Top-ranked team in WHL shows defense, goaltending promise

by: COURTESY OF ANDY DEVLIN/EDMONTON OIL KINGS - Winterhawks forward Chase De Leo hoists the Ed Chynoweth Cup after Portlands Western Hockey League title victory last season.The standard has been set for the Portland Winterhawks, who have been a Western Hockey League playoff staple the past four seasons, have reached the Memorial Cup and have played for the junior hockey championship last spring.

To take the next step means winning the Memorial Cup, and the Winterhawks, given some positive play from defensemen and goalies to go with stellar forwards, could find themselves vying for the title again.

“One of our mottos in recent years has been, ‘championship habits,’ ”

veteran defenseman Josh Hanson says. “We really built that with work ethic and compete level.

“Everyone in the room expects to make it (to the Memorial Cup). We have a locker room of great guys and winners, and we all want to get back there. We’re going to be driven to get back there. We want to win the Memorial Cup.”

Portland starts the year ranked No. 1 in the WHL and No. 3 in the Canadian Hockey League. The season starts Sept. 20 at the Moda Center against Prince George, continues at Seattle on Sept. 21, and with Kelowna at the Moda Center on Sept. 24. The Winterhawks should have most of their players available — with the likes of Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic returning from NHL training camps — although the status of defenseman Derrick Pouliot remains up in the air. The Pittsburgh Penguins could keep their 19-year-old, 2012 first-round draft pick through the start of the NHL season. Or, he could be sent back.

Even with Pouliot, defense and goaltending will be the key areas for Portland, which will be shooting for its fourth consecutive WHL Western Conference title and back-to-back league titles. Brendan Burke replaces all-time record-holder Mac Carruth in goal, and the defense has been rebuilt with the addition of overage Garrett Haar and Anton

Cederholm to go with returnees Hanson, Shaun McPherson and Layne Viveiros, and rookie Keoni Texeira.

On paper, it would appear imperative that Pouliot returns to make something special out of Portland’s D-corps. Three good players — Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon, Seth Jones — departed. At least everyone expects Jones, the fourth pick of last June’s NHL draft, to play for Nashville.

“Mike (Johnston) is a great coach, and he has things planned out either way,” Hanson says. “It’d be nice to have (Pouliot) back — great guy, great player. But, if he shows what he has at Penguins camp and makes the team, we’re happy for him.

“The two new kids, from what we saw in preseason, will be really solid for us,” he adds, of Haar and Cederholm. And, Texeira, an offensive defenseman (like Pouliot) from Fontana, Calif., could be in the mix.

“It’s amazing to be here, but it’s tough, though, because there are a lot of great players out there, and I have to earn my way into the lineup,” Texeira says.

Johnston, who returns to the bench and the general manager’s chair after being suspended by the WHL for most of last season, says defense and goaltending will be “the measuring stick of how we do, how quickly our defense adjusts and adapts.”

He adds: “There are so many new defensemen, even regular guys having to play more minutes — Hanson, McPherson, Viveiros. If we get Pouliot back, it’ll definitely help our group. We have Cederholm and Haar, who are brand-new. And, we have a lot of people playing in new roles — power play and penalty kill — that they haven’t done before.”

The Hawks lost scorer Ty Rattie and grinder Taylor Peters to the pros from the forward lines, and Joey Baker retired. But everybody else returns — a sum of 504 (213 goals, 291 assists) points worth of firepower. Portland plans to keep one rookie forward (Ethan Price) and maybe a second (Steven Aldridge).

Petan (46 goals-74 assists-120 points) and Leipsic (49-71-120) tied for the WHL scoring title last season and combined for 19-33-52 in the WHL playoffs. They’ll team together with a new third member of the line. It could be overage newcomer Shane McColgan, who’s out until late October at the earliest (wrist). It could be second-year player Paul Bittner, who played with Petan and Leipsic last season at times. It could be somebody else, depending on how things shake out.

“I sort of see that spot being shared by a couple people,” Johnston says, “and we’ll see what chemistry evolves between Petan, Leipsic and the other person.”

Johnston says he wants to start the season with the veteran second line of Chase De Leo, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Taylor Leier intact.

McColgan played for Kelowna before being traded to Saskatoon last year and playing in the Memorial Cup with the host team. McColgan grew up around Johnston in Southern California, as best friends with the coach’s son, Adam, when Johnston served as assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings. He has 84 goals and 184 assists for 268 points in 281 career WHL games. The numbers could go way up, if he teams with Petan and Leipsic.

“They’re two very highly skilled guys in our league and CHL itself,” McColgan says. “It’d be awesome to play with those guys. We’d be a small line, but our feistiness and competitiveness will make up for it.”

But his time on the Hawks will have to wait, until his wrist heals. McColgan says he hurt his wrist on a punching bag during offseason training.

The Hawks have depth galore at forward. Adam de Champlain, Presten Kopeck and Joe Mahon return as veterans, and promising second-year players Dominic Turgeon, Bittner and Keegan Iverson could make big jumps this year. Travis Green, the former assistant coach and GM who led the Hawks to the Memorial Cup in Johnston’s absence, predicted greatness for them. He says Turgeon, the son of former NHL player Pierre Turgeon, could be a 100-point scorer in the WHL.

Unfortunately for Turgeon, he starts the season injured, as well — his right foot. But, he’ll play at some point, and probably team with Bittner and Iverson.

“I think Paul’s a great player, improved a ton since he got here. He’s definitely a goal scorer, has a great shot,” Turgeon says. “Keegan’s got a good shot, too, and he likes to get in there and get big hits and into scrums.

“I’m more of a playmaker. I definitely feel like I’m ready to take a pretty big role.”

Add second-year player Alex Schoenborn and Price and possibly Aldridge to the forward lines, and Portland has some fine talent.

“Who knows what (coaches) are going to do with the lines,” says De Leo, who’s NHL draft-eligible in 2014. “It really doesn’t matter.”

Interestingly, about half the players on the Winterhawks’ roster come from the United States. The Hawks have clearly recruited in the U.S. more and, with bantam draft picks taken away by WHL penalties, it’s imperative for them to comb as many areas as possible.

Time was the Hawks and other WHL teams had one or two U.S. kids on the team.

“We don’t really talk about it,” says De Leo, who’s from Southern California. “We’re happy to have the talented guys we have. After you get here, we’re all pretty much brothers.”

While the Hawks rank the highest in the CHL among Western Hockey League teams, Johnston says the likes of Kelowna, Calgary, Prince Albert and Swift Current should be formidable. He holds out judgment on the Hawks, until he knows the status of Pouliot and how well defensemen and goaltenders play.

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