The question a year ago was how the Spokane Chiefs, under a new coach, would replace three of their top four defensemen and four of their top six scorers from a successful season that ended with a first-round playoff disappointment.
The answer was quite well.
Despite those major losses from a 45-24-3- 2 team, the Chiefs won 48 games in coach Don Nachbaur’s first season and made it to the Western Conference finals of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
The process begins anew at the Arena today. For some reason, the empty holes don’t seem quite as daunting with six 20-goal scorers and a goalie with a 2.30 goals-against average reporting to training camp.
“When we look at our foundation, we have a good group of returning players that have had good success,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “Now you expect those guys to take, and we believe we still have guys, that can take another step.”
And yet Nachbaur’s approach isn’t going to change from a year ago when he said, “It’s a wide-open slate. It’s a new beginning for everybody so everybody better re-prove themselves.”
This year’s take?
“I don’t think what the guys did last year matters,” Nachbaur said. “The bottom line is kids have to go to work in the summer time. That’s part of growing up – you get bigger, stronger, more mature. We’ll find out who did the work. That’s what camp is all about.”
The Chiefs have three days of scrimmaging among the 60 or so players who have been divided into three games, pointing toward the Red-White Game at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The main missing pieces are the most accomplished class of 20-year-olds in franchise history and a first-round National Hockey League draft pick.
“It’s the same with every junior hockey team,” Nachbaur said. “When you lose your high-end guys, your over-ages and 19-year-olds that graduate to the pros, who’s going to take the bull by the horns? Who’s going to step up and be the next guy who is the catalyst player, the guy who is going to take over the leadership? A lot of those questions get answered in a very short period of time.”
The 20-year-olds were quite remarkable. Tyler Johnson had a stellar season with a league-leading 53 goals and 115 points. Goalie James Reid finished with a team-record 85 wins in his career. Levko Koper, a rare five-year player, finished third in career games played (330) and first in playoff games (62).
Then there was the intimidating defensive presence of Jared Cowen, the two-year captain taken ninth overall by Ottawa in the 2009 draft.
Their roster spots will be filled by rookies, but their shoes have to be filled by their more experienced teammates.
“I always believe that, given the opportunity, players will always arise to the occasion,” Nachbaur said.
“This is the biggest thing about junior hockey,” Speltz said. “You have to have realistic expectations of your team. At the same time your guys are going to be presented with the opportunity, what are they going to do with it? There is going to be some quality ice time for guys to step up. … We’re not going to put great expectations on our young guys other than we expect them to contribute, be a part of things and improve.”
There are more than four roster spots up for grabs. Speltz released over-age Kenton Miller, who was picked up by Calgary, and traded forward Brady Brassart to the Hitmen. One more 20 must go from among forwards Steven Kuhn, Darren Kramer and Matt Marantz or defenseman Corbin Baldwin.
Goalies will get plenty of attention the next few weeks. Mac Engel, who had a tough time getting a win in his rare starts as Reid’s backup, returns. He showed his potential by being named goalie of the month when Reid went down with an injury and finished 13-8-2 with a 2.30 GAA and .909 saves percentage.
“Any time you’ve got an inexperienced goaltender, that’s a question mark,” Speltz said. “Mac took every step we hoped he’d take last year.”
With so many veteran blue-liners the expectations could be unrealistic, similar to the lock-down defense that carried the 2008 team to the Memorial Cup.
“I hate to throw that weight on them and say they’ll be that good, but we have a number of proven experienced guys back there,” Speltz said. “When you have a position of strength, that’s good.”
The most likely candidates, where Cowen left the only for-sure vacancy, are Tyler King-Cunningham, last year’s first-round pick in the bantam draft, and Cole Wedman, a sixth-rounder in 2009.
There are a handful of 17-year-olds expected to make the strongest play for the openings up front – Conner Charier, Jarrid Hauptman, Liam Stewart, Cody Nelson and Adam Fauchoux.
“You always wonder if you have enough top-end skill. That’s a valid concern,” Speltz said. “Last year we showed if you’re committed to a system and with the depth we had, we could outscore by committee.”
“It’s a process to get the guys to play the way the group should play,” Nachbaur said, emphasizing that ice time and special teams responsibility are earned. “Every group is going to be different, every year is going to be different. … The way we played last year may not be … conducive to the way we have to play this year. It depends on your skill and talent.
“But at end of the day, the quicker you become a team, the better you’re going to play. That’s the key.”