NEWS
09/21/2011 02:37 EDT | Updated 11/21/2011 05:12 EST

Portland expected to be a WHL powerhouse, but a lot of its talent still in NHL

Training camp is supposed to be a time for establishing line combinations and defensive pairings, as well as auditioning players for special teams duty.

Portland Winter Hawks head coach Mike Johnston wasn't able to do a lot of that during the pre-season because he had 15 players away at NHL training camps. Most of them are still absent heading into Portland's season-opener Friday.

The Winter Hawks are a pre-season favourite in the Western Hockey League this season. Portland won the Western Conference last season before falling to the Kootenay Ice in the championship series.

The 22-team WHL stretches from Brandon, Man., to Victoria and into the northwestern U.S. states of Washington and Oregon.

The WHL opens the 2011-12 season Thursday with Moose Jaw Warriors hosting the Brandon Wheat Kings in the new 4,300-seat Mosaic Place.

A league-high number of players getting looks by NHL clubs is a testament to the Winter Hawks' recruitment and development of hockey talent, but it's made preparing for the season a challenge.

The Edmonton Oil Kings, Medicine Hat Tigers and Saskatoon Blades each had 10 players summoned to NHL camps, but 15 is over half a team's active roster.

"It was an unusually high number," Johnston admitted. "We can't complain about our players being away and playing NHL games and getting that type of experience because at the same time, that is part of our goal to try and develop as many professional players as we can."

Portland cancelled its final pre-season game versus Seattle last Friday. One player was injured and another on a tryout contract was listed by another WHL team. That left Portland with just 13 skaters.

Defencemen William Wrenn (San Jose Sharks) and Tyler Wotherspoon (Calgary Flames) have since returned to the fold, although Wotherspoon is injured. Johnston doesn't expect an influx of players before the Winter Hawks open the season with three games in three nights starting Friday at home against the Everett Silvertips.

"We've got a lot of pretty good players still away," he said. "I expect we might get another one or two back, but that's about it before the weekend. The NHL teams want to see these guys play games and they're just starting their exhibition schedule."

Johnston isn't counting on centre Ryan Johansen (Columbus) or Swiss winger Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders) to return to Portland at all this season. The 19-year-olds were drafted fourth and fifth overall respectively in the 2010 draft.

But Winter Hawks still have considerable talent in their lineup this season, even if much of it is currently elsewhere: Ty Rattie and Brett Ponich (St. Louis); Brad Ross (Toronto); Sven Bartschi (Calgary); Joe Morrow (Pittsburgh); Taylor Aronson (Nashville); Riley Boychuk (Buffalo); Mac Carruth (Chicago); Oliver Gabriel (Columbus); Taylor Peters (Minnesota); Troy Rutkowski (Colorado).

Despite his depleted lineup, Johnston says he's not treating his team's first three games of the season as throw-aways.

"I'm a big believer that you want to start strong and come out of the gate well, so I'm not looking at it as 'we're missing some players so we're going to have a tough time in these games,''' Johnston said.

"It is going to be challenging, but there are going to be other teams missing some players, some pretty good players and that is just the way it is in our league."

The WHL, OHL and QMJHL feature players aged 16 to 20 and operate under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League.

In the CHL's pre-season rankings, the QMJHL's Saint John Sea Dogs ranked No. 1, the OHL's Niagara IceDogs No. 2 and Portland No. 3.

The WHL has returned to both Victoria and Vancouver Island 17 years after the Victoria Cougars moved to Prince George. Victoria's RG Properties bought the Chilliwack Bruins, an expansion franchise in 2006-07, to bring them to the B.C. capital.

The Victoria Royals, coached by Marc Habscheid, will play out of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. The WHL's vision is to have a second team on Vancouver Island because getting on and off the island isn't easy travel.

"Nanaimo makes sense at some point down the road should there be a new facility that meets our standard," WHL commissioner Rob Robison said, adding that relocation of a franchise is preferable to expansion.

"This is all contingent on whether or not our teams are able to continue to operate in their current markets," he continued. "We're not really considering expansion at all. We feel we've gone beyond the number of teams that we'd originally envisioned, from 20 to 22."

But the WHL wants a presence in the biggest cities in Western Canada and that includes Winnipeg. Until now, the ticket price points of a major junior team and the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose were too close for them to co-exist in that city. The return of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets this season altered the hockey landscape.

"With the NHL, given the fact we've co-existed so well in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, we feel certainly Winnipeg long-term would make sense," he said. "Clearly the priority would be . . . another team on the island or Winnipeg."

It's early to approach the Jets about owning a major junior team, Robison said, but for a WHL team to go to Winnipeg, it requires either Jets ownership or the NHL team's approval and support.

"Whatever direction we go, we have to have full endorsement from the NHL team because we would not want to be in a competitive position, rather a complementary position to offer a lower price point for fans," Robison said. "It's dictated also by the facility."

The WHL intends to follow the NHL's lead in instituting a social-media policy for its players. That policy will be announced after a league general managers' meeting in October, Robison said.

The NHL imposed a blackout on players two hours prior to a game to the end of media interviews post-game. Team personnel can't tweet after 11 a.m. on game days until post-game interviews are done.

"It will have similar elements to that, but maybe not as extensive as the NHL," Robison said. "We want to make sure that our players understand it's a media responsibility. Their comments and activities on those sites are being monitored and there's accountability with respect to their actions."

Teams will wear helmet decals this season designed in memory of former WHL players Brad McCrimmon, Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, who all died this summer. McCrimmon perished when the plane carrying the team he was to coach, Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, crashed in Russia earlier this month.

Belak died of a reported suicide, Boogaard's was ruled an accidental drug overdose and Rypien's was classified as "sudden and non-suspicious'' by police after he was found dead at his home.

The league is also adopting tougher discipline on hits to the head and taking steps to lessen the risk of concussions this season. Among the measures is the removal of hard caps from shoulder and elbow pads and a review of safety standards in all WHL arenas.

The NHL-WHL coaching carousel rotated in the off-season, making for changes in the major junior coaching ranks.

Cory Clouston moved behind Brandon's bench after two and a half seasons with the NHL's Ottawa Senators. Former NHL player Pat Conacher will coach the Regina Pats. Mike Stothers, an assistant coach last season for the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, was hired to coach Moose Jaw.

Mark Ferner replaced Craig Hartsburg, who went to the NHL's Flames, with the Everett Silvertips. Steve Konowalchuk, an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche the last two seasons, is coaching the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Notes _ The Kelowna Rockets, Saskatoon Blades and Red Deer Rebels are finalists to host the 2013 Memorial Cup. The winning bid will be announced Oct. 12 . . . Kelowna will host the NHL/CHL Top Prospects game Feb. 1 . . . Regina and Moose Jaw are the WHL's sites for the six-game Subway Series versus Russia on Nov. 16 and Nov. 17 respectively . . . Thirty-three WHL players were selected in the 2011 NHL entry draft, including five in the first round.