve had to adjust to what you do away from the rink — take care of your body, watch what you eat. I’ve got to do a lot of stretching before and after games, and keep the muscles loose. Don’t want to pull a muscle or groin.”

Jones rooms with high-scoring forward Ty Rattie, who has shared his knowledge with the WHL newbie. Jones understands that his play will be monitored closely in the upcoming playoffs.

“It’s a big part of what scouts and teams look for, who can perform in the clutch,” he says. “I’m pretty confident with my game. I think momentum is a big thing in playoffs, personally and team-wise.”

This will surely be Jones’ one and only year in the WHL, as many No. 1 overall draft picks jump to the NHL.

“He’s such a pro already,” Hawks assistant coach Kyle Gustafson says. “His mental approach to the game ... he knows how to manage his ice, which is key. With Derrick being out, we had to play him heavy minutes with the power play and penalty kill and a lot of even-strength.

“He takes care of himself off the ice, comes to the rink ready, no matter what. And, (trainer) Rich Campbell has done a good job with him, too. We’ll see down the stretch — he hasn’t experienced (the long season, playoffs) before, but a lot of it is how we manage it, making sure he’s fresh.”

Gustafson says coaches have been stressing to Jones to keep things simple, not try to do too much, and to move the puck.

“When you’re dealing with someone like him, they want to be game-changers,” Gustafson says. “Sometimes simple is good. Rather than making a play and beating a man one-on-one, how about moving the puck, and then jump the ice and get it back. He’s such a rangy guy, he’s able to get up the ice as if he’s a forward.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound Pouliot had to sit and watch Jones for nearly 30 games while injured.

“He’s a great player, with good vision, has that big shot from the point, can skate the puck, pass it, play on the power play and PK,” Pouliot says. “He’s one of those all-around top-notch defensemen. Bright future.”

In 40 games, Pouliot, 18 and from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, has eight goals and 31 assists and a plus-32. He’s happy to be back before the playoffs.

“I’ll be ready for it,” says Pouliot.

Alaska 18-year-old Josh Hanson is likely to be the Hawks’ fifth defenseman when the playoffs arrive.

The 6-2, 210-pound Wotherspoon, 19 and from Surrey, British Columbia, has been the team’s rock as a stay-at-home defenseman. The plus-minus statistic indicates a player’s importance in 5-on-5 situations. So, plus-56 is very good, and he has compiled six goals and 30 assists, good numbers for a defense-first guy.

Without an NHL lockout, Wotherspoon might have signed with Calgary. But, he says the Flames have been happy with his play.

“I have to push forward every day, to make them want to sign me,” he says.

Rutkowski, 6-2 and 200 pounds, enters the Sunday/Tuesday games at Victoria having played in 346 games and 235 consecutive as a Hawk, both team records. He was once a Colorado draft pick, but the Avalanche opted not to sign him before last June’s rights deadline, making him a free agent. He has been talking with some teams, and his play has done the talking for him — the multi-talented defenseman has 60 points and a plus-32.

“Hopefully something works out,” says Rutkowski, a 20-year-old player from Edmonton, Alberta.

As with his teammates, Rutkowski just wants to help the Winterhawks make the Memorial Cup tournament, after coming up short in the WHL finals the past two years. He’s the captain, and is now etched in Hawks history with his durability marks.

“It’s pretty special,” he says. “This franchise has been around for more than 30 years.”