Is Portland still the best in the West?

Was it the man or the organization?

When new ownership took over the Portland Winterhawks in 2008, Mike Johnston was brought in to be the team’s general manager and head coach. At the time, Portland was in the process of finishing dead last in the Western Conference for the third straight season.

Johnston was the architect of a dramatic turnaround. After a year of getting his feet wet, Johnston built the Winterhawks into a Western Hockey League dynasty. Portland won the past four Western Conference championships, claiming the league title in 2013.

But Johnston is now gone, taking one of hockey’s glamor jobs as the head coach of Sidney Crosby and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

So will the Portland dynasty continue without Johnston’s deft touch in charge?

That’s the big question for new Portland general manager/head coach Jamie Kompon and the Winterhawks, and that serves as the primary backdrop for the U.S. Division in the 2014-15 season.

Under Johnston the Winterhawks were the WHL’s high-flying offensive team, scoring goals by the bunches with a wealth of players blessed with elite speed and skill. Portland came at teams in waves, scoring the most goals in the league each of the past three seasons.

Portland also maintained under adversity. In November of 2012, Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season and the Winterhawks had five first-round bantam draft picks taken away for improper player benefits. Yet Portland overcame the potential talent drain by enjoying huge success recruiting elite players from the U.S. who normally would have been ticketed for the NCAA.

Can Kompon maintain those standards? Kompon arrives with a wealth of coaching experience at the NHL level. He spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks, the previous six seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Kings’ coaching staff and before that he put in nine seasons on staff with the St. Louis Blues. He earned Stanley Cups rings in back-to-back seasons with the Kings in 2012 and the Blackhawks in 2013.

But will Kompon’s experience at the NHL level translate to the WHL? He certainly was left with pieces to work with as Portland will again be the favorite to take home the division crown.

Portland is not as deep in electrifying offensive performers as it has been in the past, but the ones the Winterhawks do have returning are the best in the biz. Nineteen-year-old forwards Nicolas Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand finished 2-3 in the WHL scoring race last season with 113 and 109 points, respectively. Petan likely would have claimed the title had he not missed games playing for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Fellow 19-year-old Chase De Leo (81 points) gives the Winterhawks a tremendous foundation for a second scoring line.

The question for Portland will be on defense, where the Winterhawks lost their top three defensemen, including WHL Defenseman of the Year Derrick Pouliot. Nineteen-year-old newcomer Blake Heinrich, coaxed away from an NCAA scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth, will be asked to full much of the void.

Seattle and Everett are the two teams that seem best positioned to challenge Portland’s supremacy. The Thunderbirds and Silvertips finished tied for second in the division last season, a distant 25 points behind the Winterhawks.

However, the T-birds and Tips could potentially challenge in dramatically different manners. Seattle is a team that lost a large chunk of its team from last season, which was heavy in 19-year-olds, but returns some elite young talent and hopes to be able to keep up with Portland scoring wise. Everett returns most of its team, but lost its best offensive performers, and the Tips hope experience on defense and in goal will keep Portland’s scoring down.

Seattle will be built around the offense of 19-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore, who led the league in scoring among blueliners last season. He’s part of an experienced defensive crew that might also include 20-year-old goaltender Taran Kozun, though the T-birds were still sorting out their overage situation. Up front, 17-year-old Mathew Barzal and 18-year-old Ryan Gropp, a pair of projected first-round picks in next year’s NHL draft, have Seattle hoping their quality makes up for the loss of quantity.

Everett’s defense returns almost intact, depending on whether 19-year-old Mirco Mueller sticks with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. The Tips also have a talented and experienced goaltender in 19-year-old Austin Lotz, who is entering his third season as Everett’s No. 1 netminder. The question for the Tips is scoring, as 18-year-old Ivan Nikolishin is the only player among Everett’s top-five scorers last season who returns.

Tri-City finished last in the division last season, ending a run of seven straight seasons with 40 or more wins. The Americans are looking to rebound behind new head coach Mike Williamson and have a great equalizer in 19-year-old goaltender Eric Comrie, considered perhaps the best in the WHL. The Americans hope 19-year-old forwards Brian Williams and Parker Bowles can spur an offensive uptick, as Tri-City finished with the third-fewest goals in the league last season.

Spokane appears to be in trouble. The Chiefs relied heavily on their overagers last season: forwards Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani and goaltender Eric Williams. Not only did the Chiefs lose those three, they also lost top defenseman Reid Gow, who unexpectedly decided to forgo his 20-year-old season in the WHL.

So, the Chiefs will be looking to continue a streak of reaching the playoffs in eight straight seasons with 19-year-old defenseman Jason Fram and 19-year-old forward Adam Helewka the only players with any kind of established track record at the WHL level.

Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog and follow him on Twitter.

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