The Western Hockey League trading deadline is Monday afternoon and the Spokane Chiefs are surprisingly not sellers.
They may not be buyers, either.
The last home game marked the halfway point of their season and the 8-2 shellacking of the Seattle Thunderbirds confirmed them as the hottest – and maybe most surprising – team in the league.
What was thought to be a rebuilding year after losing a ton of points and experience off last year’s 45-win team has turned out to be a magic-carpet ride under new head coach Don Nachbaur.
“I know where we were picked (as an also-ran) by the Western Hockey League writers,” Nachbaur said. “I had expectations. I never go into a season thinking we’re going to be last. You set your bar high, you go to work every day and try to attain that.
“I think our guys, through thick and thin, injuries, tough times, we’ve always found a way. That’s the sign of a good team.”
The Chiefs are definitely a good team, with emphasis on team. Heading into home games against Lethbridge tonight and Everett on Saturday, Spokane is the only team averaging more than four goals a game (4.16) and is third on defense (2.75) despite those heavy graduation losses.
With the top penalty kill in the league and third-ranked power play, Spokane is No. 2 in the U.S. Division and Western Conference, four points behind Portland, which has played three more games (but only one point ahead of Tri-City, which has played one fewer).
Although 21 players have scored for the Chiefs, only two, recently named WHL Player of the Month Tyler Johnson and Levko Koper, have more than 10 goals.
Considering that Portland made a bold trade last week, does that suddenly mean the Chiefs are under the gun to match that?
“One of the things that makes a good team is chemistry,” Nachbaur said. “You can have all the skill in the world, and everybody craves that, but if you don’t have guys who play with each other, complement one another, you’re not going to have a good team. … What we’ve got going for us is we believe in ourselves and we have interchangeable parts.”
Nachbaur has sent out four lines on a consistent basis and 11 forwards have at least 14 points.
Portland rolled the dice in snagging Vancouver captain Craig Cunningham, a 97-point scorer last season. In addition to giving up Spencer Bennett in the swap of 20-year-olds, the Winterhawks dealt their 2011 first-round and 2012 second-round Bantam Draft picks plus 18-year-old forward Teal Burns.
“We have a good situation and not just for this year but for the following years,” Nachbaur said. “Some of these kids are young guys still learning, they’re learning about consistency, they’re learning what it takes to play.”
The past two seasons, when the Chiefs combined for 91 wins, they had 14 players score double-figure goals. When they won the Memorial Cup in 2008, it was 11. They’re on a pace to match that with Johnson at 27, Koper 18, Blake Gal and Steve Kuhn 10 and seven players with at least seven goals.
And the defense hasn’t suffered, despite missing captain Jared Cowen for a number of games.
“Winning breeds confidence,” Nachbaur said. “We believe we can beat anybody. It’s been steps along the way. One of the things was learning a hard lesson and coming out the next night.”
He pointed to the weekend before Thanksgiving as a turning point. After a slow start, the Chiefs played well on their Eastern Division swing and two games at home. Then there was a tough overtime loss in Seattle and an 8-3 pounding at Tri-City before a 3-1 win in Portland.
“The hard lesson was (Tri-City), having our lunch handed to us, so to speak, and having to rebound mentally and coming out and beating a good team in Portland,” Nachbaur said. “We’ve had some steps along the way, but that one really gave us some belief that we could do well.”