The Spokane Chiefs were 5 minutes – and one goal – from playing for a conference title last season. And if you paid any attention to the series, you know it was heart-stoppingly close the entire way.
So when the Tri-City Americans won Game 7, it left something to be desired for the veteran Chiefs, who are back for another Western Hockey League season in Spokane.
Beginning Saturday, when the Chiefs open their regular-season schedule in Kennewick against the Americans, 72 games and about six months separate Spokane from the possibility of another exciting postseason story – perhaps one that ends with them getting the best of their storied rivals.
“It’s going to be a fun year,” Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Moulton said. “I think the most important thing is we have to have veteran players step up and take on a leadership role. That’ll be a big key to our success.”
The Chiefs are carrying 27 on their roster – three goalies, nine defensemen and 15 forwards, with 19 veterans and eight rookies. By age, the Chiefs have nine 17-year-olds, six 18s, eight 19s and four overage players.
They’ll have to get down to the maximum of 25 players by Oct. 10, including just three 20-year-old overage players – but that gives the coaching staff time to experiment with line combinations and defensive pairings before they make final cuts.
“It’s a good problem for us to have,” Moulton said. “It means that everyone is giving us a reason to consider keeping them here.”
One of the more interesting decisions general manager Tim Speltz, head coach Don Nachbaur and his staff will have to make is which two goalies will mind the Spokane net this season. It’s not a goalie controversy so much as a goalie question mark.
The Chiefs are still carrying three – 19-year-olds Eric Williams and Mac Engel, who split time during the regular season last year, and 17-year-old rookie Garret Hughson.
Williams, who was picked up in a trade last December, was 8-6-3-0 in 18 regular-season games last season but got hot in the playoffs and nearly took Spokane into the Western Conference championship series – ultimately losing in the semis in seven games to the Ams. He finished the playoffs with the third-best goals-against average in the WHL at 2.22.
But in 86 career regular-season appearances, Williams has just 33 wins. Carrrying two 19-year-old goalies, knowing they can’t keep two overage goalies next season, isn’t a move Spokane will likely make.
The other veteran – Engel – is starting his third season in net for Spokane with 86 career appearances and a 41-27-3-4 record. Last season Engel finished 28-19-1-3. His 28 wins ranked 10th in the league.
Hughson played for Medicine Hat of the Alberta Midget Hockey League last year.
Another question that will have to be answered relatively quickly is which trio of overage players will survive the final cuts.
Spokane has reigning defenseman of the year and New York Islanders 2011 draftee Brenden Kichton back, even though he’s good enough to go pro.
“That’s baffling,” Moulton said. “He was the second-leading defenseman in scoring as an 18-year-old, first last year and should have been D-man of the year. Why he isn’t signed yet is beyond me.”
Competing for the other two spots are forwards Dylan Walchuk and Blake Gal and defenseman Davis Vandane – who has put up a lot of minutes playing for Spokane, but seems to be the obvious odd man out and could be used in a trade with a team that needs some leadership and experience.
“I thought we had really good success last year, and Don did a really great job with our group of guys, but I honestly think the players we had last year who had a good year have to take another step,” Moulton said. “Everybody’s role changes.”
On the road again
A new season is also beginning for Moulton, Spokane’s head scout.
Moulton, who helped bring the Memorial Cup to Spokane in 2008, spends “every weekend from (the) third weekend in August to mid-May, and then some,” on the road searching for future Chiefs talent. He was on injured reserve in a sense last season while he helped his wife, Shelly, through aggressive cancer treatments after her leukemia came back following a long remission period.
The treatment forced the Moultons to spend much of their year in Calgary, Alberta – about four hours from their Fernie, B.C., home. Their 13-year-old daughter stayed in Fernie with family.
“I didn’t leave (my wife’s) side,” Moulton said. “I worked, but I didn’t leave her side for 5 1/2 months – so with her finally home, and happy, and healthy, and family around to help, I can work a lot more.”
The Chiefs held an auction last season to aid his family, receiving help from the staff, former players, the Rypien Foundation, and fans.
Even other teams around the league – such as the Kootenay Ice, who play in the WHL rink closest to Moulton’s hometown – pitched in. More than $19,000 was raised.
“It was totally humbling,” Moulton said. “We felt so much love and I never had a chance to thank everyone in person.
“My scouting staff stepped up, everyone took on a bigger role. I can’t thank them enough either. Everyone expanded their role to cover my butt. It was huge.”
So is Moulton’s role with the club. For him to get back on the road is a win-win situation for Moulton and the Chiefs.
“I’m looking forward to seeing our guys take another step this year,” he said.
Import forward Marek Kalus is listed on the injury report as out for a month with an upper-body injury. … Chiefs rookie right wing Riley Whittingham is the only Chief on Central Scouting’s preliminary list for the 2013 NHL draft.