PORTLAND, Ore. - It's not a big shock that a member of the Portland Winterhawks leads the Western Hockey League in scoring. What is rather surprising is the name at the top of the list.
Many hockey observers expected the spot to be occupied by St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie, whose 57 goals and 121 points last season were more than anyone returning to major junior hockey this season.
Instead, it's Rattie's teammate, Nicolas Petan, who's piling up huge numbers in his second year with the Winterhawks. Petan, a native of Delta, B.C., has recorded 36 goals and 94 points in 54 games for a Portland team that's ranked No. 1 in the CHL and has a 43-8-1-2 record.
Not bad for a guy who mostly served as a fourth-liner as a 16-year-old rookie and failed to record a point in 22 playoff games last season.
Petan's meteoric rise has taken the five-foot-nine, 165-pound centre from off the NHL draft radar to a potential first- or second-round selection this summer. And to think, Petan nearly played soccer instead of hockey.
"I had to make a choice when I was 11 to go with one sport or the other," Petan said this week. "I felt at that point that I wanted to just go for it with hockey."
The decision has paid off so far, as the 17-year-old Petan continues to climb the draft rankings. A big January included a goal in the CHL Top Prospects Game and WHL Player of the Month honours.
He dismisses concerns that his size might make it tough to rise into the first round of the draft.
"I don't think it's a defect for me," Petan said of his frame. "It's actually been working for me, because I can work on things like getting stronger legs and creating more speed that help me get around the bigger guys."
As far as the draft goes, Petan has played second fiddle to Winterhawks teammate Seth Jones, who's considered the top draft-eligible prospect this year. The attention paid to Jones has brought some extra exposure for Petan, and scouts are raving about his improved speed and determination compared to last season.
"It was just about coming in after a hard-working summer and making that effort pay off," he said.
As a 16-year-old, Petan spent some time early in the season centring a line with Rattie and current Calgary Flames forward Sven Baertschi. But when the Winterhawks made some trades to acquire veterans, he found himself on the fourth line.
Petan did contribute a respectable 14 goals and 35 points as a rookie, but went without a point in a post-season run that ended with a loss in Game 7 of the WHL final to Edmonton.
Petan now plays with Brendan Leipsic — who is a similar size — and the slightly bigger Rattie on a line that's perhaps the smallest in the league, but also the most dominant at even strength. Petan's plus-54 rating leads the WHL, and he's on pace to threaten the Portland franchise record of plus-75 posted by Andrew Ference in 1997-'98.
Leipsic (92 points) and Rattie (75 points) are second and fourth in the WHL in scoring, respectively, and each member of the trio seems to know where the others will be at all times. Their chemistry is astonishing for a group that hadn't played together until this season.
"The three of us started staying after practice and working on our passing and just developing a familiarity with each other," said Petan. "Our physicality isn't quite there, but we make up for it by playing mentally strong."
Though skill is his clear strength, Petan would rather talk about the strides he's made defensively — something that's earned him regular shifts on the penalty kill this season. In the most recent off-season, Portland coach Mike Johnston challenged Petan to elevate his defensive game to earn more ice time in key situations.
It worked, and Petan credits Johnston for pushing him to become a better all-around player.
Johnston was suspended for the rest of the season as part of sanctions handed out by the WHL against the Winterhawks in late November.
The league charges that Portland provided illegal benefits to players in past seasons, and banned Johnston from all contact with the team through the post-season. The team was also fined $200,000 and docked nine bantam draft picks over the next five seasons.
The Winterhawks have admitted to the violations, but dispute the heavy-handed punishment for things like providing flights for families to come watch their kids play in person.
"It was a shocker when we heard about (the sanctions)," Petan said. "We were a bit quiet about it at first, but eventually we turned it into something that's made us closer."
A group that embraces social media, the Portland players have adopted the "#adversityhawks" hashtag on Twitter as a rallying cry for their season.
With assistant coach Travis Green now at the helm, the Winterhawks haven't missed a beat.
Though the surging Kelowna Rockets are right behind first-place Portland in the Western Conference standings, the Winterhawks know a third straight trip to the league final is within their reach. After ending up on the losing end the last two seasons, Petan believes his team is ready to break through.
"We feel we'll get to that point again, and we know how to handle it now," he said. "There's no room for mistakes when it's all on the line and I think we'll be prepared for it."