Season Preview Part Three: The Forwards
Let’s start with this: last season the Winterhawks led the WHL with 334 goals. Only one other team, Kelowna, topped 300. There were six teams who couldn’t make it to 200.
Now consider this: five of the Winterhawks’ top-six forwards are back this season.
Yes, Ty Rattie is likely moving on to either the St. Louis Blues or their AHL affiliate, but even without the Airdrie Assassin (copyright: Andy Kemper) the Hawks won’t be short on scorers this year. Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan, they of the 240 combined points, are back to anchor the top line. Last year’s second line of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo and Taylor Leier are all back, a trio that combined for 181 points last season.
In fact, let’s look at how the Hawks’ returning forwards stack up against their divisional rivals:
Portland: 213-291-504 (goals, assists, points)
Consider also that during the offseason the team acquired 20-year-old point-per-game machine Shane McColgan, and have a stable of your forwards with a year of experience looking to take the next step.
Top Line Ahead of Schedule
Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan were certainly being counted on to provide offense last season, but 120 points apiece? Leipsic had tallied 58 the prior season, while Petan had posted 35- improvements of 62 and 85 points.
They led the WHL, CHL and nearly any other HL you can find. They also did it ahead of schedule. Leipsic and Petan are the first players to lead the WHL in scoring, then return the next season, since Zach Hamill suited up for the Everett Silvertips in 2007-08 after leading the league in scoring in 2006-07.
While Rattie and his 110 points aren’t expected back this season, the early leader to join the duo on the top line is McColgan, the very definition of consistency with yearly point totals of 69, 66, 64 and 66 (although McColgan could miss a few games early in the season recovering from surgery).
But as Cliff Clavin might say, here’s a little-known fact about McColgan: he’s put up near point-per-game numbers while never having played with a 100-point player. In fact, until last season he’d never played with anyone who’d registered more than 80 points. If it is indeed McColgan joining the top line, Leipsic and Petan will be the most talented offensive players he’ll have ever played with.
Second Line’s No Slouch
As mentioned above, last year’s “second line” of Bjorkstrand, De Leo and Leier combined for 181 points. Those three, along with Leipsic, Petan and Rattie gave Portland six forwards who ranked among the league’s top-60 scorers.
No other team had six forwards among the league’s top-60 scorers. In fact, no other team had five.
All of which suggests that that trio could have been the top line for numerous teams in the WHL last season, with all three back for another tour this season. There isn’t a team in the league that can boast the kind of offensive depth the Winterhawks have up front.
Knocking on the Door
While those top two lines feature five returning high-scoring Winterhawks along with McColgan, the next wave of forwards includes talented youngsters with a year of experience under their belts and physical players who can do the dirty work.
The Hawks boast a stable of young players who got their feet wet as rookies last season, who will be searching for a bigger role this season. Paul Bittner, Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon arrived as highly-touted 16-year-olds last season and earned significant playing time, with Bittner even getting time with Leipsic and Petan while Rattie played in the World Juniors. This season they bring an added comfort level that comes with a year of experience in the league, along with a silver medal they won at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament, where they were the only three WHL players on the U.S. roster.
Adam de Champlain, Presten Kopeck, Joe Mahon and Alex Schoenborn were also rookies last season, and are all players who can bring a physical presence to the ice that was key in winning the league championship last season. And waiting in the wings is 16-year-old Ethan Price, the latest prized American recruit who spurned NCAA offers to join the Hawks.
No team boasts the depth the Hawks have up front, and that won’t make life a lot of fun for the team’s opponents as the Hawks take aim at another WHL championship.