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Mike Johnston finds a way - again

Shrewd roster moves during season help Winterhawks contend


by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Mathew Dumba (right) celebrates his second-period goal in Game 1 of the Western Hockey League finals with Portland Winterhawks teammates Oliver Bjorkstrand (left) and Nic Petan. Portland opened with a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings.Several players stood out as the Portland Winterhawks beat Edmonton 5-2 and 3-1 to open the Western Hockey League finals before 10,000-plus Saturday and Sunday at Moda Center.

You could make the argument that none were more important to Portland winning the lid-lifter than defenseman Mathew Dumba and goaltender Corbin Boes.

Dumba, who turns 20 in July, rifled home a slap shot on a power play late in the second period to give the Hawks a 4-2 lead.

Boes, who turns 21 in July, stopped 31 of 33 shots, making several big saves early and again in the second period when the Oil Kings were making a run, trimming a 3-0 deficit to 3-2 with two quick goals.

Boes then came back with 28 saves in Game 2.

The remarkable thing is, neither player was in a Portland uniform at the start of the season.

Portland general manager/coach Mike Johnston knew he had a championship-contending team with just a couple of holes.

“We felt we needed a premier defenseman and another goaltender,” Johnston said.

Dumba, the seventh pick in the 2012 NHL draft, played 13 games for Minnesota this season. The property of Red Deer, he was traded by Rebels GM Brent Sutter to Portland in December, the Hawks giving up Presten Kopeck and conditional draft picks for the right to negotiate with Dumba.

Johnston — a former associate head coach with both the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings — is no dummy. He had a pretty good idea the Wild would allow Dumba to go back to juniors, and a pretty good idea Dumba would be receptive to a move to Portland.

“Dumba was a guy I’d targeted early in the year,” Johnnston said. “Anything happens if Brent Sutter’s not going to take him back, and since he might be available, I’m going to try to go after him.”

Red Deer was unlikely to make the playoffs, so Sutter was willing to trade the rights to his best player for a chance to build for the future. Kelowna, Edmonton and Everett all showed interest, and Portland wound up winning the bidding war.

“I wanted to go to a contender, a team that had a really good shot at the playoffs,” Dumba said. “It worked out that Brent and Mike have a good relationship, and (the Hawks) ended up getting me.

“Brent called and wished me the best of luck. He said he wanted to put me in a great situation to develop and have a good chance at winning.”

Portland appealed to Dumba for several reasons.

“I wanted to come out West and see what that was like,” he said. “I saw the caliber of players (the Hawks) have, the style of play they have, and it made me eager to join them and play that type of game. I’d never played that style of hockey, more freewheeling and with more decision-making. That was a part of my game that needed to develop. You need it at the next level.”

Boes was acquired right at the January trade deadline from Lethbridge for what amounted to backup goalie Jarrod Schamerhorn, forward Steven Alldridge and a second-round draft pick.

“We weren’t happy with Schamerhorn, and Boes was a guy we knew because he was drafted by Portland before I came in,” Johnston said.

Boes was veteran insurance, initially a backup for regular goalie Brendan Burke. When Burke came down with mononucleosis late in the regular season, Boes started 11 games and the Hawks didn’t skip a beat. When Burke returned, he retained his job and held it until the opener of the Western Conference finals, when he faltered in a 5-4 loss to Kelowna. Boes stepped in and helped the Hawks claim the next four games and a spot in the WHL finals. He is likely the man in goal the rest of the way.

It’s a method Johnston has used since he took over a moribund franchise in 2008 and almost instantly made it a championship contender. At midseason, he added defenseman Luca Sbisa in 2009-10 and forwards Craig Cunningham in 2010-11 and 2011-12, giving up prospects and draft picks along the way. Johnston used the same philosophy in landing ace defenseman Seth Jones for one season before the 2012-13 campaign.

“You don’t do that when you’re not in a position to win,” said Brent Peterson, the man who coached the Hawks to the 1998 Memorial Cup title. “It’s a gamble, but you have to give your guys a chance to win.”

Johnston has done it superbly, guiding his team to four successive WHL finals appearances and 84 postseason games (and counting) along the way. This season, Portland has put together one of the most successful seasons in the league’s long history. The Hawks are 42-3 since Jan. 11, a run that included a franchise-record 22 straight victories. They are working on a 24-game home win streak and are 9-0 at home in the playoffs.

“The first part of the season, we evaluate our players,” Johnston explained. “We don’t make a lot of moves early in the year. Through that evaluation process, you play all the teams in the league. You start to figure out where you are and what you need if you’re really going to take a run at it.”

Teams are unlikely to make trades to a contender within their conference, so Johnston has gone to the Eastern Conference for his deals.

“You look for teams that want to get draft picks and rebuild their team,” he said. “You’re giving up some (for the future), but you have to if you want to take a shot at (a title). In fairness to the guys who are here, if you have a good team, you have to give them enough resources that they can do it.”

It can be done only if the franchise is on solid footing, which it wasn’t when Bill Gallacher bought the team in 2008.

“If you aren’t in a position of strength, you can’t deal,” Peterson said. “Mike’s in a position of strength, with good players because he has done a good job on the draft and attracting players. When the previous ownership was here, it wasn’t a point of destination. Players don’t want to come to certain teams in the West, but now they’ll come to Portland.

“When we were here, we had it going pretty good, too. Without leadership from Gallacher and Johnston, it never gets going again. It’s all because they’ve built the culture back up to where we had it a long time ago.

“It didn’t go down because of the coaching or the drafting, but because of ownership. They can be cheap Charlies and run their franchise into the ground, or they can be first-class like Gallacher, get Mike Johnston and pay for things that players need. Mike’s a good GM, he works hard at it, he drafted well, and he’s done a good job recruiting.”

Peterson feels Johnston went all-in this season, knowing key losses from this year’s team will make it difficult for the Hawks to get back to the WHL finals next season.

“It’s pretty hard to do it five years in a row, but you never know,” Peterson said.

Johnston, balancing realism with optimism, isn’t so sure. Dumba and Boes will be gone, along with defenseman Derrick Pouliot and forwards Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier. The return of NHL draft picks Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, though, would make things interesting once again.

“We’re losing some key pieces, but I like some of the pieces that are coming, and some that are staying behind,” he said. “It depends if Petan or Bjorkstrand make the NHL as underage (players). If they do, then I would think we’re not as good. But if they’re both back, we have a really good team.”

Making life more difficult is the WHL’s harsh sanctions from a year ago for some relatively minor improprieties that cost Johnston a suspension for nearly the entire 2012-13 season, along with first-round draft picks through 2017.

“It’s going to impact us,” Johnston said. “First-round picks make (the WHL) 90 percent of the time. Second round goes down to 60 percent.

“Your scouts have to do a good job in the middle to late rounds, finding players like the Leipsics and (Chase) De Leos. We have to do a good job finding list players like (Paul) Bittner and (Keegan) Iverson, who weren’t even drafted. It challenges our scouts a little bit more.”