Well, it appears the Kelowna Rockets have made the pages of Sports Illustrated.
In an NHL Preview story on Young Defensemen (which, by the way, should be spelled Defencemen with a C, not an S), Rockets president and general manager Bruce Hamilton was interviewed about the success his team’s had this decade in sending blue-liners to the NHL.
Part of the story rotates around Tyler Myers, who now stars with the Buffalo Sabres, and how former assistant coach Jeff Finley began teaching the raw, 6-foot-8 defenceman. Here’s a couple of excerpts (along with the corrected the defencemen errors)
In the past decade, since Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton revamped his club to mirror an NHL franchise, ensuring his coaching staffs always included someone capable of teaching advanced defensive principles, a series of respected junior coaches and assistants with pro blue-line experience have sent a disproportionate number of talented defencemen to the NHL.
There are as many defencemen from Kelowna in the league as there are linebackers from Penn State in the NFL. They include Tyler Myers, the 2010 Norris winner; Nashville’s 25-year-old Shea Weber, whose muscular shot ripped right through Germany’s net in an 8-2 Team Canada victory at the 2010 Olympics; the Canucks’ Alex Edler, 24; and the developing Luke Schenn, 20, in Toronto.
The story could have included a couple more defencemen from the same time span: Josh Gorges, with Montreal, and Kyle Cumiskey, with Colorado.
Now, below is a doozy. It’s about the Portland Winterhawks and is ridiculously long. But, hey, the Hawks are this season’s hot-topic button, and a lot more ink will be spilled on the team from Oregon.
By Doyle Potenteau
Forgive Mike Johnston if he seems overjoyed right now. Every WHL general manager would be as well if they had what the Portland Winterhawks have.
And what Portland has is a stockpile of talent. Enough to make a serious run at the league crown this season. Enough to make mediocre teams cringe at the thought of playing the Winterhawks, who, in just two seasons, have gone from sad sacks to contenders.
Though the 2010-11 season is young, with only a handful of games played, it’s already easy to see where Portland is headed. Take Saturday, for example. That day, the Hawks had two players returned from NHL training camps/pre-season play, the pair being centre Ryan Johansen and and left-winger Oliver Gabriel. Selected fourth overall in the NHL’s 2010 draft by Columbus, Johansen, 18, was returned to the WHL after playing in an exhibition game on Friday night for the Blue Jackets. Columbus also returned Gabriel, 19, who attended camp as a free agent.
By Monday, Portland had registered three points in two home games with a 3-2 shootout loss to Seattle on Saturday night, then a 6-2 win over Lethbridge on Sunday. Gabriel had one assist while Johansen had three assists. Now, four points from two players over two games isn’t much to write about, but Johansen and Gabriel aren’t the only weapons in Portland’s arsenal. In all, the Winterhawks had eight players selected in June’s NHL entry draft, a testament to the squad’s depth.
Here’s a list of the eight:
Ryan Johansen: first round; fourth overall; Columbus Blue Jackets
Nino Niederreiter: first round; fifth overall; New York Islanders
Brad Ross: second round; 43rd overall; Toronto Maple Leafs
Taylor Aronson : third round, 78th overall; Nashville Predators
Troy Rutkowski: fifth round; 137th overall; Colorado Avalanche
Luke Walker: fifth round; 139th overall; Colorado Avalanche
Mac Carruth: seventh round; 191st overall; Chicago Blackhawks
Riley Boychuk: seventh round; 208th overall; Buffalo Sabres
But, as Johnston will tell you, there’s also a small price to pay for having a good roster.
“It’s been a different start to the season for us,” said Johnston, Portland’s GM and head coach, whose team is 3-1-0-1 through five games. “The first two weeks of training camp, we had everybody here. Then we lost 13 to pro camps, and it was a bit disjointed until as recent as this Saturday, when we got Johansen and Gabriel back. Now we pretty well have our team and we can start to settle in.
“That’s what coaches want; you want to spend time on special teams, you want to spend time working with your group, and we haven’t had much time together over the last couple of weeks.”
The Winterhawks have had zero time lately with their most well-known player, that being Swiss forward Nino Niederreiter, who was selected fifth overall by the New York Islanders in June’s draft. Currently, he’s still with the Islanders, and the Winterhawks expect the 18-year-old left-winger to be on Long Island at least for the short term.
NHL teams have nine regular-season games to decide if they’ll hang onto a player or whether they’ll return him. For if a player suits up a 10th game, the first year of his contract kicks in and, regardless if he’s returned to his former team, said NHL team will have to pay his base salary at minimum while also having it count against the team’s salary cap.
“With Nino, we expect the Islanders will play him the nine games and then make a decision if he can handle the NHL load,” said Johnston. “And if he can, then he’ll stay. If he can’t, then they’ll return him.”
Last season, Niederreiter scored 36 goals and tallied 60 points in 65 games as a rookie. He also had a standout performance at the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship, playing for his native Switzerland, potting six goals and four assists in just seven games. That’s an impressive stat, considering he was 17 at the time, playing against the world’s best.
There is, however, a new Swiss forward in Oregon, and he’s already making waves. Through five games, 5-foot-10 left winger Sven Bartschi has two goals and six points. And, yes, he’s also from Switzerland. He also turns 18 today. Bartschi was the seventh overall pick in the CHL import draft. He also played for the Swiss U18 team in 2009 and 2010.
“When we went over our European rankings last year, with different people we know who have an idea of the players from the various countries, he was rated in the top 10 by everybody. He also has the same agent as Nino, so we felt we would stay with something we knew, and we’re really happy with him.
“He has a great personality, much like Nino, and he’s a skilled guy, a little bit different player than Nino is. (Sven) is very skilled, very fast, quick hands, that type of player. He’s been with Ty Rattie on opposite wings and they’ve played well from Day 1 in training camp.”
But back to Johansen, who weighs in at 6-3 and 196 pounds. Last season, the Port Moody, B.C., product had 25 goals and 69 points in 71 games. In 13 playoff games, he had six goals and 18 points.
“Well, it’s great to have Johansen back,” said Johnston. “He played Friday night for Columbus, then flew back on Saturday and played Saturday and Sunday, back-to-back games for us. So having him back, it’s great, because he’s a real key player in our lineup, a big centre who can control the play. I thought he was good, but he was a little bit tired, which is natural. And it’s certainly an emotional time for those guys, because when they come back they were hoping to stay.
“But they are young guys, so I think they’re realistic about the steps that have to be made — it’s not that easy (making the NHL), as you have to make the right steps. In one sense, he was a little disappointed, but in the other sense, he was excited to be coming back.”
One Winterhawk that won’t be coming back is right-winger Luke Walker, 20, who signed with Colorado Avalanche on Sept. 28, and was assigned to Lake Erie of the AHL. He had 27 goals and 57 points last season, and also helped the U.S. win gold at the 2010 WJHC.
Also gone is last season’s leading scorer, Chris Francis, to graduation. Francis had 26 goals and 82 points in 72 games in what was the franchise’s biggest turnaround season. In 2008-09, Portland had the league’s worst record at 19-48-3-2, good for just 43 points. In 2009-10, the Winterhawks, flush with talented bantam-draft picks after three straight horrible seasons, went 44-25-2-1, good for 91 points and a 48-point turnaround.
With a roster that’s now a year older and bigger, big things are expected from Portland. Johnston, though, says his Hawks aren’t the only team that’s projected to do well.
“If you really look at our division, Tri-City is a really good team,” said Johnston. “They have five of their top-six scorers back from last season and they played so well last season. If you look at our team, we lost Nino’s 36 goals so far and Walker and Francis. So we’ve lost three of our top-five scorers and we’ve taken a hit there.
“We do have some pretty good players (on the roster), but certainly I’m not sure we’re the favourites that everybody makes us out to be. Anytime you lose key people — like Nino’s 36 goals — it’s different. If we get Nino back, then, yeah, we might be the favourite. But until that happens, it’s a big hit to the team when you lose players like that. We thought we might get Walker back, but then he signed last week with Colorado. But with 20-year-olds, everybody knows you might not get them back.
“From what I’m seeing around, especially in the East, there’s a couple of teams that haven’t gotten the starts that they’d like, but I’ve heard they’re pretty good and they’re right in their games. So I think the parity across the league is quite good. But when you’re looking at our division, ever since I’ve been here, which has only been two years, it’s been really, really tough.
“Spokane was coming off its (2008) Memorial Cup win (when I joined Portland), and then Tri-City has been really good since. Then you look at the improvements Everett has made — Everett’s always been a good team, and once again they’re a real solid team right now — and Seattle has improved. So our division, it’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be tough . . . for the teams to get 40-plus wins, we have to go through each other all the time.”
Like Portland, the Spokane Chiefs received good news this past weekend when the Ottawa Senators returned 6-5 defenceman Jared Cowen to the WHL on Saturday.
“We thought about it long and hard and Jared, overall, played pretty well in camp,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray told the media about the decision on Cowen, who was “disappointed” to hear the news. “We’re trying to do what’s right for him and, eventually, us. I just felt going back to junior, playing 25-30 minutes a game and getting a chance to develop his puck skills a little more would probably serve him best. I think he has a chance to play on the world junior team as well, and this will be real good for him.
“It was just a matter of saying yes or no. It was that close. We thought long and hard about keeping him. But I think in this situation, it probably is the right thing for him.”
“Jared Cowen is a top-notch player,” said Johnston. “Any time a player gets an elite player back, it’s certainly going to help them. Spokane has a really quick team. In the pre-season, we played them, and they were very quick, very skilled and I really like what they have there. They’ve got a team that’s probably going to take a step back, because they lost some key 20-year-olds, but they have some good, young players.
“In Seattle, they play that hard-working, grinding style and have great goaltending. So it’s a tough division, but it makes it exciting because you really have to be sharp against your own division. There’s never an easy game. All the teams are really well run and really well coached.”
With Cowen likely to play for Canada again at the WJHC, don’t be surprised if Portland’s roster gets fleeced for the annual tournament.
“Well, that happens to top teams,” said Johnston. “We have three guys, Johansen and (D Brett) Ponich and (LW Brad) Ross who could go to the world junior. And then there’s Bartschi, and if Nino comes back, he could go as well. So those guys are all potential guys who could play in the world junior. And then at the same time, there’s the big (World Under-17 Hockey Challenge tournament, Dec. 28 to Jan. 4) in Winnipeg this year, so (D Derrick) Pouliot and (C Brendan) Leipsic I think will go. So we’ll lose some pretty good players at that time, and I guess that’s just the luck of the draw. Some times, some teams have it and some teams don’t. I know Tri-City was very fortunate and didn’t lose anybody and they had a great run through that time period.
“So we’ve tried to make sure in our scheduling that we didn’t play as many games this year at that time. I believe, during that whole period, we only have five games, so it’s something I hope we can manage.”
Winterhawks who attended NHL training camps
(Name / NHL club / Draft year)
Taylor Aronson, Nashville Predators, 2010
Spencer Bennett, Calgary Flames, 2009
Riley Boychuk, Buffalo Sabres, 2010
Mac Carruth, Chicago Blackhawks, 2010
Oliver Gabriel, Columbus Blue Jackets, F/A
Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2010
Tayler Jordan, Vancouver Canucks, F/A
Nino Niederreiter, New York Islanders, 2010
Taylor Peters, Pittsburgh Penguins, F/A
Brett Ponich, St. Louis Blues, 2009
Brad Ross, Toronto Maple Leafs, 2010
Troy Rutkowski, Colorado Avalanche, 2010
Luke Walker, Colorado Avalanche, F/A