PORTLAND — Not since the spring of 2010 have the Portland Winterhawks missed the Western Hockey League championship series.
But in 2015 the Kelowna Rockets dethroned the Winterhawks in the Western Conference finals.
Still, the team’s first season under the guidance of Jamie Kompon was a success in some significant ways.
Oliver Bjorkstrand was named the WHL Player of the Year on Wednesday. He and Nic Petan formed a dynamic offensive pair. Rookie goalie Adin Hill was so consistent that the team traded away veteran Brendan Burke at midseason. A rebuilt defensive core became the foundation of a strong second-half run that carried the Hawks within sight of a fifth consecutive conference title.
Kompon, hired in July after Mike Johnston became coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, listed the demands of the schedule on players’ time, along with the caliber of the WHL, as significant lessons from his first season.
“Every day I came to work I learned something new,” Kompon said.
Some of the leaders of this season’s Winterhawks will move on. Bjorkstrand (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Petan (Winnipeg) will start their professional careers, perhaps in the NHL. After four seasons in Portland, Chase De Leo is hopeful he will start his professional career. Defenseman Anton Cederholm (Canucks) will also begin his professional career.
The three over-age players whose junior hockey careers have ended are defensemen Adam Henry and Josh Hanson and forward Miles Koules.
Players who could fill the three 20-year-old spots on next season’s Winterhawks include defensemen Blake Heinrich and Layne Vivieros and forward Alex Schoenborn. Heinrich, who was a two-year captain in the USHL before joining the Winterhawks this season, said he expects to be back and to be a key leader for the 2015-16 team. If he doesn’t sign with the San Jose Sharks, Schoenborn said he would love to be back in Portland.
Four Winterhawks were in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft, which takes place June 26-27. Adin Hill was the No. 4-rated North American goalie prospect, while among North American skaters Paul Bittner was ranked 26th, Keoni Texeira 143rd and Evan Weinger 161st.
Weinger was one of the WHL rookies who saw significant time in the playoffs for the Winterhawks. Another was 16-year-old Skyler McKenzie. Both should play larger roles next season, when Bittner, Dominic Turgeon and Keegan Iverson will be key players in their 19-year-old season.
On defense, Brendan De Jong, Caleb Jones and Nick Heid will get the chance for regular playing time. Kompon highlighted De Jong as a player who, despite limited playoff action, made significant improvement as a 16-year-old this season. Jones is the younger brother of former Hawk Seth Jones, and Heid is a big defenseman who missed the second half of this season with shoulder surgery.
Kompon said he likes the future of his team. A commitment to fitness will determine who earns prominent roles, according to the coach.
“For the younger players, they understand now the fitness level and how hard it is to compete at this level night in and night out. I’m a fitness freak, and I expect their fitness level to be off the charts,” Kompon said. “The veteran players, we’re challenging them to be the best and nothing but the best.”