Fall camp offers Spokane Chiefs staff members a glimpse into what to expect for the 2015-16 Western Hockey League season.
But during the first day of camp Thursday it was difficult not to start thinking about the 2016-17 season.
The ice sessions at the Arena introduced Chiefs fans to Spokane’s superior class from May’s bantam draft. Those 15-year-olds can’t hold down full-time roster spots until next season, but they can help the team take a gander at its future.
“Although they’re not eligible to play this year, you want to see what those guys are all about in their first camp setting,” Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said. “Sometimes you see less than you expected. That doesn’t mean they’re not good players, it just means they’re not ready for this type of stage yet, which happens.”
The Chiefs owned four of the first 38 selections in the draft, including No. 1 overall pick Ty Smith, a defenseman from Lloydminster, Alberta.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to get here and step on that ice for the first time,” Smith said. “It was really great this morning, finally meeting everyone who’s involved. They’re treating me really well, so I’m pretty excited about that.”
Among the other top draftees in camp are forward Koby Morrisseau, the ninth overall choice, and second-round selections Matthew Leduc, a defenseman, and forward Damon Zimmer.
“I think there is some optimism with last year’s draft, the fact that we had two picks in the top 10,” Speltz said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened and we had six picks in the first three rounds. I think it’s going to show, moving forward. Not this year, but moving forward.”
For now, the Chiefs must identify two goaltenders, about 14 forwards and around eight defensemen to fill the roster in an attempt to improve on last year’s 34-34-3-1 record.
“I come into camp with an open mind,” Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur said. “You hope that your veteran players, returning players, did a lot of work over the course of the summer and made themselves bigger, stronger and better players. There were players who had to work on their skating and improve that part of their game and there were other players who needed to get bigger and stronger. You just want your players to have an improvement from one year to the next.”
Speltz said he’s keeping an eye on the goaltender battle, the 16-year-olds who could potentially make the roster and the 17-year-old defensemen who appear ready to join the team.
Spokane’s top goalie last year, 20-year-old Garret Hughson, and backup Tyson Verhelst, 18, expect a strong challenge from 17-year-old Matthew Berlin.
Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Ethan McIndoe, both 16, were teammates with top draft pick Smith when Team Alberta won the silver medal at this year’s Canada Winter Games. Spokane got a rare boost from a 16-year-old last year when Kailer Yamamoto (Mead High) totaled 23 goals and 34 assists.
Speltz said 17-year-old defensemen Jeff Faith, Dalton Hamaliuk and Jake Toporowski are all “knocking on the door.”
The Chiefs must ultimately trim one 20-year-old from their camp roster to get down to the three allowed by WHL rules. Last year’s captain, Jason Fram, and top scorer, Adam Helewka, join Hughson and Riley Whittingham as Spokane’s overage players.
But Fram (Calgary Flames) and Helewka (San Jose Sharks) are competing for spots at pro camps, so the solution may not require a trade.
Practice games continue today and Saturday at the Arena. All sessions are free and open to the public.
The team’s annual Red-White Game is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Arena.
Spokane will play seven preseason games, starting next Friday in Everett, before opening the regular season Sept. 26 at home against the Tri-City Americans.
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