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Winterhawks look to build on this season's success

Team polishes potential, puts pieces in place to be five-time finals contender


by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand (right) will give the Portland Winterhawks two high-powered returning scorers in 2014-15.Could star forward Nic Petan and reserve defenseman Josh Hanson be part of the fifth consecutive Portland Winterhawks team to make the Western Hockey League finals next spring?

And just think: Could Petan, should he by chance return as a 20-year-old the following season, play in a sixth?

Yes, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but who would bet against the Winterhawks, who have made four WHL finals in a row and appear to be a legitimate contender to do so next season?

Mike Johnston, general manager and coach, sees that potential with the 2014-15 team, particularly because the forward play should be strong again. But the Winterhawks have to develop.

“If you look at it, on paper, we have some really good building blocks,” Johnston says. “We have core pieces coming back. It’ll be how our defense adjusts and adapts, and how we can enhance the power play and replace points from (Brendan) Leipsic and (Taylor) Leier. It also depends on the competition, and how other teams improve.”

Indeed, some firepower leaves with Leipsic and Leier, as well as two-way defensemen Derrick Pouliot and Mathew Dumba — all to the pros. But, other than departed overages Garrett Haar, Adam Rossignol and Corbin Boes, everybody else returns.

The returnees are led by Petan, who has 81 goals and 152 assists in the past two seasons and 16 goals and 40 assists in playoff action, as well as Oliver Bjorkstrand (50-59-109 points; 16-17-33 playoff points) and Chase De Leo (39-42-81 points; 10-9-19 playoff points).

Paul Bittner played alongside Petan in his second season and improved in the playoffs, and the third line of Dominic Turgeon, Keegan Iverson and Alex Schoenborn returns intact — and all three will likely be picked in the NHL draft, along with De Leo.

Ethan Price, Tyson Predinchuk and overage Adam De Champlain also figure to return, and the Hawks will look to add three rookie forwards.

“Our forwards are going to be really good,” Johnston says.

Clearly, Petan’s play will be paramount. The Winnepeg Jets prospect has put up decent playoff numbers in the past two seasons — although he doesn’t have any goals in the four consecutive WHL finals. With Petan, De Leo and Turgeon, the Hawks possess some high-end centers — and Johnston puts a lot of emphasis on having good centers. Bjorkstrand, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, had an impressive 66 goals in regular-season/playoff action and, like Petan and De Leo, will be working on adding weight and strength to take the next step.

Bittner could be a first-round draft pick in 2015, which puts importance on his play next season.

“He’s now had a year of playing in a primary role,” Johnston says. “We want him to step up and be a leader as a forward with more minutes, power play and points. He really stepped up in the playoffs.”

Johnston foresees the third-line players improving by about 15 points each, led by Turgeon.

“He just keeps getting better and better with more confidence,” he says. “He’s going to be a really good player. A big two-way center who can kill penalties and will be able to play the power play next year.”

Hanson will likely join De Champlain as an overage — Johnston likes both of them. The team could add a third overage at some point.

“They’ve been our players, we drafted them, fit them in the program,” he says. “One’s a forward, one’s defense. Both solid WHL players.”

Hanson played only sporadically during the playoffs, sharing time with Layne Viveiros, who’s also expected to return next season and could be a power-play D-man.

The cornerstones of the defense should be Swede Anton Cederholm, a Vancouver Canucks prospect, and Californian Keoni Texeira. Each played well in the playoffs.

“Texiera’s a very good all-around defenseman, and he has some offensive upside,” Johnston says. “Cederholm is what he is — a solid defenseman, good penalty killer, can play against top lines. He’s come a long way.”

Blake Heinrich joined the Winterhawks in the playoffs, from the U.S. Hockey League’s Sioux City team. He’ll likely be a regular D-man, and already has been drafted by the Washington Capitals.

Johnston also likes expected rookie Nick Heid. “He’s the same age as Texeira (17) and he’s a lot like Cederholm,” Johnston says. “He’s bigger and physical.”

“Our defense will be solid, but we’ll have to find somebody to play the power play and create offensively,” the coach adds.

The goaltender position should be in good hands. Brendan Burke, a Phoenix Coyotes prospect, went 34-10-2-2 with a .911 save percentage and 2.75 goals-against during the regular season and added 9-3 record, .907 save percentage and 2.66 goals-against in the playoffs — despite being benched during the Western Conference finals and through the first five games of the WHL finals.

“That didn’t hurt Brendan’s confidence,” Johnston says. “He’s confident. He’s played a lot of games.”

Adin Hill played great in winning all four regular-season starts, with a .934 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against.

Johnston said after the WHL finals that he would be interested in talking with an NHL team about a head coaching position, but he said this week that nobody had contacted him yet. He expects assistant coaches Karl Taylor and Kyle Gustafson to return next season.

Johnston believes that Kelowna and Victoria, the other two standout teams in the WHL Western Conference, should be good again next season. He also expects the U.S. Division to be balanced. The Tri-City Americans, incidentally, hired ex-Winterhawks player and coach Mike Williamson — fired by Calgary Hitmen in mid-April — as head coach.