Before leaving town for some rest and family time, Spokane Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur met with his players to advise them on how to spend their offseason.
Nachbaur’s overriding message: Get stronger and better.
By many accounts, the Chiefs had a successful 2012-13 season. They won 44 regular-season games, earned the No. 4 seed in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference and defeated the Tri-City Americans in five games in a first-round playoff series.
But a sweep at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks in a conference semifinal revealed some of the Chiefs’ weaknesses, especially their overall size and youth on defense. Before the series, when Portland knew it would face either Spokane or Seattle in the second round, Winterhawks players told The Oregonian that they would rather play the Chiefs because seventh-seeded Seattle was more physical.
As the Chiefs prepared to scatter to their hometowns after the season ended April 10, Nachbaur analyzed their efforts in sit-down meetings. He encouraged his players to put it hard work before the regular season starts again in September.
“We’ll have a lot of returning players,” Nachbaur said. “There were areas where we faltered down the stretch, but the biggest thing for this group is to get bigger and stronger.”
Three of Spokane’s top four scorers could return for their 20-year-old seasons: Mitch Holmberg (80 points), Todd Fiddler (77) and Mike Aviani (68). No. 1 goaltender Eric Williams (32-19-2-0, four shutouts) will also enter his 20-year-old season. WHL rosters are limited to three 20-year-old players, so that quartet of veterans can’t return intact.
“We haven’t discussed the over-age situations,” Nachbaur said. “(Williams) played well down the stretch and gave us a chance to win. It’s whether the young guy behind him (Garret Hughson) takes the steps to be the No. 1 guy.”
Fiddler, who led the Chiefs with 42 regular-season goals, was scratched for Game 4 of the Portland series. Nachbaur said Fiddler had a “tremendous year” and things are fine between him and the left wing, who came to the Chiefs in a trade with the Prince Albert Raiders during the 2011-12 season.
Nachbaur said he’s encouraged by the amount of ice time his young third and fourth lines played this season. Adam Helewka, Liam Stewart and Connor Chartier, who could all play at least two more seasons with Spokane, finished with between 23 and 27 points.
The Chiefs’ just-completed season had four stages:
• They were 22-7-1-0 and ranked in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 poll in early December.
• They lost 18 of 30 games over the next 10 weeks and fell to No. 6 in the conference. “In January and February we had a tough schedule, as tough as any I can remember,” Nachbaur said.
• They used a pair of five-game winning streaks to go 10-2 over the last month of the regular season, then used the momentum to dominate Tri-City 4-1 in the first round of postseason.
• They were swept by Portland in the second round, getting outscored 18-3. “Their skill caught up to us,” Nachbaur said.
If not for Portland, the Chiefs may have made a deeper run in the playoffs. Spokane was a combined 4-2 against the other teams (Kamloops, Calgary, Edmonton) remaining in the WHL playoffs.
“We handled every team really well except the team we met in the second round,” Nachbaur said.
Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz and his scouts are preparing for the May 2 WHL Bantam Draft. Nachbaur said his involvement with the draft is nil, as he leaves it to Speltz and his crew find players who fit “what an ideal Chief looks like.”