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It's full speed ahead for Hawks' Petan


First-line center rolls up big stats as part of scoring trio

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Portland Winterhawks' Nic Petan has put himself firmly on the NHL radar with an outstanding 17-year-old season. He tied teammate Brendan Leipsic for the Western Hockey League scoring title.Not too many 17-year-old players in the Western Hockey League have ever enjoyed stupendous success to the tune of 46 goals and 74 assists for 120 points and plus-68 rating — the stat line for one Nicolas Petan, center for the Portland Winterhawks.

Petan had a career year in junior hockey, and he’ll probably still be around the WHL for another two seasons.

“It’s pointless to let it go to your head,” says Petan, from Delta, British Columbia.

Petan and Brendan Leipsic will return to the Hawks next season, after they tied each other for the WHL scoring title — Leipsic had 49 goals and 71 assists. The tandem had high expectations, but not many people envisioned superstar numbers as first-time players on Portland’s designated first line, although they played alongside high-scoring Ty Rattie, who ranked third in the WHL with 48 goals and 62 assists (110 points), a season after netting 57 goals and racking up 64 assists (121 points).

Reasons for Portland’s record-breaking season? There are many, including the addition of defenseman Seth Jones, the probable No. 1 pick in the June NHL draft. Right there would be the breakout season of Petan, the 5-9, 165-pound spitfire with quickness, elusiveness, skills and intelligence that also make him another top NHL prospect for the June draft.

Rattie, a St. Louis Blues-signed player, has played alongside NHL first-rounder Sven Bartschi, as well as on the same team as top-5 NHL picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter. Rattie saw the potential in Petan, who had 14 goals and 21 assists in his rookie season — but no points in 22 playoff games. Petan lived with Rattie two seasons ago, when Petan played as a 15-year-old with Portland late in the season.

“I knew he was good. I didn’t know he was this good,” Rattie says. “He’s a sick player. He’s so shifty. His height doesn’t affect him, because he’s so shifty and elusive.”

Matt Bardsley, Hawks director of hockey operations, and the Portland brass — including General Manager/coach Mike Johnston and assistant Travis Green — also saw the potential, and made him their first-round 2010 bantam draft pick.

“He had a great compete level,” Bardsley says. “His skating and hockey sense, at the bantam level he was able to dictate the game when on the ice. When the puck was on his stick, things were special. He was small, obviously, but he plays with speed and vision and an ability to read and execute plays.”

Fast forward to March 2013, and even Bardsley has been surprised. Simply because 17-year-old players are usually still in development stage; Petan looks polished.

Johnston and Green got after Petan late last season about playing better defense. It has worked.

“He’s playing a 200-foot game,” Bardsley says. “His game has matured so much.”

Petan spent the offseason working with a trainer in Vancouver, B.C., to get stronger and in even better shape, and entered the season committed to defense.

Says Petan: “You watch NHL games, you see how they play. And, you see guys on our team like (Taylor) Peters, and how they focus on defense.”

But Petan’s offensive prowess sets him apart. He reminds somewhat of ex-Hawk Todd Robinson, and maybe a smaller version of ex-Portland star Brandon Dubinsky.

“Todd kind of slowed the game down with his play,” Bardsley says. “Nic can do it at full speed; a lot of his plays are off the rush, he’s so quick and elusive. When you watch him, he doesn’t take many big hits. He’s just aware on the ice to make plays and of who’s coming at him and to avoid the contact without giving up the puck. That’s special.”

“A defenseman thinks he’s going one way, and he turns and goes the other way,” Rattie adds. “(That ability) is going to help him for many years.”

Says Petan, of being a smaller player: “It’s just a mind-set that I’m not going to stand down from a 6-foot-4 guy. You have to act big, even though you’re not big.”

Interim assistant coach Steve Kariya, who played 65 NHL games during an 11-year pro career, likes Petan’s game.

“There’s always room in the game for small players,” says Kariya, a 5-8, 170-pound winger in his day. “Especially with the way the game is played now with speed and puck possession. ... He’s a very intelligent player. With Nic and other guys, you have to build up your body as much as possible and compete like crazy.”

Petan grew up the younger brother of a hockey player — Alex Petan plays at Michigan Tech — and many days would find the Petan brothers competing in backyard shooting contests. His father, a Vancouver-area restauranteur, played soccer. The younger Petan had to choose between soccer and hockey. “It was my dream to be an NHL player,” he says.

His mother owns a barbershop. So, needless to say, young Petan has never had to worry about his look, either.

Petan grew up idolizing Markus Naslund with the Vancouver Canucks, and also following Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche — both playmaking forwards. He wore No. 19 just like Naslund and Sakic. Petan wore No. 33 with Portland during his 2010-11 stint and 2011-12 rookie year, as No. 19 had been worn by Johansen and promised to Johansen last season, should the player return from the NHL. (He didn’t).

So, the mojo was in full form when Petan hit the ice this season, and nine games in Petan and Leipsic joined Rattie on the first line. It was magic.

“Nic and I are really good friends off the ice, and it makes it that much easier to play with each other on the ice,” Leipsic says. “And, anytime you’re playing with Ty ... those guys (Petan, Rattie) are probably the two most skilled players in the league.”

But, the gaudy numbers — 350 combined points for the line, 120 for Petan?

“I didn’t think coming into the season it’d be like this,” Petan says.