Mike Johnston was back behind Portland's bench this morning and the impact was immediate. Portland jumped on Tri-City early, leaping out to a 4-0 lead. Then the Americans woke up and made the game tight before falling 4-3.
As this is the preseason, it's less about the game and more about how the players and system looks, so I'll jump right into my takeaways.
-Evan Weinger and Ryan Hughes playing on opposite wings with center Ilijah Colina looks like a perfect fit. Weinger's speed and power fit well with Hughes' quickness and creativity. Colina picked his spots and played more of a supportive role. All three players had a goal in the game.
-Weinger looks to be the one impacted the most by Johnston's return. He showed potential before and after the coach left, but has yet to really put it all together. He was extremely noticeable today. What often goes unnoticed with him, is how quick his cuts are. He got into a one-on-one battle with a young T.C. defender and cut quickly to his left while carrying the puck, leaving them in the dust.
-Hughes also seems more natural as a wing. Too often last year, he got caught up worrying about his defensive responsibility. As a wing, he will be more free to use his best assets to use. He put up a boatload of points in midget hockey and has a natural touch around the net.
-Michael Bullion's day was a story of three different periods. He looked shaky in the first, giving up a number of juicy rebounds. Then, he looked solid in the second, highlighted by a very athletic right pad, kick save. Lastly, in the third, he sank back in his net too much and was out of position on a couple of the goals. A shut out would've been a big boost for his confidence, but I think there's enough positive in this game for him to build on.
-Skyler McKenzie and Keegan Iverson also played on opposing wings for most of the game, with Iverson seeing some time as a center. They both had great looks but couldn't quite find the twine. Iverson should be this team's next captain, as you can see the younger players look to him to lead the way.
-Cole Kehler was constantly talking on the bench. He is in a position where he knows it's Bullion's job and as a 19-year-old, he's vulnerable to getting cut. He has to, not only, be solid in net, he has to be the perfect teammate. Ethan Middendorf is a 17-year-old and the backup spot is his to earn as the preseason goes. That leaves Kehler out, unless he has the perfect preseason on the ice and off of it.
-Jackson Caller does so many little things on the ice, that belie how young he really is (hockey 17).
-As prime for a breakout as Weinger appears, Brendan De Jong might be even more so. Combined with how easily he played in both ends during the Neely Cup, his first preseason game has to have fans excited. He has a long stride and surprising speed. During one sequence, his d-partner lost the puck near his own blue line and there looked to be a breakaway about to occur. From across the ice, he closed and took away the scoring chance. With his speed and size, he should be getting on NHL scout's radars this season after being passed over in June. He also seems a lot more confident jumping up into the play and creating both off the cycle and the rush.
-De Jong and Weinger are examples of players Johnston has circled for developing into the best players they can be. Both are filled with natural skills and already seem to be taking advantage of his coaching.
-Lastly, overall the Johnston system is in full effect in it's return to Portland. The ease with how fast Portland gets the puck out of the zone, through the neutral zone and on net is striking. Under former coach Jamie Kompon, the team struggled with doing this. In his first preseason game, Kompon was screaming at his players to "turn! turn!", encouraging them to move the puck quickly. Meanwhile, in his return, the most emotion we got out of Johnston was a few subtle gestures. These are a lot of the same players, so it's really quite incredible that they are already playing his system to a "T" in the very first preseason game.
-I might not be able to catch more Portland preseason games, but will bring more updates on the roster moves as they happen.