As the Spokane Chiefs were figuring out how to break their 20-year-old logjam, a key component of that was a 19-year-old: defenseman Ty Smith.
Smith spent the preseason with the team that selected him in the first round of the 2018 NHL draft, the New Jersey Devils. The Chiefs were concerned enough about the NHL club keeping Smith that they held onto Noah King, a 20-year-old defenseman, to ensure their back end had enough experience.
As it happened, though, Smith was sent back to the Chiefs for another year of development and a chance to become a back-to-back winner of the Western Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Year award.
Yet at this point, Smith might not be the top candidate for that award on his own team. That distinction, at least in the eyes of Chiefs coach Manny Viveiros, belongs to Kral, the Czech native who was taken four rounds after Smith was in the 2018 NHL draft, by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think he’s been our best player,” Viveiros said earlier this week. “I think he’s been, from what I’ve seen so far, the best defensemen in the league so far, and there’s some really good ones. He’s taken that next step this year.”
Heading into Saturday night’s home game against the Winnipeg Ice, Kral ranks third on the team in goals (eight) and second in assists (16), points (24) and plus-minus (14). Forward Adam Beckman leads the Chiefs in all three categories with 10 goals, 22 assists, 32 points and a plus-19.
Kral’s emergence hasn’t come out of nowhere – he had 36 points in 47 games a season ago – but he said this year the team was looking for him to lead.
That’s especially because Kral counts toward their three overage players and as one of two international players. There are only five other international 20-year-olds in the WHL this season.
“(Normally) in this league you don’t wanna do that, because you’re giving up probably a position of strength,” Viveiros said. “But we just felt with Filip, and how good he is, we can’t afford not to do it.”
Last weekend, when the team played three games in three nights in three cities – and didn’t have Smith for any of them – Kral played nearly 30 minutes per game, Viveiros said, such is the team’s trust in and reliance on him.
“More than anything, he’s more physical this year,” Viveiros said. “Before this year, they said he was a little bit shy as far as the physicality part, but he’s not shying away at all this year.”
Kral sustained a shoulder injury in March 2018, which prevented him from getting in full workouts that summer. By the time he made his 2018-19 season debut on Oct. 30, he still wasn’t in top form, he said.
“The first, let’s say three months, two months, I felt wasn’t my best,” Kral said. “But after Worlds (IIHF World Junior Championship), I felt way better and I started to play the right way.”
In 17 games to start the 2018-19 season, Kral had seven points and was a plus-3. After returning from the World Juniors in January, he played 30 games, had 29 points and was plus-14, and he has improved on that pace this season.
Kral is also shooting more often, and his 2.85 shots per game ranks ninth among WHL defensemen. But he’s more efficient than most, turning those 60 shots into eight goals, second most in the league at his position.
“Another year is another year of confidence and player ability,” King said of Kral. “Once you get a year older, you start being more confident.
“He realized that the more shots you take, the more opportunities you get, and the more goals you get.”
Kral has also made a defensive difference in ways that aren’t necessarily as noticeable as scoring.
“In the (defensive) zone there’s not a lot of stats you can take, but good first passes is huge,” King said. “Clean breakouts is a huge one. Kraller’s (breakouts), that’s a huge part of the team. If you get a puck up in the (defensive) zone you get it right back out, then you’re in good position to win a game.”
While the Chiefs are fifth in the Western Conference at 11-8-2-0, their defense has been among the league’s best. They have allowed 53 goals, third fewest among the WHL’s 22 teams.
Viveiros praised the mobility and the skill of his back line, which has most regularly included Kral (21 games), King (21), Smith (14), Bobby Russell (21), Matt Leduc (15), Graham Sward (13) and Jordan Chudley (13).
“I think it is the deepest in the league,” Viveiros said. “Every one of them has a certain talent that they add to our group.”
Smith is still averaging a point per game and is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury that kept him out the last four games.
But the Chiefs won three of those contests. Kral was a big part of that, Viveiros said.
“He’s strong and healthy again,” Viveiros said, “and he’s been outstanding.”
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