Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thoughts After Watching First 2 Hawks Preseason Games

The Portland Winterhawks began their preseason play this weekend at the annual Everett tournament this weekend and finished 3-0, outscoring their opponents 16-9. I was able to attend their Friday and Saturday games against Spokane and Tri City and here are my thoughts:

August 29th: Portland 7 Spokane 5:
-The Hawks burst out to a 6-1 lead, before allowing 4 late goals and holding on for a 7-5 win over the Chiefs.
-1999 born 2014 first round WHL Bantam pick: Cody Glass made an impressive WHL debut with 2 goals, while Defenseman Blake Heinrich added 2 as well, in his second game in a Hawks sweater.
-Portland outshot Spokane 43-23 and really controlled about 75 % of the action.
-I sat behind the Portland bench and the first difference I picked out between new coach Jamie Kompon and former coach Mike Johnston was that Kompon is far more animated and vocal than Johnston. His two favorite phrases appear to be: "Wheel, Wheel!" and "Pinch!" Most of these were directed at the defense. He was yelling so much, his voice sounded very horse by the second period.
-Based on this and frenetic pace of this game, it would be fair to say that Kompon wants his Defensemen to push the play and force the other team back on his heels, just as much as Johnston did, if not more.
-Assistant Coach Kyle Gustafson worked primarily with the Defensemen, while the other Assistant: Keith McKittrick worked with the forwards.
-This fast pace can set up fantastic goals and cause opposing Goalies headaches, but it also contributed to a few poor goals on the other end as well.
-Glass was a little nervous to start the game, but after his first few shifts (he skated with Chase De Leo and Alex Schoenborn) he was continuously in the right place and though his first goal was a little weak, squeezing through Spokane, 17 year old Goalie Tyson Verhelst's 5-hole, his second was a very deft deflection on a Layne Viveiros point shot. I am very excited for him to put more size on his frame and make an impact as a 16 year old next season.
-Keegan Iverson was a force early on but took it a little too far with a hit to the head of a Spokane player 18:45 into the game, earning a 5 minute major and a game misconduct. In my opinion the hit looked to contact the player's shoulder first, but referee Nathan Wieler would not hear it and Iverson was very upset leaving the ice.
-Heinrich may have to be the Hawk's go to power play quarterback as he exhibited great offensive instincts and a solid point shot. You will have to take the bad with the good (at least early on as he adjusts) with Heinrich though as his pocket was picked in embarrassing fashion by Spokane's Keanu Yamamoto, right in front of Goalie Brendan Burke, not giving poor Burke a prayer on the Chief's second goal.
-Speaking of Burke, I may be the only one who thinks his first game really wasn't that bad. Heinrich's turnover was one of many poor decisions on the back end, leaving him high and dry. The negative of Burke's play is the fact that it still appears that he has not mastered the angles that his playing style forces him to have to excel at. Of the 5 Spokane goals, I probably only place the blame fully on him for 1 of them (Curtis Miske's in the 3rd). This goal (Spokane's 4th) was scored shortly after Miske collided with Burke on the way out of his net leaving a wide open area for Riley Whittingham to bury the puck for Spakane's 3rd goal. Burke did seem to be pretty pissed off though and slapped his stick multiple times on the ice.
-Reed Morison also took away a souvenir puck, as he scored his first WHL goal, scoring off a rebound of a Keoni Texeira shot in the second period. Morison played 2 games for the Hawks last year as a 15 and is hoping to make the lineup permanently this year.
-Skyler McKenzie, who played the maximum number of games as a 15 year old last year (5), also scored his first WHL goal on a ridiculous snipe off a great Colton Veloso late in the 1st period. McKenzie is about 2 inches taller (5'7") and about 15 lbs heavier (149 lbs) and it shows in his play. Last year he got pushed around a lot, despite really good stick skills and superb agility. A little more size will make it easier for him to create a little space out there for his abilities with the puck to show.
-Veloso was the most impressive 16 year old Hawk on the weekend for me. He seems to have great ice vision out there and set up countless great scoring opportunities for his linemates.
-Carter Czaikowski is a 16 year old D-men with great wheels, but just seems like his is too small right now to be counted on for more than a handful of games this season. Spokane seemed to take it upon themselves to hit Czaikowski every chance they had. He did show some toughness by giving it back but on one of the Chief's goals, he could not move his guy out of Burke's ways, even after several cross checks. He would certainly be a fun player to watch this season, as he seems like he could really fit into the system well, but is most likely a year away.
-One guy who is not a year away is fellow 16 year old Brendan De Jong. Rarely do you see a 16 year old already know how to use his size like De Jone does. He threw a couple nice checks along the boards and did not back down from any challenges. De Jong can also skate very well and made several great outlet passes to spring his forwards.
-This is getting a little long winded, but I wanted to mention 20 year old Joshua Smith. Smith is 5'10" and 185 lbs, but plays the physical game well, while also contributing a very hard slap shot and the ability to run a power play from the point. As seen on the Hawk's first goal an absolute blast from the point.I could see Smith hanging around at least until Josh Hanson recovers from his injury and maybe he forces Hanson out. I find it extremely hard to believe that he did not play more for a cellar dwelling Prince George team the past few seasons.

August 30th: Portland 5 Tri City 2:
-We got out first taste of 19 year NHL signed forwards: Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan playing together and it was a real treat. Much like Leipsic and Petan did last year at the same tournament, at times they looked like they were just toying with their opponents. Oliver finished with 2 goals, while Nic had 2 assists. One of Bjorkstrand's goals was of highlight reel variety, as he (shorthanded) took the puck from one defender then walked between him and another for shelving it high glove side, past Tri City Goalie Evan Sarthou. If Bjorkstrand gets enough penalty killing time this season, I could see him making a run at the WHL record for short handed goals in a season: 14.
de Champlain
-20 year old Trent Lofthouse had another forgettable game and was visibly frustrated with himself. At one point, Kompon even went out of his way to say something to him after a string of poor plays. So far, at least, he seems like the easist cut of the 5 over age hopefuls. There was a one Everett fan who was still upset over Lofthouse's failure to achieve his expectations, as he yelled: "Lofthouse You Suck!" multiple times over the 2 games.
-One of these over-age hopefuls, came out with an "A" on his sweater, so appears to be lock and that was Adam de Champlain. De Champlain skated with Lofthouse and 17 year old Evan Weinger. Adam was his aggressive self and was on of the top Hawk's penalty killers in this game. This skill alone could be what has vaulted him on top of the 20 year old hierarchy.
-The other players with "A"s on their sweaters, that I saw play were: Chase De Leo, Dominic Turgeon and Nic Petan.The captaincy will most likely come down to one of these players. The easy choice would be Petan, as he is the only Assistant Captain left from last year's squad, but I would not rule out the other three yet.
-17 year old Jack Flaman, out of the SMHL, was placed on the top line with Petan and Bjorkstrand and was okay, It's hard to judge a guy who flubs a few chances when he is playing with two guys who are just playing at a quicker pace then anyone else on the ice. Flaman did make a couple great plays while killing penalties though and could be a role player for the Hawks down the road.
-Adin Hill had yet another solid game, as he made a few scrambling saves, including a beauty of a left leg kick save to rob Justin Gutierrez. I think this guy is only gonna get better and I would not be surprised if starts somewhere in the 25-30 game range this season for Portland.
-The Ethan Price, Alex Overhardt, Skyler McKenzie line was impressive; creating a solid forecheck and multiple scoring chances off of forced turnovers. Price finished with an empty net goal and could be playing himself into an agitator role for the Hawks as he play with a tone of effort and throws a lot of checks. Price also excelled at killing penalties in the game.
-Evan Weinger was another Winterhawk to score their first WHL goal (all in the preseason), as he potted his first on a nifty snipe off a loose puck. This guy plays with great offensive instincts and has  a nice wrist shot as well. Weinger was a 13th round pick in the 2012 Bantam Draft, but I could not find anywhere that he has signed a contract with the Hawks and if this is the case, they need to sign him promptly.

I was not able to make Sunday's 4-2 win over Everett, to close out a 3-0 weekend, but did see that Bjorkstrand had 1 goal and 2 assists, while Nic Petan had 1 goal and 1 assist and De Leo and Heinrich also scored.Michael Bullion stopped 32 of 34 shots for the win.

Portland continues their preseason play with games Friday vs Kootenay and Saturday vs. Red Deer at the annual Tri City preseason tournament next weekend.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Hawks Open Preseason Play vs Spokane Today/ Things to Look For

Portland gets it's preseason play underway this afternoon up at the annual Everett preseason tournament with a tilt against a familiar foe this afternoon in the Spokane Chiefs. Portland has beaten Spokane 17 times in a row, if you include the 2013 preseason and the their 2013 playoff sweep. The last time Spokane was victorious over any Portland squad was a 5-4 shoot out win on January 23rd, 2013.

These are the top 3 things that I will be looking for today and the rest of the weekend:

1) Which top 6 combinations will Head Coach Jamie Kompon try out?
-Portland has lost Brendan Leipsic to the pros from the top line he was on with Nic Petan and Paul Bittner and Taylor Leier (also to the pros) off his line with Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo.

These two lines had been playing mostly with each other since the beginning of the 2013 season. In the case of the De Leo unit they also played together a lot in the 2012-13 season. So the major question will be: will Kompon just try to fill in the two empty slots, or will he move Bjorkstrand up to the top unit with Bittner and Petan? This would give some combination of Alex Schoenborn, Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon the opportunity to move up to the top 6. Schoenborn also played a lot with Leipsic and Petan last year and so is an option on the top line.

Because they are stacked at the Center position, there is a chance that either De Leo or Turgeon gets moved to the wing of one of the top two lines. Either way, it will certainly be interesting to see which line combinations catch fire and start the season together.


2) How will the young forwards fare and is there spots for those eligible?
 -Recently signed 2014 Bantam first round pick: Center Cody Glass will be getting his first WHL action this weekend, as will signed 17 year old Center Alex Overhardt and unsigned 17 year old RW Evan Weinger. As Glass, is 15, he is restricted to 5 games of WHL regular season action this year. I'm very excited to see how the Hawks first top round Bantam Pick since Nic Petan in 2010 fares against older competition. Also, Overhardt will be vying for a spot in the bottom 6 with 20 year olds: Trent Lofthouse, Adam de Champlain and Trace Elson (probably will only keep 2 at most), 19 year old RW Tyson Predinchuk, 17 year olds Colton Veloso and Ethan Price and of course 16 year olds: Skyler McKenzie and Reed Morison.

With Turgeon, Schoenborn or Iverson slotted for one of those 3rd line roles, it looks like there is only spots for 7 others (if they keep 2 extra forwards, which is the likely outcome). Preseason is when these 7 spots will be won or lost. If the Hawks keep 2 of the over age forwards, then the 6, signed and eligible forwards remaining will try to win one of remaining 5 spots in the final 23 man roster. This means one, non over age forward will be left out.

The good news for all of these players though, is that Hawks will be missing, at least 6 forwards at NHL camps (most of which are starting on September 13th). How long these players will be gone for, remains to be seen, but it gives each one of these forwards a longer opportunity to earn a spot. Of note also is the fact that Bittner will miss time as the All Americans Prospect Game on September 25th.

3) How good will the defense be?
-For the second season in a row, most of the unknowns on the roster reside on the back end. The Hawks are bringing 11 D-men up with them to Everett, all of which have signed WHL education contracts. Two of these D-men are over agers: Joshua Smith and Josh Hanson and one is eligible for the AHL: Anton Cederholm. Smith has only played a handful of WHL games, so there is a lot of unknowns with his play. Hanson is a known commodity, but has never really fit the system the Hawks run. Though he is eligible for the pros, Cederholm will, most likely come back and can be expected to be the Hawks go to guy on the blue line.

As for the other 8 guys on the roster: 17 year old Keoni Texeira is the only complete lock, as his play last season proved that he should play a huge role in this year's team. Black Heinrich was drafted by the Washington Capitals, but was very tentative in his only WHL action last year. 17 year old Nick Heid is a guy the Hawks are hoping they can count on to play a top 4 role, but has never played a WHL game. 18 year old Zach Paterson has shown flashes, but really needs to have an amazing preseason to cement a spot on the team. 19 year old Layne Viveiros played some power play quarterback last year and may be kept as a veteran who can fill this role. 17 year old: Justin Greer and 16 year olds: Carter Czaikowski and Brendan De Jong are all hoping to make a big impression and win a spot. It is likely the Hawks will put 7 D-men on their final 23 man roster, leaving 4 guys out.

Despite all of these unknowns; one thing is clear: we will know far more about these guys after the 5 preseason games, then we know now and hopefully we will be closer to some answers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Early Look at the Over-Age Situation

 Oh how time flies. The Neely Cup starts tomorrow and player testing is going on today. I thought this would be a good time to look over all the players the Winterhawks have signed to WHL education contracts. At the conclusion of training camp (before their first preseason game against Spokane at the Everett tournament), the Hawks will have the opportunity to sign some of the players that have impressed them.

Another thing of interest if you are going to the Neely cup or any of the preseason games, will be the fact that it will be our first look at Head Coach Jamie Kompon behind the Hawks bench. From everything I have read and seen, Kompon’s team should look similar to Coach Mike Johnston’s with puck control and speed playing large roles.
1994 Born Players (Over-agers)- Portland, like all WHL teams will only be able to carry three 20 year olds at the October 16th deadline.
-(D) Derrick Pouliot- The CHL’s reigning Defenseman of the year had offseason surgery, but even this will not be enough to send him back to Juniors, because he has signed an entry level deal and there is little doubt the Penguins will want him to start his rehab in the AHL.
-(C) Brendan Leipsic- One of the most entertaining players in all of the WHL, will not be back for his 20 year old season as he has a contract with Nashville. I project that Leipsic will probably spend most of this year in Milwaukie of the AHL.
-(LW) Taylor Leier- One of the Winterhawks over the years who improved so much each year, even playing himself into an NHL entry level deal with Philadelphia. This, of course, means that the Winterhawks will need a new Captain this year. He is another player who will, most likely play the year in the AHL.
-(D) Mathew Dumba- Just the fact alone that Dumba already has used the first year of his entry level deal, means that Minnesota will at least give him the opportunity to start the year in the NHL. Whatever they decide, there is no chance he is coming back to Portland.
-(D) Josh Hanson- I have written time and again about Hanson. Portland took him in the 8th round of the 2009 Bantam Draft and he has shown signs over the years of developing into a talented top 4 pairing D-man for the Hawks (He looked great at the Tri City tournament last year). However, it just seems that his playing style just never fit in with Portland’s fleet of puck rushing D-men. He also wasn’t big enough to fit in as a stay at home, bruising, defensive D-man (a la Brett Ponich or Tyler Wotherspoon). If there were some other options here, I could not see him being kept as on over-ager, but he actually will be the leading returning scorer in this age group (18 pts). That being said, he really has a lot to prove and if his confidence wasn’t shaken by his gradual move down to 6th/7th spot in the rotation last year, he could be primed for a large role on the back end for Portland.
-(C) Adam De Champlain- This is an intriguing one for Portland. De Champlain seems to be the only agitator on the roster, but has played on the 4th line for most of his career in Portland. Unlike, Hanson, though, he really fits into the system, as he is one of the speediest Hawks on the roster. He is not bad on the draw and if Chase De Leo or Dominic Turgeon is moved to the Center position (De Leo did play some wing at Winnipeg Jets prospect camp), I think he could be a solid 3rd line Center. He has always shown flashes of having some great offensive skills, but has always been asked to do other things for the team. I really do not see that changing in his last year of eligibility and to me at least. He is the biggest lock of the three 20s that will be in camp.
-(RW) Trace Elson- Portland took Elson in the 10th round of the 2014 Bantam Draft, which was a fairly unique move, as he had just been released by Vancouver. The Hawks really do not have an enforcer and may have been looking for one in Elson. He is only 5’10” 181 lbs though and does not fit the stereotype that is for sure. However, Portland must have felt that he was going to be listed by someone, shortly after the draft; otherwise they probably would not have wasted a Bantam pick on him. I really could not see him being anything more than a placeholder for when the Hawks make a trade for a 20 year old D-man (that’s where their need is). If Elson is a strong locker room presence though and does fit a role as an enforcer type, maybe he will stay around and be started for the games, Kompon belies he is needed in. The Hawks, in the past, have not been averse to placing a 4th line over-ager on the roster (like Rossignol last year).
Another, outside chance is Defenseman Shaun MacPherson returning to the Hawks, but I really could not see this happening, as he was sent down to the SJHL last year, after parts of a couple up and down seasons with the Hawks.
The most likely outcome is Hanson and De Champlain returning for two of the spots and Elson getting a look through the preseason, like Taylor Thompson did last year.