A Look Ahead to the 2002-2003 Portland Winterhawk Season

By Michael Conkey

The best adjective to describe the Portland Winterhawks’ playoffs last season
is heartbreaking. The Seattle Thunderbirds rode a tough grinding style, and
the incredible play of their goaltender Nick Pannoni to a 7-game series win
in the first round of last season’s WHL playoffs. The Portland fans still
aren’t really sure how it all happened. It seemed like Seattle simply had
more energy, and wanted to win a bit more.

Now, as the NHL entry draft as ended, it’s perhaps a good time to look to
next season, and what the outlook for the Winterhawks looks like right now.
Before we get into the roster for the upcoming season, it’s a good idea to
consider what many expected to see from the Hawks last season. Many,
including myself, saw the experience on the defensive side of the puck. We
saw what Lanny Ramage had done in the run to the WHL Finals the year before.
And we also saw that the Hawks would lose a lot of offense, especially with
the departure of Marcel Hossa. So, naturally, most Hawks fans saw a team that
would hopefully win close, low-scoring games. Little did we know that the
Hawks would end up scoring more goals than any other Western Conference team
in the WHL. The Hawks often had to score a lot of goals to win games. The
lesson here: this is just the most likely way the team will play. It’s not at
all a guarantee.

So, how about that scoring the Hawks saw last season? Well, much like last
season, the main story on the Hawks offense has to do with what they’ll lose.
The top 3 scorers from last season will all be gone. 50-goal scorer Jozef
Balej is off to play in either Quebec with the AHL, or perhaps for the
Montreal Canadiens depending on how good he does in training camp. Paul
Gaustad was signed by the Buffalo Sabres at the last minute, and the Sabres
GM has stated that he will play for the Sabres’ AHL team in Rochester next
season. Florida prospect Josh Olson, was an overager last season, and will
most likely play for either the Panthers next season, or an AHL squad. Shawn
Roed was another overager last season, and will not return to the Hawks this
season. The Hawks were also hit with a somewhat surprising revelation from
Jakub Klepis right after he was drafted by the Ottawa Senators. He’s decided
to return to his native Czech Republic to play in the men’s league over
there.

Now that we know who won’t be back, here’s some of the players who will have
to pick up the slack to ensure the Hawks’ competitiveness next season.

Matt Girling: Has shown a real nose for the puck over the last two years in
Portland. He’s always shown moments of brilliance on the ice, but for some
reason he hasn’t been able to sustain that level of play for long. He’ll be
expected to be one of the top finishers on the team this season, as he’s
still got the tools to be a sniper on this team, not unlike Balej.

Rob MacGregor: Played more of a defensive forward role in his first season.
Decent puckhandler, but not as good a passer in his first season. Will most
likely be looked to as more of a playmaker this season. He’s one of the
bigger question marks for the Hawks this season. If he improves at the level
the Hawks would like, he could be a key component for the offense. If not, he
might not see much playing time at all.

Cody McLeod: Playing time has been hard to come by for this 18 year old in
his first two season with the Winterhawks. Last season, he showed a knack for
scoring some quality goals as a sniper. Like Girling, he does need to get
stronger to be a consistent goal scorer. The talent is there, but it’s just a
matter of development at this point.

Brad Priestlay: Priestlay is the kind of player you love to have on your
team, but hate if they’re on another team. He reminds many Hawks fans of
former Hawks pest Marty Standish, though maybe not quite as detestable to
other teams. He’s a strong two-way player with adequate speed. He’s a little
on the small side, but he’s a fierce competitor. I wouldn’t be surprised if
he ends up being the Captain next season.

John Togiai: He’s been known as more of a grit player over the last couple
seasons. He was, like Gaustad, a Junior Hawk before playing for the
Winterhawks. He’s been quite the utility player for Portland, even playing
defense for a few games when the Hawks were hit with injuries. But he was
also very impressive towards the latter part of the season. He showed
puckhandling ability that I didn’t think he had. He’s exactly what you’d want
a power forward to be. He’s a 20 year old this season, so he’s not guaranteed
a spot just yet, but I think he’s got an excellent chance to be one of the
three overagers on the team this season.

Craig Valette: Valette is a another 20 year old who played with the Hawks
last season. He’s shown some strong leadership in his time as a Winterhawk.
He’s also been one of the better penalty killers for Portland. He makes good
decisions on the ice, and is probably one of the smartest players Portland
has. He also has deceptive speed when he gets out in open ice. He’d be the
best defensive forward for the Hawks if he returns next season.

Some returning players that could help include 17 year olds Aaron Roberge and
Brian Woolger. Also returning will be 18 year old Tyler Grover. He’s only
appeared in 4 games in the last two years, but he’ll have a better chance for
playing time this season.

The Hawks also have some new players coming into camp who could be on the
squad next season. First, there’s 6’3″, 230 lb. power forward C.J. Jackson.
The Hawks took him from Lethbridge in exchange for defenseman Kris Callaway.
He drew 296 penalty minutes (including misconducts) with Jr. B team Spokane
last season. Alex Aldred, Portland’s 2nd round bantam pick last year, played
Bantam AAA hockey in Manitoba last season and was one of the league’s top
scorers with 62 points. There will also be a long list of hopefuls walking
into camp this season hoping to find a roster spot who could help the Hawks
next season. That’s exactly the way Portland ended up with Cam Neely, though
you can’t expect the Hawks to necessarily end up with a catch that good this
season.

While the offense has a lot of question marks, the defense looks as strong
this season as it has been since the Memorial Cup season of 1998. The Hawks
could return their entire defensive core of last season. It is hoped that the
defense will be able to help out with some scoring as well, especially on the
power play. The best part about Portland’s defense is that there’s a good
mixture of offensive and defensive-minded defensemen. They can adapt to any
situation. Here’s a rundown of what each defenseman brings to the table.

Dustin Bauer: Has been much maligned over the last two seasons for what some
would consider less than stellar play. The good news is that he showed
considerable improvement last season. He was much better positionally, and
showed improved puck moving ability in the defensive zone. He’s 6’6″ and has
a long reach, but his main problem remains his lack of speed. He has trouble
hanging with quick forwards. He’ll have to work on that before next season.

Matt Fetzner: Was acquired in the Callaway trade along with Jackson. Has a
killer instinct out on the ice, and doesn’t mind getting physical with other
teams top fighters. He doesn’t have a lot skill with the puck, but the 18
year old does have room to improve on that. He’ll be fighting for a spot
depending on who else the Hawks bring into camp. More on that later.

Braydon Coburn: Was the WHL Rookie of the Year last year, and was a finalist
for CHL Rookie of the Year. He improved steadily as the year went on, getting
more accustomed to the physical WHL style of play. Honestly, there’s not a
lot this guy doesn’t do well. He’s physical when he has to be, and yet he’s a
good stay-at-home defenseman when the situation calls for it. He can be
effective on the power play with his solid slapshot, which got more accurate
as the season went on. He’s also a quality penalty killer who knows how to
move the puck under pressure. He’s all of this, and only 17 years old. NHL
scouts love this kid for a reason, and he’ll likely be a top 10 pick in next
year’s NHL entry draft.

Joey Hope: At 20 years old, he’s the elder statesman of the Hawks defense.
He’s a solid stay at home defenseman, and a good power play quarterback. His
slapshot isn’t overpowering but it’s adequate. His best offensive skill is
his passing. Won’t score a ton of points, but he’s nice to have if you want
to keep the other team from scoring.

Richie Regehr: Was a big point scorer in Kelowna, and still has the ability
to be a monster on the power play. He can pass the puck better than many
forwards, and he’s got a very nice slapshot from the blue line. He’s not as
physical as most defensemen, but he’s not a slouch. His puckhandling ability
is a strong asset for the Hawks when they try to clear the zone under
pressure.

Patrick Wellar: Wellar’s a strong, physical defenseman. He’s the guy that the
Hawks need to wear down opposing forwards. He’s also the Hawks top fighter,
should they need him to do that. He has good skating ability, and can stay
with quicker forwards. He’s a strong stickhandler as well, he can poke check
very nicely.

There are other defenseman coming into camp that will compete for a spot on
the team. Jon Weigum played some games last season as a 17 year old. Spencer
Dillon may also attend training camp. He was drafted by the Hawks in the
first round last year, but decided to stay at his academy in Minnesota to
play. He could land a spot if he comes to camp this year. The Hawks drafted
David Turon in the Import Draft in June. The Czech defenseman was drafted by
Toronto in the 4th round this last NHL entry draft, and could come to camp as
well looking for a spot. There are a number of good defensemen that will come
to camp as well, hoping to crack the top 6.

The defense looks solid and the offense looks like it could be down this
season. The goaltending situation is easily the toughest to forecast,
however. The Hawks have two routes they can go next season.

Lanny Ramage: Lanny was like a brick wall in the playoffs two seasons ago
when the Hawks made it to the WHL Finals. However, he struggled through much
of last season, and was outdueled by Seattle goalie Nick Pannoni in the first
round of the WHL playoffs last season. He’s got the ability to take games
over, and can make spectacular saves at times. His main problem has been his
glove. He’s had the tendency to let in high shots over his glove, and he
wasn’t able to adjust last season. He’s also 20 years old, and counts as an
overager.

Krister Toews: Showed some good ability in a backup role last season. When
Ramage struggled through part of last season, Toews saw more starts. Some
Hawks fans think he should be the guy to start next year, as he doesn’t have
any one particular weakness. He’s more consistent than Ramage, though he’s
not as likely to steal a game for a team. He’ll be 19 next season and if he
doesn’t start for the Hawks, there’s a good chance he might be moved to
another team.

Should either goalie be traded, the top candidate to be the backup right now
would be Andrew Brathwaite. He played in the BJCHL last season. That is, if
there wasn’t another goalie coming back from the trade.

To sum this whole thing up, things look a lot bleaker right now than they did
this time last year. The offense looks like it will be returning even less
than it was thought was coming before last season. The defense, however,
looks better right now than it did coming into last season. The Hawks
goaltending could honestly go either way. If Ramage regains his form of two
seasons ago, it would be a huge boost for Portland’s chances. If not, Toews
has to be able to step in and handle the pressure of being the #1 starter.

While last season must be used as a disclaimer, it really does appear as
though it will be the defense that will carry the Hawks as far as they go.
This was the feeling for most last season, before the Hawks ended up scoring
as much as they did last year, but in retrospect, there was probably a little
more hope for those forwards than there is for this group of players.

The overage issue will probably be settled before the preseason games. I
honestly don’t think that Ramage, Togiai, Valette, and Hope will all be
around at the deadline to cut the team down to 3 overagers. This is never an
easy decision. The Hawks were in this situation last season, and thought they
would be able to deal Jesse Ferguson to Kelowna as part of a deal for Regehr.
The deal was eventually made, but it was after the deadline, so the Hawks had
to trade another 20 year old. That ended up being Dean Beuker, a fan favorite
and a player who had been with the Hawks for almost his entire major-junior
hockey career. He ended up having a great final season in Regina. It seems
like the player who is the safest would be Joey Hope, but that’s not a
guarantee either. All four players bring something to the team, and no matter
who they lose, it will be tough to replace them. If I had to choose right now
who I think it will be, I would guess that Craig Valette would be dealt. But
a lot of this is dependent on which goalie the Hawks wish to designate the #1
starter. If they decide that Toews is the man, it’d be almost a foregone
conclusion that Ramage would be traded.

This upcoming season can be considered a kind of rebuilding year of sorts.
This will be a year the Hawks will use to get some of the younger players
some experience, and load up for next season, or perhaps the year after that.
I believe they’ll be competitive enough to make the playoffs, though with
eight teams out of nine making the playoffs, that’s not very difficult. Even
if they finish last in the division, I still think they’ll end up with a
better record than the Vancouver Giants, giving them a spot. But I also think
the Hawks will be slightly more competitive than that. I think they’ll end up
3rd in the U.S. Division behind Seattle and Spokane. With the talent they
have, and the question marks surrounding the team, they could finish anywhere
from 2nd to 4th in the division when the season ends, though I think it’d be
tough to pass Seattle for the division title. Seattle returns almost everyone
and will be tough to beat this season. And the schedule won’t help in that
aspect, as the Hawks will most certainly play Seattle at least 12 times next
season. Coach Mike Williamson will have a tough task on his hands, but should
be rewarded after next season with a strong team that can contend for a
division and conference title.