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Chiefs found way to bounce back from early injuries

Spokane’s Tyson Helgesen, left, was thrust into the second defenseman role and responded with outstanding play. (Jesse Tinsley)
Spokane’s Tyson Helgesen, left, was thrust into the second defenseman role and responded with outstanding play. (Jesse Tinsley)

Spokane Chiefs players scattered to their homes this week after an up-and-down Western Hockey League season that ended on a relative high note.

Although the Chiefs lost their first-round playoff series 4-2 against Everett, the six-game set included three overtime games that could have teetered either way.

Given Everett’s status as U.S. Division champion, the series showed that Spokane’s final regular-season record of 34-34-3-1 was a bit misleading. After all, Spokane ended December with the 22-team league’s sixth-best record (21-12-3-0) before injuries sent the team into a tailspin.

The Chiefs were mostly back to full strength for the postseason and gave the Silvertips all they could handle. The series ended Tuesday with a triple-overtime game at the Arena.

Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur held individual meetings with the players on Wednesday to evaluate the just-completed season and plan for the future.

“And, of course, the overagers (Liam Stewart, Calder Brooks and Jackson Playfair) are a different story because now they’re gone,” Nachbaur said Thursday before heading out of town. “It’s the final goodbyes. That can be emotional, especially when you had a player for four or five years, as in (Stewart’s) case.”

Nachbaur saw the season as a mixed bag, impressed by the development of a young defense and the consistency of goaltender Garret Hughson, but left wanting when it came to offensive production.

The Chiefs entered the season challenged with replacing the offensive output of Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani, who combined for 100 goals and 199 points during 2013-14. Spokane finished this season with 219 goals, 25 less than the previous season.

“At times I wish we could have scored more,” Nachbaur said. “It would have been nice. I don’t think we’ve been shut out at home as many times (four) in any year since I’ve been in Spokane, but that was always a concern – if we could score.”

The Chiefs encountered an unexpected problem when their 2013-14 captain, defenseman Reid Gow, opted not to return to Spokane for his 20-year-old season. Tyson Helgesen, Evan Fiala and Jordan Henderson, all 17 years old, helped to shore up the defense and gained invaluable experience.

“Tyson Helgesen was thrust into the second defenseman role, playing (with captain Jason Fram), and he was outstanding all year long,” Nachbaur said. “And he played with an injury all year long that hindered him at times.”

Hughson finished eighth in the league in goals-against average at 2.80 and logged every minute in the playoffs with a 2.33 GAA.

Hughson is one of seven 19-year-olds on the Chiefs’ roster. WHL teams are limited to three 20-year-old players each season, so the Chiefs will lose at least four players from their 19-year-old group.

“That situation hasn’t been discussed, so I don’t know what direction we’re going there,” Nachbaur said. “A lot of times you bring a certain number of players back to training camp and see who’s done the work over the summertime and who makes the impact during training camp.”

Nachbaur said his wish list for next season starts with players picking up concepts better and the team avoiding the up-and-down play that made 2014-15 difficult to gauge.

“I think the one thing I wanted to see more of, and good teams have, is consistency,” Nachbaur said. “They win seven or eight games in a row and maybe stumble for a game or two, but not win six and then lose seven in a row. And we had that in our culture where we didn’t find consistency night in and night out.”

The same day Nachbaur prepared to leave town, Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz hopped on a plane for an extensive scouting trip. Spokane owns the top pick and the No. 9 selection in the May 7 WHL Bantam Draft.


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