The 2017-18 season was the eighth in the WHL for Mike Johnston, the head coach, general manager and vice president of the Portland Winterhawks, over the past 10 years.
His two different tenures in that span has seen four trips to the WHL final and one Ed Chynoweth Cup as champions of the league.
This last year was the second straight year of 40-plus wins for Portland and seventh overall.
Portland tallied 44 victories, good for 94 points and second place in the U.S. Division.
Johnston’s Winterhawks drew the Spokane Chiefs in the first round and the only other franchise in the U.S. Division to win a Memorial Cup, gave the Hawks all they could handle, taking them to seven games.
Johnston felt like that first round marathon played a role in Portland’s second round loss in five games to the eventual Western Conference champion Everett Silvertips.
“I thought we ran into a real good team in Spokane. During the year, I thought they had quite a few young players that were starting to hit their strides in the league and they had a real big impact in the playoffs. (Kailer) Yamamoto and (Hudson) Elynuik and (Ty) Smith were playing well and they pushed us hard. It was a very good series and it was basically a one-goal every game series and it went to seven. Anytime you go seven in your first round of the playoffs, it puts you in a position where you are going to be a little fatigued going into the second round,” Johnston said.
“I didn’t think we played our best games in the Everett series. I thought out first game was great, our second wasn’t very good, our third was average and our fourth was another really good game, but we lost it at home. That was a key game in the series. Losing a game where we took the lead with three minutes left and then lost the lead and they won it with a minute left. That was a big turning point because we had to go back-to-back and go play them up there.”
Johnston has nothing but respect for the team that won their second Western Conference title in Everett.
“They are a good team and (Carter) Hart’s a terrific goaltender. Them finishing their series in five, versus us finishing our series in seven made a difference heading into the second round.”
As is always the case in the WHL, Portland’s season ending means that their overage players have moved on from the organization. Defenseman Keoni Texeira, goalie Cole Kehler and center Alex Overhardt have aged out of the WHL.
“Keoni has been a very good character guy throughout his years in the league. I thought all of them provided leadership in different ways. One was a forward, one was a defender and one was a goaltender. Overhardt and Texeira were high-end character and high-end compete guys. Cole has been with us for two years and certainly resurrected his career and helped us out. We needed some help in goal because when I came back – after (Adin) Hill left we really did not have a goaltender.”
Portland having to move overage forwards Evan Weinger and Colton Veloso earlier in the season, along with some other moves meant that they had eight draft picks in the first five rounds for the first time in the history of the WHL’s Bantam Draft. Portland has found players like Taylor Leier, Brendan Leipsic, Dominic Turgeon, Texeira, Caleb Jones and Reece Newkirk in the rounds closely following the first one in Johnston’s tenure.
“This was the first time ever in the last 10 years that we have had a surplus of overagers. A lot of our overagers turn pro and we don’t get them back. We were in a situation last year where we had extra and we had to move two quality people and players for our organization. But they helped us get some picks. We’ve had great success with the middle round picks and that gave us a surplus. That third, fourth and fifth round which is really important for us. We like those picks because it allows us to get a goaltender early, which we have not before and get an American player here or there. It allows you to look at different options in those middle rounds.”
Portland’s first round Bantam Draft selection Gabe Klassen was someone Johnston and his scouts were keeping an eye on.
“We had him ranked very high on our list and you are never sure if everyone is going to go off of your list and they usually don’t. It was pretty close this year though, as far as the players we had ranked in the top-22 and how they went. Klassen was a guy we identified early in the year with Darwin Bennett our Saskatchewan/Alberta scout. He was a guy who played our game – a really smart player, who is a good 200-foot center. We really liked his game overall. A lot of our other scouts did not get a chance to see him at the Saskatchewan Cup because they didn’t have on this year, but we really like him this season.”
The Winterhawks also drafted two players in Parker Murray (10th round) and Ryan McCleary (5th round) whose Father’s played in the NHL. Glen Murray played 1,009 games over 17 professional seasons with the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and L.A. Kings and Trent McCleary played in 192 NHL games over seven professional seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, before his career was cut short blocking a puck in 2000.
“It’s nice that they have bloodlines but we look at their own body of work more. McCleary is a really good transition defenseman and we think Parker Murray could be a good scorer. He’s a bigger bodied guy who plays smart He’s under-developed right now because he’s grown so much over the year.”
Another player Portland picked was Chaz Lucius who has already committed, along with his brother to the University of Minnesota. With it being four years until he can play in the NCAA, Johnston knows that Portland has time to try to sell him on playing in the WHL.
“Our philosophy has always been with American players, you can get hung up on are they going to college or not. Is Parker Murray going to go? Is (Ty) Murchison (Portland’s eighth round pick) going to go? Is Chaz Lucius going to go? Some are and some aren’t. You never really know what is going to happen. We picked (Kieffer) Bellows in the middle round and eventually we got him. He decided after he went to school for a year, while Texeira decided to come in right away. You never really know where they are going to go. Our philosophy is to pick the best kids at least if they will commit to coming to training camp and give us an opportunity to show them our program. That’s all that we ask of them. From there on it’s a matter of whats best for the player and is he a good fit for us – see if we can make it work.”
Murray and defenseman Max Burkholder were chosen with one of two 10th round selections that Portland picked up from the Brandon Wheat Kings for a ninth round pick in the 2019 draft. Johnston and the Winterhawks felt they had to get a couple more picks in the draft as there were some players left that they wanted.
“People can say – how can a couple players still be there at that time that you really want? Well it happens. We have scouts all over and most of them are part-time guys. They all have players they’ve watched over the year and later in the draft they are saying – my guy is still there. You have to take him-. In recognizing what our scouts have done throughout the year and all the work they put in, I wanted to try and get two picks in that round and choose these players.”
While the draft may be the way most players find their way into the WHL, Johnston and the Winterhawks continue to scout an age group far beyond the draft. This year Portland had 10 different non-drafted players play for them at different points in the season. Included among these players Portland added to their protected list and later signed were Ryan Hughes, Mason Mannek, Jake Gricius, Clay Hanus, Matthew Quigley and John Ludvig.
“It really is surprising to me. When I first came into junior hockey. There’s still a lot of kids that don’t get drafted and get looked over. The kids can be from B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan or the U.S. and they slip through the draft. Maybe they are not big or develop late. A priority for us and a lot of other teams in the league is to search for those players in the first three months next year. We are going to look hard for any 2003s who have been passed over and try to get some of them to our training camp. Then we will see if we can list them from there or follow them as the season goes and see if there are guys we can put on our list as they develop.”
Two such 2001-born players were listed by Portland and have developed nicely. Goalie Aaron Rendazzo just won the Telus Cup – the Midget AAA Championship in Canada and Ryan Johnson piled up the most points (45 in 35 games) by a defenseman in the T1EHL while playing for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks 16U team. Johnston has been impressed with how they both developed in their 16-year-old seasons.
“They are both very good players. Whether we will ever get them to play for us is a big question. But they are both very good. I saw Ryan Johnson live several times and really like him as a player. I know his Dad went to college and that is certainly where they are leaning (he is not committed yet). Rendazzo is a player that we listed during the year because he had a great start to the year. Darwin Bennett loved him and he went on to win the Telus Cup as the primary goaltender. He was the guy who played in the final game. He’s a youngster we like a lot and believe could be a goaltender for us. We will take a look at him in training camp and see where he fits in long term.”
Shortly after the Bantam Draft, Portland dealt a conditional draft pick in 2019 to the Victoria Royals for 1998-born defenseman Jared Freadrich. With Portland losing Texeira and more than likely the NHL-signed Dennis Cholowski, Johnston saw an opportunity to add a blue liner who fit Portland’s mold.
“We didn’t feel like we had that many guys coming back in the ’98 age group so we wanted to add Jared while we had a chance to. We thought it was the right price. He plays our game – is a good mobile and transition guy. It’s harder to add those players in October or later.”
Next up for Portland is the CHL’s Import Draft in late June. With Joachim Blichfeld being an overage player signed to a professional deal with the San Jose Sharks and Henri Jokiharju being selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, Portland is allowed to make two selections. Johnston plans on doing just that.
While Blichfeld is likely moving on and is eligible to play in the AHL if he does not make the Sharks out of camp, Jokiharju is another matter. Portland is left to wonder whether the Finnish-born blue liner who put up 71 points in 63 games this last season will be back for his 19-year-old season.
“It’s tough to tell. We are planning on using our two picks. We are going to wait and see with Chicago and obviously it will not be until late October whether anyone will know what his situation will be. We have to be prepared and that is why they give you that extra pick so that you are prepared and have options for both of your spots. One guy is a 20-year-old and usually 20-year-old Euros do not come back to the league. But you never know with Blichfeld and you don’t know with Henri so we are going to be prepared regardless.”
Johnston went on to say that Jokiharju is not eligible to play in the AHL if signed by the Chicago Blackhawks. “Not from my understanding. He is not eligible. That is my understanding of that rule.”
With Jokiharju and with center Cody Glass, who was taken with the sixth overall pick in 2017 by the Vegas Golden Knights, Portland is left in a situation where they have to wonder whether two very key pieces will make the NHL or come back to the WHL.
“Chicago is in a situation where they are in transition and could add some kids next year so that will help Henri out. He had a great year with us and is a very good player. There’s a lot of factors there and you have to look at. The most important thing is that we are prepared and we are ready if he does not come back.”
Johnston is already looking ahead to the 2018-19 season and sees some opportunities for young players, especially on the blue line to play bigger roles.
“I think it’s going to depend on some of our young guys. Two 16-year-old forwards will definitely play for us in (Seth) Jarvis and (Cross) Hanas. Hanas is from Texas and Jarvis is form Manitoba. I like our young guys on defense. Ludvig, Hanus, Quigley and we have (Nick) Cicek, (Nick) Perna and (Ryan)Miley coming in and even Kade Nolan who played really well at the nationals in Saskatchewan. Our big losses are on defense and we lose some scoring, but overall I like the depth of our forward group. Our defense – we have to have some guys step up in some bigger roles and play more minutes.”
It’s just over three months until the 2018 Neely Cup and Johnston and his team have a lot to get ready as they try and improve upon their 2017-18 season.