The Spokane Chiefs were the hottest team in the Western Hockey League heading into March 2020.
They had the league’s top scorer in Adam Beckman and a soon-to-be NHL defenseman in Ty Smith holding down the back end. Bear Hughes, the Post Falls native and himself an NHL draft selection, was the eighth-leading scorer on that team.
But 21 months later, the Chiefs’ roster looks a whole lot different.
“It’s a new group,” said Hughes, an assistant captain and the team’s leading scorer with 23 points in 19 games. “I think only five or six guys are left from that team two years ago.”
Roster turnover is a normal part of the cycle for WHL teams, but the Chiefs are particularly young this season due to a confluence of factors, the pandemic and a rash of injuries being primary among them.
Heading into Friday and Saturday’s home games against the Portland Winterhawks (12-10-3-1), followed by a Sunday afternoon game at division-leading Everett (19-5-2-1), the Chiefs sit in last place among the Western Conference’s 10 teams.
“Obviously we’ve had injuries, and the start of the year hasn’t been what we wanted it to be in the standings,” Hughes said, “but we have a really good group of guys, and it’s a great opportunity for everybody in the locker room. It moves guys into the lineup who might not usually be in the lineup.”
And while that might pay off down the road – indeed, that is precisely the hope within the organization – it is leading to some growing pains in the win-loss column: Spokane is 6-14-2-1, two points behind the rival Tri-City Americans and five points behind current No. 8 seed Victoria in the conference standings.
“I think it’s really a game-to-game (approach) for us,” Chiefs coach Adam Maglio said. “Especially with a number of injuries that we’ve had and a younger group, it’s a lot more focused on our game and our own team’s development and our own individual development.”
For stretches of this season, the Chiefs have been without nine of their top 18 skaters, and recently they traded away captain Jack Finley after also dealing goalie Campbell Arnold in October.
They are the sorts of moves that demonstrate how the Chiefs are looking at their competitive window in the next few seasons after seeing the pandemic unexpectedly slam shut their last one.
Winners of 16 of 17 games, the 2019-20 Chiefs were barreling toward a playoff run in the stacked U.S. Division, which featured the three best teams in the conference.
“We were in a different cycle my first year here,” said Maglio, who was an assistant on that team under head coach Manny Viveiros, now at the helm of the American Hockey League’s Henderson (Nevada) Silver Knights.
The Chiefs were coming off a conference finals appearance the previous season, in 2018-19, and they had a core of older players coming back, so, in a sense, 2019-20 was set up to be the Chiefs’ year to push for a championship. But the league shut down in response to the pandemic and ultimately canceled the entire postseason.
Then, last spring the league played a shortened, division-only schedule that again had no promise of a conference, league or Memorial Cup title. The league called it “a development year,” and in order to give players like Luke Toporowski and Hughes more opportunities to play, the Chiefs allowed a few players to spend the season in the United States Hockey League.
Finley was also injured right before the start of that spring season, and combined with the natural maturation of its roster, the Chiefs suddenly looked much different than they had even 14 months earlier.
“It was all about the future more than anything last year,” Chiefs general manager Scott Carter said.
But that was also the case for other teams who might have made a push for a championship had the 2020-21 season been a normal one. That, in some sense, put this year’s Chiefs’ team at a competitive disadvantage because no teams last spring were trading away future picks for the immediate gain of veteran talent.
Plus, many of the current Chiefs players who weren’t with the team last spring were also not able to play as many games in their midget leagues in Canada due to local pandemic-related restrictions.
“Our team is made up of a majority of younger guys, and the guys here last spring played at most 21 games,” Hughes said. “That’s just not a lot of time to develop. A lot of those guys are still new to the league, even if they were here last year. In reality, we only have a few veteran guys, and I think that plays to our disadvantage a little bit.”
Still, Hughes, Maglio and Carter see positive signs.
Defenseman Graham Sward, an 18-year-old and WHL first-round draft selection, has 18 points in 22 games. Hughes and Toporowski – who is second to Hughes with 22 points – are having excellent 20-year-old seasons, Maglio said.
“I can see growth in both of their games in areas they wanted to improve on that they’re going to need to improve on (when) playing pro hockey next year,” Maglio said. “I’m proud of all the older guys because we’ve been hit with a lot of adversity, and we could hang our heads and mope around, but this group has not done that.”
Additionally, more talent is on the way: Last week, the Chiefs selected Berkly Catton No. 1 overall in the WHL Prospects Draft. He is eligible to play full-time next season and could play up to five games with the Chiefs this year as an affiliate player.
Carter compared Catton to former Chiefs center Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who was a captain for the Chiefs in 2018-19 and scored 113 goals across four seasons in Spokane.
The previous two times the Chiefs had the first pick, they took defensemen Jared Cowen (2006) and Smith (2015). Both went on to be first-round NHL picks.
As for this year’s team, Carter said he is open to adding a player or two looking toward a playoff push.
“I think you always want to be striving to make the playoffs,” he said. “What’s important to me is that they’re showing up and they’re competing, and I do see that. … I feel if we’d been healthy we’d be in a playoff position. We might not have some of the star power of previous teams, but I think we have very good depth.”
Plus, there is another benefit to having an outsized number of players adjusting to the intensity and speed of the league all at the same time: They are gaining experience younger than they might normally be able to on a team with older players.
“One thing that we have going for us with the young team is this group can be together for a long time, and I certainly think that’s where real growth happens,” Maglio said, “when groups get better together and evolve together.”
As for this weekend’s opponent, the Chiefs will be playing a Portland team they lost to twice last weekend on the road and once to earlier this season. The lack of inter-conference games means Spokane is seeing a lot of the same teams this season; they are scheduled to face the Winterhawks seven more times after this weekend.
But this is a chance to win the week – and to play in front of fans, something they didn’t get to do at all last spring.
“One thing that happens when you play these teams so much and maybe you don’t have that early success against them, is that a little bit of doubt can creep in,” Maglio said. “But that momentum can change quickly with wins. We saw that against Seattle last time we played them (Dec. 4), winning in overtime. Everyone took a deep breath and went, ‘yeah we can play with these guys and have the result we want.’ Certainly that’s going to be the approach to Portland.”
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