Tuesday, August 28, 2012

3rd Time is the Charm for Winterhawks

Ty Rattie (Portland Winterhawks)
This is the time of the year when everyone is pulling out their predictions for the 2012-2013 season so allow me to toss in my 0.02 in. Cutting right to the chase I can see a rematch of last year's WHL finals with the Edmonton Oil Kings facing the Portland Winterhawks.

Kelly Friesen of Buzzing the Net offers up a strong case for Micheal St. Croix and his Edmonton Oil Kings to repeat as WHL Champions. Friesen is a good guy who's opinion I happen to respect a great deal but I have to say I disagree with him on his prediction.

Yes Portland's roster is going to be missing some talented players like Sven Bartschi, Mac Carruth and Joe Morrow but I don't think there is a better duo in junior hockey than Portland's GM/Coach Mike Johnson and Director of Hockey Operations Matt Bardsley. You don't get to back to back WHL finals by accident and I really believe that Johnson/Bardsley outdid themselves replacing the departing players.

It starts of course with Seth Jones who before he even announced his decision to play for the Winterhawks was already being seen as the best American prospect in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft Class. Portland was pretty deep on the returning defensive corp led by Derek Pouliot (8th overall 2012) and Troy Rutkowski but adding Jones more than fills any loss on the blueline.

Many a hockey fan might not know who Ty Rattie (2011 2nd Rd Blues) is but they will by the end of the 2012-2013 season. Rattie was the 3rd leading scorer in the WHL last season 57-64-121 but he is bigger and he just might be the best player in the WHL this season.

Sure Rattie won't have Sven Bartschi as a linemate but show me another coach who mines the European import scene better than Mike Johnson? Odds are you can't and this season's European surprise is Oliver Bjorkstrand of Denmark.

Bjorkstrand at 16 was 14-15-29 for the Henning Blue Fox (NYR 2012 5th rd pick Thomas Spelling played on same team) which is one of the top adult teams in Denmark. It might take him a little adapting time to North America but when he does I expect him to put up numbers for the Winterhawks.

Then there is a personal favorite of mine, the Ryan Callahan clone Brendan Leipsic (2012 3rd Nashville) who put up 28-30-58 while also driving other teams nuts with his pest act. This will be the season Leipsic shows the world he is a legit hockey player not just a pest.

Forget how the Winterhawks match up on paper with anyone as under the definition of "heart and soul" is overage player Taylor Peters who if it was up to me I would hand him the "C" and get it over with. In between saving a drowning kayaker on New Year's Eve, writing movie reviews on his blog and being the WHL's Most eccentric player; Peters is the perfect leader for the Winterhawks.

Peters is the kind of player you want providing veteran leadership to the younger players as he has grown up as a Winterhawk from a 15 year old rookie to this; his final season as a junior. There are not many players who will drop the gloves with you while wanting to debate quantum physics with you but that is Peters.

Toss in returning players like Nicolas Petan (helped Canada win Ivan Hlinka), Tyler Wotherspoon, Taylor Leier (going to breakout this year) and Chase De Leo to bolster the Winterhawk lineup. The Winterhawks will be a young team yes but they will be a loaded team that I just don't see anyone in the WHL's Western Conference being able to beat.

And finally if the NHL's expected lockout means that Mac Carruth has to spend another season with the Winterhawks then you can skip the regular season and go right to the Oil King/Winterhawk finals. Carruth was the goalie who led the Winterhawks to those back to back finals.

If Carruth doesn't return then it will be Brendan Burke who will be more than just an average replacement. Burke the son of former NHL goalie Sean Burke may have struggled as a WHL rookie but he looks very polished coming into this season and it doesn't hurt having a former NHL goalie as father/goalie coach.

Burke is ready to be "the man in net" for the Winterhawks this season with former Kamloop's Blazer Cam Lanigan as a better than average insurance policy. What is really a great problem to have is that Portland has several very talented young goalies who might push Lanigan off to the side with their play.

And every year Mike Johnson finds a college player who isn't happy at his school or makes the right trade to fill up any holes he has in his lineup. This also should be the year Mike Johnson gets his rightful due as WHL coach of the year too.

Don't take this as thinking that Portland is just going to be handed the WHL's Western Conference either. Not when you have teams like Spokane, Tri-City, and Vancouver who every year find ways to contend.

But when the smoke clears it will be once again the boys from Portland; only this year expect them to be playing in Saskatoon in May.

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