Celebration then back to work for Winterhawks

Portland opens defense of two titles on Friday

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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The Portland Winterhawks will celebrate last season and start a new one on Friday at the Rose Garden.

The Winterhawks plan to raise banners commemorating their 2011 U.S. Division and Western Conference championships. Then they will start their 72-game Western Hockey League regular season by taking on the Everett Silvertips.

Here is a glance at some significant developments as the major junior hockey team heads into its 36th season in Portland:

Biggest offseason news: All of the team’s hockey staff signed contract extensions. General manager and head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Travis Green both signed for four more years. This keeps intact a group that has taken Portland from the very bottom of the WHL to just title contender in less than three seasons.

Maybe bigger offseason news: The Portland City Council took a significant step toward renovating Memorial Coliseum. If the project gains final approval, upgrades will start in early 2012 and be mostly complete for the start of the 2012-13 season.

Which players are coming back? Good question. The Winterhawks had 15 players attend NHL camps, and as of Wednesday 10 of those were still with NHL teams. A strong group of 19-year-olds figure to lead the way this season for Portland. That group includes forwards Sven Bartschi, Brad Ross, and Taylor Peters, defenseman Joe Morrow and Troy Rutkowski, and goaltender Mac Carruth. Forward Ty Rattie and defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon are 18-year-olds entering their third season with Portland.

If Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets) or Nino Niederreiter (Islanders), also both 19, return to Portland instead of sticking in the NHL, that will be a huge bonus for the Winterhawks. Those decisions aren’t likely to be made until late October.

What about 20-year-olds? WHL teams are limited to three 20-year-olds after Oct. 13. Portland has six on its roster, including forward Charles Weiss, acquired this week in a trade. Defenseman William Wrenn and forward Riley Boychuk are the best bets to be with Portland this season. Taylor Aronson (Predators), Brett Ponich (Blues) and Oliver Gabriel (Blue Jackets) probably move to pro hockey.

Who might have a breakout season? Defenseman Derrick Pouliot was the team’s most consistent player in preseason. He played well as a 16-year-old last season and could become a dynamic player. Fan favorite Brendan Leipsic and rookie forward Taylor Leier are other 17-year-olds to watch.

Bottom line: The Winterhawks reached the WHL finals last season, and this team has the parts to again compete for a league title. Carruth is a veteran goalie. Portland has plenty of exciting young talent, and should have good leadership. Just how good or great this season is might come down to how much veterans such as Ty Rattie, Brad Ross and Taylor Peters raise their game.

Fan facts: The Winterhawks will have live internet radio broadcasts of every game at Winterhawks.com. Only Friday games are scheduled for over-the-air on AM 970. ... The Winterhawks are scheduled to play 14 of their 36 home games at the Rose Garden. ... Ticket information: 503-236-4295 or Winterhawks.com.