(Photo: Keith Dwiggins/Portland Winterhawks)
After losing a good deal of overage players at the end of a frustrating playoff loss to the Seattle Thunderbirds, some would be surprised by the Portland Winterhawks’ hot start to the season. Yet, they are 8-1-1 after the first ten games, which with 17 points puts them in second place behind the Thunderbirds in the Western Conference and fifth place in the league overall.
The ending of last year certainly did not go the way that the Winterhawks were hoping it to, as they fumbled a 3-1 series lead against the rival Thunderbirds. Their elimination meant key players such as Tyson Kozak, Clay Hanus, Cross Hanas and trade deadline acquisition Taylor Gauthier were moving on to the professional level, leaving a few holes in the Winterhawks lineup. The Winterhawks, however, opted to look within to fill those holes, with their only major offseason acquisition being Diego Buttazzoni, who was acquired in a trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The Winterhawks broke camp and headed up to Kamloops with eight rookies on their roster, six of whom were in the opening night lineup against the Blazers. One of the standout rookies so far has been 17-year-old Carter Sotheran, who has mostly played alongside rising star Luca Cagnoni on the first pairing.
“It was a matter of how quickly can we trust our young defensemen,” Winterhawks general manager and head coach Mike Johnston said about Sotheran after the Winterhawks’ home opener against the Tri-City Americans. “You have to earn the coach’s trust, you’re going to be good defensively, and I thought Carter’s done that.”
Sotheran is one of two rookies, along with Josh Zakreski, to have played in all ten games this season. Center Nicholas Johnson has played in nine, mostly playing on the fourth line.
Another source of the Winterhawks’ hot start has been forward depth from the season prior, stepping up to the plate as needed. Recently named Winterhawks captain, forward Gabe Klassen has been red-hot to start the season, scoring nine goals through the team’s first ten games. They’ve also seen improvement from ’04 forwards Kyle Chyzowski and Marcus Nguyen, as well as ’03 forward Dawson Pasternak after all three stepped into bigger roles following the departures of Kozak and Hanas.
The only true weakness of this team so far has been a less-than-average penalty kill, which at a percentage of 79.5% is in the bottom 10 of the WHL. They’d also like to get more consistent goaltending from veteran netminder Dante Giannuzzi and rookie Jan Špunar, who both currently sport save percentages under .900%.
While this team is already looking good to start the season, Mike Johnston is no stranger to making the big in-season move. Only time will tell if he likes the team as it is or looks to swing a big trade later on in the year. For now, though, the Winterhawks will continue to enjoy their hot start while it lasts.