In draft year, Luca Cagnoni is a leader on defense for Winterhawks
The Portland Winterhawks' fast start to this Western Hockey League season is a product of many things, chief among them a young, yet seasoned, group of defenseman.
Perhaps the most prominent member of that group is smooth-skating Luca Cagnoni. The Winterhawks rookie of the year a season ago, Cagnoni entered his 18-year-old season with a B grade from NHL Central Scouting, which means he projects as a second- or third-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
In the first two months of his second season in the Western Hockey League, the undersized defenseman who won't turn 18 years old until Dec. 21 has consistently led Winterhawks skaters in ice time. That includes being the primary distributor on Portland's top power play. Four of his eight goals have come on the power play.
"Being on power play one, that kind of helped my confidence and set a role for me to make (offensive) plays and get those shots," Cagnoni said.
Having the power play run through him is a welcome opportunity.
"I wouldn't say there's pressure. The puck kind of follows you around, so you've got to be pretty steady with it and to be the last guy back."
Listed at 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, Cagnoni isn't going to succeed by throwing his weight around. But he focused on improving his strength during the summer and Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston both said he is better in puck battles along the boards than he was as a rookie. Those battles are a part of the game Cagnoni said he enjoys.
"Being a bit of a smaller guy, I have to go in there and work people's hips and stuff like that," Cagnoni said. "So that's where my strength comes in, trying to out-battle them, to take the puck and get it off their stick. A lot of it's using my head, too, and trying to outsmart them in a way, and try to pick which way they're going to turn."
Players Cagnoni tries to emulate include Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks and Samuel Girard of the Colorado Avalanche, two smaller young defensemen who rely on their mobility in the NHL.
Johnston noted that Cagnoni embraced the quarterback role on the power play as a rookie last season, and his offensive skills were clear.
"This year he's added more battle one-on-one, which he needs to do, and is better defensively, so I like that part of his game," Johnston said.
Cagnoni's offensive instincts can be seen when he carries the puck up ice, and in the statistics. Entering this week, his 101 shots on goal lead the Winterhawks, his 21 points are fifth most on the team and his eight goals are third most in the Western Hockey League from a defenseman.
A native of Burnaby, British Columbia, Cagnoni played several sports growing up. Soccer was his other primary sport and Cagnoni said he thrived as a midfielder until he was 13 and decided to focus on hockey.
Still, he said enjoys a variety of sports, has played a bit of tennis and has fun golfing, though he admits he's not the best golfer among the Winterhawks.
Despite his skills with a puck on his stick, Cagnoni always enjoyed being a defenseman, the position he gravitated to at age 5 or 6.
"Being the last guy back has a little bit of pressure with it, but I like it," he said. "You can build up so much speed with the puck and you can see the whole ice."
Speed, vision and mobility are what Johnston looks for in defensemen. Moving the puck quickly from the defensive zone to the attack is a key to the way Portland attacks. Cagnoni said he could tell during his first training camp in Portland a couple of years ago that his style would mesh well with what Johnston wants from defensemen.
He said it took a few months last season to get up to speed in the WHL.
"I would have told myself that you can compete in this league," Cagnoni said of his transition to major junior hockey at the start of last season. "It's a pretty tough league to play in and after those first couple of months, I kind of got my confidence back." he said.
Cagnoni is one of four 2004-born defensemen who saw significant time as WHL rookies a year ago, a group that includes Marek Alscher, Ryder Thompson and Josh Mori. Alscher was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the third round of the 2022 NHL Draft. Because of his late birthday, this summer will be the first opportunity for Cagnoni to hear his name called.
NOTES — This is a big week for the Winterhawks, with home games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, Dec. 7, against Prince George; Saturday, Dec. 10, against Seattle; and Sunday, Dec. 11, against Everett. The Dec. 10 game was close to sold out as of late last week. That is the annual Teddy Bear Toss promotion where fans throw stuffed animals onto the ice when Portland scores its first goal. The stuffed animals are donated to charities for children. … Portland (18-4-2-1) continues to lead the Western Conference of the WHL. Without injured forwards Kyle Chyzowski, Luke Schelter and Diego Buttazzoni, each considered week-to-week, three of the Winterhawks' four regulation losses came in a row at the end of November.
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