The current tale of the tape, Western Hockey League style, quite convincingly suggests the Portland Winterhawks will probably supply the “long and short of it” when the time comes for NHL teams to make their selections at the 2013 NHL Draft in Newark, New Jersey.
The essential information is crystal clear. Defenseman Seth Jones, who checks in at 6’4” and 200 pounds, continues to improve and is likely destined to be the number one pick in June. Diminutive forward Nic Petan continues to force scouts to assess the value of making him an early round pick, despite a frame that is generously listed at 5’9" and 166 pounds.
And just to add another dynamic to the Winterhawks supply of elite talent, forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, at 5’11” and 180 pounds, is putting together a breakout-type season as a rookie import in the WHL.
Mighty high expectations
Petan is a speed merchant from Delta, British Columbia who collected 35 points last season in Portland as a 16-year-old. He has burst onto the WHL scene this year, skating on a forward line with Brendan Leipsec (NAS) and Ty Rattie (STL). The unit is likely the smallest forward trio in the league at this point, yet the chemistry is both undeniable and effective. Leipsec leads the WHL in scoring with 105 points, while Petan follows closely in second with 102. Rattie, the veteran on the line and only player signed to a NHL contract, has chipped in with 87 points, although he did leave the team for a significant period to play for Team Canada at the 2013 WJC.
“Coming into the season I knew I was going to get more playing time,” Petan said in an interview with Hockey’s Future at Kamloops before the Winterhawks 3-0 victory on Feb. 20. “I came in after some real hard work and it’s been a good season so far.”
“I think you really have to give them (Rattie and Leipsec) credit,” Petan said, when asked about his line mates. “They’re fantastic players and it seems like we all know where each other is going to be on the ice out there.”
Petan is one of many players in the WHL with roots in British Columbia’s lower mainland. He played his minor hockey in the program at the North Shore Winter Club.
“I was always one of the smaller guys,” Petan said, “so I had to learn how to use my vision and speed and skill just to get around those bigger guys. It’s the same thing here in the WHL. The guys are just bigger and faster. I have to be stronger even though I’m smaller.”
In an effort to increase strength, Petan is committed to a physical regimen that builds power in his legs and also core strength to help with his balance.
“I always find myself in the gym working on my lower body and my core,” Petan said. “Those things help the smaller guys the most and it’s the best way to be able to get around those bigger guys. Sometimes they can manhandle you out there, but it’s important to use your speed to get around them. For me, sure, I use my size as motivation out there.”
Regardless of his size, Petan has a nose for the net and a very quick release, something NHL scouts can’t help but notice. If popular opinion suggests he is at a disadvantage of sorts due to his physical make up, it is glaringly apparent that Petan refuses to sweat the small stuff. He knows there are many pairs of eyes focused on he and his Portland teammates this season, as the group is gearing up for a deep playoff run during Petan’s draft year.
“It’s pretty cool to get this experience,” Petan said. “But really, Seth, Ollie and I, we try not to talk about it too much. We kind of have to let it be and just let what happens happen. But yeah, it is a cool experience, talking to everybody. But then you really have to come out every night and play hard.”
Playing hard is absolutely crucial, game in and game out, especially when buildings across the WHL draw large groups of NHL scouts. With the NHL committed to a draft lottery approach in June due to the lockout and the subsequent shortened regular season, there are more teams with a chance to nail down a high pick.
Keeping up with Jones
Enter Seth Jones, the consensus number one pick. Jones came to the WHL as a highly touted rearguard, with many attributes that cannot go unnoticed. He is NHL-ready physically, a player likely to spend just one season in major junior hockey.
Despite the constant attention this season, Jones remains calm and well-spoken. He understands what the media wants, and he seems well suited to the realities that he will never be entirely left alone during the remainder of the current campaign. He has become used to the spotlight and appears to accept it with grace. It would be difficult to blame any frequently sought after athlete for responding to queries with monotone, robotic answers, yet Jones seems to have accepted that these interactions can take on the feel of a comfortable conversation. He is very confident that choosing to play in the WHL this season was the right developmental choice.
“I heard a lot about the league and read a lot about it,” Jones said. “I knew it was going to be a lot faster pace for me than last year and also a lot more stress on the body. And mentally, too.
“The media attention was just going to grow because this is a league that a lot of NHL'ers come from. It’s one of the best developmental leagues in the world. The first couple weeks, it took me some time to get started, getting used to the tempo and the pace in the league. After that, as the season has gone on, I have begun to feel more comfortable with it all.”
Jones is quick to credit his teammates for helping him to find his way this season, both on and off the ice. Utilizing the knowledge of a number of drafted team mates has been beneficial for Jones, who is thankful to have these important informational resources at arms length.
“I’ve been able to play with Tyler Wotherspoon (CGY) for most of the season and he’s a great guy,” Jones said. “He’s very strong defensively. Then there’s Troy Rutkowski, a 20-year-old who really took me under his wing. He’s a guy who has really stood out for me this year as a great person who helped me out early on this season.
“Derek Pouliot (PIT) is hurt right now. He’s a great guy in the room and we’re really missing his presence right now but he should be back for the playoffs. Ty Rattie played a couple of games for St. Louis last season, he’ll most likely be in the AHL next season. From top to bottom we have a lot of good players and good guys who have helped to show me the way here this year.”
One of the huge adjustments for Jones this season has been the length of the WHL schedule, combined with the amount of travel required. Portland is the WHL’s most southwestern outpost. The team’s shortest road trip is about three hours, while travel out of their division results in six- to 26-hour bus rides. Last season, all told, Jones says he played about 60 games. He admitted prior to the Blackhawks game in Kamloops that the rigors of the WHL are presenting some challenges.
“That’s right, the total last year with international games was about 60,” Jones said. “Portland has played almost 100 games each of the past two years.
“The number one thing is to just take care of your body away from the rink. I’m not a big fan of ice baths, but they’re definitely necessary at times, especially with the three games in three nights or the four-in-five stretches. It’s tough physically, and definitely tough mentally as well. There are a lot of ups and downs during a 72-game season, so we just really have to keep our heads on straight through it all.”
Like many juniors, Jones is also quick to recognize his parents for the time commitment they’ve made during his advancement to elite status in the game. His father, Popeye Jones, enjoyed a prolific National Basketball Association playing career, which has been spoken to on many occasions by his son. But there is another major contributor in the mix.
“My parents have been huge through all of this,” Jones said. “But it was usually my mom who took care of all of the driving to and from the rinks because my dad spent a lot of time on the road playing basketball. She was the one there for those 5:30 AM and 6:30 AM practices during the week. I can’t ever forget about that. I wouldn’t be here without that effort.”
Sporty import muscles way into draft mix
For quite some time, there was serious doubt as to whether or not Oliver Bjorkstrand would commit to playing in North America. The Danish product enjoyed international success at home and had a number of opportunities to play in Europe. Alas, Bjorkstrand opted for the WHL, specifically Portland, ultimately considering it his best route to securing a NHL job.
Bjorkstrand has not-so-quietly put together a point-per-game performance so far this season, collecting 27 goals and 28 assists in 54 games, along with a plus-33 rating. He plays bigger than his frame and has supplied valuable secondary scoring for the Winterhawks while skating alongside Taylor Leier (PHI) and Chase De Leo. Bjorkstrand is currently seven points ahead of his closest opponent in the WHL’s rookie scoring race.
"I thought the playing style, I'd pick up pretty quick," Bjorkstrand said earlier this season in an interview with Adam Kimmelman of NHL.com. "I didn't really know my skill against the other kids, didn't really know where I was before I came over here. So far I think I've done pretty good, just trying to improve my game and get better every day.
“I don't know if I feel the pressure. It motivates me to work harder in the games. When you know there's scouts at the game you want to play good. You want to show you're a high-prospect player. If you hear there's a scout at the game, it just makes you work harder at the games and just to show them that you want to try to make it to the NHL."
In its Mid-Term rankings, the NHL’s Central Scouting lists Jones at first overall among North American skaters, while Bjorkstrand is 29th and Petan 34th.
The Winterhawks are clearly the class of the WHL at this point, leading the overall standings by ten points over their closest pursuer, the Edmonton Oil Kings. With a deep playoff run anticipated by many junior hockey observers, this dynamic trio in Portland should see their respective stocks continue to increase as the NHL Draft approaches.