The Portland Winterhawks had a busy week off the ice as three players were signed to WHL contracts.
On Thursday, I spoke with Mike Coflin, who is the assistant to the general manager and director of scouting and player development for the Winterhawks.
We discussed the signings, Portland’s process of keeping up to date with its prospects throughout the season, as well as the development of prospects and when a player may start his career with the Winterhawks.
This is a “meaty” article, so consider yourself warned 🙂
Signings and Portland’s process
After the trade deadline seems to be a time of year when WHL signings start to increase.
“It is the time of year that worked for us in Portland,” Coflin said. “We thought given the nature of our group that was unsigned, our prospects, that we wanted to do a real good job of getting out and seeing their development since this fall.”
Coflin and the Winterhawks have 18 scouts around western Canada and the United States evaluating talent.
Needless to say, they have been busy.
“We were able, myself and the scouts, to work together to make sure we had real good looks at them and try to determine where their development was at and where we can see them in a year or two. Obviously, we could envision them to have the qualities to play with Portland at some point. It gave us some confidence seeing them and seeing them progress since training camp. It was a real positive and we are real happy with (where) their games are at and (to) see where it is getting to. With that, it gave us a lot of confidence to move forward in the last couple of weeks after the trade deadline. We were able to add some commitments to our group.”
Josh Mori, Aidan Litke, and Brody Tallman all put pen to paper and committed to playing in the Rose City in the years to come.
Portland’s scouts’ responsibilities extend beyond just identifying players for upcoming drafts. Per Coflin, “One of their priorities is also to be in contact with our prospects and have a relationship with the family, the player, and their coaches. They keep tabs on where they are at and any issues/progress and relay that to us.”
Coflin is a key member of Portland’s hockey operations and his role is vital to the team’s success.
Having the scouts report back to him allows Mike “to be the person to cross over and get good viewings on the prospects given the nature of our setup in Portland. Mike Johnston, Kyle (Gustafson), and others are committed to the coaching of our team. They will rely on me to be a set of eyes out there across all of our prospects and give them an update.”
While three signings were announced in quick succession, fans should be slow to make judgements on what those mean for future iterations of Portland’s roster.
“People read all kinds of things into what we are doing, and it can be unusual to have three signings in a week. That is just the way it came about — it all came relatively quickly and people were ready to sign,” Coflin stressed.
Mike continued clarifying the importance of understanding the process the team takes in regards to signing players. “We are still working on some other signings that are a priority for us as well. Those things will play out and we take them as they come. (One player) might have been the first to come out, but he might be more likely to come in as a 17-year-old rather than a 16-year-old. We might have someone come in for a visit at the end of February who might end up being someone that could join us earlier along that path.”
Many factors come into play when looking at which players may be on next year’s roster. Some of those decisions are not known until the end of a prospect’s season. A current or future NCAA player may become available, a recruiting trip by a scout or coach could lead to a signing in the offseason, a player may have a strong playoff run with his current team, or a prospect could have a strong training camp and preseason.
So when a signing is announced, keep in mind it does not guarantee the player will be in Portland next season. Per Coflin, “Some of these players that are being signed now may still need more development time. All of these things are a little premature to determine who is going to play next year. It is impossible to know that right now. It is the nature of the age group.”
Black Aces and weekly visits
A Black Ace is a player not on a team’s active roster but who practices with the team and is around towards the end of the season. Every team, whether in the WHL, ECHL, AHL, or NHL, brings in Black Aces as its prospects’ seasons come to a close.
For example, last year’s captain, Cody Glass, joined the Vegas Golden Knights when Portland’s season was over and before he was reassigned to the Chicago Wolves in the AHL.
The WHL is a little different than the pro leagues however.
Colfin mentioned how “one of the factors that may not come to mind for people when you think about calling players up, or if they are with us for playoffs, is to consider their school. For a player to leave their high school at home during a critical time when they have already missed quite a bit of time during the regular season, to come in for a prolonged stretch can have a huge impact on them. It is something we keep in mind.”
For those who end up being Black Aces and school isn’t as big of a factor, Portland looks to “add to their development by seeing what playoffs are all about and getting a head start on next year. It helps us get to know them and where they are at before they head out for summer.”
For some of their younger prospects, however, Portland takes a different approach instead of a Black Ace.
“Given the school factor, 15- and 16-year-olds for the most part that we are talking about, we likely will bring them in for shorter stretches, maybe a week at a time,” Coflin explained. “We want them to have that experience available, but then might swap them out and bring in another couple of players the following week. That is a coaches thing and where our needs are at in terms of depth at that point.”
For example, last season, current 16-year-old rookies Jack O’Brien and James Stefan attended practice for a week in late January. Both felt the experience was beneficial as they got an opportunity to see where their game needed to improve as they looked to make the roster for 2019-2020. After the week, they rejoined their team and new prospects skated with the Winterhawks.
Backup goaltender Dante Giannuzzi served as a Black Ace last year when his season with Rink Hockey Academy Prep concluded.
Mike said the decision on which players will serve as Black Aces will be made by Johnston, Gustafson, and Don Hay as March rolls around and Midget and Junior A seasons begin to end.
The first signing Portland announced was defenseman Josh Mori.
Portland fans who attended the Neely Cup (training camp) did not get to see Mori play in any of the games, but Mori did participate in practices held during the day.
Coflin said, “Josh injured his wrist in summer training so he missed the Team British Columbia Under-16 team and cost him a chance to play at the Challenge Cup there in Calgary in the fall. That was unfortunate. He was able to skate but in a non-contact situation at training camp. He at least had the opportunity to experience our camp, meet everybody, participate in situations throughout each day, and take it all in. His family was here, and I thought that was a really good chance for him to get to know us and see what we are all about.”
Not long after training camp, Mori was cleared to play. He currently plays for St. Georges Minor Midget team in the CSSHL where he was named team captain.
Leadership is a characteristic Portland has high on its list when looking at which players to select in the bantam draft. However, identifying how players will demonstrate leadership when they are 18- or 19-years-old while they are younger is a challenge.
“Sometimes with a 14- or 15-year-old, you are never quite sure what is going to emerge or mature,” Coflin added. “Josh is definitely an early maturer in that regard. His character is very, very high and (he) was well spoken when we picked him. His coaches are thrilled with his leadership he has provided his team. Even when he plays up with the older kids, as old as 17, he plays with confidence and asserts himself. You can see him talking to players on the ice and bench. It is cliche, but it shows a level of maturity and that will help him be a good player. All those things he brings are part of what every team needs.”
“He is really having a fabulous year,” Coflin said when asked about Mori’s development. “The part of the game that has probably developed the most is on the offensive side. He is really confident now, assertive, sees the game very well, understands when to move the puck, when to jump into the rush.”
An area of focus for Josh is something common for players his age. “He is physically like any other 15-year-old, or most at least, where they really will benefit from adding physical strength. Josh has grown a little bit, but with that added power, in the next couple of years, he will have the ability to play both sides of the puck,” Coflin said.
“Right now, he has to play a little bit more of a thinking style of the game, but his style suits our style. He is an above-average skater, thinks the game very, very well, has some leadership showing a lot of character.”
Another aspect Mike likes about Mori’s development is how he showed when playing up at the Midget Prep level, one above where he is currently.
“Overall, we are very happy with his progress, and he is excited to play in Portland,” Coflin mentioned. “I think he has lots of opportunities and (we) are really pleased to have his hockey future in our uniform.”
Portland announced Litke’s signing on Tuesday afternoon. Aidan is the next in a long line of players from Winnipeg the Winterhawks have signed to a contract.
Current Winterhawks Seth Jarvis, Nick Cicek, Joel Hofer, and Dante Giannuzzi are all from the same hometown. Cody Glass also hailed from Manitoba’s capital.
As a 2003-born forward, Litke becomes the sixth 16-year-old forward signed by the Winterhawks. Gabe Klassen, Jack O’Brien, and James Stefan are currently on this year’s roster. Jonah Bevington and Dawson Pasternak are also signed to WHL contracts.
“It is definitely a strong group for us, which is good,” Coflin commented about the number 16-year-old forwards in Portland’s system. “We don’t get so much worried about exactly where people are going to fit and who is going to play with who. We just want to have a strong confidence that they can play for us for sure. When the time comes, whether any player we are talking about, or those that we haven’t signed yet, whether they are ready to play is decided at training camp. It is based upon their work this summer, preseason. All those things determine who plays where and whether they are with us, need more time, or are an emergency call up.”
There is a strong chance not all 2003 forwards will make the roster next season per Coflin. “We want everyone to come in and make our team. There probably will be a couple that won’t, so their development needs a little bit more time. They might come in a little bit later, and that will help us at that time. It is just knowing that as we go through this process, at some point we are confident they are going to play for us. Now it is up to them to show us that they are ready for next year or if they need more time.”
Litke’s style of play is slightly different than Portland’s current mix, but that was by design. Coflin said, “We drafted him to balance our forward group with the dimension of more of a power-forward winger who can play a little bit of a heavier game but still has the skills and offensive ability to sort of compliment the rest of our team.”
Portland’s scouts and Coflin have seen tremendous development in Aidan’s game over the last two seasons, which helped get him to a place where the Winterhawks were ready to sign him to a contract.
“We noticed it in training camp and he stayed that second week with the veterans and really caught the eyes of the coaches at that point,” Coflin shared. “We are really seeing a player come into his own, Aidan is one of those kids who gets just a little bit better every time you see him. It has added up to about two years later to a player that we have a lot of confidence that he will be a real asset for us.”
How much has Litke’s game improved this season? He started out the year with Rink Hockey Academy in the Midget Prep division, but has since joined the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL and Junior A).
“Aidan and his family decided that would be the best thing for him to play against older players and sort of take what he has done and see if playing against older players could push his development even further.”
Not only has Litke produced in his short time in the MJHL (8G, 2A in 10 GP), Mike said he is getting the opportunity to play in all situations. Often times younger players in the older leagues play a limited role; however, Aidan’s situation is different and speaks to how far his game has come in the last six months.
The last signing Portland announced this week was defenseman Brody Tallman. Unlike with the pipeline of 2003-born forwards, Tallman is the first 16-year-old defenseman to ink a contract.
Coflin was again impressed with the development he saw. “Brody showed us this year that his game has taken another step. He has developed and understands what he can do best. It strengthens his game even more, has kind of matured in that sense of he knows what works for him. If he tried to push it too much in certain areas how that as a defenseman can open up and be a bad thing. By understanding his game even more, it has made him a better player.”
What does Portland’s assistant to the general manager like best about Tallman’s game?
“He has a great shot, sees the offensive zone, can play on the power play at the level he is at and we think in the future he can be a power-play guy, he passes the puck very well, gets his shots through from the point, and likes to jump in the rush.”
The offensive side of Brody’s game isn’t the only aspect that stands out to Coflin. “He can also be physical and play in a tough game, stands up (for) his teammates, so he is a well-rounded defenseman.”
Just as I mentioned above, Tallman will look to make the team in 2020-2021; however, just because he is signed doesn’t guarantee his roster spot. There are many factors which could impact when Portland fans see Tallman in a Winterhawks uniform.
In the meantime, Coflin said, “We think there is a lot there with him. So for all these guys playing Midget AAA, we are very lucky they are in a strong program. The Alberta Midget AAA league is very, very good for development. If you can be one of the better players there, that bodes well for being ready to come in as a first-year defenseman in our league. We will see what he is ready for come next August and September.”
Left vs. right shot defensemen
Both Tallman and Mori are left-shot defensemen, which is the entirety of Portland’s pipeline on the blue line. No defender on the current roster nor any signed prospect shoots right.
In fact, as of the most recent 50-man Protected List, the Winterhawks only have two right-handed shots listed and both are committed to the NCAA path (Max Burkholder and Drew Helleson).
Many have asked the question about whether the handedness plays a role for Portland. “It is a factor, but we would still take the best player every time,” Coflin pointed out.
He continued saying how some left-shooting players, Josh Mori for example, actually prefers playing on the right side of the ice. “In a perfect world, if we had a choice, we would have a little bit of a balance between left and right. It is not lost on us that there are some advantage in that, but in the end, we will always go with the best player.”