Portland again team to beat in U.S. Division

The story in the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division this season is the same as it’s been:

Can anyone catch the Portland Winterhawks?

Portland pulled off the trifecta last season, winning the U.S. Division, Western Conference and WHL championships. With the 2013-14 season about to begin, the Winterhawks once again appear to be the team to beat in the division.

Portland has become a juggernaut, compiling 100-plus-point campaigns each of the past three seasons. Last year’s 57 victories broke a franchise record that had stood since 1981, and the Winterhawks marched to the franchise’s fifth WHL title.

Portland accomplished all of that despite being without head coach/general manager Mike Johnston for most of the season. Johnston was suspended for the season by the league last November because of unspecified improper player benefits, and the team received an unprecedented $200,000 fine. Not even those sanctions could slow the Winterhawks down.

Now Johnston is back and so is most of the league’s most explosive offense. Portland returns Brendan Leipsic and Nicolas Petan, the two players who tied for the league scoring championship last season, and the Winterhawks have plenty of depth behind those two.

However, Portland took a big hit on defense, particularly if former Everett first-round bantam draft pick Seth Jones sticks with the NHL’s Nashville Predators as a 19-year-old. No. 1 goaltender Mac Carruth is also gone, but the Winterhawks have so much on offense it might not matter.

After Portland, the prognosis for the rest of the division is muddy.

The past three seasons there’s been a clear separation between the top three of Portland, Tri-City and Spokane and the bottom two of Everett and Seattle. However, both the Silvertips and the Thunderbirds are expected to improve this season, while the Americans and Chiefs are expected to take a step back, meaning positions two-through-five in the division appear to be up for grabs.

Tri-City is trying to make history. The Americans have won 40 or more games in each of the past seven seasons, matching the WHL record set by Kamloops from 1990-96. Another 40 or more victories this season and Tri-City achieves something no other WHL team has ever done.

However, the Americans have their hands full if they want to keep the streak alive. Tri-City has a top goaltender in Eric Comrie, and the Americans are deep and experienced on defense. But Tri-City was not the offensive force last season it’s been in the past, and the Americans lost their top two forwards in Justin Feser and Malte Stromwall, so goal scoring could be an issue.

Spokane has been a force within the division since Don Nachbaur took over as head coach in 2010. However, the Chiefs will have to overcome heavy player losses this season. Brenden Kichton, the two-time Western Conference Defenseman of the Year, graduated and Spokane also lost a number of impact forwards. Overagers Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani return to give the Chiefs a good one-two punch, but the depth beyond those two is completely unproven.

Meanwhile, both Everett and Seattle are expecting to take big strides forward this season and should challenge Tri-City and Spokane for positioning toward the top of the division.

Everett has made the playoffs in all 10 seasons of franchise history, but the past three years the Tips just squeezed into the postseason by finishing eighth in the Conference. Everett already was confident of improvement this season, to the point where management offered a guarantee to season-ticket holders that the team would finish no worse than sixth in the conference.

Everett then had a tremendous offseason. Kevin Constantine, who was extremely successful as the franchise’s first coach from 2003-07, was rehired. The Tips then potentially added several impact players.

The Silvertips already had a strong foundation in the form of goaltender Austin Lotz and defenseman Mirco Mueller. If Jujhar Khaira, one of those potential offseason additions, returns from his tryout with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, the Tips could be the most improved team in the league.

If there’s another contender to be the league’s most improved, it might be Seattle. The T-birds made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, and they lost little of consequence beyond goaltender Brandon Glover, who graduated. Seattle also added superstar prospect Mathew Barzal, the first-overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft who’s considered very talented. If the T-birds can find someone to give them competent goaltending, they could make a big jump in the standings as well.

All of which should make for an interesting season in the U.S. Division.

Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.

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