A year after making a return to the Western Hockey League playoffs, expectations are high for the Spokane Chiefs as a new season approaches.
The Canadian Hockey League’s preseason top-10 rankings are out, and the Chiefs are ranked No. 6 among all 60 major junior hockey teams in Canada and the United States. The Chiefs hope to live up to that ranking and then some starting Saturday in the season opener at Tri-City.
With a new season come changes, too. The WHL reduced the regular-season schedule for each team from 72 games to 68. At the Chiefs’ level, this will be the first season since 2013-14 without Kailer Yamamoto.
Yamamoto, while technically still eligible to play as a 20-year-old, will instead play this season for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers or their farm team in Bakersfield, California.
Head coach Dan Lambert enters his second season behind the bench with a deep forward group and a retooled defense. He also has the luxury of having seven of last year’s top-10 scorers return. He was still learning some names at this time last year, but he now has a sense of familiarity.
“It’s nice to have a good feel of the players and your relationship with them,” he said. “I think last year we spent probably half the season working on that, earning their trust and them earning mine. Now I think they understand what my expectations are on a daily basis. They understand how we are expected to work, how we are expected to compete and how we’re expected to practice.”
Jaret Anderson-Dolan will lead the way up front. His 40 goals and 91 points led the team last year. Defenseman Ty Smith will anchor the blue line.
Anderson-Dolan (Los Angeles Kings) and Smith (New Jersey Devils), along with Jake McGrew (San Jose Sharks), are still at their respective NHL teams’ training camps. All three are expected return to Spokane, though when that will happen is unpredictable. That means the Chiefs will likely open the season without some of their top players.
“Ultimately, we want them to stay there as long as they can,” Lambert said. “I think that they will be better for it and so will we in the long run. That’s kind of the attitude.”
The Chiefs got down to the league-mandated three 20-year-olds when they released defenseman Dalton Hamaliuk on Sept. 5. Forwards Riley Woods, Jeff Faith and defenseman Nolan Reid are the team’s 1998-born veterans to start the season.
In addition to Anderson-Dolan, McGrew and Woods, Eli Zummack, Ethan McIndoe and Luke Toporowski will be counted on for offense. Newcomers like Jack Finley and Adam Beckman, the latter of whom had a monster preseason with six goals and seven points in six games, come in with high expectations.
A couple of new faces will be on the blue line. The Chiefs drafted Russian Egor Arbuzov in the CHL Import Draft this summer and traded for 18-year-old Bobby Russell.
In net, the Chiefs have confidence in 19-year-olds Dawson Weatherill and Bailey Brkin. Weatherill enters his third season with the team and Brkin filled in toward the end of last season and started the first three games of the playoffs.
Campbell Arnold, a 16-year-old who appeared in one game last year, is the Chiefs’ third option in net. He’ll stay close by this season and play with the Junior B Spokane Braves. Sending Arnold to the Braves was intentional, Lambert said.
“It’s always nice to have a third goalie right here if you need him,” Lambert said. “It will give him an opportunity to practice with us whenever his schedule allows it.”
If the Chiefs want to make a deep playoff run next spring, they’ll have to navigate a tough U.S. Division. All five division teams made the playoffs last year and all return some star power this season.
It all begins Saturday in Kennewick. Spokane’s home opener is Sept. 29 against the Kootenay Ice.
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