The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Spokane Chiefs and the Western Hockey League aren’t fully understood, but in the short term, the pandemic wasn’t kind to the Chiefs.
After seeing their 2019-2020 season abruptly halted just as the team was playing its best hockey and preparing for a potential long playoff run, the Chiefs waited for clearance to begin play in a shortened 2021 season.
Before the truncated season began, the Chiefs lost key players to the United States Hockey League (USHL), the top junior league in the United States.
Forwards Luke Toporowski, Bear Hughes and goaltender Lukas Parik were each granted the ability to play in the USHL, which played an entire season, including playoffs.
The move was for their benefit. Hughes and Parik are NHL draft picks who were better off playing than not playing. Toporowski hasn’t been selected in the two NHL drafts for which he’s been eligible, but playing for scouts was crucial for his hockey future.
All three would have been major contributors to the 2021 Chiefs.
In addition, defenseman David Jiricek, Spokane’s 2020 import draft pick, was unable to travel to the United States and played in the Czech Republic this season. Jiricek won the Czech Extraliga Rookie of the Year Award and is a top prospect for July’s NHL draft.
That’s four key players unable to play in Spokane this season.
Still, the Chiefs headed into the season boasting reigning WHL scoring champion Adam Beckman, assist king Eli Zummack and Tampa Bay Lightning second-round draft pick Jack Finley.
The Chiefs’ entire top line from the 2019-2020 season returned in Beckman, Finley and Cordel Larson. Spokane also had two of its 20-year-olds on defense in Matt Leduc and Bobby Russell.
The Chiefs welcomed Adam Maglio as their head coach. Maglio served as the team’s assistant coach in 2019-2020 under Manny Viveiros, who took a job with the Henderson Silver Knights of the American Hockey League.
The optimism of a season actually happening was great news to the team and junior hockey followers. But Finley suffered an upper-body injury before the first game that kept him out all season.
That was a major blow for a team that lacked scoring depth, and it quickly showed.
The Chiefs needed eight games to notch their first win, and in those seven losses, they were shut out three times.
The Chiefs averaged just 2.6 goals per game in the 21-game season. Even more concerning was Spokane’s shots against. The Chiefs allowed an average of 38 shots on net per game, putting goaltenders Mason Beaupit, Campbell Arnold and Manny Panghli constantly under pressure.
Spokane allowed more than 40 shots on net five times, and more than 50 twice. In their last three games, the Chiefs averaged just 18 shots on net while giving up an average of 47 shots a game.
A young, inexperienced team with a lack of scoring depth was also made worse by in-season injuries. Graham Sward, perhaps Spokane’s most skilled defenseman coming into the season, could only play 11 games in a season in which he needed to generate some highlights for the upcoming NHL draft.
Larson also missed time, as did 18-year-old and third-year player Erik Atchison.
That caused younger players to get ice time they might not normally get in a regular, nonpandemic season.
Beckman and Zummack were the team’s top scorers, and it wasn’t until Toporowski came back on May 1 that the Chiefs had two reliable scoring lines.
Toporowski finished with four points in six games.
Beaupit came into the season as the No. 2 goaltender but showed he belongs atop the depth chart after posting a .916 save percentage in 11 games.
Beaupit was in net for four of Spokane’s five games when it allowed 40 or more shots on net.
Beaupit will be in his 18-year-old season in the fall, while Arnold will be in his 19-year-old season.
The Chiefs said farewell to 20-year-olds Zummack, Leduc and Russell, and Beckman is all but officially finished as well. Beckman signed an NHL contract with the Minnesota Wild and will likely be with the AHL Iowa Wild next season.
Toporowski, Hughes and Larson will be 20-year-old forwards next season, and Jordan Chudley will be the lone defenseman entering his 20-year-old season. Parik will also enter his 20-year-old season, though his time in junior hockey might also be coming to an end. The L.A. Kings draft pick could turn pro after this season.
The Chiefs will eventually need to get down to the WHL limit of three 20-year-olds.
Some bright spots heading into the 2021-2022 season include the emergence of Reed Jacobson, who had 12 points in 21 games, and Blake Swetlikoff, who played top-line minutes and had 11 points in 21 games, including five power-play goals.
On defense, Sward should provide veteran leadership on the blue line, and Raegan Wiles was counted on this season for crucial minutes after limited minutes his rookie season. If Jiricek reports to Spokane, that would bolster the blue line.
The shortened 2021 season was seen as a development year for most WHL teams, and the dividends could pay off down the road. For Spokane, the hope is that the younger players who saw considerable ice time this season will take the jump come August, when preparations for the 2021-2022 season will presumably begin.
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