The candy store is open.
The Spokane Chiefs begin shopping today for the few sweets they need to complete a roster that will have high expectations for another strong Western Hockey League season.
“We have 18 guys returning, we usually keep 23 guys,” second-year coach Hardy Sauter said. “We have potentially nine kids fighting for open spots. That’s just the kids we know that are going to push for spots. Hopefully there are one or two surprises as well.
“Obviously we hope some of those guys push the guys that are returning as well. As coaches we hope we have tough decisions and I’m guessing we’re going to. It’s going to be a really, really competitive camp.”
One year after winning the Memorial Cup, the Chiefs finished fourth in the Western Conference with 95 points and eliminated Seattle 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Vancouver in a riveting seven-game series that featured seven overtimes in the last three games.
“This time of year everybody is excited,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “We’re optimistic about our year simply because of the number of returning players we have. And we’ve still got a good nucleus from the Memorial Cup championship team. Those guys flat out know the difference; they know how to get it done.”
The Chiefs have tweaked the format of camp, which is at the Arena. The 68 players, who went through physicals and testing the past two days, have been divided into three teams. Each team has a practice this morning before scrimmages begin. There is a scrimmage at 10 a.m., 1 and 3:30 p.m. today through Saturday. Camp winds up Sunday with the Red-White game at 1 p.m. About 40 players will be selected to play in the wrap-up game.
“This camp is going to be every bit as exciting as any one I’ve ever been to or seen as far as fairness and the opportunity to make a hockey team,” Sauter said. “Provided the young kids have done their work in the summer, there are going to be some real good races to see who stays and who doesn’t.”
Three veterans won’t be at camp because of injuries.
Standout defenseman Jared Cowen, the sixth overall pick in the NHL draft, is in Ottawa, so the Senators will oversee the final stages of his rehabilitation from major knee surgery that ended his season after 48 games.
Overage forward Ryan Letts suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury over the summer and overage defenseman Jared Spurgeon hasn’t been cleared after post-season shoulder surgery.
The most obvious camp battle is in goal. James Reid, who posted a 12-5 record and outstanding 1.68 goals-against-average, is expected to step in for three-year, record-breaking starter Dustin Tokarski. The backup should come from Alex Wright, 19, who had a brief stint with Spokane last season, and three youngsters, Chase Martin, Brendan Eide and Cole Cheveldave.
They’ll be bolstered by a strong, veteran defense.
“Our defensive corps is back intact,” Speltz said. “That’s going to be the strength of our team for sure. Anytime you’re that strong defensively it gives you a lot of dimensions.”
With Cowen and Spurgeon out, everyone will get a chance to earn ice time. The top young players to watch are Garrett Leedahl, Landon Oslanski and Post Falls native Tanner Mort.
“I’m not opposed to keeping just a good player and finding a spot for them, it doesn’t have to be by position only,” Sauter said. “If we have a good player and he’s better than some of the forwards, so be it.”
There is some concern on offense.
“The group coming back is solid, probably more than solid,” Sauter said. “We’ve got a ton of kids that can play multiple positions. Obviously we’re going to have to find a way to score goals.”
Anthony Bardaro, Brady Brassart, Michael Aviani, Mitch Holmbert, Matthew Marantz, Mike Betz and import Domink Uher are the players on the radar.
The camp schedule was revamped to make it easier for players to concentrate on the task at hand.
“Hopefully the routine allows the kids to be more comfortable,” Sauter said. “I think we’ve done everything we can from an administrative point to make our training camp better from the players’ standpoint. Not easier, but better.”