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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Portland: A destination d'jour for NHL scouts

For the second consecutive season, the WHL's Portland Winterhawks are a hot view for NHL scouts working the Western Canada sector and those crossover guys and management types who are no doubt being summoned there by the regional guys.

Last year, it was Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Johansen and Brad Ross, all of whom went in the top-45. Johansen of course, was the surprise pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, going fourth overall to Columbus, while his higher-profile teammate Niederreiter went one slot later to the Islanders. Ross became property of the Toronto Maple Leafs after Brian Burke made a deal with Chicago to move back into the second round to nab the skilled agitator.

This time around, the Winterhawks appear poised to do it again, with two solid first-rounders in Ty Rattie and Sven Bartschi, as well as a darkhorse, solid second-rounder in defenseman Joe Morrow. There is even another player in defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon, who could be a top-three-round pick June.

We're going to break down the Portland offerings for you. While perhaps not possessing the high-end, top-five impact that the Winterhawks class of '10 did, these guys are going to bring another strong Portland flavor to the 2011 draft. Mike Johnston is doing real good things there with the 'Hawks, and if they make a deep run in the WHL playoffs/Memorial Cup tourney, you could see the stocks of Rattie, Bartschi, Morrow and Wotherspoon go up even more.

Ty Rattie, RW-- Although the skilled Albertan is just average-sized at about 6-feet, 170 pounds, this guy is one of the top offensive talents in the entire class. With 26 goals and 71 points in 58 games, he's just three points away from doubling his entire rookie season output. Scouts love the blend of his skill and creativity. Where last year, he was more of a player who was trying to pull off flashy moves without using his teammates or the available time and space available to him, this season, Rattie has been able to take control of the offensive flow and put opposing defenses on their heels. A slippery, elusive skater who is a master of handling the puck in tight spaces, Rattie is one of those "now you see it, now you don't" types who makes defenders look foolish because he's so dangerous in close and around the net. He may not be the explosive skater you want to see from guys of smaller build, but he's extremely agile, quick and uses his outstanding vision and ability to read the play to gain a step on opponents and get himself into prime scoring areas.

Sven Bartschi, LW-- Another high-end scoring presence. Bartschi is an interesting contrast to Swiss countryman Neiderreiter; the two are very different in terms of what they bring to the table. Bartschi is an excellent skater; very quick off the mark and able to back defenses up with his speed. He likes to cross-over and weave through the neutral zone and take opponents out of their lanes. He's got a quick stick and has a vicious little shot that despite his small 5-10 frame, has some power and gusto behind it. On the downside, Bartschi is not only one-dimensional, but tends to play a perimeter game when faced with a more aggressive or physical defense. At the World Juniors, he showed off his impressive skill set, but spent too much time on the outside, where his effectiveness was hindered. Yes, he was still able to score (thanks to that shot we talked about earlier), but how much better would Bartschi have been if he went into traffic more or took the puck straight to the net. We believe Bartschi will be a first-round pick in June-- he's simply too talented to slip. That said, we would be very leery of spending a top-20 on him. On paper, Bartschi is a high upside prospect. But, the best hockey players excel at the wars in the trenches and are able to overcome brute strength with a willingness to go into the dirty areas and get greasy. We haven't seen that enough from Bartschi, and so while he's a flashy sportscar, he may not bring the kind of economy or value you want if picking 15-20.

Joe Morrow, D-- Although some were hoping Morrow would stay under the radar when the season got underway, that is not the case. Players with his kind of size, skating ability and breakout pass/big shot are always in high demand, especially in today's NHL. At 6-2, 200 pounds, he's going to play about 210-215 when he finishes his physical maturation. He's a smooth skater with a long, fluid stride. He sees the ice well and has a real steady touch with the puck, able to get it out of the zone quickly and up for the attack. He has a cannon shot from the point that he likes to use. He could stand to work on the mechanics and getting it off a little faster, but when you have a howitzer like that, it makes life nice when on the power play. The December 1992 birthdate has made sizeable strides in his development over the past several years, going from 0 goals, 7 points in 41 games as a rookie in '09, to 31 points last season to 7 goals, 37 points and counting in just 47 games- having missed time to injury. He's just two points behind Troy Rutkowski for the team scoring lead by defensemen, and Rutkowski has had the benefit of playing 12 more games than Morrow has.

Tyler Wotherspoon, D-- The meat-and-potatoes offering of this group, Wotherspoon doesn't bring much in the way of upside, but is a solid defensive presence who plays an effective positional and physical style. The problem with Wotherspoon, as we hear it, is that he projects more as a shutdown defender, and when you're his size- only 6-1, 190, that isn't the most exciting proposition for NHL scouts, especially with just 2 goals and 10 points in 51 games this season. Shutdown guys generally need to be bigger and stronger with a longer stick/wingspan/reach than Wotherspoon has in order to have the appeal to take them early in the draft. Adam McQuaid is a good example of this trend-- drafted in the second round in 2005 by Columbus despite not having a ton of upside. He's turned into a fan favorite in Boston because he has the size and snarl to be a legit shutdown guy. Wotherspoon carries more risk because he's pretty average-sized when you get down to it and lacks any kind of real skill that jumps out at you. As such, he could slip down a bit more than his Central ranking would lead you to believe.

That wraps up the quick trip to Portland. They are a heck of a team and are a playoff favorite, so it will be interesting to see how far they can go with such an impressive youthful core of 1992- and 1993-born players on the roster.

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