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Hawks have a different look now

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland's Evan Weinger fights with Vancouver's Brennan Menell.Winterhawk fans have grown spoiled. There's no arguing that.

Over the previous five seasons, Portland's Western Hockey League team has averaged 51 regular-season wins, won three U.S. Division titles, reached the WHL finals four times and won the league championship once.

A year ago, in their first season with Jamie Kompon as head coach, the Hawks went 43-23-2-4 and advanced to the Western Conference finals, losing to eventual WHL champion Kelowna.

All that, it's safe to say, is changing.

The remarkable reservoir of offensive talent accumulated throughout the Mike Johnston era has eroded.

Gone from last year's team are goal-scoring phenoms Oliver Bjorkstrand, Nicolas Petan and Chase De Leo.

No longer around are 40-goal scorers and playmakers such as Brendan Leipsic, Ty Rattie, Sven Baertschi, Brad Ross, Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, who put up big numbers as Portland made it to the WHL finals four straight years from 2011-14.

The Hawks are advancing toward the two-thirds mark of the 2015-16 regular season, and their leading scorer is center Dominic Turgeon with 22 goals in 45 games. There will be no 40-goal scorer for the first time since 2009-10.

That doesn't mean Portland, 23-20-2-0 after a 3-2 victory over Vancouver Monday at Memorial Coliseum, won't enjoy a successful run in the playoffs.

Through Monday, the Hawks were in third place in the tightly bunched U.S. Division race with 48 points, trailing Everett (58) and Seattle (51) and just ahead of Spokane (45) and Tri-City (40). All of the division rivals have games in hand on the Hawks.

Portland has a solid defense and one of the premier goaltenders in the league in 19-year-old Adin Hill.

But for the first time in a long time, the Hawks don't have a go-to guy they can count upon for scoring in the clutch.

"It's tough to replace Chase and Nic," Kompon said after Monday's win. "It's definitely tough to replace Ollie. Those guys are game-changers.

"But (with this year's team), we get scoring by committee. We have four lines that can score. Four lines that contribute. Everyone is confident they can go out and do their job."

It was inevitable, though, that the talent base was going to take an eventual hit after the heavy-handed sanctions laid down by the WHL in 2012 for some minor recruiting and benefit violations. The Hawks forfeited their first five picks in the 2013 bantam draft and were docked a first-round pick from 2014 to 2017.

Johnston -- who was suspended for most of the 2012-13 season due to the infractions -- made some shrewd trades to plug holes while he was the team's general manager/head coach before leaving to become head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins after the 2013-14 season. And Portland's personnel department has done what it can to acquire players through the import draft, with their remaining picks in the bantam draft and by compiling and signing a gifted group of list (undrafted) prospects.

"Our scouts do a great job of finding players," said Kompon, pointing out 16-year-old center Ryan Hughes -- who scored the game-winner Monday -- and 17-year-old wings Brett Clayton and Tanner Nagel as list players already contributing. "Without a first-round pick, you don't get elite skill. But our scouts have done an unbelievable job of assembling a list of players we feel are going to have a promising future."

Even so, it's like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back. It's not an even playing field, and eventually it's going to catch up with you. Tight defense, a stand-up goalie and scoring by committee certainly helps, but elite skill is the entity that gives you the best chance to advance deep into the playoffs.

The Hawks have been shut out three times at home this season. They suffered shutout losses a total of three times -- twice at home, once on the road -- through the previous four seasons.

This year's team was hurt by the loss of 19-year-old Paul Bittner, a 34-goal scorer a year ago who underwent hip surgery in December and will be lost at least until the postseason.

The Hawks have been competitive because of leadership from players such as Turgeon and Hill and acquisitions such as overage wing Rihards Bukarts and defensemen Caleb Jones and Jack Dougherty.

With some breaks, Portland could be on the tail of Everett in the U.S. Division.

"To a man, I think everyone on this team would say they're as disappointed as I am with this season," Kompon said. "We had a lot of opportunities to win games that we didn't win. Our record isn't reflective of what we have in our room. Everyone is disappointed with where we're at."

There are plenty of games left to pick up ground, including a home-and-home series with the team just above them, Seattle, on Friday and Saturday.

"Throughout the year, our biggest thing has been trying to stay consistent," said Turgeon, the son of former NHL great Pierre Turgeon and a second-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings. "We've been up and down. I feel we're getting a little more consistent. Coming up on this final stretch, we have to tighten things up."

There are no dominant teams in the West this season. The Hawks will be among the teams that have a chance to emerge from the playoffs into the WHL finals.

"The parity in our league is amazing," Kompon said. "We believe in our group. Everyone in our room feels like we have a chance."

But it's going to be a rougher road for the Hawks, both in this postseason and in the immediate future. The WHL's undue punishment through sanctions has played a role in that. The good ol' days of the early 2010s are gone, and there's no telling when they'll return.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers