After his stellar 2014-15 season and playoffs, Adin Hill expects to carry the Portland Winterhawks at times this season.
The Hawks know he has the talent and confidence, especially after the big goalie helped take them to the Western Hockey League Western Conference finals as a rookie and was drafted in the third round, 76th overall, by the NHL Arizona Coyotes.
"I have more of a relaxed personality, and I like to think I have a lot of confidence in myself," Hill says. "I've trained for it my whole life. It's what I want to do. I love that burden put on me — not a burden, but I love being a leader of the team.
"Maybe we'll win games we shouldn't have won (because of my play) — that's great. That's the fun part of being a goalie."
The Hawks have other returning talent and have added some good players in their quest to win the U.S. Division and make the conference finals, at least. The previous four seasons Portland had reached the WHL finals, making the Memorial Cup in 2013.
Kelowna knocked out the Winterhawks last year and then advanced to the Memorial Cup championship game before losing to Oshawa. High-scoring Portland stars Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase DeLeo moved on to pro hockey, marking an end of an era.
The 2015-16 Hawks will be led by the likes of Hill, forwards Paul Bittner, Dominic Turgeon, Alex Schoenborn and Keegan Iverson, and defensemen Blake Heinrich and Keoni Texeira. But some newcomers should make an impact, including defenseman Caleb Jones, brother of former Hawk and NHL player Seth Jones; defenseman Jack Dougherty, a second-round NHL pick; Swedish forward Carl Ericson; and Lavian forward Rodrigo Abols.
"It'll be different, for sure. A lot of new faces," Hill says. "I'm excited to see what we can do. We picked up some good players."
Hill and Bittner, who recently signed with Columbus, and several other Winterhawks will be in NHL training camps this month. The 6-4, 200-pound Bittner will be a centerpiece for the Hawks, though, and he hopes to improve his point production — he had 34 goals and 37 assists for 71 points during the 2014-15 regular season, his third with Portland, and four points and eight assists in 17 playoff games.
Signing with the Blue Jackets gave him a lot of confidence.
"Second-rounders usually don't sign this early. (It was) a big surprise to me," says Bittner, a second-round pick in 2014. "My agent said, 'They think highly of you and want to sign you.' I said, 'OK.'"
Bittner has added leg strength so he can skate more powerfully, while maintaining good quickness for a big guy. "I'm picking up and putting down my feet better," he says.
He says the return of other Winterhawk veterans, as well as second-year players Alex Overhardt, Skyler McKenzie and Evan Weinger and the talented additions, will mean he doesn't have to carry the team.
"A lot of guys are stepping up," he says. "We feel like we can rely on each other."
Still, he says there is an expecation "that I'm going to do it (lead the team)."
Heinrich joined the Hawks last year and helped the defense corps rally to be good by playoff time. He and Texeira will be joined defensively this season by Nick Heid, returning from injury, along with Jones and Dougherty from the University of Wisconsin.
Dougherty, 19, was a second-round pick of the Nashville Predators, who signed him to a contract. He's 6-2, 190 — and joins all the other U.S. players on the Hawks, a list that includes fellow Minnesotans Bittner, Heid, Heinrich and Iverson.
"As a second-round NHL draft pick and with a year of NCAA experience, Jack will be an exciting addition to the team," says Jamie Kompon, the Hawks' second-year general manager and coach. "Not only does Jack make his presence known defensively, he also provides the offensive abilities we look for in a Portland Winterhawks defenseman."
Heinrich likes the look of the defensemen, and he says the Hawks should be able to move the puck well from the back end.
"We have plenty of guys around, even with (others) leaving," he says. "I think we're going to be a lot more defensive. We like to play physical. At the same time, we like to put the puck in the net."
And, as the last line of defense, the Hawks have a good one in the 6-4, 190-pound Hill, who hails from Calgary, Alberta. He went 31-11-1 with a .921 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average in the 2014-15 regular season, and he posted numbers of 10-6, .911 and 2.96 in 17 playoff games.
He's a bit of a scrambling goalie, and he wants to integrate more efficiency in his game.
"I do use my athleticism and react in the crease," he says. "That's the strong part of my game. But I have to be a little more efficient. I have a technical side, and I need to use it more often, and play the puck better, get it cleanly out of our zone."