The second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs began Friday night, and for the fifth year in a row, the Spokane Chiefs weren’t participating.
But that’s not a knock of the season they just completed. The Chiefs made great strides and will return some firepower next season, with six of their top eight scorers and all of their goalies set to return.
The 41 wins the Chiefs amassed are the most since the 44 they had during the 2012-13 season – the last time they advanced past the first round. The Chiefs also had a 14-win turnaround from the previous season when they missed the playoffs.
Their season ended Tuesday in Game 7 of a tough first-round playoff series with the Portland Winterhawks.
The Chiefs welcomed a new head coach this season in Dan Lambert and returned plenty of talent from last year’s young team. Last year’s youngsters were veterans this year, and it showed.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan paved the way with 91 points (41 goals, 50 assists) and defenseman Ty Smith showed why he will likely be a first-round pick at this summer’s NHL Draft. He was second in the league in scoring by defensemen with 73 points (14 goals, 59 assists). Both are set to return next season.
And then there was Kailer Yamamoto.
The Spokane native impressed in almost every game he was in the lineup, but he was in the lineup for just 40 games. Yamamoto surprised most observers when he stuck around with the Edmonton Oilers for the NHL team’s first nine games after being drafted in the first round last summer.
He returned on Nov. 10 and promptly scored four points.
Yamamoto cooled off a little in the ensuing month. It wasn’t until after he returned from the World Junior Hockey Championships in January when he got hot.
Yamamoto scored 19 goals and 33 assists in 27 games after the World Juniors, a rate of nearly two points per game. He finished the season leading the team with 1.6 points per game.
The Chiefs’ season seemed to take a turn for the better around Yamamoto’s return and the trade deadline. The Chiefs made just one small move while their U.S. Division rivals landed top players in a wild deadline that saw a number of early-round draft picks moved.
While the Chiefs weren’t players at the deadline, their trade for Zach Fischer in October proved to be beneficial. Fischer finished with 35 points (21 goals, 14 assists) in 43 games in a Spokane sweater. Fischer developed impressive chemistry playing at right wing alongside Hudson Elynuik and Riley Woods.
The Chiefs went 20-7-3 after the deadline to keep pace in the tough U.S. Division.
As the team and its fans look forward to next season, the most common concern is what 20-year-olds will return. Teams are allowed to carry only three. Woods, Yamamoto, Jeff Faith, Nolan Reid and Dalton Hamaliuk were the team’s 19-year-olds this past season, but Yamamoto will almost certainly be with either the Oilers or the American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield, California, next season. That leaves four guys for three roster spots.
The Chiefs have plenty of time to figure out their 20-year-old situation, and trades during the offseason can impact that as well.
The Chiefs are expected to return goaltender Dawson Weatherill. He battled injuries at various chunks of the season but, like the rest of the team, got hot down the stretch.
Weatherill’s backup next season will be another area to watch. Donovan Buskey filled in admirably when Weatherill was out, but Bailey Brkin – the team’s lone trade deadline acquisition – impressed at times and started their first two playoff games.
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