In addition to scouts, parents and a few curious fans, there is going to be one more seat filled at the Arena when the Spokane Chiefs open training camp today.
Don Nachbaur, the new coach for the Western Hockey League team, plans to get to know the players from afar.
“A lot of my evaluations will be observations from the stands,” he said. “For the most part they’re scrimmaging … you get to see a lot, their hockey sense, how hard they work, things that are important.”
And since this is Nachbaur’s first chance to see the players on ice, each one (except the 15-year-olds) have a chance to make an impression.
“I’ve got an open mind to everything, open mind to returning players, open mind to young guys coming in to prove themselves,” he said. “That’s the best approach. I can’t come in with any preconceived notions.
“Once we pick the team we’ll formulate the style of play to fit our group.”
The 70 players expected at camp have been divided into three teams, with three scrimmages a day leading up to Sunday afternoon’s Red-White Scrimmage, which follows the traditional Spokane formula.
“The organization, run by Tim (Speltz, general manager), has been one of the models of the Western Hockey League,” Nachbaur said. “They’ve had success running camp the way they have so we’re going to do the same thing.
“For me it’s being around the players every day, getting to touch base with everyone through personal contact. They’ll get to know me.”
The timing is right for a clean slate for all players since there are numerous opportunities.
The Chiefs could be without their top four defenseman and four of the top six scorers from last year’s team that went down to the wire for the U.S. Division title and Western Conference top seed (45-24-3-2) before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Gone are forwards Mitch Wahl (30 goals, 66 assists, 96 points) and Kyle Beach (league-leading 52 goals) and defensemen Jared Spurgeon (51 points in 54 games), import Stefan Ulmer (41 points) and Brett Bartman.
Also, captain Jared Cowen (8-22-30), Ottawa’s first-round draft pick last year, may not return if he makes the Senators, although he can play in nine regular-season NHL games before being sent back.
The obvious leaders are the three 20-year olds, Tyler Johnson (36-35-71), Levko Koper (27-27-54) and goalie James Reid (28-16-3-2, 2.41 goals against average).
“We’re going to be a lot more by committee this year than by individuals (on offense),” Speltz said. “That’s why I think Koper and Johnson, with their leadership, ability and accomplishments are very key.”
Next on the scoring list are Blake Gal (11-25-36), Kenton Miller (12-20-32) and Steve Kuhn (9-11-20).
The defensemen with the most experience are Brandon Kichton, Corbin Baldwin and Tanner Mort.
Michael Tadjdeh was Reid’s backup last year but having a 19-year-old back up a 20 isn’t ideal.
“There are two obvious questions for me,” Speltz said. “What young guys are ready to play? You have that every year. And, our support guys from last year, what kind of step have they taken in the off-season?
“Guys are going to get their opportunity. You expect them to take that step but it’s exciting to anticipate.”
How many stick around for exhibition games prior to the opener at Tri-City on Sept. 25 remains to be seen.
“You might find three or four extra guys you didn’t plan on keeping but they’ve impressed you so much you keep them just to have a longer look,” Nachbaur said. “You always hope that happens, that there are huge surprises in training camp.
“Only camp will tell how much work the players put in in the summertime. Some worked hard, where other guys put their feet up. Those are the guys that will be left behind.”
They just need to know they will be watched closely this weekend.