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Former Chiefs Derek Ryan, Kailer Yamamoto and Tyler Johnson gear up for shortened NHL season

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 5, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Like those of most professional hockey players, Derek Ryan’s calendar in 2020 – and now into 2021 – has been far from normal.

He was home in April, when normally he and the Calgary Flames would be pushing for a playoff spot. Then, in August, when normally he would be in Spokane getting ready for the next season, he was playing in a playoff bubble in Edmonton, Alberta.

Now the 34-year-old Ryan is back in Calgary, Alberta, preparing for the 56-game National Hockey League season that is set to begin on Jan. 13. But the unprecedented calendar did have some perks.

“I had such a long, unprecedented run, being home for Halloween, Thanksgiving, being able to be with family for those holidays,” said Ryan, who took his two children trick-or-treating in Spokane for the first time. “It was fun to be a dad for those moments.”

Ryan is one of three Spokane-area natives expected to land on NHL rosters for this season, including Edmonton forward Kailer Yamamoto and Tampa Bay forward Tyler Johnson. Other former Chiefs are also trying to make rosters or taxi squads as the NHL launches a season like no other before it.

Johnson, 30, has played his entire career with the Lightning – 534 regular-season games, plus another 93 in the postseason – and during the last offseason Tampa Bay tried to trade him in an effort to open up salary-cap space.

When the Lightning couldn’t trade him, they released him, only to see him clear waivers.

So now he’s back in Tampa Bay’s camp, seemingly a lock to be on their roster on opening day.

Yamamoto, 22, is entering what he hopes will be his first full season in the NHL after bouncing between the American Hockey League and the Edmonton Oilers the past two seasons.

When the 2020 regular season ended in March, Yamamoto had 26 points in 27 games with the Oilers. He was held without a point in four playoff games.

“I feel the most comfortable I’ve ever felt since I’ve been up here (in Edmonton),” Yamamoto said. “Being around the guys for three years, skating, getting to know them, makes it a lot easier. I’m looking forward to the season, and I’m expecting high things.”

Ryan, who skated some with Yamamoto during the last couple of months off, is entering his third season in Calgary and sixth overall in the NHL.

He projects to be a third- or fourth-line center again this season.

In 302 career regular-season NHL games, Ryan has 51 goals and 85 assists.

The NHL realigned its divisions for the upcoming season, and teams will only play games within those divisions. The league’s seven Canadian teams will comprise one of the four divisions – the “North” division – meaning Ryan and Yamamoto will see each other 10 times this season, including three back-to-backs.

“In terms of pure hockey, I think it’ll be great,” Ryan said. “I think the rivalries that already exist in that Canadian division will be amplified.”

Most of the schedule looks more like that of a baseball team, with nearly the entire schedule composed of two-, three- or even four-game series between two teams. The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs, and then the first two rounds will produce one champion from each division, who will advance to the semifinals.

Ryan and Yamamoto said their teams haven’t put in place formal restrictions on where players can go and how many others they can be around, but there is an understanding between players to be smart about their movements.

“We don’t have any rules per se on the team,” Ryan said, “but I think it’s pretty well understood that guys are supposed to be locked down.”

Spurgeon named captain; other former Chiefs vie for spots

Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who played in Spokane from 2005 to 2010, was named team captain of the Minnesota Wild this week.

Spurgeon played 266 games for the Chiefs and won a Memorial Cup with them in 2008. He has played the past 11 seasons with the Wild totaling 653 regular-season games, sixth most among former Chiefs in the NHL and most among active players.

Dustin Tokarski, Spurgeon’s teammate for three seasons in Spokane, is in the Buffalo Sabres’ camp.

The goaltender last played in the NHL during the 2016-17 season for Anaheim and has played in 34 career NHL games, including stops in Tampa Bay and Montreal.

More recent Chiefs Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Ty Smith, who co-captained the team in 2018-19, are hoping to make the final rosters for the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils, respectively.

Anderson-Dolan played 239 games with the Chiefs from 2015 to 2019 and scored 113 goals over that span. The forward played four games for the Kings last season.

The 20-year-old Smith, a defenseman, has yet to make his NHL debut but is widely projected to make the Devils’ roster this month.

Jack Finley, who was drafted by the Lightning in October, is among the 43 players at Tampa Bay’s training camp. He is the only current Chiefs player at an NHL camp.

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