(Photo: Keith Dwiggins/Portland Winterhawks)

Congratulations! You have made it through the doldrums of the off-season, and after a few weeks’ worth of training camp and preseason action, it’s finally here: opening night in the Western Hockey League.

The Portland Winterhawks begin their 2023-24 campaign by facing off against the WHL’s newest team and the newest addition to the WHL’s U.S. Division in the Wenatchee Wild. This past summer, the Winnipeg ICE were sold to the owners of the British Columbia Hockey League’s Wenatchee Wild. Who then relocated the team to Wenatchee and kept the name Wild. As a result, tonight will mark the first WHL game at Wenatchee’s 4,300-seat Town Toyota Center. The Winterhawks only played the ICE one-time last season, resulting in a 6-3 loss on the road at Wayne Fleming Arena.

Over the off-season, the Winterhawks only lost two aged-out players, Robbie Fromm-Delorme and Dante Giannuzzi. The team also made some moves, such as trading defenseman Ryan McCleary and a collection of late-round picks to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for Josh Davies and Tyson Yaremko. They also acquired goaltender Justen Maric from the Moose Jaw Warriors, and Maric will get the start in goal for the Winterhawks to kick off the season.

Despite most of their team returning from last season, though, the Winterhawks, as well as the Wild, will be missing key players who remain at their respective NHL teams’ training camps. Players such as Luca Cagnoni and Carter Sotheran for Portland and Connor Geekie and Matthew Savoie for Wenatchee will be unavailable for both clubs tonight. If there’s a bright side to having those key players away for Portland, it’s that they’ll get to see what some of their prospects can bring to the table. 2021 WHL ninth-round pick Cohen Massey and 2022 fourth-rounder Kayd Ruedig both made the Winterhawks’ Opening Night roster, and both players are in line to make their WHL debuts tonight.

While this Winterhawks team is not yet at full strength, here’s what you can expect from this 2023-24 team roster-wise when they are:

Forwards

Key Additions: Josh Davies, Tyson Yaremko

Key Subtractions: Robbie Fromm-Delorme, Aidan Litke

Age-20 Players: Gabe Klassen, James Stefan, Jack O’Brien

The composition of the Winterhawks’ forwards remains mostly intact from last year. Entering his second season as team captain and his final season in Portland, Gabe Klassen will look to finish his WHL career in style after scoring 69 points (35 goals, 34 assists) in 64 games last season. James Stefan and Jack O’Brien, Klassen’s age-20 cohorts, also return for their final seasons in Portland, and while they may not always play together, the trio will almost certainly be getting top-six minutes all season long. Josh Davies, acquired from the Swift Current Broncos, brings physicality and competitiveness to the Winterhawks lineup, as well as a healthy dose of scoring– the Airdrie, Alberta native scored 20 goals last season for Swift Current. Josh Zakreski and Marcus Nguyen represent two of the Winterhawks’ younger goalscoring threats, and Zakreski in particular is capable of having an even stronger sophomore season.

One mustn’t sleep on Diego Buttazzoni, though. After a solid rookie season in which he scored 6 goals and added 9 assists, Buttazzoni came into the Winterhawks’ Neely Cup training camp with something to prove, and made a great impression. Not only did Buttazzoni lead the Neely Cup in scoring, but he capitalized on that momentum with an 11-point performance across five preseason games. The 2024 NHL-draft-eligible center is well worth keeping an extra eye on.

Defensemen

Key Subtractions: Ryan McCleary

The youth of the Winterhawks can be found in their defense.

After Luca Cagnoni and Carter Sotheran both impressed in their rookie seasons in the Rose City. Both players got the call to be drafted– Cagnoni by the San Jose Sharks (4th round, 123rd overall) and Sotheran by the Philadelphia Flyers (5th round, 135th overall). While they will be missing for at least this first weekend of the season, they’ll be taking on bigger roles this year, especially with the departure of Ryan McCleary.

Another young player on the Winterhawks’ blue-line set to take a bigger role is Rhett Ravndahl. Ravndahl played a fair amount of games for the Winterhawks last year, but after a good performance in the Neely Cup as well as appearing in every pre-season game, Ravndahl is in line to see a sharp increase in game-time. The elder statesmen of the Winterhawks defensive corps are Marek Alscher and Ryder Thompson, and once they return from their respective NHL camps, they’ll bring experience to an otherwise young Winterhawks defensive core.

Goaltending

Key Additions: Justen Maric

Key Subtractions: Dante Giannuzzi

After Dante Giannuzzi aged out and went pro, signing with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, Winterhawks general manager was in no rush to find a backup for incumbent Jan Špunar, and in August, the Winterhawks acquired the aforementioned Justen Maric from Moose Jaw.

The 19-year-old goaltender from Edmonton, Alberta, has only had four games of WHL experience, appearing in three of those for Moose Jaw last year. In those games, he had a 3.84 GAA to go along with a save percentage of .864%. However, Maric should see a much bigger opportunity for backup reps, and with Špunar away at Montreal Canadiens training camp, he’ll get a chance at some starts. 2021 second-round pick Luke Brunen will be backing up Maric in the meantime, but whether he gets any playing time is to be determined.

By Bryan Del Fava

Covering the Portland Winterhawks for A51. You can also find me covering Oregon Ducks athletics at Duck TV. Twitter: @notthefakeBDF.