The WHL is a great opportunity for general managers to get a lot of experience in a short amount of time. With little budget for scouts, multiple drafts and feeder leagues, and the ever-present time clock for players to enter and exit the age restriction, poor decisions (or the ill-timed indecision) can affect a team’s play dynamic for multiple seasons. For the Portland Winterhawks, it is even more difficult to navigate around the arguably draconian punishments from a censure by the league four years ago that still cling to the organization. It’s really no wonder that Jamie Kompon, an NHL-calibrated coach, stepped into the GM role in Portland and immediately began to play a game of catch-up.
Kompon’s seasons as Head Coach and General Manager for the Winterhawks saw some important shuffling of the roster, but will likely be better remembered for the complications. For instance, the haphazard juggling of three goalies at a time (five of them in total during that season) for weeks until Brendan Burke’s dismal performance finally wore out his welcome. Or there were the late-in-the-season additions of veteran 20-year-old skaters like defenseman Adam Henry, who was a great role model for the rookies that season but also a guaranteed short investment due to his age.
Mike Johnston, conversely, has shown during his previous years in Portland and this season that his capacity as GM and now Vice President of the organization even outshines his usefulness as a coach…and that is saying a whole lot, because he’s an extremely effective coach. Johnston took training camp seriously and strengthened up the defensive pairs for the Hawks and encouraged the offensive lines to work collaboratively, giving the team many short term solutions to last season’s woes. But he has also been planning for next season; Johnston announced this last week that the Winterhawks have signed yet another 15-year-old Bantam level star to bolster the ranks for 2017-18.
Evan Fradette, born in 2001, was a fifth round pick for Portland in the 2016 Bantam Draft and has only gotten more impressive during this season with the St. Albert Flyers. The young goalie has a jaw-dropping 97.1% save percentage, as well as four shutouts out of his eight games so far. This is the smartest acquisition for Johnston to make, and not just because of the player’s bonafides. With Michael Bullion and Cole Kehler both turning 20 in 2017, Fradette is going to be vital to the Winterhawks for at least two seasons once he gets his chance.
This is coming off the heels of last month’s signing of 15-year-old forward Jaydon Dureau, the eighth round pick for the Hawks in the same draft. Dureau’s main selling points included speed and follow-through on scoring chances, as he’s currently boasting six goals and four assists in just 13 games this season. But his age is quite important as well. While the offensive lines have coalesced this year, they have also relied heavily on the more experienced players over 18 years old to act as scoring tanks while the younger forwards have been more muted. Stalwarts like Keegan Iverson and Alex Overhardt will be hitting the trail, and leaving holes in the roster for Dureau and others to fill.
Johnston certainly has ambition for his first year back in Portland, but these prospects being signed steadily throughout the season show that he is playing a much longer game. Any disillusioned fans might want to stall off selling their season tickets, because the 2017-18 season might be a banner year. Meanwhile, the current Winterhawks have a weekend at home defending against their Division leaders, the Everett Silvertips, and their main rival for the first wildcard slot for the playoffs, the Victoria Royals.