The Spokane Chiefs may have a tough time duplicating the success they had last year when they were the surprise team of the Western Hockey League, but it won’t be for lack or trying.
“I would hope we play a similar style to last year, a hard team to play against,” second-year coach Don Nachbaur said. “We outworked teams, we out-chanced teams.”
And in what was expected to be a transition year became one of the best in team history – a 102-point regular season and playoff run to the Western Conference finals.
“What we’ve seen with Don as a coach is his teams exceed expectations,” general manager Tim Speltz said. “For us as management, you want to see your players play to the best of their ability, which makes it great for evaluating, but your players will dictate (if that’s enough).”
The Chiefs get a test right out of the gate, opening against rival Tri-City tonight in Kennewick. Then they have a week off before their home opener against the Americans.
“Last year we were the top-scoring team in the league, second-best team defending, best power play overall, best penalty kill overall,” Nachbaur said of a team that was picked to finish in the U.S. Division basement. “You attribute it not to the system but to the individuals playing it. We had a lot of good players on our team last year. They weren’t given enough credit in (the past). I’m talking about the high-end guys … (and) we had complementary scoring throughout.”
Six of the Chiefs’ 20-goal scorers return, but the high-end guys are gone. Tyler Johnson, a MVP candidate who had 115 points, including a league-best 53 goals; Levko Koper, who had 82 points; and goalie James Reid, who set the franchise record for career wins, graduated. Defenseman and captain Jared Cowen is starting his professional career with the Ottawa Senators, who drafted him in the first round in 2009.
That still leaves 20 returning players, but a team can only keep three 20-year-olds and the Chiefs had five 19-year-olds. One was traded (Kenton Miller) and Darren Kramer, a candidate for captain, is still in Ottawa’s camp.
Also, two players (defenseman Tyler Vanscourt, 19, and forward Brady Brassart, 18) have been traded to make room for younger players.
Steve Kuhn (20), Matt Marantz (20), Anthony Bardaro (19), Blake Gal (19), Dominik Uher (19), returned to the Chiefs Friday by Pittsburgh, and defenseman Brenden Kichton (19) are the returning 20-goal scorers. Kichton was third on the team in points (23 goals, 58 assists).
“At this point there hasn’t been that one dominant guy or two or three who have stepped up (on offense),” Nachbaur said. “But with that said, we haven’t had four guys here. It’s been a young group in the exhibition season. That’s been good, too, because they’ve played a lot.”
Kichton, Gal and Uher were at pro camps, leaving the team shy of on- and off-the-ice leaders. Kuhn is a returning alternate captain while Kramer, Uher and Kichton seem to be captain candidates.
“You ask your players to step up,” Nachbaur said. “They’ve got to carry the torch, be the leaders that those guys were last year. That’s the key. If you’ve got good leaders they’re going to find a way. I think I’ve identified who the guys will be. The biggest thing for me is I think we’re going to have a group of guys the players in the (locker) room respect.”
Liam Stewart (17), Conner Chartier (17) and Cody Nelson (17) are the projected rookies up front. Mitch Holmberg (18), Mike Aviani (18), Collin Valcourt (18) and Marek Kalus (18) need to become more consistent point producers.
Although nine is too many defensemen, rookies Jason Fram (16), Tyler King (16) and Cole Wedman (17) have had strong camps to join Kichton, 20-year-old Corbin Baldwin, Davis Vandane (19), Cole Hamblin (18), Tanner Mort (18) and Reid Gow (17).
“I’ve got to teach them the game of hockey is not to just chase the puck,” Nachbaur said. “I can point it out to them, then it’s role acceptance. That’s what we were so good at last year. We had so many guys we asked to play a certain style and they were willing to do that. They accepted their roles without question.”
Mac Engel has a year of experience among the three 18-year goalies but he was basically only under heavy pressure for one month when Reid was injured.
“It’s all about depth,” Nachbaur said. “It’s trying to find the right mix.”
Zach Rakochy and Luke Lee-Knight, acquired in the Vanscourt trade, could stick around for a while with only one game each the first two weeks, then a pair of three-game weeks.
It could actually take time for all the positions to shake out.
If Kramer comes back, a 20-year-old has to go. There’s an extra goalie and too many defensemen at the moment, so there could be movement, but there’s no rush.
“Can you give yourself time … 18 games, 20 games, and figure out where you’re at?” Speltz said. “Can (players) step up for the (departed players)? They’re going to get that opportunity. Can they do it? Only time will tell.
“At the start of the year, you strive to be a top-four team in your conference. Can we have home-ice advantage in the first round (of the playoffs)? After 18 games, you have a pretty good handle on it. Are our guys taking a step or are our guys not getting it?”
They got it last year, with Nachbaur pushing, but the Chiefs also picked up Kramer a few games into the season.
“We’ve got to get better every day,” Nachbaur said. “We’ve got to refine our skills because we’re not as skilled as last year. You lose Johnny and (Koper), you lose two of the fastest guys in the league. We’re not as quick as we were last year. That doesn’t mean we can’t work harder than we did last year, we can’t compete harder than we did last year. That’s what stepping up means.”
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