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Johnston, Winterhawks hope for happy returns

After stint in Pittsburgh, coach aims to lead Portland back to top of WHL

By Paul Danzer, Columbian Soccer, hockey and Community Sports Reporter
Published: September 21, 2016, 11:12pm

Starting over. The challenge for Mike Johnston is not exactly the same as it was when he first took charge of the Portland Winterhawks.

He is familiar with the Western Hockey League — though not with players around the league. He knows Portland, and he knows the support for the team from fans and from owner Bill Gallacher.

After coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins for a season and a half, Johnston returns to the place where as coach and general manager from 2008 through 2014 he built a junior hockey program that consistently competed for championships and sent players to the National Hockey League.

Johnston — who replaced Jamie Kompon and returns to the Winterhawks as head coach, general manager and vice president — also knows it will take some time to develop the young team that opens the 2016-17 season on Saturday at the Moda Center against rival Seattle.

“It’s similar (to 2008) in that we’re going to have quite a few new players and it’s going to be quite a young team,” Johnston said.

Assuming Caleb Jones returns to Portland from Edmonton’s training camp, the defenseman will be the top returning scorer (55 points) from last season’s team. The top 2015-16 goal scorer on the roster is Rodrigo Abols (20 goals), but the 20-year-old Latvian is a candidate to turn pro with the Vancouver Canucks.

Rather than relying on a few top-end scorers, these Winterhawks will need offense from many of the young players on the roster. Key to that will be the development of forwards Cody Glass (second season), Ryan Hughes (second season), Evan Weinger (third season), Alex Overhardt (third season), Skyler McKenzie (third season) and Colton Voloso (second full season).

If he returns to Portland, Jones will be counted on to lead a group of defensemen who for the first time will play significant minutes in pressure situations.

The goalie will also be new after Adin Hill moved on to pro hockey. Cole Kehler and Michael Bullion are both in their 19-year-old season. Ethan Middendorf, 17, is practicing after being sidelined with concussions both last season and in training camp.

The Winterhawks have had tremendous success with players from Europe under Johnston. The European addtions are Joachim Blichfield, 18, from Denmark can play all three forward positions and could be a key weapon. Henri Jokaharju, 17, is a mobile defenseman from Finland who like Blichfield figures to be important to the power play.

Should Abols return, the Winterhawks will be required to part with one European. If Abols turns pro, winger Keegan Iverson will be the only 20-year-old on the roster, but Johnston said he has no plans to acquire additional overage players.

“Right now we’re fine with the group we have. I don’t think we need to add anybody,” he said.

Portland went 5-1 in the preseason. Johnston said he was pleased with the tempo his team played at in those games.

“In training camp and in exhibition games I’ve been pleased with the speed we can play with,” Johnston said.

Given the youth of the team, that might not translate into a fast start — an early-October swing through the East Division — will provide a challenge. But Johnston does anticipate quick improvement from his young squad.

“I’m anticipating that by Christmas — with the work we can do with individuals and our group — that you should see some pretty good improvement by that time,” Johnston said.

Given Johnston’s track record, that improvement should be fun to watch.

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