Portland Winterhawks notebook: who is the next break out candidate?

Mike Johnston’s return to Portland and the WHL was an impact one in 2016-17. The Winterhawks won six more games than the previous season despite having less NHL-drafted talent on the roster and got to the second round after being swept in he first round 2015-16. The thing that was even more impressive about Johnston’s impact was the massive stats jump that so many of his players had. Cody Glass and Ryan Hughes could have been somewhat predicted as a lot of WHL players improve their points-per-game in a big way during their sophomore, 17-year-old season. Glass went from 27 points all the way to 94 which is a 67 point increase, while Hughes went from 13 to 57, a 44 point increase. While other players in similar spots in the league like Tri-City’s Michael Rasmussen (1.10 points-per-game vs. 0.68 in 2015-16) and Brandon’s Stelio Mattheos (0.60 to 0.88 increase) had marked improvement, they did not come close to touching Glass’ 0.42 to 1.36 increase or Hughes’ 0.18 to 0.81. So Johnston’s system had a strong impact on two players who were already likely candidates to have better years.

Beyond that though, his system gave a big boost to a bunch of players, who were already past their sophomore seasons. The most obvious are Skyler McKenzie (0.37 to 1.17 in his 18-year-old season) and Keegan Iverson (0.53 to 1.27 in his overage season) who played with Glass on the team’s top line. This got McKenzie drafted by Winnipeg and Iverson an AHL contract with the Ontario Reign.. Three 19-year-olds all produced more points as well as Colton Veloso went from 18 to 32, Evan Weinger went from 25 to 38 and Alex Overhardt jumped from 23 to 32. Each of them got an invite to an NHL summer development camp and are candidates to come back for their overage campaigns.

So if Johnston continues to have this impact on his players, who among the lesser known skaters will have significantly more points produced this coning year?

Here’s who I like to make the biggest jumps statistically:

1)Bronson Sharp

-Sharp has the talent but a combination of injuries and lack of playing time have him without a WHL goal over two seasons and 46 games. If Portland gets him slotted into the third line or higher, look for Sharp to start finding the net.

2)Ilijah Colina

-Colina was noticeably small out there on the ice and got pushed around pretty easily. Johnston still gave him plenty of opportunities though as he centered a line with Hughes and Weinger. He struggled in this big adjustment from Midget hockey to top-six in the WHL, putting up 12 points in his 16-year-old year. As the year went on though, Colina improved a lot and made several fantastic reads and plays. Highlighting this was a game in Everett, where he got the Silvertips to think he was dumping the puck in at the end of a shift, before flipping a brilliant pass right to Brad Ginnell in stride for a breakaway goal. These types of plays should be more regular in Colina’s second year.

3)Brad Ginnell

-He notched six goals and four assists for 10 points over 51 games in 2016-17. That’s not a bad 16-year-old year to end on. However, Ginnell did not stop there and kept putting in the work in practice, getting himself dressed for playoff games and scoring twice and adding an assist in eight playoff games. One could argue that Ginnell coming into the lineup and providing an energetic spark, helped Portland rebound from a tough loss in Prince George to take down the Cougars in six games. He never gave that roster spot up in the postseason and will be putting pressure on the older players for more playing time in 2017-18.

Prospect report:

-Count me as a fan of listed defenseman Ryan Johnson. I was able to catch quite a bit of him online via HockeyTV.com and the 2001-born native of Irvine, CA is an incredibly skilled blue liner. He is listed a five-foot-eight and 141 pounds on eliteprospects.com, but looks a little bigger now. His skating is phenomenal and he takes a lot of risks because he can trust that he can speed back and make the defensive play if he can’t get the puck deep. There was one play he made in a game earlier this week, while on the power-play that was impressive for a 16-year-old. He sold a point shot and then slid a pass back door to Saskatoon Blades prospect Grant Silianoff, who buried it. He was the main power play quarterback for his team because he could make plays like this. Over five games, the d-man racked up two goals and four assists for six points. He was then named to one of the All-Star teams, where he added another assist for Team All-Star White, in their 4-1 loss to All-Star Blue. While Portland already has signed two 2001-born d-men in Kade Nolan and Clay Hanus, they would be smart to sign Johnson if they can.

Cal Sandquist, meanwhile had an up-and-down tournament in net. He stopped 63 of 71 total shots in five games for a 3.84 GAA and 0.887 save percentage. He was not named to one of the two all star teams.

Alumni report:

-If you were looking for the next former Winterhawk that will have an impact in the NHL, former Lehigh Valley assistant coach and Prince Albert Raiders forward Ryley Cote thinks that Taylor Leier is that player. Cote told Broad Street Hockey Radio that Leier may fly under the radar, but his hard work did not go unnoticed by Cote and the rest of the Phantoms coaching staff. ” I know he’s had his little stints (in the NHL) and people know who he is, but as far as a quality human being, a quality worker, “gets it,” a pro-he’ll find his way for sure, whether it’s the Flyers or someone else. Surely he will.” Leier is currently a restricted free agent and has yet to be re-signed by the Flyers.

Derrick Pouliot re-signed with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He has played in 69 total games over three seasons and playoffs with the Penguins. He has two goals and 12 assists in that span. Pouliot’s contract is an $800,000, one-way, one-year deal. It appears that he will be given every opportunity to stick at the NHL level with Pittsburgh this coming year.

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Brandon Rivers

Longtime Portland Winterhawks' blogger on hodgesheroes.blogspot.com. I also write for SB Nation on the for the Seattle Sin Bin at http://www.sonicsrising.com/seattle-sin-bin. Further, I have a Seattle-sports podcast over at 206sportsjocks.com Originally from the Portland area, now living in Seattle. Proud husband and Father.