On Monday, the Winterhawks took to the ice at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum for a light practice as they prepare to play four games in six nights.
I spent some time with vice president, general manager, and head coach Mike Johnston afterwards to get caught up with the latest surrounding the team.
Recapping the weekend on the island
The team returned home on Sunday after spending the weekend in Victoria. Portland continued its red-hot play, extending its points streak to 15 straight games. The two teams played back-to-back overtime games. On Friday, Victoria emerged with the extra point and Saturday, Portland picked up the second point.
Mike Johnston spoke on Tuesday about his team’s effort over the weekend. “It was the first time we saw them, thought they were a real good team. They added (Brayden) Tracey to their group, (Tarun) Fizer was out, but overall they are a competitive, battling team, stingy with their chances against. I thought both goaltenders played great the first night, coincidentally two of our goaltenders in (Joel) Hofer and (Shane) Farkas, thought both were excellent in the game.”
Johnston continued, “The second night was a little bit of both teams, when they gave up a chance, it was a grade-A chance. It was a little bit uncharacteristic of us because I thought we have done a good job all year of not doing that. I was proud of the guys of how they battled back late in the game to tie it and then win it in overtime.”
The team left with 3-of-4 points on the weekend, but for Johnston it is “more about how we played. I liked how we battled. It was a playoff-like series against the second best team in their division.”
Trade deadline is relatively quiet
The only move Portland made during the week leading up to the Friday at 2:00 pm deadline was trading goaltender Isaiah DiLaura to the Swift Current Broncos. In exchange, the Winterhawks picked up a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2021 WHL Bantam Draft.
Per Johnston, the condition surrounding the pick is tied to the number of games played by DiLaura. “It is the same as we acquired from Prince George. It is on games played. It is a seventh-round pick and then at 25 games it goes to a 6th. We just took the Prince George trade and moved it to Swift Current.”
Portland did not make any other roster moves unlike previous years, and instead chose to stay with a group who, as of Monday evening, are eight points clear of second place in the U.S. Division.
“Number one, we made our move last year. We made it for last year and this year — that was a big move getting Joel,” Johnston said. “The second thing, the rest of our lineup is homegrown guys — our guys that we drafted, listed, and developed.”
21 of the 23 players on the Winterhawks roster were either drafted or listed by Portland. Only Hofer and Kurtis Smythe were brought in via a trade.
Johnston wanted to keep the status quo. “I think sticking with chemistry, sticking with guys who have done a good job for you in the first half, there is no reason to shake the tree and try to say, ‘Hey, we need to make a move because other teams are making a move.’ You only have to make a move if you need to better your team. For us, we evaluated our group. Even though they are young, even though they are a little bit inexperienced, we still like our group.”
Looking around the league, many teams paid a high price to acquire players to improve their squads.
The decision for Johnston and staff to keep their roster as is was “more internal than prices. I think even if the prices were more affordable, if you are adding a player, you are probably taking a player out. I didn’t think anybody deserved to come out, think they have all earned the right to play. If there is one thing we lack, it is experience, but we still have three more months to get 30-some games and more experience for our group.”
The goal over the next 28 regular season games according to Johnston — “How much we can improve our group by the end of the year and be ready for playoffs.”
Seth Jarvis playing in CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game
Number 24 was noticeably absent from the ice on Monday. Instead, he is on his way to Hamilton, Ontario, for the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Seth Jarvis was named one of the members of Team White. The game is scheduled for Thursday evening and he will therefore miss Tuesday’s home game against Regina as well as Friday’s road game in Spokane. Jarvis will return to WHL action on Saturday when the Kelowna Rockets come to the Rose City.
Johnston had high praise for the 2002-born winger. “It shows that we have one of the top players in the world and Seth has certainly shown that he is that. For us, we are always proud of our guys when they get to represent the league in a prospects game. Secondly, anytime you get those experiences, it is really good for the player. I think is just great for Seth. He has earned it, deserved it. If you look at the way he has played lately, he has just been incredible, had a lot of shots, new energy, scoring. He is an important part of our team. I just think it is a fun experience for those guys.”
With a smile, Portland’s head coach commented, “The only problem is he won’t play Tuesday or Friday night. He can’t play Friday in Spokane. However, neither can (Jack) Finley for them, so it is a wash.”
Also on Monday, the WHL announced the 17-year-old as the On the Run Player of the Week. The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native scored two goals and picked up eight assists.
NHL Central Scouting has an eye towards Portland
Five Portland Winterhawks were listed on the NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings. The latest rankings were released Monday morning and include players eligible for the 2020 draft in Montreal, Quebec.
Seth Jarvis was the highest ranked at 19th among North American skaters. Simon Knak (61), Cross Hanas (65), Jonas Brøndberg (107), and Robbie Fromm-Delorme (165) were also included.
“I like our group of 2002’s and also like our group of 2003’s for next year’s draft too,” Johnston expressed. “We talk about it all the time — our culture is about winning but also about developing. We take pride in both of these equally. Most of the time, they go together — if you develop you win. If we can provide players the opportunity to get drafted, provide players to get games in the NHL, that is certainly our goal.”
In total, 51 players from the WHL were included in the rankings. With their five players, the Winterhawks saw the most representation from any WHL team. Prince Albert, Everett, and Lethbridge each had four players on the list.
4 games in 6 nights
Portland’s busy January continues with four games in six days, three of which are at home.
“The interesting thing this week is we are playing two teams we haven’t faced (this season),” Johnston said. First is the Regina Pats on Tuesday and then Kelowna on Saturday and Sunday.
The fourth game is against U.S. Division opponent Spokane.
“Each game presents a different scenario, and with our guys we try to focus on ‘what is the angle for the game?’” Johnston mentioned. “For tomorrow against Regina, it is a new team. It is always exciting to play a new team. Spokane on Friday is a big rival, between us, them, and Everett for top seeding in the division. Then we have a Memorial Cup team coming in for a doubleheader which is really exciting. You get to see a Memorial Cup team and how we measure up to a team that is hosting the Cup. We have them for a two game series and they are a real good team.”
With their focus on the excitement of the week, Johnston, Kyle Gustafson, and Don Hay held a lighter practice. “We need to continue the habits. Today we looked at some things we could be better and worked on it in practice. We didn’t have a heavy practice, but instead had a details-focused practice,” Johnston concluded.
Joel Hofer and Simon Knak back in Portland
I chatted with both Knak and Hofer after practice on Monday. Stay tuned for more from them later this week. Both shared about their experience at the IIHF 2020 World Juniors.