Tue Jul 05 03:13pm EDT
To find out how the Portland Winterhawks have had two first-round picks in back-to-back NHL drafts, go straight to the source.
There is a lot that went into the Winterhawks helping forward Sven Bärtschi (13th overall, Calgary) and defenceman Joe Morrow (23rd, Pittsburgh) join their older teammates Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, who were taken back-to-back in 2010 by the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders. It's part player development, part recruiting players through the Bantam and Import drafts. And the Winterhawks drafting track record has been nothing short of spectacular.
To hear coach-GM Mike Johnston tell it, a huge reason is the professional atmosphere around the team, which reached the Western Hockey League final this spring.
"We treat our players like NHL teams treat their players," says Johnston. "We feel if they are already in an NHL-like environment, it will be easier for them to get to the next level. We constantly work with them in practice and help get their off-ice conditioning to a professional level."
All told, including the aforementioned four first-rounders, the Winterhawks have had eight players taken among the first 60 selections in the 2010 and '11 entry drafts.
Late round steal
Some were players long projected to blossom. Portland, however, did have to work hard to get some of its star players in a Winterhawks uniform. Johansen, who played on Team Canada's first line during the 2011 world junior championship and should do so again unless he makes the Blue Jackets for good, was a prime example. The centre was selected 150th overall in the 2007 WHL bantam draft, making him perhaps the biggest steal of the past five years.
"We think Ryan dropped in the draft because his hometown (Port Moody, B.C.) didn't offer a AAA bantam league, so he was forced to play in the AA league [one tier lower]," says Johnston. "And he was also a fairly skinny kid with not a lot of size at the time. Ryan hit his growth spurt later than most of the other kids."
The hard part with Johansen was convincing him to pass on a scholarship to Northeastern University in Hockey East to join the Winterhawks for the 2009-10 season.
"I went and watched Ryan when he was playing for the [Junior A] Penticton Vees and our scouting staff evaluated him as a player with enormous potential," says Johnston. "And we made it a priority to do our best to get him to join our organization."
"So I went to a restaurant for some coffee with him and his dad and I told them how good I feel Ryan could be. And what I did was took some pictures of (Prince George’s) Brett Connolly and some other top talents and I asked him if he thinks he can be as good as these players; and I told him I think he could be better than these players. And I think that conversation gave Ryan more confidence in his hockey future and also showed his family that we believe in him."
A mixture of networking and scouting played into the Winterhawks' adding Niederreiter and Bärtschi through the CHL import draft.
"Our assistant coach, Travis Green, played over in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, so the contacts he's developed was a factor in drafting Nino (Niederreiter) and Sven (Bartschi)," says Johnston. "And you know we also scouted these players at the IIHF tournaments and have talked with scouts over in Europe."
Niederreiter's impressive play at the world under-18 championship in Fargo, N.D., in April 2009 was his major selling point to the Winterhawks.
"I watched Nino at the under-18 tournament in Fargo and he really impressed me," says Johnston. "Then we followed up on him and watched him 10-15 more times. He seemed to be one of the most talented players in the draft, and obviously knowing that he's willing to move to Portland was important in the decision to draft him."
Simply chatting with Niederreiter's agent led the Winterhawks to Bärtschi, who had 85 points in his first season in North America.
"Nino and Sven have the same agent, so we asked Nino's agent if there was another top talent over in Switzerland and he told us about Sven," says Johnston. "And Sven was kind of under the radar, so knowing his agent helped us find out more about him."
Bärtschi, Johansen, Niederreiter and left wing Brad Ross, a Toronto Maple Leafs second-rounder, are each entering their age-19 seasons. The Winterhawks are well-stocked beyond their older drafted players. This season, draft followers will have a close eye on defenceman Derrick Pouliot. The former No. 1 overall choice in the bantam draft is growing into a smooth-skating, puck-moving rearguard. He counted five goals and 30 points in 66 regular-season games this season. For a 16-year-old defenceman who came directly from midget hockey, that's very good; it compares favourably with the numbers Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder Ryan Murphy had in 2009-10 as a rookie with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers.
"Pouliot is a defenceman that can control a game," says Johnston. "He's a puck possessing defenceman that understands the game with a lot of intelligence. He reminds me a bit of [future Hall of Famer] Scott Niedermayer, but he also shows similar poise to [Detroit Red Wings captain] Nicklas Lidström. He's definitely a potential first-rounder. I'd say his current skill level is ahead of where [Pittsburgh first-rounder] Joe Morrow's skill level was last year this time."
Kelly Friesen is a Western Hockey League writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen