WHL Roundup: Winterhawks at Wrong End of Standings

What in the world is wrong with the Portland Winterhawks?

That’s a million-dollar question that everybody’s asking, but nobody really has an answer for.

When the four-time defending Western Conference playoff champions opened their WHL season with a losing weekend, the reason was rather obvious. The Winterhawks were missing no fewer than nine regulars from their roster, either away at NHL training camps or sidelined by injuries.

Since then, all nine have returned and yet the losing has continued. Portland is currently dead last in the West and third worst in the entire 22-team league through 10 (of 72) games. Sure, it’s a long season — a marathon, not a sprint — but nobody predicted this kind of catastrophic start from the perennial title contenders.

With only one win, seven regulation losses and two shootout defeats to date (1-7-0-2), the Winterhawks will certainly have their work cut out for them in reaching the 100-point plateau for a fifth straight regular season. To make that happen, Portland will need to win nearly 80 per cent of its remaining games — in other words 8 out of every 10 games for the next six segments, or bare minimum 45 of the last 62 when factoring in the loser points for overtime and shootout setbacks. What seemed like a safe bet prior to the season — a foregone conclusion, really — now appears to be a long-shot.

Most, including us at THW, expected Portland to be right there with Kelowna again atop the West. The reigning regular-season champion Rockets have lived up to their billing with an unblemished record through eight games (8-0-0-0). The Winterhawks have, inexplicably, wallowed at the opposite end of the standings.

Portland cracked the CHL’s top-10 pre-season rankings, in 10th, while Kelowna was slotted fifth — behind the Brandon Wheat Kings (6-2-1-0) in third but ahead of the Calgary Hitmen (4-3-0-1) in seventh and the Seattle Thunderbirds (4-3-0-1) as an honourable mention. The latest weekly rankings, released on Wednesday afternoon, have Kelowna taking over No. 1, the Eastern Conference-leading Medicine Hat Tigers (8-1-0-0) at No. 5, Brandon at No. 6 and the Everett Silvertips (5-0-2-0) at No. 10.

Going back to the top, the question persists, what’s wrong with the Winterhawks?

Three things come to mind. New coach. Struggling goaltender. Underachieving top prospect.

Jamie Kompon, Brendan Burke and Paul Bittner, or some combination therein, need to get it together for this Portland team to trend upward. And they need to get it together sooner than later — preferably this weekend, as they embark on a six-game-in-nine-day road trip through the typically weak East Division. That should provide a good bonding experience and may be just what the doctor ordered assuming the Winterhawks can get off on the right foot with a win Friday in Moose Jaw, and especially if they can prevail Saturday in Brandon against another projected powerhouse.

Then again, no assumptions should be made about this squad at this point. The Winterhawks are clearly spinning their tires and anything can happen on this bus tour through the Prairies. Yet, despite their poor form bordering on W-T-F territory, this could be their TSN turning point. Their chance to gain traction, some positive momentum, to go on a tear and not look back. The majority of WHL pundits still believe that it’s only a matter of time until the Winterhawks hit their stride. None of the longtime league followers are writing them off just yet, suggesting Portland will miss the playoffs or anything crazy like that.

Kompon had never coached junior hockey prior to this season, but he’s helped capture two Stanley Cups as an assistant with Chicago in 2013 and Los Angeles in 2012, so the guy knows a thing or two about winning and should be capable of getting this train back on the tracks before it’s too late. He was expected to pick up where Mike Johnston left off — Kompon said as much himself — but there has evidently been an adjustment process for the returning players, a learning curve that remains a work in progress, as the transition hasn’t been as seamless as anticipated. Johnston, for his part, hasn’t skipped a beat with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, off to an undefeated start (2-0-0-0).

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Kompon’s woes can be partially attributed to the makeshift roster he was working with for the first couple weeks, minus the likes of Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus) and Nic Petan (Winnipeg), who have only been back in the fold for five and three games, respectively. They are still settling in, grasping some of the system tweaks and developing chemistry on and off the ice with their new coach, teammates and linemates. That part will come, and those two will be off to the races as a dynamic duo. Yet, some are already speculating that Petan could be traded at this year’s deadline if Portland doesn’t right its ship, given he’s almost certainly turning pro next season.

Petan’s status is up in the air right now after being on the receiving end of a dirty head-shot that resulted in a seven-game suspension for Seattle’s Evan Wardley. Petan was hurt on the first-period hit and did not return for the rest of Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss. If he’s out for any length of time, and that certainly looks possible, that could be a devastating blow for a Portland team already on the ropes. You never want to speculate on injuries, but after watching the video evidence (below), it sure appears to be one of those “upper-body” issues.

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Bittner is a 6-foot-4 power forward and an A-list prospect for the 2015 NHL draft, which implies he’s a candidate to be picked in the first round. With only three goals (and no assists) through eight games, his play, or at least his production, has left a lot to be desired. Perhaps he’ll get another look alongside Petan and Bjorkstrand in the near future and start showing why the scouts are so high on his potential. Or perhaps recent acquisition Miles Koules, the son of Hollywood producer Oren Koules, will be the right fit there after coming over in a trade from Medicine Hat.

Burke has, in all honesty, been pretty brutal this season. That seems a tad strange given he earned high praise at Team USA’s world-junior evaluation camp in August and more rave reviews at Arizona Coyotes training camp, but since arriving back in Portland, Burke’s stat-line reads: 4.35 goals-against average and .865 save percentage in 7 games (1-4-0-2). Those numbers don’t lie, and the 19-year-old, sixth-round pick has plenty to prove going forward — especially after being supplanted during last season’s playoff run by over-age grad Corbin Boes. If Burke doesn’t shape up in short order, the Winterhawks might be shopping for another replacement between the pipes.

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Not to defend Burke’s lacklustre efforts, but Portland’s defencemen have been dismal in front of him and must shoulder their share of the blame too. The Winterhawks are sorely missing the elite pairing of Mathew Dumba (Minnesota) and Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh) from last season. This year’s blue-line would appear to be the team’s weak link, led by lesser-knowns like Layne Viveiros (undrafted), Anton Cederholm (Vancouver) and Keoni Texeira (2015 eligible). Not exactly household names, though if Kompon, in his dual role as GM, was to make a bold move for Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg) of the Prince Albert Raiders, that could go a long way in shoring up the defence and generating more offence from the back end. It would also help Kompon put his stamp on the roster, but the asking price will be ridiculously steep, and Portland doesn’t even have its first-round pick to offer up, still paying the price for Johnston’s perceived wrongdoings during the 2012-13 season.

The U.S. Division also appears much improved this season, which doesn’t bode well for Portland’s bid to climb the standings in rapid fashion.

The Silvertips have yet to lose in regulation and were looking legit even before adding import sniper Nikita Scherbak, a Montreal Canadiens first-round pick, formerly of the Saskatoon Blades, who has four goals and eight points in just four games since arriving in Everett.

Seattle is only going to get stronger once it gets Shea Theodore (Anaheim) — captain, top D-man and last season’s leading scorer — back from injury (sprained elbow). The T-Birds will also get a boost from the continued development of highly-touted 2015 draft prospects Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear, who are progressing towards becoming impact players in the WHL.

Even the Tri-City Americans (6-4-0-0) and Spokane Chiefs (3-1-2-0) are playing above-.500 hockey at this stage, which has them 8 and 4 points ahead of Portland, the latter with four games in hand on the Winterhawks. Tri-City got off to a hot start thanks to Eric Comrie, arguably the league’s top goaltender, while Spokane seems to be overachieving for the time being and should eventually tail off to some degree.

Regardless, Portland is facing an uphill battle with Kelowna still the team to catch in the West, remaining unbeaten heading into tonight’s game in Kamloops against the surprisingly competitive Blazers (6-3-1-0). It has been smooth sailing with Dan Lambert taking the head-coaching reins from Ryan Huska, as the former Rockets assistant has his club firing on all cylinders thus far. Kelowna has looked pretty much unstoppable early on, but Portland has long been its nemesis, eliminating the Rockets from the playoffs in three of the last four years, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they somehow ended up on another collision course come April. That is, if Kompon, Burke and Bittner, among others, start bringing their A-game.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.