A season ago, playing on a line with Cody Glass and Joachim Blichfeld, Reece Newkirk improved his production by 48 points. That production in his second season with the Portland Winterhawks helped the Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan native get drafted by the New York Islanders in the fifth round of June's NHL Draft.
Glass is now in the NHL, producing two goals and four assists in his first 12 games with the Vegas Golden Knights. Blichfield is starting his pro career with the San Jose Barracuda of the AHL.
And Newkirk (5-11, 180) is in a new role as an 18-year-old Winterhawks center in his third Western Hockey League season.
Twelve games into the season, the player who wears jersey No. 12 has 12 assists and three goals for a team that is an encouraging 8-3-0-1 heading into a three-game weekend.
Yet the transition from playing with established top-end linemates to leading Portland's top line while playing with younger partners — Seth Jarvis and Simon Knak — has challenged Newkirk.
"Early on I think he got frustrated," Portland associate coach Kyle Gustafson said after Newkirk's two goals and two assists were vital in a 4-3 Oct. 23 win over Prince Albert.
That frustration stemmed from the attention that comes with leading a line that opponents focus on, trying to generate scoring chances playing against top defenders.
"His role last year was more of a support guy, maybe a little bit more direct: going to get the puck in the corner, feeding two pretty good players. This year he has to carry the line and he's done a good job," Gustafson said.
"I'm pretty confident right now. I wouldn't be if I wasn't with Seth (Jarvis) and (Simon) Knak. I'm excited to see what the year holds for us," Newkirk said.
Jarvis (6 goals, 9 assists) and Knak (4 goals, 8 assists) are off to strong starts in their NHL Draft year.
"Jarvis and Knak are very fast skaters. they're strong, their elite. So being able to keep up with them is hard, but (playing with them) is very good," Newkirk said.
Playing alongside Glass and Blichfeld last season, Newkirk tried to learn what he could from his highly-skilled line partners. He said Glass' deceptiveness with the puck and Blichfeld's shot inspired him to work on improving his own game in those areas this summer.
Gustafson said one key to Newkirk continuing his upward trend will be maintaining his focus through the ups and downs of each game.
"His production will come as long as he's focused and energized and parks (each) shift and gets ready for his next one," Gustafson said.
Two of Newkirk's three goals have come on the power-play, a somewhat surprising area of success for a Portland team that is replacing most of its top power-play pieces from last season. The Winterhawks, in fact, have the most productive power play in the WHL, converting 13 of 46 power plays (28.3%).
Gustafson, who coaches the power-play unit, said the productivity of defenseman Johny Ludvig is the key to the power play's early-season success.
Without proven power play "quarterbacks" of the pedigree of Henri Jokiharju, Seth Jones or Caleb Jones, the Winterhawks coaches didn't know entering the season if their top power-play unit might include five forwards, four forwards and a defenseman or some hybrid combination.
But four of Ludvig's seven goals and several of his six assists have come on the power play. A third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in June's NHL Draft, the seven goals through 12 games match the seven Ludvig scored in 109 regular-season games over his first two seasons in Portland.
Ludvig's early-season production on the power play has opened up space for teammates.
"When you look at a power play, it's about shooting the puck. That's where Johnny was able to cash in," Gustafson said. "Once that occurs, then maybe (opponents) neglect Jarvis and he's got more touches with the puck and more time and then he creates chemistry like you saw with Newkirk (who had goal and assist on the power play against Prince Albert)."
• After playing only three times over the last half of October, the Winterhawks play three days in a row this weekend, including home games at 6 p.m. Saturday against Seattle and 5 p.m. Sunday against Kamloops at the coliseum. That starts a busy November that includes 13 games over 30 days, eight of them at home.
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