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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Chiefs reboot with new faces in second half of season

Spokane Chiefs Hockey coach Don Nachbaur has been let go after leading the team to a record 261 wins over seven seasons. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Chiefs head into a pair of weekend games hoping to get two newly acquired players up to speed after trading away two longtime fixtures of the team.

Last week, the Chiefs traded away its best offensive player, 20-year-old Adam Helewka, to the Red Deer Rebels. In exchange, Spokane received 20-year-old forward Wyatt Johnson, 15-year-old prospect Eli Zummack and two future draft picks.

Then on Monday, the Chiefs sent Riley Whittingham, 20, and two draft picks to the Kootenay Ice for 20-year-old forward Preston Kopeck. The trade stood even after Whittingham refused to report.

Asked why the Chiefs (19-15-3-2 43 points) would trade away its best offensive weapon while tied for second in the U.S. Division with the Seattle Thunderbirds, general manager Tim Speltz said he had several reasons.

“We are looking to our future,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to stay competitive and give our guys a chance … in the U.S. Division. We feel both additions will help us do that.”

Coach Don Nachbaur said he’ll coach the players given to him. But, he said it was difficult to say goodbye to two players he coached for four years.

“It’s really an emotional time to tell players they are going elsewhere,” Nachbaur said. “It’s always hard to lose arguably your best player. But, you’ve always got to do what’s best, number one for the kid and number two for the organization.”

Johnson has scored 10 goals and has 19 assists on the season. He was a captain for Red Deer. Kopeck (5 goals, 13 assists) adds the versatility to play all over the ice, Speltz said.

“Wyatt Johnson will help the maturation of our younger players and help out our team this year,” Speltz said. “Kopeck is a forward who can play all three positions.

“We want to give more offensive opportunities to some of our younger players,” he added. “We still think we have some good offensive players with us.”

However, Nachbaur said it always takes time to get new players acclimated to a new system as he prepares for a matchup Saturday against the Regina Pats.

“Our biggest challenge is to interject the new guys in to our style of play,” he said. “As far as our chemistry goes, it’s going to be a step backwards at the start. But as we go along, I think they will fit really nicely into our group.”

With the season just past the midway point, Nachbaur said every team in the league has a shot. Spokane is three points behind U.S. Division leading Everett Silvertips (22-12-0-2 46 points), who play in Spokane on Sunday.

“We don’t have much room for error,” Nachbaur said. “With the point standings right now, anybody could make it or anybody could be out. Anybody can win games. Nobody has really stepped out.”

As the Chiefs position for a run to the playoffs, they will do it with a pair of new forwards in Johnson and Kopeck.

“We are not only trying to secure our success for this year, but the future,” Nachbaur said. “Adam (Helewka) is getting an opportunity for a team” that could make the Memorial Cup. “It’s beneficial for him and for this organization because we got some quality kids and draft picks.”