3.Portland Winterhawks:On November 28th,2012, sanctions were brought down to the Winterhawks that drastically changed the complexion of the organization. Coach and General Manager Mike Johnston, who later left for the Pittsburgh Penguins only to later come back was suspended and the team was crippled by the forfeiture of five first round picks. The significant infractions would normally shred apart the competence of the on ice operations but through all of that they managed to make the playoffs early year and finished with a plus .500 record. This year they ride in with whopping expectations and the perhaps surprising addition of New York Islander prospect Kieffer Bellows has cemented their position of a Western Conference co-favourite. Through the process of elimination you'll be able to ascertain that them and the Tri-City Americans are on a collision course for a spirited second round series.
I'm not saying anything that hasn't already been conversed at nauseum but with the acqusition of Bellows, he and Cody Glass will form the league's scariest 1-2 punch this year. While Bellows and Glass, the inaugraul draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights will steal all of the headlines ut someone that will thrive in the shadows of those two is Skyler McKenzie. In the 2016-2017 season preview I had nothing but good things to say about McKenzie but at the time pertaining to the exuberance I authored over his potential performance some of the fascination was met with skepticism over him only accumulating twenty five points. Fast forward to a year later and my original analysis looks golden now as he brokethrough with an eighty five point season and the Winnipeg Jets rewarding Skyler with a seventh round selection in the 2017 draft. The scary fact about what Skyler could accomplish in 2017/2018 is before he only had Cody Glass and now he has both Glass and Bellows to align with. On that lineup note, I have a thought that even though I'm sure Mike Johnston will enlist those three on the top unit to better balance depth it would be wise to maybe split up the inevitable Glass and Bellows partnership while sticking with Cody and Skyler who have forged successful chemistry. Dispersing Kieffer on the '1B' line serves greater benefit to the team as overall depth remains a concern and how can it not when considering the aforementioned draft penalties they've had to overcome. Glancing at my magic eight ball, if I was the constructing the every day lineup I'd strongly consider pairing up Glass and McKenzie by adding overager Colton Veloso ont the right side and featuring the ability of Edmonton product Ryan Hughes by gracing him with the assignment of playing with Kieffer. I would vouch to say that Joachim Blichfeld could flank my newly devised '1B' line admirably. Teams that have a plethora of top nine capable forwards could afford to load up the one line the same way Seattle Thunderbird former coach Steve Konowalchuk did with Mat Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar but even with that it should be noted that during the teeth of the playoffs as opposing coaches zeroed in on the one effective line, the decision was made to drop the powerful Gropp down to the second unit and from there opponents didn't have an answer and we all know how that finished. No question that Mike Johnston has assembled a certfiable top six, I profiled one of the six in McKenzie and stressed the importance of what Glass and Bellows will provide on a nightly basis but I saw first hand what a lack of depth will do,particularly in playoff time.The Regina Pats did have the most formidable top six in Western Canada last year but ran into catastrophic injuries as the playoffs commenced and it was ultimately their undoing as one of John Paddock's flaws was he didn't address the depth deficiency at the deadline. You hate to wish injuries upon anybody but what will Mike Johnston do if the unthinkable happens? Does enough exist in the tank to outwork opponents when you run into imposing defensive cores? A lot of questions are worthy discussing points as unlike in the regular season you're not going to score eight a night(for which the Winterhawks have the talent to do so) and a trade may be deemed necessary to shore up the paramount top threes. Depending on what they're prepared to spend, an overage upgrade could be plausible as I'm not convinced either Alex Overhardt or Evan Weinger have enough intangibles to skate with a championship calibre club. Two possible fits off the cusp include Wyatt Sloboshan out of Regina if they go in a different direction with their own 20's or Jordy Stallard out of Prince Albert. The possibilities are endless which is why it's pointless to list off the different permutations and combinations, I may as well devote my time to identifying a player who is poised to replicate McKenzie of a year ago and breakout. I present to you Lane Gilliss. Playing time could be at a premium for Lane as he'll fighting all pre-season long for a permanent top nine position and will be helped be the extended absences of Glass and Bellows who will be away at NHL camps. What I need to see out of Lane entering his second full season is more aggression. His calling card is his size and physicality and generally speaking didn't show much of it. The more comfortable he becomes asserting his big frame and engaging himself in the corners the more trust Johnston will have him in because in my limited viewings of Gilliss I'm not witnessing much in the way of a pair o mits and that observation is backed up by his meager offensive totals while a member of West Kelowna in the BCHL.I'm not advocating for Lane to be some kind of goon but if he's a little more dedicated to the body a top nine assignment should fall on his lap as he hopes to catch the eye of NHL scouts.
I just finished pleading for Winterhawks management to bring in another forward, that's a want. However an acquisition of another defenceman is a necessity if this team genuinely considers itself contenders. Finnish defenceman and Chicago Blackhawks first rounder Henri Jokiharju can safely anchor a defence but it's whats behind him that is worrisome. The jist that I seem to receive from those closely affiliated to the Winterhawk organization is that Keoni Texeira's play has enhanced his game year after year and by virtue of this would alleviate my fear that Portland doesn't possess a number two defenceman. Because this is a fluid entry you can disregard my proposition that this team could be in the market for another twenty year old as more then likely both Weinger and Overhardt will be subject to new homes. I was under the false presumption that Texeira was a 1998 born defenceman but even with that said,it's abundantly clear that my perception of the player is drastically different to the patrons frequenting the Moda Centre/Rose Gardens each night. For a defenceman,Texeira is an offensive dynamo racking up forty five point but it's my opinion the godly totals can be attributed to taking short cuts in his own end which naturally leads to headaches in the defensive zone. One game in particular where Portland was pitted against the Victoria Royals where a routine two on two rush had formulated where I beleive Texeira along with former partner(at least on this shift) Brendan De Jong where De Jong's assignment on the play drove the net hard leaving Texeira on the puck carrier and on the same play he made three different attempts to knock down the Royal but each the pursuit of dishing out a hit landed Keoni on his but and the Royal with a clear view of the slot. Naturally, one play isn't a microcosm of an entire campaign but it explains two things; A)he's not strong enough on his feet and B) needs to do a better job of picking his spots. I have no idea what his professional aspirations past this year are so I won't speak to that but if he continues on the next level converting to a forward may be a preferable initiativee because I honestly his skill set is better suited up front. As a whole, sans Jokiharju the defensive group that's arrived to training camp doesn't play with enough truculence. After the Winterhawks get off to their inevitable flying start, pleas will be heard to acquire the likes of Kale Clague or Jake Bean and while both would be superior fits with any organization, someone that prides itself on a simplistic, meat and potatoes brand of hockey if you will is more desirable from my vantage point. They need not worry about puck proficiency as Texeira and the second coming of the Finnish flash will take care of that. Secondary roles will be harder for Johnston to lock down. Someone that won't prescribe to the crash and bang mentality but will be a valuable commodity is Clay Hanus, a one time University of Minnesota commit. Reports exist that if it wasn't for his insistence on pursuing the NCAA route that he would've a consideration for a first round Bantam Draft selection. The recruitment mastery of Johnston comes through again and some of you readers that take the principle of the Bantam Draft to heart will be confused why a kid entering his sixteen year old season who went undrafted is guaranteed a spot on the team.The ever lasting NCAA-CHL war is prevalent in this and Clay has jumped ship to Major Junior which has been a theme for Portland this off-season. A terrific skater solidifies another theme of this projected group, sheer speed. Exhausting all possible options has me opining that for a lack of a better option currently Clay should inherit second line power play assingments thus is in line to reach the thiry to forty point plateau. My early favourite for the Winterhawks for Rookie of the Year nominee and living up to what has been the word of this team profile, 'theme' of this entry, Hanus is the best defenceman to come out of the state of Minnesota since the legendary Fulton Reed!
Due to the firepower upfront, the escapades of goaltender Cole Kehler often get overlooked which is rather unfair because all he has done is post stellar numbers.It's even more impressive because going into last season a long retooling year was seemingly on the horizon and through the expected adversity Cole backstopped the 'Hawks to a 32-17-3 mark. I can only imagine the frustration for Cole as he's constantly overlooked when there's been no reason for such to happen. Sometimes beat writers and media of their respective teams put too much emphasis on the offensive prowess which is popular with fans but I'll tell you what without Cole this group has nowhere the same identity.I'll go so far as to say that if Silvertip goaltender Carter Hart stumbles through a trying year in Everett or if the unimaginable happens and he's traded out East we could be looking at a scenario where the Altona,Manitoba native garners support for Western Conference Goaltender of the year.Award possibility or not, he's a top five netminder in this league.