PORTLAND, Ore. - In five seasons, the Portland Winterhawks have been transformed from the Western Hockey League's most dysfunctional franchise into league champions who came up one win short of a Memorial Cup title in May.
Despite losing stars like Seth Jones and Ty Rattie, the Winterhawks are still loaded and expect to be in contention for a repeat trip to the Memorial Cup when the season kicks off Thursday.
"We've had the target on our back for a while now, and everybody's going to be after us," said Portland centre Chase De Leo, a 2014 NHL draft prospect. "People talk about us as the 'evil empire' and we thrive off of that."
Portland will raise a WHL championship banner to the Moda Center rafters before Friday's season opener against Prince George. The game will mark head coach and general manager Mike Johnston's first appearance behind the bench since he was suspended in November for the remainder of last season as part of sanctions handed down to the franchise for improper player benefits.
"Any time you have a good run, everyone in the league wants to knock you off," Johnston said. "Teams are going to give us their best and we have to be better than them."
Assistant coach Travis Green led the team through the rest of last season, including a six-game triumph over the Edmonton Oil Kings that earned Portland its first WHL title since 1998. In the off-season, Green left Portland to become head coach of the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate in Utica, N.Y.
Six teams enter the season with new head coaches, though several are familiar faces in the league. Kevin Constantine is back for a second stint with the Everett Silvertips after a successful tenure with the team from 2003-07. Former Brandon and Kootenay coach Cory Clouston takes over behind the bench in Prince Albert, and ex-Moose Jaw coach Dave Hunchak assumes control in Kamloops.
Swift Current visits Regina in the only game Thursday, while 16 other teams get their seasons under way Friday. Calgary visits Edmonton, Kelowna heads to Kamloops and Medicine Hat meets Lethbridge in rivalry games.
The Kootenay Ice will draw a lot of eyes this season, as top returning scorer Sam Reinhart goes into the season as a favourite to be the top pick in the 2014 NHL draft.
"I'm pretty excited for it, it should be a busy year," Reinhart said. "I'm trying not to focus on the draft part too much, you have to just forget about that and focus on your game when you step on the ice."
The Ice are one of several clubs that could contend in a jumbled Eastern Conference. Kootenay started slow last year, but was one of the best teams in the league in the second half of the season.
"We were young last year and we're still young, but we matured last season and we'll build off that," said Reinhart.
Defending conference champion Edmonton lost most of its big guns from last year, but returns with key forwards Curtis Lazar and Henrik Samuelsson and could have the best goaltender in the league in 18-year-old Tristan Jarry.
Prince Albert comes in with high expectations as well. The Raiders shot out of the gate strong last season but faded late and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Red Deer.
With top draft prospect Leon Draisaitl and Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Josh Morrissey leading a large group of returning players, the Raiders are favoured to capture the East Division. Veteran Cole Cheveldave came over in a trade with Kamloops to take over in net.
Calgary pushed Edmonton to seven games in the Eastern Conference final last year, and the Hitmen hope to be in the mix again in a Central Division that's stacked with quality goaltending.
In addition to Edmonton's Jarry, Calgary's Chris Driedger should be among the league's best at the position, while Red Deer returns with reigning CHL goaltender of the year Patrik Bartosak for his overage season. With the CHL's impending import goaltender ban, Bartosak may be the WHL's last impact European goalie.
Kelowna should be Portland's main challenger in the Western Conference, as the Rockets return with many key players from a team that won 52 games last season but battled injuries in the playoffs. Converted defenceman Myles Bell put up 93 points as a forward last season, more than any returning player in the league outside of Portland.
The rest of the West is up in the air, with Everett and Victoria looming as potential breakout teams after struggling in recent seasons.
Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie returns healthy after undergoing hip surgery in the middle of last season, and should be the standout between the pipes in the conference.
Seattle debuts heralded rookie Matthew Barzal, a 16-year-old centre who was the first pick in the 2012 bantam draft.