The last two weeks have been eventful for the Portland Winterhawks.
Johnny Ludvig and Reece Newkirk were selected on day 2 of the NHL Draft; Clay Hanus, Jaydon Dureau, and Jake Gricius were invited to NHL development camp rosters as undrafted players; Cross Hanas was named to the US Select 17 camp in advance of the Gretzky Hlinka Cup; Seth Jarvis was one of 44 players invited to Hockey Canada’s Under-18 Team selection camp; Simon Knak and Jonas Brøndberg were drafted in the CHL Import Draft (Michal Kvasnica was released); and Kyle Gustafson, Don Hay, and Rich Campbell all signed contract extensions.
To top everything off, the 2019-2020 schedule was also released.
On Thursday, I talked with Portland Winterhawks Head Coach and General Manager Mike Johnston about his team’s busy two weeks.
Johnny Ludvig selected in third round
In his second year of eligibility, Winterhawks defenseman Johnny Ludvig was chosen by the Florida Panthers in the third round with the 69th overall selection of this year’s NHL Draft. This marks the first time Johnny heard his name called at a draft, as he was neither selected in the WHL Bantam Draft nor the NHL Draft in his first year of eligibility.
Johnston was excited for his defenseman. “It is a great story, it really is. For a kid from Kamloops and western Canada to get passed over in the Bantam Draft is really tough. He had an injury thereafter and missed some time. To be honest, when we listed him, it wasn’t that we said, ‘oh, here is a great player that has been missed.’ We thought he had some potential, and we listed him. When we got him to practice with our group, we really liked him. We thought he could come in and help us.”
From Mike Johnston’s perspective, Ludvig “trains hard, and he works hard at his game, and he plays a hard game. He deserves a ton of credit for how hard he has worked over the last two years to try to make himself into a player.”
Just how far does the Winterhawks bench boss feel Ludvig can go? “He is a very driven kid, so it is not going to surprise me if he plays in the NHL in two years from now. He is a very, very focused kid.”
In case you missed it, you can read more about Ludvig’s draft experience here.
New York Islanders draft Reece Newkirk
Winterhawks second-year forward Reece Newkirk’s breakout 2018-2019 season was rewarded by the Islanders, who drafted the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, native in the fifth round (147th overall). After scoring 11 points in 58 games in his rookie campaign, Newkirk’s production skyrocketed to 23 goals, 36 assists, and 59 points last season.
Johnston was not surprised to see Newkirk drafted. “We knew he was going to go around the fourth round, and Reece went a little later than I thought. Ludvig went a little bit earlier. I think some things happened for teams that were really interested in Reece in the fourth round with some trades made. People lost picks in there, especially the teams I thought who were going to take him.”
Newkirk started the season off on a tear offensively and continued to be a top player for Johnston and the Winterhawks as the year progressed.
“I think it is great for him, and I hear he is having a good development camp right now,” Johnston explained. “He is a good hockey player, had a great year for us last year as a young kid. He played a primary role. We are thrilled to see that Reece got drafted.”
Portland had two players drafted in 2019 after missing out on having a player’s name called in the 2018 draft. The 2020 NHL Draft is one the Winterhawks head coach is looking forward to. “That is two guys this year, and hopefully more guys next year. I think next year could be a real good draft for us.”
NHL Development camps
Overall, the Portland Winterhawks have eight players from their 2018-2019 team attending NHL Development Camps. Six of those guys will return to Portland for 2019-2020: Joel Hofer, Johnny Ludvig, Reece Newkirk, Jaydon Dureau, Clay Hanus, and Jake Gricius.
Jaydon Dureau and Clay Hanus are attending an NHL development camp for the first time. While they were not selected in the NHL Draft, Johnston mentioned the Winterhawks did receive a lot of calls on both players.
“What usually happens when the NHL Draft is over is that teams — if they miss drafting a guy who is fairly high on their list — they will invite them to development camp right away,” Johnston explained. “[The teams] reach out to the players and that is what happened with these two. They were probably on teams’ lists right there, but just didn’t get picked, so they get invited to their camps. I believe they will also go to the working camps for those teams as well as the tournaments in September. I think those types of experiences are phenomenal for them and hopefully they show well.”
One player who showed well in his previous camps with San Jose is forward Jake Gricius, who once again received an invite from the Sharks.
“They really like him,” Johnston shared.
“I’m surprised that he hasn’t been signed by an NHL team yet. I think he is a real good player. He is definitely a pro-body type player with the right skillset, is a bit late developing. When he came in with us at 17 he certainly wasn’t a pro prospect then. [Jake’s] worked at his game like [Johnny] Ludvig.”
I asked Mike Johnston if he feels Gricius will be back with the Winterhawks in 2019, he said, “I’m hoping we are getting him back because he is a good leader and a good player for us. With those 20-year-olds, you never really know. I hope we get him back, but we probably won’t know until later in September.”
Representing Team USA
Currently, Cross Hanas, a native of Highland Village, Texas, is attending the 2019 Boys Select 17 Player Development Camp. This is the camp Team USA uses to select its roster for the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
A year ago, Hanas represented Team USA at the Five Nations Tournament before he arrived in Portland for training camp.
Johnston is excited for Cross and is “hoping that he gets the chance to go to the Hlinka tournament, because that would be a great experience for him. Last year, he led the team in scoring that went overseas without the development team players on it. We could have [Seth] Jarvis, Hanas, and [Simon] Knak there. That would be great for all three of those guys to play in that tournament before coming to us in August.”
After four games at the camp, Hanas has three goals and five assists. Cross will play one more game on Sunday before Team USA cuts the roster down to two teams. Those two teams play in an all-star game on Monday morning. The results of this game are used to make the final roster decisions on who will represent the red, white, and blue at the tournament.
Seth Jarvis with an opportunity to play for Canada
Portland Winterhawks forward Seth Jarvis is one of the 44 named to Hockey Canada's Selection Camp. Great recognition and start to his draft-eligible season https://t.co/cOj3UCCAzW
— Joshua Critzer (@jjcritzer) June 26, 2019
Canada’s Under-18 Team selection camp starts on July 26th and runs through July 30th.
The Gretzky Hlinka Cup opens on August 5, with the gold and bronze medal games concluding the cup on August 10.
Simon Knak and Jonas Brøndberg selected at CHL Import Draft
On Thursday, the CHL hosted their annual Import Draft, in which the three members of the Canadian Hockey League draft eligible players from overseas.
With all three leagues in the same draft, the selection order is based off of the teams’ point totals in the previous season and the final standings in each league.
Portland was originally scheduled to select 40th and 100th overall.
However, since each team may only have two imports on their rosters (there are a few exceptions where a third may be selected at the draft), some teams either don’t make any selections or they draft only one player. In the Winterhawks’ situation — with Portland releasing Michal Kvasnica, and Joachim Blichfeld aging out of the league — they were eligible to make two picks.
One team — Victoriaville (QMJHL) — passed before the Winterhawks made their first round pick.
Therefore, with the 39th overall selection, Portland drafted Simon Knak from Switzerland.
While Knak’s name may be new to Portland fans, Mike Johnston was very familiar with the six-foot-zero, 185-pound forward. “I watched him last year in the Hlinka tournament as an underage player. It is a hard tournament to play in for underage players. I thought their team (Switzerland) wasn’t very good, but I thought he really played well. He was one of their captains.”
Knak is another 2002-born forward, and Johnston felt adding to that age group was going to be good for his club.
Quick one minute video of Knak's two goals against Slovakia from last year's Hlinka Gretzky Cuphttps://t.co/ExCJvXlvl6
— Joshua Critzer (@jjcritzer) June 27, 2019
Several teams passed in the second round, so rather than Portland selecting 100th overall, the pick was technically 74th.
Jonas Brøndberg was the choice made by Mike Johnston and his staff.
Brøndberg is a six-foot-four, 183-pound defenseman from Denmark. With his height, Jonas would be the tallest defenseman on Portland’s projected 2019-2020 roster.
Johnston commented, “I just like everything I saw and heard about him. He played Under-18 in the B-Pool, so he wasn’t in the A-pool. [Jonas] was the captain of Team Denmark. Joachim Blichfeld knows him so that was a big plus. He knew the player, the kid, and also trained with him before. We have had good success with kids from Denmark with [Oliver] Bjorkstrand and Blichfeld; now we have Brøndberg.”
The challenges of the Import Draft
One way teams can separate themselves from the pack is by the play of their imports. Drafting the right players can play a pivotal role in a team’s success. However, the CHL Import Draft is unlike any other draft.
First, all three CHL leagues are in the same draft. Second, the players drafted are not guaranteed to sign with the team that makes the selection.
For Portland fans, you don’t have to go back further than Blichfeld to see this in practice.
In 2015, the Halifax Mooseheads selected the Danish winger, but Joachim decided not to come to North America. Then in 2016, he re-entered the CHL Import Draft, where Portland selected him. Not long afterwards, he signed and reported to the Rose City.
Another challenge Johnston spoke about was how “the Euro draft is a draft where you don’t get your choice of exactly who you are going to get. We had a lot of players on our list and you never really know how things are going to unfold for this draft. Last year, we picked 54th and this year 39th. We were 40th but one team passed in front of us. The second round is different because a lot of teams pass. In the first round, you are waiting 40 picks to see what options may be there for you.”
The strategy entering the draft is different for each team. Johnston felt, “For us to get some balance, we had to pick a forward and a defenseman. You don’t really want two forwards because we have a lot of forwards, and we didn’t want two ‘D’ since we have defense.”
While Johnston liked the younger Knak for the forward spot, he wanted something different on the blue line. “I thought [Brøndberg] fits in and is a little bit older. We didn’t really want a young guy. So you have to try to weigh all those things depending on who you get with your first pick.”
Portland selecting a forward with their first pick “influenced our second pick,” Johnston said.
Now that Brøndberg’s and Knak’s rights belong to the Winterhawks, the real work begins.
“There are a lot of steps,” Johnston said, when asked about what is next for his two most recent additions. “One is to get them under contract and get communicating with them. Another is getting their international release. We will talk with their agents and that type of thing.”
If looking at Knak’s Elite Prospects page, some fans may be concerned to see he signed a one-year contract back in Switzerland. However, fear not. Johnston commented, “Every player in Europe has a contract. They all sign a contract with their club teams when they are 14. That binds them to the club. It is a true club system in Europe. So [teams] own the player and can sell them to other teams within their league and all those types of things.”
Johnston continued with some good news for Winterhawks fans. “Most Euro players have a clause where they can come to the Canadian Hockey League. When they are finished here, they then return to their club, so the club still owns them. That is what the club mainly cares about, that they own their rights.”
He explained that if “a guy like Knak or Blichfeld don’t make pro, they will go back to their club who owns that player. These kids sign contracts when they are 14 I think it is. They sign to play junior and eventually play for the pro team if that is what happens. Every player playing over here, if they don’t make pro, they would return to their old club team; they can’t just go wherever they want.”
Stay tuned over the next several days and weeks as Portland works to complete the necessary steps to get both Knak and Brøndberg signed to WHL contracts.
Two familiar faces will be back behind the Portland bench in 2019-2020. Both Associate Coach & Assistant General Manager Kyle Gustafson and Assistant Coach Don Hay signed contract extensions.
Gustafson will start his 17th year with the organization, and Johnston is excited to have Kyle back in the fold. “He is a good, young coach that I know is in demand a little bit to go become a head coach. He has strong ties to the Portland community, and he does a lot for hockey here. [Kyle] is a tough Western Hockey League associate coach; we are really happy to have him back for sure.”
Last season, Gustafson coached the defensemen along with the power play.
Johnston confirmed the contract with Gustafson is a multi-year deal.
There was a lot of speculation last year — and even into the offseason — that when Don Hay signed with the Winterhawks, it would only be for one season. However, those rumors can be put to bed as the WHL’s all-time winningest coach will be back next to Johnston and Gustafson in 2019-2020.
“I think Don really enjoyed last year,” Johnston said. “Just talking with him at the end of the year and when we approached him about coming back, he felt like he really enjoyed the experience, the opportunity, the working with the kids, and his role. It was a good fit.”
A second year for Hay in Portland benefits everyone. Johnston explained, “[Don] is excited about coming back because now he feels like he can even do more because he knows the players, knows the routine, and all that stuff. It is a good fit for our staff and great for players to have those two coaches working with them. Our players moving forward have two really solid guys there every day.”
Hay’s contract is confirmed to be a one-year deal.
“His is year-to-year right now. That is what we told him when we signed him originally that it would be year-to-year. He just keeps telling us if he likes it or not,” Johnston said with a laugh.
Overall, the staff remains unchanged and Johnston likes the chemistry. “I like our staff. We have good chemistry, and I think that is what you look for on your staff.”
Also noteworthy, Rich Campbell — Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach — renewed his contract and will start his 12th year with the organization.
🖊️ || SIGNED
Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach Rich Campbell is staying in Portland!
— Portland Winterhawks (@pdxwinterhawks) June 28, 2019
Per a press release and a post on Winterhawks.com, Mike Johnston said, “Rich Campbell is one of our longest serving member of our current staff, and we are pleased to announce that he will be returning for several more seasons. One of the key reasons we are able to develop players for the National Hockey League is because of the work Rich does off the ice.”
The month of July, “All Quiet on the Western Front”
After two crazy-busy weeks, the next several may have fewer “newsworthy items.”
“Once the Import Draft is over, it quiets down,” Johnston said. “There is still training camp and numbers for camp — maybe the odd signing — but usually we don’t sign our players until we see them at camp. We will probably make some signings then for the future. July is a quieter time where people can get away and do some fun things.”
So, until then, see you around the rink.