By Nick Patterson Herald writer
It wasn’t so long ago that the Portland Winterhawks were the laughing stock of the Western Hockey League.
Three straight seasons Portland was the worst team in the Western Conference. Twice during that span the Winterhawks finished with the worst record in the entire league. Off-ice news out of Portland was filled with chaos.
Oh how quickly things can change.
Little more than a year after serving as the league’s doormat the Winterhawks are poised not only to conquer the U.S. Division, but perhaps all of major-junior hockey.
From 2006-09 there was one constant in the U.S. Division: Portland was propping up the rest in the standings. In those three seasons the Winterhawks finished dead last in the division, never winning more than 19 games and never coming within 20 points of fourth. In 2007-08 the gap between fourth-place Everett and Portland was an astounding 56 points.
But things changed dramatically last season. In the first full season under owner Bill Gallacher and general manager/head coach Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks vaulted to a 44-25-2-1 record, good for a 43-point improvement.
Portland pulled off the turnaround with a youthful and talented team big on size and skill. Eight Winterhawks were selected in this year’s NHL draft, two of whom (center Ryan Johansen and left wing Nino Niederreiter) were among the first five players picked. A league-high 13 Portland players attended NHL training camps this season.
Almost all of that talent returns this season. That was acknowledged in the Canadian Hockey League’s preseason poll, in which Portland was ranked third in North America and first among WHL teams.
That reads as bad news for the rest of the division. The Winterhawks have a depth in talent the rest of the division can only envy. Even with the 13 players off at NHL training camps Portland rolled through the competition during the preseason, indicating that even Portland’s depth players are a cut above.
The only question mark standing between Portland and its first division title since 2001-02 comes in goal, where No. 1 option Mac Carruth is unproven.
If there’s a team that can challenge Portland, it’s Tri-City. The Americans are the three-time defending division champions, and in two of those seasons little was expected of Tri-City before the season began. Last season the Americans won a four-team horse race for first, beating out Everett for the banner on a tiebreaker.
Tri-City had the most-potent offense in the conference last season, and the Americans’ offense returns virtually intact — six of Tri-City’s top seven scorers are back. That includes three point-per-game performers in Brendan Shinnimin, Justin Feser and Brooks Macek.
The Americans also have a dependable goalie in Drew Owsley. The question for Tri-City is on defense, where the Americans return just one of their top four.
Everett is the other team with a chance of challenging the top two. The Silvertips, who finished tied with Tri-City atop the division standings last season (the Americans held the tiebreaker), have a new look this season, with the additions of center Landon Ferraro via trade with Red Deer and right wing Josh Birkholz from the University of Minnesota. Despite the loss of team MVP Shane Harper to graduation, the Tips should have plenty of options up front.
But like Tri-City, Everett has questions on defense. Radko Gudas, who was the team’s heart and soul, is off to the professional ranks. With overage candidates Chris de la Lande and Curtis Kulchar deciding not to return, Everett finds itself a little thin on defense, though the recent acquisition of overage d-man Chad Suer helps.
Spokane, the fourth horse in that four-way battle for first last season, is the team that lost the most and appears to be in a bit of a rebuilding phase.The Chiefs lost their top two offensive options in Mitch Wahl and Kyle Beach, and Spokane also lost three key defensemen.
However, the Chiefs still have a top goaltender in James Reid, and if defenseman Jared Cowen returns from the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, Spokane should have enough to maintain respectability.
Seattle brought up the rear of the division last season, and talent-wise the T-birds still don’t appear to be at the same level as the rest of the division.
However, Seattle has a good foundation to build upon in goaltender Calvin Pickard, perhaps the best netminder in the league. The team also showed signs of life during the preseason, so Seattle should be more competitive this season and contend for a playoff berth.