Late-season exposure to WHL games, pace helps some get ready
by: COURTESY OF BRYAN HEIM Center Nic Petan is one of several Western Hockey League rookies who could contribute to the Portland Winterhawks this season.

Who knows what players will be in the lineup when the Portland Winterhawks take the ice in their opener, Sept. 23 against Everett in the first of three weekend games to start the Western Hockey League season.

An astounding 15 players are attending NHL camps, leaving the depleted Hawks with about 15 or 16 players for practice, many of whom probably won't be on the team when all the studs return from the pros.

Then again, some talented rookies are set to make their debut with the reigning Western Conference champs, and the coaches have ample opportunity to work with the likes of Nic Petan, Chase De Leo and Brendan Burke.

'It's meant for a lot more playing time in exhibition games,' says Petan, a 5-9, 155-pound spitfire from Delta, British Columbia. 'It's a time for coaches to test us and see what we can do.

'We haven't talked about our season opener, yet. Hopefully, we get a few guys back from NHL camps.'

Petan, fellow center De Leo, goalie Burke and defenseman Layne Viveiros are the 16-year-olds on the roster, while 17-year-old forward Taylor Leier and 18-year-old forward Joey Baker will also be vying for playing time as first-year players. It'll be a tough lineup to crack, once Ty Rattie, Brad Ross, Sven Bartschi, Joe Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Mac Carruth and several others return. And that's not to mention the competition from second-year standouts Brendan Leipsic, Derrick Pouliot, Seth Swenson and Josh Hanson.

But, some rookies will assuredly find ice time.

Petan, the team's No. 1 bantam pick in 2010, saw action last year for Portland, including five games against Spokane in the conference finals and two games against Kootenay in the WHL finals.

'It was a load of experience that got me ready for this year,' he says. 'Watching (Ryan) Johansen and (Nino) Niederreiter, the experience was amazing.

'I feel more confident coming into this year. Getting to play against bigger, faster and stronger guys, you know what they're going to do. I'm pretty small, and I usually use my speed. I've got to keep my speed up, keep feet moving and everything falls into place.'

Says General Manager/coach Mike Johnston: 'He's an offensive player, really good speed, really dynamic. He's smaller and has to learn how to play against bigger guys. He's competitive, hard to handle. Sometimes it's hard for a big guy to control those guys, you can't hook or hold them.'

De Leo, 5-9, 170 and from La Mirada, Calif., a late-round 2010 bantam pick, considered going the collegiate route, with the University of Denver and other schools looking at him - right up until the deadline to sign or go to college. He heard good things about Johnston and assistant Travis Green. He opted for the WHL, and spent time practicing with the Hawks during the 2011 postseason.

'Great experience, especially being up in playoff time,' he says. 'Unreal experience. The speed of the game is so fast. All the guys are good, big brothers, and showed me the ropes.'

Johnston proclaimed the Hawks to have landed a future star with De Leo's signing. De Leo doesn't turn 16 until Christmas (although he's 16 in junior hockey years).

'He's also a smaller guy, but he has really good skills, good work ethic … he's a playmaker, really understands the game well, quick thinker,' Johnston says.

Burke has the size (6-3, 175) and the lineage (son of former NHL goaltender Sean Burke, who serves as Phoenix Coyotes goalie coach) to be a future star. Coming from Scottsdale, Ariz., an American kid like De Leo, he considered college hockey.

'I came up here, and it sealed the deal,' he says, of signing with the Hawks.

Burke considers himself a 'hybrid' goalie, meaning he'll stand up and make saves while also loving to sprawl and play the puck. He'll be kept to likely play behind Carruth, although the Hawks also have Chase Martin, who played at Calgary last year, on the roster.

'It's nice to play on a good team,' Burke muses. 'You never want to be a goalie on a bad team; makes you look worse than you already are.'

Says Johnston, of the third-round 2010 bantam pick: 'I like his mental makeup. If you're going to be a 16-year-old goaltender in our league, you have to be mature to be able to handle the ups and downs.'

The three other first-year players come to Hawks as somewhat surprises.

The 5-11, 180 Leier put up 74 points (31 goals, 43 points) for the AAA midget team in his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan last season. The Hawks sent him home from camp last season, but he returned this year much more WHL-ready.

'He looks really, really good,' Johnston says. 'He can score, has skills, skates. He's more complete in his game. Some kids it takes that one more year.'

'I'm playing with more confidence,' Leier says. 'I got bigger (about 10 pounds) and stronger. It carries over to your game.' He adds that the adjustment to WHL players won't be easy - '(players) just know a few more tricks, with sticks and body positioning and angling. You have to adapt to it and learn as you go.'

Baker played for his hometown Trail in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League last season, and he adds size (6-3, 180) to the Hawks' forward lines.

'A late-developing kid,' Johnston says. 'He wasn't used a great deal (last season), but he was on the NHL radar. He didn't go in the draft, but we convinced him to sign and come here and see what he could do. He's a big kid who skates really well. We could use that.'

Baker knew about the Hawks because of fellow Trail resident Craig Cunningham, a standout for Portland last season. 'When they asked to protect me (on their list), I was excited about that,' Baker says. 'I'm hoping to develop lots while I'm here.'

The player with the most unique story is Viveiros, a 5-11, 175 D-man who was born in Canada and grew up in Austria. His family is from Edmonton, where he returned to live this spring; his father played in Austria (after a WHL career) and still coaches there.

The Hawks plan to keep Viveiros around, surprised at his talents, after making him an older selection in the 2011 bantam draft.

'He turned out to be way better than we thought he would be,' Johnston says. 'Very smart, puck-moving defenseman. Good intelligence and hockey sense.'

'I think I'm ready for the league,' Viveiros says.

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