Johnston took over the Winterhawks as head coach and general manager back midway through the 2008/09 season and after missing the playoffs the first year and losing in the first round the next, took the Hawks to four-straight WHL Finals. His coaching record with Portland was 234-116-21 over most of the six seasons he had the helm.
Though, the team had sanctions leveled against them back in 2012 by the WHL, leading to Johnston's suspension from the team, the Hawks went on to win the WHL, before losing in the Memorial cup Final to Halifax in an amazing game.
Johnston's successes in Portland seem to stem from his ability to draft American kids, seemingly headed the NCAA route and convince them to come to Portland. This was the case with Chase De Leo (drafted by the Winnipeg Jets and has already made his NHL debut). Also he has shown the ability to convince players that he did not even draft to forego college options and come play in Portland. This was the case with Paul Bittner (drafted and signed by Columbus), Alex Schoenborn (drafted and signed by San Jose) and Keegan Iverson (drafted by the N.Y. Rangers. His ability to sell the organization to these kids allowed them to get very talented players for low-round selections or no-draft selections at all.
Due to the aforementioned sanctions, he faces another steep climb back to the top of the WHL's elite, but there is no reason to believe he can't get there.
Think about this: in 2008, he was taking over an organization that looked to be on it's last legs and could not even convince top WHL talent to come and play there, even when taking them with high bantam draft picks. Then Johnston comes in and completely changes the atmosphere, fostering a winning attitude and quickly making the Hawks the envy of the rest of the division and conference.
So leading into his return, there are some positives and negatives. On the negative end, he will not be starting with a well-stocked cupboard. The first time around, he was handed first round pick Ty Rattie and used his first two first-round bantam draft picks on Derrick Pouliot and Nic Petan. those three became cornerstones for his four WHL Final births in a row run. This time, the only first round pick is incoming 17-year-old Cody Glass. Portland will next draft in the first round in 2017. Adding onto that fact has been the inability of the organization to recruit top-end U.S. born talent, since Johnston left. Evan Weinger and Alex Overhardt were the gem U.S. born draft picks that signed during the Kompon era and they have underwhelmed so far. Also, Portland traded away a bunch of second round and third round picks over the past seasons and so there just is not a ton of drafted guys to even choose from when recruiting.
On the positive side, Johnston has a bevy of very talented players whom Portland has the WHL rights to. Let's review shall we, with a little top-ten wish list:
- Kieffer Bellows (Forward)- 1998 born prospect, seventh round pick by Portland in 2013. He is expected to be a first round pick in the 2016 NHL draft and seems to be a lock for the U.S. U-20 World Junior team next winter. Bellows is committed to Boston University and Johnston would need to put in some serious work to get him to come to Portland. If the Hawks are lucky and an NHL team, friendly with the organization drafts him, their odds of getting n amazing play-maker to sign with them improve (think Nashville or Vancouver).
- Sam Rossini (Defense)- 1998 born prospect, was added to the protected list. He has committed to play at the University of Minnesota. The 6'2" 197 lb. defensive d-man would fill a big need on the blue line, where his style of player is lacking in the current group. He is expected to be drafted somewhere in the later rounds of the 2016 NHL draft. Maybe Johnston's NHL experience and portfolio of developed NHL d-men while with Portland can help sway the Minnesota native.
- Keegan Karki (Goalie)- 2000 born prospect, who was added to the protected list. He has already committed to play at the University of North Dakota, starting in 2018. The 6'4" 205 Lb. goalie really shined at the Minnesota state playoffs, where he put his team on his back and nearly took them the distance. This is a guy, I really hope they target, as his signing would help shore up the lack of goalie prospects, as well as, give them a goalie for the future if Ethan Middendorf's development continues to be sidelined by injuries.
- Ryan Poehling (Center)- 1999 born prospect, who was added to the protected list. He has committed to play with St. Cloud State, starting next year. He is already getting some buzz in regards to the 2017 NHL draft. The sell job to Poehling would need to be really good, as his twin older brothers are already playing at St. Cloud.
- Scott Reedy (Center)- 1999 born prospect, who was a fourth round draft pick by Portland in the 2014 bantam draft. He is expected to be a first or second round NHL draft pick in 2017. The Prior Lake native has already committed to play for the University of Minnesota, starting in 2017. If they could recruit Reedy away, not only would they have a great '99 center combination with him and Ryan Hughes and Cody Glass, they would have a great shot at the next guy on this list, who played with him at Shattuck St. Mary's and has also committed to the U of Minn.
- Brannon McManus (Forward)- 1999 born prospect, who was drafted by Portland in the fourth round in 2014. Often WHL teams will take a risk on a good friend of a guy they are really sold on. Whether McManus is the prospect or the friend, I don't really know, but it certainly looks like getting one could lead to getting the other. If Reedy and McManus both come to Portland, there would be a huge influx of needed skill in the '99 group.
- Clayton Phillips (Defense)- 1999 born defenseman, who has recently popped up on my radar as he signed with the University of Minnesota. He had a four-assist game in the Minnesota state playoffs and helped lead Edina High School to third-place. He was added to the protected list and thus would be a huge win for Johnston and co. Really either adding him or Rossini would help really stock up the age group that already has Jackson Caller and Jake Hobson, to go along with Matthew Quigley.
- Jake Oettinger (Goalie)- 1998 born prospect, who was a ninth-round draft pick in the 2013 bantam draft. Due to his late birth date. he is not eligible for the NHL draft until 2017. He has committed to play at Boston University starting next season. Due to Michael Bullion, appearing to not really have a lot of fans in Portland's management, the sell to Oettinger could be a chance to be the staring goalie right away. Oettinger had a 1.50 GAA and led the U.S. to a bronze medal at the recent U-18 WJC. He would be a high profile signing. The only other prospect who would make a bigger splash would probably be Bellows.
- Cole Guttman (Center)- 1999 born prospect out of Northridge, CA. The play-making forward was a recent commit to St. Cloud State, starting in 2018. He was an eight round choice in the 2014 bantam draft. Guttman had 48 points in 30 games last season with the L.A. King U-16 program and would fit in right away with the system that helped a fellow California-born player in Chase De Leo become an NHL drafted player.
- Mitchell Mattson (Left Wing)- 1999 born prospect out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He was added to the protected list by Portland and is expected to go somewhere in the second or third round at this year's NHL draft. Mattson has a big frame (6'4" 190 Lb) and when I saw him play for the U.S. at the U-17 tournament, he stood out as a great skater for someone as young and big as he was. He could be turned into a force by a system that has developed the likes of Paul Bittner and Nino Niederreiter. Mattson has committed to play for the University of North Dakota, starting next season.
Let's face it, without a big win, or two, or three, no amount of magic that Johnston has, will allow the Hawks to be a major contender in 2016 or maybe even 2017. This is where he made his name in the past and the fact that right after he was brought back in, NHL players were tweeting out congratulations, lets you know how much these, now big names, value him as a person. Johnston will need this good will in order to land some of these names. Adding a draftee from the 2015 and 2016 bantam drafts would be great as well, as right now they have only signed two from that group.