The Portland Winterhawks defeated the Spokane Chiefs to take the WHL's Western Conference playoff round and will face the East champion Kootenay Ice who stunned the Saskatoon Blades in the second round and then swept Medicine Hat on the strength of some brilliant performances from goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, defenseman Brayden McNabb and former Swiftie captain Cody Eakin.
Portland was favored for much of the season, moreso after they traded for Boston prospect Craig Cunningham in late December. Their goaltending is a box of chocolates with Mac Carruth, but up front, the Winterhawks boast some serious firepower to go with a balanced and effective blue line corps.
Here's a look at the key 2011-eligible players for each club (key being the operative word- we won't cover *every* player who is in the draft window)
Sven Bartschi, LW- Swiss forward and 34-goal scorer has a wicked shot (rapid release and powerful, accurate drive) and elite offensive instincts. He formed a highly effective trio with fellow draft candidate Rattie and Cunningham when the latter came over from Vancouver at mid-season. Not an explosive speedster, but knows how to get from point A to B. Played a more effective game in junior this season than he did at the WJC. Solid kid and easygoing personality, but could stand to pick up the work ethic at times. Highly skilled winger will likely be a top-15 pick, but he's a finesse guy who could stand to take the puck to the net more than he does. Bartschi is deadly with that drive of his, but it's tough to score from the outside consistently at the NHL level, no matter how much pop you have on your stick.
Ty Rattie, RW- Small but creative playmaking winger hit the wall a bit in the second half, but is still a solid first-round prospect with upside. The Albertan isn't a blazer, but is very strong on his skates and highly elusive, able to slither through defenses and would-be checkers in full control of the puck. NHL scouts tell us that his second WHL season was so much more impressive than his first, when he seemed to spend more time trying the flashy play and forcing things. This season, Rattie was much more patient, working with his linemates better and not trying to do it all himself. His 79 points were third on the team behind Ryan Johansen and Bartschi, and look for Rattie to push for 90 to 100+ points next season.
Joe Morrow, D- One of the better puck movers in this draft, Morrow also has a cannon point shot, making him a coveted commodity. You don't hear a great deal about the 6-1, 200-pounder from Sherwood Park, Alberta, but Morrow is one of those guys who could hear his name called much higher than most are predicting on internet chat sites and on some of the public lists you see. Morrow is not great defensively, but he's got such a live, athletic skating stride and can start that rush so effortlessly- the defense is much less of a concern for any NHL team looking to draft him. He does need to work on the mechanics of his shot- getting it off a little quicker, and in terms of his shot selection. He tends to force the big windup and slapper according to one of our NHL sources. Morrow stepped up his production in the WHL playoffs, scoring five goals and 16 points in as many games.
Tyler Wotherspoon, D- Meat-and-potatoes defensive guy is pretty highly regarded by Central scouting but will find it hard to live up to that ranking on draft day. Although smart, willing and capable, Wotherspoon's 6-2 size isn't ideal for a player who looks to be a defensive stay-at-home shutdown player. Wotherspoon scored 2 goals and 12 points in 64 games for the Winterhawks and is someone who could end up making it as a steady bottom-pairing defender in the NHL one day, but we're just not seeing a lot of upside for the 40th-ranked NA skater on Central's list (down from 33 at mid-term).
Nathan Lieuwen, G- Two years ago, Lieuwen was seen as a potential first-round draft pick for 2009 coming into the season. Red Line Report had him as the second overall WHL prospect at the beginning of the '08-09 campaign, but Lieuwen got off to a shaky start and then suffered concussion injuries that shut him down and ended any hopes of being drafted. After struggling in similar fashion last season, he had a coming out party with 33 wins (and a pretty average .903 save percentage) in the regular season. The 6-5 cat-quick goalie has been sensational in the playoffs, going 12-2 with a 1.96 GAA and .929 save percentage. This guy has all the physical tools that NHL teams look for in goalies. Furthermore, he's ready to go to the AHL right away for the team that spends a draft pick on him. So long as the head injury history doesn't come to bear in any medical assessments of him between now and the draft, it appears Lieuwen will be a slam-dunk pick here in June and could go higher than anyone might think.
Jagger Dirk, D- Nobody (outside of RLR) talks about this guy, but the son of former NHL defenseman Robert Dirk has the look of a solid long-term developmental prospect. He only has average size (about 6-0, 180), but his dad was a big guy, so we don't think young Jagger is finished growing. He skates well and isn't much of an offensive player, but can make the breakout passes. With more ice time and responsibility, you could see a boost in his production. We hear Dirk is a smart, tenacious player. He works hard and will drop the gloves to defend teammates even though he isn't considered a dangerous fighter. With his bloodlines and character, Dirk has the look of a solid later-round project worth taking a chance on even though he's going to require considerable time to see pay off. Plus, his name is such a bonus. A hockey player named 'Jagger Dirk'? That's Wacey Rabbit all over again.