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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Returning players, possible imports portend strong Portland roster for next WHL season

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Key returning Portland Winterhawks players for next season figure to include Ryan Hughes (right).When the Portland Winterhawks introduced Kieffer Bellows at a news conference last May, expectations for the 2017-18 season immediately included contending for a championship.

Clearly, sights were set beyond the second round — which is where this Winterhawks season ended.

Despite the disappointment of a 4-1 series loss to the Everett Silvertips in Round 2, there were plenty of positives for a team that played in probably the most competitive division in all of Canadian junior hockey.

Portland's 44 wins and 94 points were the fourth-best in the Western Hockey League. And the Hawks prevailed 4-3 in a challenging first-round playoff series win over the Spokane Chiefs.

The Winterhawks had the best road record in the league and one of its most dynamic scoring lines.

"We didn't go as far as we wanted, but I still think we had a great season," 18-year-old forward Jake Gricius says.

Gricius got his first significant WHL playing time this season, centering the third line. Looking ahead to 2018-19, he will be among the half-dozen or so players in their 19-year-old season who will be the team's core.

"All the guys my age, they're going into the summer training hard because they want to be a guy that everyone can rely on and someone you can look to produce for the team," Gricius says.

Cody Glass and Henri Jokiharju will be 19-year-olds next season, as well, but each of them hopes to be playing at a higher level.

Glass will return to Portland if he does not stick in the NHL. The first draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, Glass figures to get a long look in the fall. But the quick success of the Vegas franchise perhaps allows the Knights to be patient and let Glass play one more season of junior hockey.

Jokiharju seems less likely to return to Portland. If he doesn't make the Chicago Blackhawks NHL roster, the native of Finland has the option of playing pro hockey in Europe, which would give him experience with older players.

Also certain to start pro careers are Bellows, forward Joachim Blichfeld and defenseman Dennis Cholowski.

Graduating from junior hockey at the end of this season were goalie Cole Kehler, defenseman Keoni Texeira and forward Alex Overhardt. Kehler is a signed prospect of the NHL Los Angeles Kings.

That is a significant amount of talent to replace. It's a process Mike Johnston, Portland's vice president, general manager and head coach, has been consistently successful at maneuvering. And he is excited about the talent headed to Portland.

One key in building next season's roster will be the 2018 Canadian Hockey League import draft. Based on their fourth-place finish in the WHL regular season, the Hawks will draft between picks 50 and 60. Portland will make two picks this season with the expectation that both players will be here next season.

"We've got to get two good Euros. That will help our group," Johnston says. "Obviously, if we lose a guy like Glass or Henri, those are big losses. But I like our group coming back. I like some of the young guys we've signed who are going to play for us in the future."

In the longer term, Thursday is a big day. The WHL bantam draft takes place, where players born in 2003 can be selected. Of the 12 picks Portland has, eight are in the top five rounds, giving the Hawks a chance to build on a successful draft a year ago.

Two players drafted a year ago — forwards Seth Jarvas and Clay Hanas — are potential impact players as 16-year-old WHL rookies next season. Other young players who have a chance to make an impact next season include forward Jaydon Dureau (hockey age 17 next season) and defensemen Nick Cicek (18), Ryan Miley (18) and Nick Perna (17).

"We've got some guys who aren't going to come in and just be role players, they're going to be good players. Next year, all those guys will really help us," Johnston says. 

Like many years, the three 20-year-olds on next season's roster likely won't be finalized until early October as the older players first try out for pro clubs. Skyler McKenzie, Brendan De Jong, Conor MacEachern and Connor Barley (who joined the Hawks to add depth for the 2018 playoffs) are candidates to return as overage players.

McKenzie, a Winnipeg Jets prospect, had career highs of 47 goals, 87 points and a plus-38 plus-minus this season, playing alongside Glass (for the second year in a row) and Bellows.

De Jong, a defenseman prospect of the Carolina Hurricanes, just finished his fourth season with the Hawks. He has played in 266 WHL regular-season games.

MacEachern switched from defense to right wing this season to provide some size to the forward group. He has played three seasons with Portland.

Up front, Reece Newkirk, Mason Mannek and Ty Kolle got significant experience as WHL rookies this season.

On defense, John Ludwig (51 regular-season and 11 playoff games) and Clay Hanus (56 regular-season games as a 16-year-old) played alongside veteran defensemen this season.  

One position that is settled entering next season is goalie, where Shane Farkas was a strong 18-year-old backup to Kehler. Farkas went 14-6 with three shutouts, a 2.79 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. In early March, he was named the WHL and CHL goalie of the week after a 3-0 week with 99 saves and two shutouts of the Tri-City Americans.

"Anytime you can get games in this league it's a huge privilege," Farkas says. "Things went well, and I'm looking forward to next year."

Farkas will be among the group of 1999-born players expected to step into important roles next season.

Another will be Ryan Hughes, the skilled puck-handler who will be in his fourth season with the Hawks. This season, Hughes had to recover from a significant injury for the first time, missing two months with a leg injury suffered in early October. He finished with 17 goals and 24 assists in 46 games.

"I got to see the game from up top, see it in a different way," he says. "I think I can take this season and take some of the stuff I learned into next year.

"When you're playing, you don't really notice how much time and space you have, so you might force plays. Seeing it from up top, you see how much room is actually there on the ice and plays you can make."

Defenseman Matthew Quigley and forwards Lane Gilliss and Lukus MacKenzie also are slated to return as 19-year-olds. Quigley moved into the regular defenseman rotation this season. Injuries to Gilliss and MacKenzie hurt the Hawks' playoff chances this season, but both should be at full strength before training camp in August.

Also adding to the challenge of this year's playoffs was a format that matched the top two teams in the Western Conference — Portland and Everett — in the second round. The same happened in the Eastern Conference, where Swift Current (second in regular-season points) ousted regular-season champion Moose Jaw in the second round.

Though the WHL's current playoff format mirrors the NHL, Johnston hopes it is changed.

"I understand (limiting) travel and (promoting) rivalries," Johnston says. "But at the same time, I still think if you play 72 games, or 68 next year, you should be rewarded. Us and Everett were the top two teams in the conference, and we played in the U.S. Division. We should have been rewarded playing the first round against lower-placed teams, not going against a Spokane that finished five points behind us."

Johnston does not know if a change will happen, but he expects it will be discussed by the league.

Next season will be slightly shorter in the WHL. Teams will play 68 regular-season games, four fewer than this season. That will match the number of games played by the other two CHL leagues.

Johnston supports the change.

"Sometimes as a development league, we put a lot of demands on the kids," he says. "They're going to school. They're playing a lot of games. They're traveling. Four less games, it doesn't sound like a lot. But it takes away a Tuesday or Wednesday game when you could have an extra practice day or an extra rest day.

"It's all part of development, making sure the players aren't fatigued and can practice so we can get some quality practice time in."

Bellows, a New York Islanders prospect, will be in the NHL or the American Hockey League next season.

His experience as a 19-year-old in Portland did not result in a fourth WHL championship for the Winterhawks. But it was successful. He had 41 goals and 33 assists in 56 regular-season games, most of his missed games coming as a member of the U.S. team that won the bronze medal at the World Juniors Championships.

Bellows added three goals and 10 assists in 12 playoff games — including the game-winner in Game 7 against Spokane.

"If he had played the whole season, he would have been over 50 goals, and I don't care if you're older or not, it's still a great accomplishment in this league," Johnston says.

Johnston hopes Bellows' experience might help future Winterhawk recruiting efforts.

"If there's other college players that may consider leaving and coming to our program, then he's a good example," Johnston says. "He had the experience of college for a year, then came to our program. Now he'll go pro."

Having players the caliber of Bellows and Glass as teammates should benefit younger players who are expected to move into more prominent roles for the Hawks.

"Having the four (NHL) first-round draft picks on the team really helped myself and the younger guys," Hughes says. "You see their practice habits and how they are in games and their work ethic. Those things have gotten them to where they are. They've earned it."

Next season, Portland likely will not have as many players who already have been plucked by NHL clubs, but the Hawks should not lack for firepower.

"The future is bright for this team," Hughes says. "We've got a lot of young skill. I'm looking forward to that next year."

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