Portland Winterhawks’ Mike Johnston capitalizes on U.S. location to land top talent

For most major junior teams, losing three of their top five scorers, their No. 1 goaltender, and four other NHL prospects is the writing on the wall for a rebuild.

GM-coach Mike Johnston's Portland Winterhawks don't fit the norm, though. Since Johnston came on board in 2008, Portland has become a powerhouse in the WHL. They have made it to the final the past two years and appear to be locked and loaded for a third straight run at the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

Portland's success on the ice can be credited to their impeccable track record at the bantam draft, import draft, and listing players that flew under the radar as 15-year-olds. The Oregon club's eye for talent has been second to none, producing the likes of New York Islanders first-rounder Nino Niederreiter, Calgary Flames first-rounder Sven Bartschi, Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounders Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot, Toronto Maple Leafs second-rounder Brad Ross, St. Louis Blues second-rounder Ty Rattie, and Flames second-rounder Tyler Wotherspoon, just to name a few.

"Myself, our assistant coach Travis Green, and all of our other coaches and scouts have worked really hard at finding the top talent around," says Johnston. "We try to build through the bantam draft, but we have also had a lot of success at listing players who were passed over. In the bantam draft, players are only 14 or 15, it is easy for some of them to slip between the cracks, especially if they haven't hit their growth spurt yet. We have listed a lot of players passed over (in the draft) that have and we feel will go on to become strong players for us."

"Being an American squad has also worked to our advantage. We have capitalized on non-traditional markets like Arizona, Denver, Texas, and L.A. Our scouts have done a great job of keeping an eye on the top young players in these areas. Since they're American players, our location in Portland also works to our advantage because they get to keep on living in the States."

2010 bantam draft paying dividends

The Winterhawks' season is only three games in, but it seems a pair of players selected in the 2010 bantam draft are poised to breakout into stars as sophomores. Nicolas Petan, 17, already has four goals and eight points on the season. Chase De Leo, 16, has potted three goals in as many games.

"We went into the 2010 draft targeting (Kootenay Ice star) Sam Reinhart and Nicolas Petan," says Johnston. "Reinhart went just ahead of our pick, so we went with Petan. We are very happy with his play so far. We gave him big minutes as a rookie last year to let him grow. I think he will breakout this year. He has what it takes to become a very good player."

"Chase De Leo was one of our later-rounder picks. He's originally from California, so he's one of our steals spotted in the States. Like Petan, he too looks a lot stronger and overall better this year. He should have a very strong second season with us.

Listed Paul Bittner could be a gem

Bittner could be a prime example of Portland's success at listing players passed over in their respective bantam draft. The 6-foot-4, 194-pounder has the makings of a future impact power forward. The Minnesota native has impressed in Portland thus far, even though he will not turn 16 until November.

"I've been really happy with the play of Bittner," says Johnston. "We spotted him in a tournament in Minnesota and listed him shortly after. He almost has a '97 birthdate, so he's really young. He has the potential to be a very good player for us. He has the size and the skill."

Danish Delight

The Winterhawks have been notorious for spotting elite talent in countries somewhat flying under the radar for developing tier-1 players. They spotted El Nino and Bartschi out of Switzerland. This year they didn't target another Swiss sensation in the CHL import draft, rather a Danish delight. Portland selected Denmark native Oliver Bjorkstrand 26th overall, who has netted an outstanding three goals and five points throughout his first three games. The 5-foot-11, 164-pound winger has been turning heads quickly in Portland.

"A lot of research goes into our rankings for the import draft," says Johnston. "We looked at players out of Switzerland, but we heard that a lot of their top players didn't want to come over here. So we decided to target Bjorkstrand out of Denmark because we liked how he played at the world juniors and we felt he would fit in nicely with our club."

Johnston and his staff had to recruit the 17-year-old by selling him and his family on Portland's strong education policies and coaching staff.

"Oliver's father [Todd Bjorkstrand, who coached the Danes at the 2012 WJHC] is from Minnesota and him and his family go to Minnesota every summer for a while," says Johnston. "So we got them to come to Portland to see what we are all about during their summer stay. His family was very focused on what type of high school he would go to and how strong his education would be. We explained to them all of our players have to go to high school or post-secondary school and that was a major positive for them. Bjorkstand's parents also met some of our billets and coaches to see what type of people their son would be surrounded with. After five or so days of seeing the ins and outs of our team and the city of Portland, they decided we were good a fit and Oliver signed with us."

Jones comes to town

The Winterhawks didn't draft or sign their biggest acquisition over this past year. After the Everett Silvertips went nowhere in negotiations with highly-coveted 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones, Portland made a trade in principle to talk with Jones. Johnston worked his magic again, convincing the 6-foot-4, 206-pound defenceman to call Portland his new home.

"I feel he didn't sign with Everett because he was drafted and talked with a group (Everett fired GM Doug Soetaert last February) that were no longer there at the end of last year," says Johnston. "I think after those changes in Everett that he started leaning towards the college route. But then he started to lean towards Portland when he seen our education packages and our strong history of producing top NHL prospects."

The addition of the Texas native to Portland's back end makes them quite likely the top group of defenders in the Dub. He has fit in nicely beside team captain Troy Rutkowski, Pouliot, and Wotherspoon.

Led by 57-goal-scorer Ty Rattie, no one is questioning Portland's offense. Their group of forwards look solid down the middle and on the wing.

With puck-stopper Mac Carruth moving on to the Chicago Blackhawks organization, goaltending might be somewhat of an issue this year, especially in the second season.

They are going with overager Cam Lanigan and 17-year-old Brendan Burke, who is the son of former NHLer Sean Burke. Lanigan was acquired through waivers after the KamloopsB Blazers opted to give the No. 1 job to 19-year-old Cole Cheveldave. Burke is entering into his sophomore season after posting a 3.58 average and a .875 save percentage in 18 games.

"I'm happy with our goaltending," says Johnston. "I like how Lanigan looked against us in the playoffs for the Blazers. I think Burke is ready to take a big step this year. He has looked really good so far."

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

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