It's never too early to take a look at how the next WHL season will shape up and now is as good of a time as any, to do just that.
In breaking down the U.S. Division outlook for 2016/17, let's go over the teams in order of their finish last year.
2016/17 U.S. Division Early Preview Part Three: Portland
-Year two of two under now former coach and general manager was a disappointing one. A team that started the year with eight NHL-drafted players, would look like world beaters one one game and entirely beatable the next. Kompon has now been shown the door, after appearing to have really lost the locker room. That made way for Mike Johnston to return to the Winterhawks for his second stint with the organization. He takes over a team that has slowly been depleted by the lack of high bantam draft picks and the inability to recruit U.S. born kids. What Johnston can do in the off-season, could drastically change the outlook that the current team has.
-Defenseman Blake Heinrich and forwards Rihards Bukart and Alex Schoenborn all aged out of the league and will not return. Joining them will be NHL-drafted and signed forwards Dominic Turgeon (Detroit Red Wings) and Paul Bittner (Columbus), as well as, defenseman Jack Dougherty (Nashville) and goalie Adin Hill (Arizona). 1997 born d-man Caleb Jones has also been signed by the team that drafted him (Edmonton Oilers) and could be AHL-eligible, depending on what the Oilers elect to do and how the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is interpreted. The way it breaks down is that Portland is claiming that Jones was on their roster, prior to being drafted by the Oilers last June. If he was not on their active roster or signed by the team, he would not be protected the way that CHL players under the age of 20 are, from playing in the AHL, as he was drafted out of the USHL. I think that it's very likely Edmonton just sends him back anyways as they have several young d-men above him on the depth chart (Griffin Reinhart, Darnell Nurse and David Musil).
-I would expect Johnston to add a bigger name to this group some time in the summer, but as of now expect 1999 born d-men Jack Caller and Jake Hobson to try and make the roster on a depleted defensive group. BCMML champion, forward Ilijah Colina could also make the team as an incoming 16-year-old, as could 1999 born winger, Bronson Sharp, who showed a lot to like in a brief stint with the team. If 1999 born goalie Ethan Middendorf is healthy, he will be slotted in as Michael Bullion's backup.
2016/17 Overage Situation:
-The Rodrigo Abols situation could impact this greatly. He would be a two-spotter (import and overage player), were he to return. Normally, this would mean that he would not return, but due to Keegan Iverson currently being the only other eligible 20-year-old, there appears to be a spot for him. How many players Portland drafts in this summer's import draft will likely determine what they think the likelihood that Abols returning is. Another outside the box option for an import and overage spot is Swedish center Carl Ericson. He was pretty impressive in his very short stint with Portland, before suffering a season ending injury and apparently the team has done what they could to retain his WHL rights.
2016/17 Import Situation:
-Portland should have it's highest import draft selection in some time on June 28th and could very well draft a player in the second round as well. They could go in a variety of ways, but it would be interesting of they selected Swedish, 1998 born d-man Jacob Cederholm, the younger brother of former Winterhawk Anton Cederholm. The younger Cederholm is expected to be drafted in the first two rounds of this year's NHL draft and reportedly could improve his offensive game. What better way to work on it, than work under the up-temp Mike Johnston system?
Three Major Story Lines:
1) Will Johnston, the sequel be as good as the original?
-The deck is definitely not as stacked as Johnston left it, with 1997 and 1998 age groups that did not show enough last season. The fact that it's likely that no Winterhawk will be drafted in this June's NHL draft shows that Portland is just not as loaded as they used to be. How quickly Johnston is able stack the deck by recruiting American born players away from NCAA schools should directly impact how they do this coming season and the next.
2) Is Mike Bullion ready to be the top goalie?
-This is a huge question mark for the Hawks. Adin Hill set a team record for starts last year, which meant that Bullion did a whole lot of riding the pine. He posted a porous 4.08 GAA and 0.867 save percentage over the eight games that he got into. Bullion had a great 42 save, one-goal against win over Spokane last December, but also gave up six goals twice and five goals once. The coaching staff obviously did not trust him enough as they gave Hill 99% of the starts that he was healthy enough for, which is a bad sign. However, how could Bullion have a lot of confidence when the coaching staff let him know that they did not believe in him, by refusing to play him. What Johnston does in the off season in regards to adding another net-minder, should really tell us what he thinks of Bullion and how much he really trusts him. Goalies are such an unknown commodity a lot of the time, so Bullion could very well be the next Mac Carruth and we just don't know it yet.
3) Will Caleb Jones return to the Hawks?
-Without a doubt the most talented Winterhawk eligible to return to the team is drafted and signed, Edmonton Oilers' d-man Caleb Jones. The thing is, the Oilers might just have the option to send him to the AHL as a 19-year-old. This is because, Jones may have been drafted out of the USHL, which is not protected in the same way that CHL drafted players are, from playing in the AHL before they turn 20. Portland might be able to make the argument that since Jones had signed a contract with them before being drafted by Edmonton, he was officially a CHL player and thus cannot play in the AHL until the 2017/18 season. What Edmonton decides to do with Jones will be something I will be paying close attention to when September rolls around. They may decide that even if they can, legally play him in the AHL, he is not ready yet.
-Bringing Johnston back should help player development as he is widely believed to be one of the best teachers of hockey at this level. Even with Johnston mentoring Codey Glass, Ryan Hughes and co., the Hawks still look like they are headed for a season in which they will struggle to get into the playoffs.