January 11, 2009 in Sports

Chiefs didn’t need big deal to be big deal

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Western Hockey League’s trade deadline came and went at 2 p.m. Saturday, and it likely will come as a disappointment to the vocal legion that clamored for the Spokane Chiefs to swing the big deal.

Swapping this season for last.

A year ago this weekend, the Chiefs led the WHL’s U.S. Division, had yet to lose 10 games of actual hockey (ignoring those infernal shootouts) and were the second-ranked junior team on the continent. All that was the springboard to a magical playoff run and the Memorial Cup championship – an achievement Chiefs insiders agreed had come, given the youthful roster, a season before it may have been more reasonably anticipated.

Which may now be revised to “better premature than never.”

The Chiefs of 2009 find themselves nine points in arrears of division-leading Tri-City, 20 behind Vancouver in the Western Conference, unranked and – can it be said? – underachieving.

Well, no, it can’t – not yet.

They don’t hand out any trophies on Jan. 11.

But even allowing for how ridiculously difficult it is to go the distance two years running, the sequel has certainly taken a different twist.

“I don’t think we’ve accomplished what we did last year in the first half – making a statement in the league,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “But I’m comfortable with our experience. Our guys know what to do – and it’s up to them to decide if they want it again.”

The reflex is to remember the force of nature the Chiefs were over the last month of the 2008 season and the playoffs – they won 31 of 39 – and tick off the names of the notable cast members who returned, all the time wondering why the record isn’t better. Yes, three overage standouts moved on and a veteran 19-year-old turned pro, but that sort of attrition happens in every WHL city.

Other circumstances the Chiefs have encountered are, well, unique.

Forty games into the season, Spokane finally welcomes back Ondrej Roman, the Chiefs’ co-leader in playoff scoring last year but held captive by his own hockey federation in the Czech Republic, which only granted him a grudging release after the recent World Junior Championships.

Four other Chiefs – including goaltender Dustin Tokarski – were also chosen to play at the World Juniors, a significant if not unprecedented number. There have been other excused absences to play in international events, and the usual run of injuries clubs must inevitably survive.

In all, the Chiefs lost 134 man-games to these various dramas, and at least six starts by Tokarski.

“It’s not an excuse,” reasoned coach Hardy Sauter, “but in this instance I think perception is reality.”

In the meantime, the Chiefs have been everybody’s bull’s-eye. Speltz recalls the eastern road swing when the Chiefs pulled into Regina on a Wednesday night and played to a sellout against yet another geeked-up opponent – “which is good for us,” he said, “but a challenge.”

Still, there have been nights when the Chiefs had more than enough skill on the ice and left without a point, which happens in a 72-game season. Alas, two of those nights have been at home against the U.S. Division bottom feeder, Portland. There have been other hiccups, too, and not always have they been solely related to effort. The Chiefs have struggled with unsettled line combinations and some of Sauter’s new touches.

Oh, right. That other circumstance – the new coach.

Sauter, an assistant last year to the departed Bill Peters, acknowledges his learning curve as a rookie, and suggested that maybe in trying to manage his team that he’s suppressed some of his natural fire.

“If I try to contain that,” he said, “it doesn’t work for me.”

Speltz framed it a different way.

“There was a time early when we were winning games, but we weren’t playing as well as we could have,” he said. “That might have been a time to crack the whip, but he wanted to give guys the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve won. Then all of a sudden you lose a few, but you know what? You saw it coming. Now you’ll trust yourself and what you see, and that’s the difference between a first-year coach and, say, a third- or fourth-year guy.”

If the Chiefs haven’t seemed as stifling on defense as a year ago, their goals-allowed is almost identical – which may speak to Tokarski’s continued growth. But they’re in the WHL’s bottom half in scoring. To that end, Speltz made a slight offensive upgrade in trading the popular Seth Compton for Kamloops forward Brady Calla.

And then there’s the other “acquisition.” Sauter estimated that having Roman over the first half of the season “would have added 40 goals, either that he created or scored,” and surely no WHL team added as important a player at the deadline without giving up anything.

“It just improves our skill and our finish, and gives us a guy who does good things with the puck,” Speltz said. “Even the other night, seeing Mitch Wahl and Tyler Johnson back (from the World Juniors), those guys just have the puck so much – and when you have the puck, the other team doesn’t.”

Which, of course, is the best trade of all.


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