No title for Chiefs, but a lot of unexpected success

Spokane Chiefs celebrate their game-winning goal in overtime to beat the Tri-City Americans in the Spokane Arena on April 19. (Colin Mulvany)
Spokane Chiefs celebrate their game-winning goal in overtime to beat the Tri-City Americans in the Spokane Arena on April 19. (Colin Mulvany)

With the brass ring just out of reach when the Western Hockey League season ended the Spokane Chiefs were disappointed – but there really wasn’t anything disappointing about their season as a whole.

With some significant losses from the previous season, some questions marks at the beginning of the season and a new coach to sort it all out, the Chiefs were generally regarded as an afterthought in preseason predictions.

Then came 48 wins, 102 points and a trip to the Western Conference finals.

“You look back and smile,” Don Nachbaur said of his first season as coach of the team. “Obviously you’d like to be in the finals. We came so close to being there.

“It was a lot of fun,” he added, ticking off numbers that made this the third-most successful regular season in the 26-year history of the franchise. “There was nothing negative about what was done.”

The team entered the season with four of its top six scorers gone – assuming that Tyler Johnson didn’t sign a free agent contract or Levko Koper didn’t sign with Atlanta, which had drafted him in the seventh round of the 2009 National Hockey League draft.

However Johnson blossomed into a sniper, leading the league with 53 goals and finishing second in the scoring race with 115 points, one behind Linden Vey of Medicine Hat, a fourth-round pick of Los Angeles in 2009.

Mix in seven other players with 20 goals and the Chiefs tied Saskatoon with a league-leading 310 goals.

The team entered the season with three of its top five defenseman gone – assuming that Jared Cowen, a first-round pick in the 2009 draft, didn’t stick with Ottawa.

Well, Cowen came back and became more offensive while continuing to be an intimidating presence on the blue line. Brenden Kichton (18), who missed the first seven games with a hand injury, went from four goals and 19 points to 23 and 58, his 81 points tying Saskatoon’s Stefan Elliott, a second-round pick in 2009, as the top-scoring defenseman.

Mix in the development of Corbin Baldwin and Tanner Mort and the contributions of rookies Davis Vandane (18), Tyler Vanscourt (18) and Reid Gow (16) and the Chiefs allowed 193 goals, second fewest in the league despite Cowen playing in just 58 games.

Along the way, goalie James Reid became the Chiefs’ all-time leader in wins (85) and when he missed a month, Mac Engel (17) stepped in and finished second in the league in goals-against average (2.34).

“There were expectations placed on our team. In terms of those expectations, we overachieved,” Nachbaur said. “We had a good team, we coached like we had a good team and those kids set a standard for teams in the future.”

General manager Tim Speltz agreed that overachiever was fair, but added, “Was this unexpected? No. You expect your guys to take steps and our coach did a great job to have a system we can play to have success.”

That’s obvious with the Chiefs leading the leading the WHL in both power play and penalty kill.

Speltz said a lot of the credit goes to Nachbaur, who played in the league and had previous six-year stints with Seattle and Tri-City. He became the first WHL Coach of the Year with three different teams.

“He’s an established coach, who knows who he is, who knows what he needs to be successful,” Speltz said. “What makes him so good is his attention to detail. He has a passion for coaching, he’s a 24-7 coach during the season. He doesn’t want to do anything else.

“And he cares. I’ve never had a coach agonize over scratches like he does.”

The Chiefs started slow, 2-5, with Cowen missing camp while in Ottawa and Kichton hurt, among other factors.

“I saw what everyone else saw, a team that needed to out-work the opposition rather than use skill,” Cowen, a two-season captain, said. “A lot of guys had career years. I think we were starting to come together when I got back. We were on the (Eastern Division swing) and we beat a couple teams out there. I think we gained some confidence. Maybe that was it.”

The key, Johnson said, was chemistry.

“There’s no question about that,” he said. “We worked together, there are no individuals on this team. When you have that it’s truly special.”

Not once, though 72 regular-season games and 17 in the playoffs, did they lose three straight games.

But now, of course, there is rebuilding to do. As 20-year olds, Johnson, Koper and Reid won’t be back, nor will Cowen, who went to Ottawa’s American Hockey League team in Binghamton last week after the season ended and scored a point in his first shift as a professional in a playoff game.

“We lose these guys but everyone else loses these players, too,” Nachbaur said. “You have to keep that in mind.”

For sure there will be two others gone since a team can only have three 20s and the Chiefs have five 19-year olds – Steve Kuhn, Darren Kramer, Baldwin, Kenton Miller and Matt Marantz.

Kuhn, an alternate captain with Johnson and Koper, had 20 goals (50 points), Marantz 20 (42 points) and Miller 10 goals (28 points) in just 55 games. Kramer joined the team the third week and was instantly popular with his teammates, and fans, leading the league in fights but also showing skill.

Import forward Dominik Uher, Anthony Bardaro and Blake Gal, all 18, also reached 20 goals.

In all the Chiefs had 19 players in double figure points, including Gow, a 16-year defenseman who played in just 41 games. Rookie import Marek Kalus (17) had four goals and eight points in only 22 games and was a threat in the few playoff games he suited up.

But how the future shapes up, it’s too early to tell.

“At this time of year you can’t project that,” Nachbaur said. “You wait until training camp and see who does the work over the summer. … Those players (this season) were ready for those moments, to step up and increase their numbers.”

Still, there was disappointment when the playoff run ended.

“There were a number of things that happened in the playoffs that we didn’t have in the regular season,” Speltz said. “We had an injury to Tyler Johnson; three suspensions in the playoffs, none in the regulation seasons. Those were all contributing factors.”

But when all is said and done, 48-18-4-2, is a pretty sweet run over six months, with 10 more playoff wins.

“In the summer I thought it would be a long year, we were losing some pretty big guys,” Reid admitted. “I don’t think anyone expected anything like this. Don really brought us together. He’s a great coach, he really knows what he’s talking about. It was a great year. I’ll remember the guys forever.”

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