Mike Johnston is counting down the days until he is back behind the Portland Winterhawks’ bench.
“Being away from the team for four months or so there was hard; I’m really looking forward to getting back to coaching,” says Johnston, the Winterhawks head coach and general manager.
Johnston hasn’t coached or managed his club since being suspended for the remainder of the 2012-13 season for violating player-benefit regulations on November 28. In addition, part of his suspension was to have no contact with the team. He was, however, allowed to go to Saskatoon to watch the MasterCard Memorial Cup from the bleachers. Even though Portland, who defeated the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL finals, fell to the Halifax Mooseheads in the championship game, Johnston left Saskatchewan satisfied with his team’s efforts.
“I was excited to be there,” says Johnston on the Memorial Cup. “I got to talk to some of the coaches during the tournament and it was nice being around the parents. I was proud of how they played. Even in the final game against the Mooseheads, they played hard right until the end.”
While serving his suspension, Johnston heard fans call his club the “Cheaterhawks.” He’s not too worried about other people’s opinions, but he feels ‘it’s not fair’ to all of Portland’s employees who contributed to their championship season.
“I can’t control what other people say," he says. "I think anyone who watched us play last year was impressed by our team. They worked really hard and earned everything they got. When you look at our team, you see it’s built through listing and drafting. It’s not fair to our scouts and coaches to try to diminish our team’s accomplishments, but everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
Future remains bright
Despite losing a handful of high-end players such as St. Louis Blues second-rounder Ty Rattie, Calgary Flames defensive prospect Tyler Wotherspoon, Chicago Blackhawks goalie prospect Mac Carruth, and quite possibly Nashville Predators fourth overall pick Seth Jones in the offseason to the pros, it seems Johnston will be returning to one of the WHL’s top 2013-14 clubs. He not only will have a strong offensive core built around Predators prospect Brendan Leipsic, Winnipeg Jets second-rounder Nicolas Petan, and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorsktrand, but he will also likely have Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot and Vancouver Canucks prospect Anton Cederholm, who was picked 60th overall in the 2013 import draft, to anchor his back end.
Johnston isn’t making any predictions at this point, though. He’s waiting until he has a better idea of what his team will look like.
“I use 20 games as a measure of how we stack up in the league. Right now, I can’t say how good we will be. It is still undetermined who will come back from the NHL. I don’t expect Seth Jones back. I think Derrick Pouliot will start the year with the Penguins, but I’m not sure what their final decision will be on him.”
“I met with Anton (Cederholm) two weeks ago and it went over well. He knows we have a lot of good forwards and opportunity on our blueline. Portland is also right nearby Vancouver, so he will be able to work with the Canucks’ coaches. I would expect him to be here next year, but nothing is finalized yet.”
Between the pipes, Phoenix Coyotes prospect Brendan Burke is poised to take on the No. 1 role.
“He has come a long way since joining our team,” says Johnston on Burke. “It’s nice to slowly work a goaltender into that starting role. Now that he will be in his third season, he is ready to be the starter.”
Last season, Petan blossomed from a depth player into a superstar, scoring 120 points in 71 games. Johnston doesn’t expect lightning to strike twice in terms of one of his sophomores tripling and then some his point total as Petan did last year, but he is banking on a handful of his young guns taking a couple steps forward in their games.
“Our season will also depend on how big of an impact some of our younger players make like (Keegan) Iverson, (Dominic) Turgeon, and (Paul) Bittner. Those players will play big roles for us. They’ll get the opportunity to succeed.”
As far as 16-year-old rookies go, it seems blueliner Keoni Texeira, who was selected 26th overall in 2012, will be the only one to make the jump.
“I think Texeira will be our only 16 year old on our team next year,” says Johnston. “He looks like he’s ready to make an impact. We’ve been really happy with his development.”
Johnston won’t have Travis Green, who was Portland’s interim head coach this year and assistant coach in the three seasons prior, beside him next season. He accepted the head-coaching opening on the Vancouver Canuck’s AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. But even though Johnston sees the value lost in Green, he’s happy to see him move onto the pros.
“I was proud of Travis when I heard he got the job,” says the head coach. “This is a development league for not only the players, but also the coaches. We want to see everyone move on to bigger things. But he will missed. He was valuable to our team in not only coaching, but also recruiting. His contacts played a role in recruiting Nino Niederietter and Sven Barertschi.”
Down the road, it seems it will be tough for the Winterhawks to stay on top of the U.S. Division with the league stripping them of three first-round picks (2013, 2014 and 2015) as part of the disciplinary action on their player benefit violations. Johnston, however, doesn’t believe his team can’t overcome the adversity.
“I think we’re are in pretty good shape in the draft,” he says. “We have two second-round picks next year. But we don’t have a first-round pick next year or the year after. Our scouts have done a phenomenal job over the years, especially last year. They’ve found some players that other teams overlooked. I know we have the right staff to continue to draft and list overlooked players who will make an impact on our team.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen