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Chiefs refuse to gut roster for future

Early success led team to keep top scorers

The Spokane Chiefs put themselves in a slightly difficult situation by being more successful than they predicted.

When the Chiefs reached the Western Hockey League trade deadline last week with 25 wins under their belt, the good start had made their options a bit limited.

They obviously weren’t ready to gut the team to focus on the future, but they couldn’t pull off major trades because other teams weren’t ready to part with enough talent to acquire Spokane’s most appealing players, Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani, the league’s top two goal-scorers.

“You know you have a successful group for a reason,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “When you’re talking trades, then, people wanted to take pieces of that. That wasn’t going to work for us, so it made it very tough for us to make a deal without changing our team drastically.”

Speltz made two smaller deals, trading 18-year-old defenseman Tyler King to Kootenay for 16-year-old forward Hudson Elynuik, and sending Jackson Playfair to Tri-City for Marcus Messier in a swap of 19-year-old forwards.

The Elynuik deal gives Spokane a player who could provide offense in the coming years, helping to make up for the impending exit of Holmberg and Aviani, who are both 20. Messier gives the Chiefs a player who excels at the penalty kill and faceoffs.

Speltz said Spokane “probably exceeded expectations” by winning 25 of its first 40 games. That accomplishment allows the Chiefs to close out the regular season with a legitimate shot at finishing in the top four in the Western Conference, securing home-ice advantage for the playoffs. Entering tonight’s game in Everett the Chiefs have 56 points, one less than fourth-place Seattle.

The tough part: 18 of Spokane’s final 29 games are against U.S. Division rivals.

“We know our division is the toughest in the Western Hockey League, for sure,” Speltz said. “We have a lot of interdivisional games. The problem you have in this division is you can play very well some nights and you’re still not going to win.”

Speltz made the comment moments before the Chiefs went out and held Seattle scoreless for 44 minutes but lost 1-0 in overtime.

The Chiefs have had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality against divisional rivals, piling up a 9-0-0-1 combined record against Everett and Tri-City but struggling to a combined mark of 0-8-2-0 against Portland and Seattle. The Chiefs have won nine of 11 games against Western Conference B.C. Division teams and are 8-3-0-1 against the Eastern Conference.

Spokane is in the midst of playing every U.S. Division team on the road during a nine-day stretch. The Chiefs are at Tri-City on Saturday night before a 3:30 p.m. Sunday game in Portland.

“We didn’t have any choice in that,” Speltz said of the afternoon game. “It’s one of those things where we have to grin and bear it. From Tri-Cities to Portland isn’t that tough a trip.”

The Chiefs’ injury report is limited to Jacob Cardiff (upper body), who is listed as day-to-day, and Markson Bechtold (lower body), who is out for an indefinite time. Both have scored one goal this season, although Bechtold has 11 assists.