Is This The Rebuild Year For The Portland Winterhawks?
Tuesday, September 06, 2016
Gone are players like Dominic Turgeon and Alex Schoenborn, who figured into much of the team's scoring. Paul Bittner, whose role was figured to be as a leader before suffering season ending hip surgery, moves up to the pro ranks as well. Adin Hill, who was lights out in the Hawks net after playing in 65 of 72 regular season games, hit a strong stride in his tryout in the AHL and is most likely in the league after signing with the Arizona Coyotes.
What it leaves in the way of a team, is one that returning Coach and General Manager Mike Johnston will have to figure out. Training camp this year featured 80 players, most of whom were too young to make a Winterhawks roster, but with nine holes to fill in the lineup, Johnston is having to do something he hasn't done as the team's head guy and that is to go young ... very young.
With nine rookie players to look at following the first round of cuts, the team hit the holiday tournament in Everett this past weekend and will travel to Kennewick this coming weekend with positions to fill and players having to come in hungry to snap them up. There are no given positions even though returning players usually get those slots. Johnston takes 31 players to preseason this year, 19 forwards, 9 defensemen and 3 goaltenders. Two rookies who appeared in some action last year, Bronson Sharp and Jackson Caller, are expected to make the team this year, with the two new imports also expected to suit up at the start of the season. Where that leaves import forward Rodrigo Abols from last year is uncertain. Abols did not appear at camp, the hope being by the Hawks that the Vancouver Canucks who had him in camps the past two years will make a deal to put him in their farm system with the other option of playing in his home country. In either case, the Hawks will keep their two new imports as they have more available time in North America. Connor Bowie, a 15-year-old this season, though he saw action in Everett, will be the only guaranteed player to not make the full roster this season due to age. His age of players (2001 born) are only ably to dress for up to five games per season until his current junior team finishes the playoffs, so he might see action around Christmas or end of the Winterhawks season.
Goaltending will be of interest as Michael Bullion takes the helm with his 8 game WHL record. Alongside him will be Cole Kehler, a 19-year-old who came to the Hawks from the Kamloops Blazers where they elected to make him expendable. In the mix as well is Ethan Middendorf, a 17-year-old who is a huge 6'6" addition and could challenge for a spot on the team this year after two strong camps. In Everett, both Bullion and Kehler played a full game each and split the middle one, while Middendorf did not see action, but could in the Tri-City run.
These tournaments are designed for the players to get a full game experience, for coaches to assess players and fine tune line pairings and carry no weight on wins and losses, however, Portland did manage to win all three of its games and carried the uptempo style noted on a Mike Johnston team. Victories against Tri-City, Spokane and Everett showed the scoring power of players expected to take a stronger leadership role this season.
There was a scary moment of the tournament in the second Portland game versus Spokane. Midway through the second period, Portland's Brett Clayton checked Spokane's Koby Morriseau heavily from behind sending the 16-year-old crashing head first into the boards. For several minutes, the 2015 first round draft pick lay motionless as trainers from both squads tended to him. Morriseau was carried from the ice on a crash board stretcher and hospitalized and once stable, returned to Spokane. It has been reported that he has regained motion but will be monitored for several more days. It is expected he will make a full recovery, though the timeline is said to be of it being slow. Clayton, for his part, was assessed a check to the head major, later changed to check from behind major and a game misconduct. With that penalty, Clayton missed the final tournament game versus Everett and is currently on a suspension to be determined. Should the suspension last longer than 4 games which would include the preseason, the carryover would be into the regular season.
When asked about timeframe of how long the Hawks would take to assess their team, Johnston has been quick to say Christmas is a suitable date. The Winterhawks are notorious for slow starts out of the gate, having players at NHL camps to start the season has been the norm for this team, however, this isn't the case this year. The team is also heading on the Eastern Swing early this year, a trait of Johnston's as he tries to gel the team. With three straight home games to start the season, the team will then be on the road for most of October, which should give the team time to gain some valuable feedback on where it's headed for the season.
The Winterhawks open the regular season September 24th against the Seattle Thunderbirds at the Moda Center, followed by Tri-City the following night. The Winterhawks will complete the homestand with a game versus Everett Silvertips on Friday, September 30th, where they will unveil the new scoreboard which was purchased by the City of Portland at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Following those game, Portland will hit the road for most of October including the Eastern Division swing.
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