The Western Hockey League preseason schedule seems to be set up perfectly for Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur.
That’s if facing a rival for three straight games is a good thing.
But it is apparent that the Tri-City Americans, after winning a 3-2 shootout Saturday in Kennewick, are the perfect foil for Nachbaur’s needs in the final weekend of noncounting games.
“I learned lots in that last game,” Nachbaur said. “Some things jumped out. That was more like the regular season. It was intense, it was a battle, a big crowd. The game was on the line in many areas and I saw the reaction of players in those situations, so it’s all good. It’s what you want when you evaluate.”
That makes today’s game with the Americans at Eagles Ice-A-Rena (7 p.m.) and Friday’s game in Kennewick critical for players on the borderline of making the team. The Chiefs also play the Americans in their first two regular-season games – the opener in Kennewick Sept. 24 and the home opener at the Arena on Oct. 1.
“There are going to be decisions right at the end,” Nachbaur said. “Some young guys … have impressed us.”
The Chiefs won three games at the Everett tournament with a full roster, then shipped four veterans, including three forwards, off to National Hockey League camps and didn’t miss a beat in two games at the T-C tournament, even with veteran defenseman Corbin Baldwin sitting out.
“I like the fact we have the mentality we want to win,” Nachbaur said. “We’re 4-0-1 in the five games. We have a team right now that’s a returning team and the young guys are starting to grasp the concept of how hard you have to compete and how hard you have to play in order to have success.”
Veteran players have just as much on the line as the rookies trying to snag one of the handful of openings.
“We lost key hockey players, that’s the same on every team,” Nachbaur said. “Now other guys have to move into those roles … first-line center, key power play. There are guys that are 18 now, they have to step up. That’s all part of developing and earning the right for that extra time on the ice.
“It doesn’t have to be one guy, it can be group of guys. We can score by committee. We don’t have to have 130-point guy, but you have to have depth throughout your lineup when you don’t have that one guy.”
He had a warning for veterans who not only hope to step up a line or play on special teams: The time to prove yourself is now.
“It’s still a process,” Nachbaur said. “I have guys in my head. Based on last year, I know we have guys that can make plays and score a goal. We haven’t seen that on a regular basis in exhibition games. They can’t wait.”
That’s why having veterans forwards Dominik Uher, Darren Kramer and Blake Gal, as well as defenseman Brenden Kichton, away isn’t bad.
There are four rookie forwards still around – Liam Stewart, Nakeh Lamothe, Connor Chartier and Cody Nelson.
Nachbaur has been particularly pleased with the young defensemen, including rookies Jason Fram, Tyler King and Cole Wedman.
“They’ve been tremendous,” he said. “They’re really going to press some of our older guys.”
There is also competition among goalies with rookies Zach Rakochy and Jacob Edwards pressing Mac Engel.
“It’s a battle,” the coach said. “We’re confident the guys are going to handle the load. It’s a problem deciding.”