For now, you can primarily think of game time for the Spokane Chiefs as a job interview.
There are still decisions to be made – in regard to who stays, who goes, who plays with whom on what line, who is paired with whom on the blue line, which two goalies will mind the net, and which of the four overage players competing for the three available positions will get the jobs.
“Nobody is ahead of anybody here,” Spokane bench boss Don Nachbaur said on Friday – the Chiefs’ final training session before they take on the Tri-City Americans in Kennewick tonight in their Western Hockey League regular-season opener.
“What they did last year means nothing to me,” Nachbaur said. “They have to re-prove themselves. That’s just life. We did a lot of good things last year and set the table for this year, sure. But we’ve lost some key leaders, and somebody in this group is going to have to emerge as a leader. No good team is good without a guy in charge.
“And I’m not talking about a coach, I’m talking about internal pressure from the players to motivate and challenge the guys.”
For Spokane, there’s not a much better challenge than playing against the U.S. Division-rival Americans on the road. The Chiefs, in their 28th season in the WHL, will be playing on the road in their opener for the 12th consecutive season, and the third straight against Tri-City.
Coming off their second season in a row of facing each other in the playoffs, Spokane will be searching for a win over the team that ousted them – in seven emotionally charged games – from last season’s playoffs. Spokane finished last season against the Ams with identical 2-4 records at home and on the road for an overall record of 4-8.
Chiefs overage defenseman Brenden Kichton had 11 points, Reid Gow had eight points (all assists) and Mitch Holmberg – who is expected to be an offensive leader in Spokane this season – had three goals and four helpers. All three are back for another year.
It’s a different story for the Ams, who – if forward Patrick Holland goes pro – lost a trio of scorers, including Adam Hughesman and Brendan Shinnimin, who combined for an incredible 133 goals and 359 points last year.
The Ams do return a number of forwards capable of filling in the large gaps – such as recently dubbed captain and 20-year-old Justin Feser, the fourth-leading scorer last season for Tri-City with 37 goals and 83 points, and 20-year-old Jordan Messier, who averaged 45 points a season the past three.
“I think I’ve seen the difference in exhibition,” said Nachbaur – who formerly coached Tri-City, leaving for the American Hockey League following the 2008 season – of the Ams’ new look.
“It hinges on whether they get Holland back,” he added. “If they do, they get the best player in the (WHL) back – high-end talent. If they don’t – you know – they’ll still be pretty good. The back end is strong, they’ve got a good young goaltender (Eric Comrie) back there and they should be solid with Feser as captain. I know him and he’s a character kid and a pretty good player. They’ll be a tough team just as they are for us every year.”
And Nachbaur is looking forward to seeing which of his players will get the job done.
“As long as they know how to defend their end and they play together and work hard, they’ll get lots of ice time – that’s just the prerequisite.”