On the eve of the Portland Winter Hawks’ 27th season in the WHL, questions surround the team that have been asked all offseason. Finally, after months of speculation, fans will get their answers tomorrow night, as the Winter Hawks open the season in Kelowna against the Rockets. The defense appears fairly solid, and it will most likely be the backbone of the Hawks. But the Hawks need to find scoring touch. There have been some encouraging signs in the preseason, however. They won their 2nd preseason game comfortable, and came down from 3 goals behind to beat the Tri-City Americans on the road in OT the next night, scoring a total of 12 goals in the two games.
There is one problem, however. While I was not at the second game in Tri-Cities, I was at the first in Portland. Many of the goals could be attributed to atrocious defense by the Americans. The goals, while scored against poor defense, could still be confidence building for this young team. Most came from mucking and grinding near the crease, putting constant pressure on the goalie. With the young forwards Portland has, pretty goals will probably be at a minimum. The uglier the game, the better it will be for Portland early on, while the younger players are getting their feet wet.
On the returning player front, Portland got a surprise before last Friday’s game when Richie Regehr came back from Vancouver’s camp sooner than expected, and was ready to play in the first of the back-to-back preseason games with Tri-City. Joey Hope has just been cut from the Red Wings camp, and will be ready to play tomorrow night in Kelowna. One of the new players, defenseman David Turon, was also returned to Portland from Leafs camp. But in his last on-ice session before leaving for Portland, he broke his clavicle and will be out about six weeks. Patrick Wellar should also be returning to the team from Capitals camp very soon.
In the last two games, there have been some decent performances by some of the newcomers. One player in particular that has stood out is Daniel Da Silva. He scored two goals in the win at the Memorial Coliseum, and he picked up two assists in the game at Tri-City. He appears to have good instinct with the puck, knows when to pass and when to shoot. He scored a nice wrist shot on a 2 on 1 late in the home game. He caused trouble every time he was out on the ice, as a single defender couldn’t knock him off the puck. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but he’s only 16 and will get better. Another nice surprise has been 17 year old Roman Prazak. He’s shown a well-rounded offensive game, and he’s certainly not afraid to shoot. As with most European imports, he needs to work on his game defensively. But, like Da Silva, he’s young and will continue to improve as well.
A couple of the returning players that have impressed, include Tyler Grover, who scored two goals in the 6-5 OT win in Tri-City. He’s started to take a more active role in the offense, taking charge and going for the puck a lot harder than he did last year. He seemed much more timid last season, and it’s good to see him have more confidence in his abilities. Richie Regehr seems ready to take over offensively and defensively. He scored against Tri-City to cut the lead to one, and then proceeded to assist on the tying and game winning goals. He’s been very solid defensively, stickhandling well and playing the body effectively. This could be a true break out season for him. One other big surprise is Matt Fetzner. He’s gotten stronger in the offseason, and has worked on his positioning and it clearly shows. That’s not all either. He’s worked in the offseason with two boxing instructors to improve his fighting ability. He displayed it in the Hawks’ first preseason game against the Kamloops Blazers.
The Hawks open WHL play with two road games, first against the Kelowna Rockets. Then on Saturday, they take on the Kamloops Blazers. Kelowna has a couple solid forwards with Kiel McLeod and Jesse Schultz. Their goaltending is somewhat suspect, but they’re a solid all-around team. There’s no one spectacular player or aspect of the Rockets, but they can still be dangerous, and should be a contender in the B.C. Division. Kamloops, on the other hand, looks to be perhaps one of the best teams in the Western Conference. They’re a perennial contender in the WHL, and this year is no exception. Portland has had some success recently against the Blazers at Sportmart Arena, but that doesn’t mean that this matchup will be easy at all. They’ve got a good pair of goaltenders in Davis Parley and Steve Belanger, which has caused some controversy over who the starter would be, not unlike what Portland has with Lanny Ramage and Krister Toews. The superstar on the Blazers is no secret, however. Scottie Upshall could be the premier 18 year old in the WHL this year, if not the premier forward period. The 6th overall pick in last year’s NHL draft can do it all offensively, and will be tough for any team to stop. It will be Portland’s first big defensive test.
The WHL beat writers picked Portland 18th out of 19 teams in the WHL entering the season, ahead of only the 2nd year Vancouver Giants. Not much is expected of the Hawks this season, but the players will be out to prove the critics wrong, starting tomorrow night.
(On another note, I will be updating this page over the next couple weeks, fixing the prospect lists, rankings, links, etc. I’ll wait until a few games into the season to start ranking players and such. I’ll try to write a weekly column on the Hawks and their upcoming opponents, and hopefully will be giving more insight into individual players as the year goes on. I hope everyone enjoys reading this, and other columns, here on Hockey’s Future.)