Interview with Mike Johnston – Part 1

With the start of training camp less than two weeks away, we sat down with Winterhawks General Manager & Head Coach Mike Johnston to discuss a number of topics. Today we run part one of the interview, with part two coming tomorrow.

First of all, can you tell us about some of the scouting trips you’ve taken this summer?

Mike Johnston: Both Matt (Bardsley, Assistant GM) and I have been to quite a few events. In the summertime what they have in both Canada and the United States for under-16 and under-17 players are state and national camps to select those players. Some of our draft picks have attended those camps and we go to watch them there.

And then secondly we also look for list players, and we have listed a couple of players throughout the summer that we’re really excited to see at training camp. That’s a time where maybe there’s a kid who’s been unnoticed and all of the sudden he’s grown through the course of the year and you get to see him in a camp with his peers and then you make a decision that he’s better than a player you already have on your list.

You acquired Shane McColgan earlier this summer- how did that deal come together?

MJ: I knew Shane when I was in L.A. (with the Kings) prior to coming to Portland. He was an up-and-coming player. That season he went to Kelowna and went on a Memorial Cup run with them as a 15-year-old. He’s a player who’s played very well in our league, and was a draft pick of the New York Rangers. We just felt that with Saskatoon having so many overage guys, they were going to have to make certain players available. Because I knew him, I thought that he would be a good fit in our group.

And what about the trade to acquire Garrett Haar?

MJ: We’ve been looking for a defenseman all summer to try and see if there was somebody that we could add to our team. We have Keoni Texeira coming in next year who we’re really excited about, but he’s a 16-year-old and we were looking throughout the summer months to try and add one more defenseman to our group.

We expect to lose (Tyler) Wotherspoon and we believe we might lose (Seth) Jones or even (Derrick) Pouliot so we have to have some protection there. Garrett Haar left the University of Western Michigan and he became available because Medicine Hat had too many overagers. Medicine Hat owned his rights and at that time they talked to some of the teams in the league and indicated that they may be willing to move him or move one of their overage players.

We had an interest in a defenseman, and I think Medicine Hat was excited to do a deal with us because last year we helped them with Cam Lanigan. We sent Cam Lanigan there when Mac Carruth came back and he was a very good player for Medicine Hat so they were willing to try and make a deal with us.

What kind of style does Garrett play?

MJ: Garrett is an offensive defenseman. He’s a very good skater, he gets up the ice well. He can play on the power play and he can really jump into the rush and create a lot off the rush. So on defense, with him being an older player and us also adding Anton Cederholm to the group, we feel that we’ve added some players that can have some stability. But we’re still looking for big things from Josh Hanson, (Shaun) MacPherson, (Layne) Viveiros, (Zach) Paterson. We’ve got some players there that are ready and are hungry to get some minutes in our group and I expect they’re going to come in and really push for a job opportunity.

You mentioned Anton Cederholm, what kind of player is he?

MJ: Anton Cederholm is a player we drafted in the European draft and we believe that he will be a Wotherspoon-type of player. If you’re trying to picture a player, he’s going to be a good, solid two-way defenseman. He’s very good defensively, strong, physical in his own zone, moves the puck up. We’re going to push him to be good on the power play as well.

I know he’s excited after coming over to North America. He went to the Vancouver Canucks’ (summer development) camp, he was a Canucks draft pick and he’ll keep in close contact with the Canucks while he’s playing here in Portland. He’s excited to come to North America to try to play a little bit different brand of hockey in smaller rinks and try to market himself with Vancouver and become a pro player.

We’re expected to lose three of our top-four defensemen from last year, maybe even all four, is there any concern especially early in the season about how the group will fit cohesively and how they’ll play early on?

MJ: Well there is any time you have changes, especially with guys who have high minutes like Jones, Wotherspoon and (Troy) Rutkowski. They all played big minutes for us last year, especially down the stretch run, and now we’re asking other guys to step in to those minutes and those roles. We’re going to have to do a lot of work with the players but I know they’re excited.

Our league is about opportunity and our team is about opportunity. When Sven Bartschi or Ryan Johansen or Nino Neiderreiter left there were other guys that were waiting in behind that were ready to take those minutes and they’ve all done a very good job. We felt that last year and the year before we were losing some outstanding forwards and there were questions of how we were going to fill in for them, but we seem to fill in well.

It’s a little bit more challenging to fill in on defense because it takes longer to develop your defensemen. But we believe that we’ve got depth and early in the season with all of those guys away at (NHL) training camps, our young guys are all going to play good minutes in the Everett and Tri-Cities tournaments, and probably to start the season. They’re going to be bumped up into roles where they haven’t been before but I believe they’re ready.

Another big change will be in net. With Mac Carruth gone, Brendan Burke will come in as the starter. What are you looking for from Brendan this season?

MJ: Well, the same as we did from Mac when he turned 18. We expect now he’s going to be the starter and he’s going to learn how to be a starting goaltender in our league. I’m sure he’s going to come in after being drafted (by the Phoenix Coyotes) with a lot of confidence heading into the season and a lot of excitement on his part because he’s waited two years to become the starting goaltender and he’s played behind Mac at that time.

Like we’re talking about with our defense, there will be challenges and he knows that, we know that, but he’s ready to play. I definitely believe he’s ready to become a starter in our league mentally, and also physically, and as a goaltender technically.

Moving up to the forward group, starting with the first line, Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic had great years last year. What can they do to improve or what are you looking for from them this year?

MJ: Well really, there are certain stages with our players as far as improvement goes. When they come into the league, they want to become a regular player on our team so we try to develop them that way. Then when they get drafted, they change their focus to making sure they are playing well in Portland and also that they’re going to be a pro player.

So with those types of guys, we want to work on the habits that will allow them to be successful for us and allow them to be successful if you’re talking about Nashville or Winnipeg with those players. It’s a different mindset when you’re preparing to be a good player in the Western League and you play well in Portland, and then you’re drafted and knowing that a year or two from now that you’re going to be in the NHL or have a shot at being in the NHL. You’ve got to have better habits all around and they have to be at the highest level but you have to know exactly what you need to do.

We work in conjunction with a lot of the NHL teams, we try to make sure that we talk to their development guys and talk to their management group, find out what they expect from these players. We don’t try and just chisel them into a certain role with us and don’t care what they say because I think working together with the NHL team really helps us, and it really helps the player as well.

Check back tomorrow for part two.

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