The Spokane Chiefs open their 25th Western Hockey League season with a two-game set in Prince George beginning tonight.
For a pair of 20-year old veterans, a 13-hour bus ride couldn’t dampen the anticipation of what they expect to be good season, maybe even a repeat of the Memorial Cup championship of 2008.
“It’s been a long summer, I’m ready to go,” forward Dustin Donaghy said. “The team looks very well so far. It’s still very early to make a full judgment but right now, as I see it, the team will be very good this year.”
“We’re expecting to win again,” defenseman Brett Bartman said. “I think we have enough young guys, enough character guys coming back, we believe we have a good enough group to win the whole thing.
“A lot of things have to go the right way. Last year it was one-goal (loss) in Game 7. You make it to the Western Conference finals and who knows? Everyone came to camp ready to work. Our goal is to play in Brandon in May.”
Unfortunately, the few questions facing the veteran team (which went 46-23-3 last year) entering training camp didn’t have positive answers – but they didn’t come out negative, either.
Because of injuries to four veterans, coach Hardy Sauter has postponed many of the tough personnel decisions he had anticipated. At stake were about five spots in what is expected to be a 23-man roster – a backup goalie, one defenseman and three forwards.
The second-year coach believed there was an abundance of rookie talent to fill the few holes or grab a position from a lackadaisical veteran.
“There are still one or two guys who are improving but not improving as fast as the others,” Sauter said. “They get until the end of the month.
“We think of it as healthy competition. If this drags on until the middle of October, it could get ugly in practice, intense in the (locker) room. Most of them are used to this time of year when there are a few extra guys around.”
The only position battle resolved is in goal, with 17-year-old Chase Martin the pick over 19-year-old Alex Wright to back up James Reid.
Reid was 12-5-1 with a .940 save percentage as the backup to Memorial Cup MVP Dustin Tokarski, who holds almost every Spokane goalie record.
“I have quite a bit of confidence in myself and the ‘D’ I have,” Reid, 19, said. “I just try to make all the easy plays, try not to do too much and it usually works out for the best.”
On paper, seven defensemen who helped the Chiefs limit foes to a league-low 145 goals last season return, but three are on the injury list.
Jared Cowen, 18, the ninth pick in the NHL draft, is in Ottawa so the Senators can monitor the final days of his rehabilitation from major knee surgery.
Jared Spurgeon, 20, remains sidelined after postseason shoulder surgery.
Corbin Baldwin, 18, broke a hand in a training-camp fight. (The fourth injured veteran is forward Ryan Letts, 20.)
That gives rookies Grand Leedahl, 18, Tanner Mort, 16, and Landon Oslanski, 17, more time to make an impression.
“A lot of guys are going to have to step up,” Bartman said. “It just forces everyone to learn and adapt a little bit faster, and in the end it’s going to make everyone better.”
There are five rookies up front – 16-year-olds Mike Aviani, Brady Brassart and Mitch Holmberg; 18-year-old Matt Marantz; and 17-year-old import Dominik Uher. Rookies accounted for five of the 10 goals scored in the five exhibition games.
“That’s not in league games, but the potential is there,” Sauter said. “Now they have to make another jump.”
Leading returning scorers Mitch Wahl (32 goals, 35 assists), Tyler Johnson (26-35) and Levko Koper (23-36) have been at NHL camps.
“Any time you go through preseason scoring (10 goals), that’s a sign the puck wasn’t going in easily,” Sauter said. “Having those guys in the lineup (starting tonight) will help, but we’ve got to be able to score.”
Donaghy is confident in the offense because of the defense.
“I think we’re going to score,” he said. “We’re not going to put five to eight goals up a night. We’re going to get our one, two or three goals a game and we’re going to keep the other team below us.”
Of the injured players, Baldwin is the only one close to being back and he’s likely to miss the home opener against Tri-City next weekend.