This summer though, Gustafson found his way into a new title with the Winterhawks as the Associate Coach was named Assistant General Manager as well.
While some may view this as him replacing outgoing Assistant General Manager Matt Bardsley – who took the General Manager position with the Kamloops Blazers- as Gustafson explains it, there is more of a shared hand in taking over Bardsley’s key role.
“With Matt, things happened real quick and he was on the radar for a few different teams and it was just a matter of when. One thing that is real nice about the way we operate in Portland is everyone has a hand in a lot of different areas. So when Matt left, there was a lot of work that needed to be done but we felt we had the background to do it. It was just picking up more pieces in your responsibilities,” Gustafson said.
Bardsley had himself worked his way up with the Winterhawks, first joining them as a scout in 1999. Gustafson and Johnston knew they needed some help on the scouting side of things with all of their coaching responsibilities taking up so much time.
“That was something that we talked about with Mike and the transition itself was a little bit seamless. We brought in Mike Coflin and he was able to take on some of the responsibilities Matt did behind the scenes and we felt that I had a good knowledge of our team and the league so that was something that I could take over a little bit.
Coflin was named Assistant to the General Manager and Director of Player Personnel. He was the head scout in B.C. for six years before taking on his bigger role.
“All in all, between Mike, Mike Coflin and Lisa (Hollenbeck – Senior Director of Hockey Operations) in the front office and our scouts, we are just picking up the pieces Matt left behind. You never know what kind of job you are going to do, because Matt did so much for the organization losing a guy like him is going to be tough. We are trying to get through it.”
Getting back to the rink and watching the new and returning players at this year’s Neely Cup helped Gustafson and the rest of Portland’s Hockey Operations team get more comfortable with their new roles.
“Looking back at training camp, it was more of the same. I thought it was outstanding with our young guys and our scouting staff – the job they did bringing guys in. It gave us a good look at making tough decisions and managing our list and the guys that we wanted to put on it. I think it’s so far, so good.”
Portland has brought in players from all over Canada and the United States, as well as Europe in the past and this year is no different.
“We like to make sure that we really get our scouts in different buildings and really work hard. It is something that we pride ourselves in the job our scouts do. Whether it is Texas, Colorado, California even this year – Prince Albert. We took (Gabe) Klassen in the first round out of a small town like Prince Albert. Just making sure that we really get out there and from there evaluate the talent. No question USA Hockey is strong and we have had some great prospects from the U.S. in the past.
While there is a lot to get excited after watching the preseason in Portland’s young players like Seth Jarvis, from Winnipeg, Cross Hanas from Texas and Kurtis Smythe from Cloverdale, B.C., Gustafson believes they still have a lot of experience that will make them a contender in the U.S. Division.
“Anytime you bring a guy back like Cody Glass and some guys on the back end you should have a strong team. We are still fairly experienced on the back end with Brendan (De Jong), Matt Quigley and others. Also, the steps that we think (John) Ludvig and Clay Hanus are going to take and then all of our young talent – we are really excited about that group. I think we have a nice blend.”
Also, replacing Cole Kehler in net for the Winterhawks, is 19-year-old Shane Farkas, someone Portland has a lot of faith in.
“We didn’t view Shane Farkas as a backup goalie last year. We thought he was ready to play for part of the season when we ran with him being the guy. It’s going to be interesting.
“This is exciting time for us in training camp – to lay our foundation with the guys along the way. We are really excited about our youth and we know what we have in our veteran guys.”
While Glass returning for his 19-year-old season would have an incredible impact on Portland’s outlook this year, his return is by no means set in stone. He and and fellow 19-year-old first round pick, defenseman Henri Jokiharju both have strong chances of making the NHL teams that drafted them. While those two would be really hard for Portland to replace, Gustafson is hoping they make the big leagues.
“We have to make sure everyone is ready to go. That’s the biggest thing. You never know who is going to be back. Hopefully Cody and Henri don’t come back because that’s what we need to do as an organization is put out pro players. You have to prepare with the guys you have and right now we are preparing with the guys that are in camp. The teaching process is everything with these young kids. We have to make sure we are ready to go. You want those guys in your lineup because they are game breakers but we will have to see what happens.”
The 2018-19 WHL season begins for Portland on Saturday, September 22nd with a game on the road against the Seattle Thunderbirds.