With the WHL trade deadline approaching and three of the last five games as losses to other US Division teams vying for a playoff slot, 2016 ended on a decidedly down note for the Portland Winterhawks. Now, with Coach Mike Johnston’s latest long-term roster investment on his way to Portland, the team has some clear mandates to accommodate the change.
Michael Bullion and Cole Kehler are both very talented goalies, but Johnston’s decision to trade Bullion for a seventh-round pick in the 2017 Bantam Draft is a clear message to the fans and to his players that next season is just as important as this season at this point. Kehler has been the more consistent with a 0.911 save percentage, and both are at the end of the eligible age for the league. Kehler will spend the rest of the season providing some on-the-job mentoring to 17-year-old Shane Farkas, who was acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes this last fall, and the rest of the team needs to follow suit.
A fresh young goalkeeper will not find the net hospitable if the defensive performance remains sedate and sloppy as it was last week. A new year is all about starting fresh, and Portland needs to start fresh with fewer questionable passes in their defensive end. Last Friday, Kehler acquitted himself admirably against Seattle’s barrage of 41 shots, and then another 33 the very next night. He never should have seen that amount of shots. The Hawks allowed so many needless scrambles and battles in front of the goalie box that should never have made it past the high slot area. If Farkas is going to have any productive appearances this season, his new teammates are going to need to clear the net more efficiently.
Another pattern beginning to form is the number of on-ice minutes for the younger players. With Caleb Jones and Joachim Blichfeld absent for the World Junior Championship tournament, Johnston took the opportunity to shake up the lineup and give some valuable experience to his newer skaters. Ilijah Colina took his minutes and leveraged an assist, establishing himself (much like Skylar McKenzie before him) as a scrappy and potentially dangerous playmaker despite his smaller stature and rookie status. Not only is this continued experimentation with minutes good for the long-term transition as stalwarts like Keegan Iverson move on from the WHL, it is also a short-term way of preventing complacency and keeping the offensive lines hungry and competitive. It has to continue through the back half of the season if Portland is going to stay in the playoff race.
The Winterhawks have plenty of time to get back into the swing of things after the long holiday break, but January’s light schedule can make February’s brutal back-to-back nights seem like punishment. Hopefully Johnston keeps practices intense and frequent. The season starts back up with home games this Saturday and Sunday, and hopefully a more concrete position in the division rankings.