Portland Winterhawks: can they make another WHL playoff run next year?

Conventional wisdom in junior hockey holds that losing back-to-back championship series means the opportunity of glory came and went, essentially ushering in a rebuild through the bantam draft.

Fortunately for the Portland Winterhawks, they don't fit the junior hockey norm. It's early yet but it seems quite possible they could make another playoff run next year after successive trips to the Western Hockey League final. The 'Hawks lost Game 7 to the Edmonton Oil Kings on Sunday, ending a tight series where each team scored exactly 21 goals. Portland lost a five-game final to Kootenay last season.

Portland's roster will take a hit this off-season, though. They will obviously lose their three overagers, defensive star William Wrenn and forwards Cam Reid and Oliver Gabriel. Since Brad Ross, Marcel Noebels, Joseph Morrow, and Troy Rutkowski are all eligible to play in the American Hockey League next year, they are also expected to head to the pros.

It will be tough to replace these seven players' combined 128 goals and 339 points. Nevertheless, it seems possible if younger players step up and the Winterhawks are able to add some pieces via trades.

The addition of top 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones on the back end will undoubtedly lessen the blow of losing Morrow and Rutkowski. The 6-foot-3, 201-pounder should make an immediate impact. How big of an impact player is the only question. If the praise the 17-year-old has received is any indication of what to expect, one shouldn't be surprised if he's nominated for the Bill Hunter Trophy (top defenceman) next year.

Morrow and Rutkowski leaving also means more opportunity for Derrick Pouliot to shine on the blueline. The 6-foot, 181-pounder, who is NHL Central Scouting's 12th-ranked North American skater, blossomed into an elite puck-moving defenceman this year, notching 11 goals and 59 points. Pouliot's

Brendan Leipsic will likely be the Winterhawks' No. 1 centre next year. Prior to the playoffs, one might think this could be a position that Portland will need to upgrade. However, after the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder's superb post-season performance, there should be no complaints from Portland fans if Leipsic is indeed their top man down the middle next year.

Nicolas Petan, Taylor Leier, and Chase De Leo all made impacts on the score sheet in their rookie seasons this year despite playing limited minutes. Petan scored 14 goals and 35 points in 61 games. Leier notched 13 goals and 37 points in 72 games. And De Leo tallied 14 goals and 30 points in 69 games.

All three snipers will play much bigger roles on Portland's offence next year. They should be slotted in the Winterhawks' top-six forwards. With this bump up in seniority, one would expect a significant improvement in their point production.

Winterhawks general manager Mike Johnston should be able to make his first splash in the off-season at the CHL import draft. Portland has the 26th pick, which they acquired from the Kelowna Rockets, and their own pick, the 57th selection.

Johnston has been able to turn his magic beans, AKA import draft picks, into some of his top players. After all, he did acquire Switzerland sensations Nino Niederreiter, who now plays for the New York Islanders, and Sven Bärtschi through the import draft.

If Johnston decides to target Switzerland's best at the import draft like he has in previous drafts, don't be surprised if he selects Julian Schmutz. The 18-year-old winger led the Swiss U-20 league in scoring this year, posting 26 goals and 65 points in 38 games. Many scouts regard him as the top Swiss player of this year's import crop.

All that being said, the Winterhawks have three huge uncertainties next year that could dictate whether they will be a Memorial Cup contender or just a dime-a-dozen playoff team. Those three ambiguities are whether Bärtschi, Rattie, and Mac Carruth return next year.

Bärtschi is the least likely to return to Portland. The 5-foot-11, 187-pound winger seems to have a good chance of cracking the Calgary Flames roster since the Flames only have seven forwards under one-way NHL contracts next year and Bärtschi is clearly ready for a new challenge. He dominated the Dub this year, posting 94 points in 47 regular-season games and 34 in 22 post-season games. He also turned heads during his five-game call up with the Flames, scoring three goals.

After netting 57 goals and 121 points in 69 games this year, it's clear Ty Rattie has nothing left to prove at the major junior level. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the St. Louis Blues think he's ready for The Show. Since Blues coach Ken Hitchcock strongly emphasizes defence, it may be tough for Rattie to make the transition from the Winterhawks' run-and-gun style to the Blues' trap system. Another year in Portland seems quite possible for the 6-foot, 173-pound winger.

Carruth is yet to sign a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. There is still time though, as the deadline to do is June 1. If Carruth does ink a deal with Chicago, he could join their farm system next year in either the AHL or ECHL. Nonetheless, it is not rare to see a goalie return to the Dub for their overage season.

At this point all signs point to Carruth returning to Oregon next year. Signing a contract with the Blackhawks and a strong training camp could change that.

Losing anyone of these three stars would be unquestionably a huge blow to Portland's roster. Nonetheless, the Winterhawks might be able to withstand losing one star, but losing two could make their odds of returning to the WHL finals for the third straight year quite bleak.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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