The Spokane Chiefs have some big holes to fill as their Western Hockey League season gets under way Saturday with a trip to rival Tri-City.
Gone are a pair of forwards who combined for 82 goals and 182 points, a pair of defensemen with 76 assists and 92 points, plus the steadying influence from a couple of other veterans.
The first step in replacing the production on ice came off ice with the hiring of Don Nachbaur to replace Hardy Sauter behind the bench.
“It’s been pretty hard practices – we skate quite a bit,” goalie James Reid said. “It’s only making us better. I think we’ve improved a lot. He really knows what he’s talking about. I think he’ll make us a really good team.”
“I love him so far,” forward Levko Koper echoed. “He’s a guy who will get on you if you’re not doing things right. He’s going to make everyone on the team better from what I’ve seen so far.”
He’ll have to.
Mitch Wahl (30 goals, 66 assists, 96 points), one of Spokane’s all-time leading point producers and Kyle Beach (52-34-86), who led the league in goals, have moved on to the pros. The back line lost Jared Spurgeon (8-43-51 in just 54 games) to graduation and Stefan Ulmer (8-33-41) returned to play in Europe.
Forward Ryan Letts and defenseman Brett Bartman also graduated and captain Jared Cowen (8-22-30), a first-round NHL draft pick in 2009, has a fair shot to stick with the Ottawa Senators, at least for a few more weeks.
“We’re not real big up front, I don’t think we’re the most skilled team in the back but we have looked great at times,” Nachbaur said. “We have some veteran guys who know the league, who know what it takes to win the in league.
“We have some great skaters … right now we’re missing some pieces, but we’ve got some guys that are going to be tough to handle off the walls and in open ice with their speed. We have to utilize what God gave us. We’re not big, but we can be quick. If we stand around we’re going to be easy to play against. If we’re emotional, we’ll be fine.”
The expected leaders are the three 20-year-olds: Koper, Reid and Tyler Johnson.
Reid was solid with 38 wins and a 2.41 goals-against average. Johnson was third on the team in scoring (36-35-71) and Koper fourth (27-27-54).
Johnson has yet to return from Minnesota’s camp.
From there, a number of players should be ready to step up, but only Blake Gal (11) and Kenton Miller (12) scored double-figure goals and projected offensive defenseman Brenden Kichton (4-15-19) came back from Detroit’s camp with a broken hand that will sideline him for a month.
“I think there have been some real good performances by a few guys,” Nachbaur said of the 3-3-0-1 preseason schedule. “As a group, that’s really all I look at. This team here has some work to do in terms of what we’re going to do as a group … the identity that we want to portray every night. When we do those things, we’re fun to watch. … There are some pieces of our game that are really good.”
Nachbaur said before camp a month ago he would adapt his style to the players’ talents and the veterans see the change.
“We’re going to try to keep the puck in their zone as much as possible,” Koper said. “I think our D-men will be jumping up in the offensive zone. We’re good at keeping pucks in. … not giving a team any time to make a break.
“Another thing we’re doing well is outshooting the other team … getting the pucks to the net.”
The Chiefs have averaged 47 wins the last three seasons with an emphasis on defense, but the offensive production has slipped a little each year.
“I think this year it will be a little more offensive,” Reid said. “We just have to get scoring a little bit more because defensively we’re really good right now. The D is taking away the passes in front, blocking shots and the forwards are coming back to help me.”
The good news is the players are conceding nothing.
“It’s more about playing hard every game, worrying about what we’re doing, the young guys taking a step forward,” Koper said. “We want to progress throughout the year. By playoffs we want to be a well-oiled machine and win as many games as we can.”