Young players could help Portland hold on to playoff spot

COURTESY: CHRIS MAST - Ryan Hughes, 5-7 and 135 pounds, is contributing to the Portland Winterhawks depth and power play as a 16-year-old, as the team relies on its youth and numbers to make a run in the Western Hockey League this season.The Portland Winterhawks stood pat before the Western Hockey League trade deadline on Sunday, despite barely hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

That says something about how the Hawks feel about their players, especially the young ones who make up the depth of the team.

They like ’em.

“They’ve established themselves, that’s why you don’t want to make a move,” says Jamie Kompon, general manager and coach. “Those young kids are maturing a lot quicker than some people expected. We’re very comfortable with our group right now.”

The WHL has a lot of parity, and many teams stayed with their current groups, with an exception being Red Deer because the Rebels need to be strong as host of the Memorial Cup.

There were some minor WHL deals, but nothing major.

“Too hefty of a price,” Kompon says, of trading for an impact player.

The standout players are going to carry the Winterhawks down the stretch and into the playoffs, assuming streaky Portland (20-19-2-0) holds off the likes of Vancouver and Tri-City to stay in the playoff picture or even gains ground on Spokane, Seattle and first-place Everett ahead of them in the U.S. Division.

The standouts are Dominic Turgeon, Keegan Iverson, Rihards Bukarts, Rodrigo Abols, Alex Schoenborn, Caleb Jones, Blake Heinrich, Jack Dougherty, Keoni Texeira and Adin Hill — and Paul Bittner, if and when he returns from injury.

Some notable young players provide the depth. Colton Veloso, a year removed from being sent to a lower level for more experience, has played well on the top penalty-killing unit. Ryan Hughes and Cody Glass play on the second power-play unit — not a status a 16-year-old rookie usually reaches, much less two. And, Skyler McKenzie leads a strong group of second-year players making an impact.

All four of them say the same thing: That the Hawks are not making moves, other than an early-season acquisition of forward Rihards Bukarts to fill an import player spot, sends the message that they will be counted on.

“It says that Jamie has a lot of confidence in this group, and he’s willing to stick with us. It gives us a lot of confidence,” McKenzie says. “I feel with this roster there is a lot of depth.”

Adds Veloso: “We have a really good group of guys here; we’re really close. We think we can, eventually, pretty soon, get it together and things will start going well for us.”

The Hawks have needed some depth, having lost Bittner for the rest of the regular season with a hip injury. He had surgery, recently started physical therapy and the Hawks have the playoffs pegged as his possible time to return.

“That’s an opportunity for someone to step up,” Kompon says. “He (Bittner) is a big body, a signed second-round pick of (NHL) Columbus, and you’re going to miss him, for sure. But it’ll be an opportunity to eat minutes and establish themselves as that player.”

The third-liner McKenzie, not unlike Marty Standish and Brendan Leipsic of great Hawks teams of yesteryear, stands out as a smaller player — at 5-7, 160, the smallest Hawk player until Hughes (5-7, 135) came along (ironically, they both hail from the Edmonton, Alberta area, and their brothers play on the same team).

“He’s a crowd favorite, for sure. You love those blue-collar guys who lead by example, and it rubs off on our team,” Kompon says of McKenzie. “He’s got a terrific shot, he gets on people quick, he’s a real good skater. He can use his speed to create, quickness to create, and get around the ice and some immobile defenseman and create space for hismelf.”

Says McKenzie, 17, of being smaller: “You’ve got to be willing to compete, go out there every shfit and give it everything you got.”

Veloso played some games last year, but Kompon sent him back to the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, where he basically trained for the role as penalty killer under coach Paul Dyke. In Kompon’s mind, a penalty killer who also can help clamp down on opponents’ offense in the final minute of a period or a game really makes an impact. Now, Veloso and Turgeon team up as the two forwards on the No. 1 four-man penalty kill.

“You have to grab hold of something — you’re going to be a penalty killer, a power-play guy, a scorer, a checker. What are you going to be?” Kompon says. “He (Veloso) established himself as a penalty killer. That’s extra minutes you get, and you embrace that role. He’s come back and grabbed hold of it, with an attention to detail. He’s a good skater with a good stick, and he reads the situation. He and ‘Turge’ are really good together.”

Veloso, a 5-11, 180-pound 18-year-old, says he does embrace the dirty work of being a penalty killer.

“You’ve got to be ready to block some shots,” he says. “The ones you miss hurt the most, because they’re in the back of the net. ... You’ve got to make sure you’re in the right spot and have good sticks and be really aware.”

You see Hughes, and you can’t believe he can compete against bigger, stronger and older players, simply because he might be the smallest Winterhawk in history — and he looks younger than 16.

He didn’t expect to make the Hawks, but played well in training camp and signed and earned regular shifts. He has been a healthy scratch only once.

“It’s been a big jump, but they treat you pretty well around here,” Hughes says. “It’s been good, so far. It’s different playing against 19- and 20-year-olds.

“It’s nice to play. There were a few injuries, and (playing time) could have been a little different. It’s nice how it worked out to get into the lineup.”

Hughes and Glass spend a lot of time together off the ice, each attending Sunset High and taking the same classes. And, on the ice, they have earned regular power-play time with the second unit. That says something about their skill.

“It’s nice to get out there and have a good chance, and contribute to the offense,” says Hughes, who plays with Glass, Iverson, Jones and Heinrich or Texeira on the No. 2 PP unit. “I’m working with some pretty good players.”

Glass, 6-1 and 165 and from Winnepeg, Manitoba, joined the Hawks as the more touted rookie. He played in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge for one of the Canadian teams.

Along with being on the second power-play unit, he has been skating with the second line.

“He’s very skilled, and he’s stronger and better every time he’s on the ice,” Kompon says.

Glass says battling fellow teammates in practice to earn playing time has been the biggest reason for his early success.

“I’m a couple months in now, and I’m starting to get my feet under me, and building a lot of confidence and trying to control the play,” he says. “At the start, it’s hard to get used to (the WHL as a rookie), playing against older and stronger guys. You just have to play your game and stick to the game plan.”

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