Here’s another sign things are getting back to normal: The Spokane Chiefs begin their Western Hockey League season Saturday night at the Spokane Arena when they host the rival Tri-City Americans – and there will be fans in the stands.
After a brief, 21-game spring season in front of empty seats and playing only U.S. Division foes, the Chiefs are enjoying the normalcy of the upcoming 68-game season. The Chiefs will still only play games within the U.S. Division until Nov. 12, when the team is scheduled to visit the Victoria Royals, and even that could change given the border restrictions between the U.S. and Canada.
But still, there will be fans in the seats and another tough division with which to contend. For head coach Adam Maglio, the normalcy is welcomed.
“With having a main camp again and going through an exhibition, the entire month has really helped the group and helped the young players understand the league,” Maglio said. “There’s some excitement from the players about what to look for when playing in front of fans.”
Good teams have good goaltending, and Spokane has all three from the spring season still with the team in Campbell Arnold, Mason Beaupit and Manny Panghli. Arnold and Beaupit played the majority of the spring season, but all three have played well this preseason. Maglio and the Chiefs brass will have some decisions to make soon, as the team is allowed to carry only two goaltenders.
On defense, the Chiefs will feature a motivated 18-year-old Graham Sward, who was limited last spring to just 11 games due to injury. The limited ice time likely led to Sward being bypassed in this summer’s NHL draft. Sward was considered a definite NHL prospect heading into last season, and Maglio believes he’ll be ready to prove people wrong. Sward is still eligible to be drafted next summer.
“I think he’s got a little bit of a fire lit after not getting drafted,” Maglio said of Sward. “You can see the work he’s put in this offseason. He’s motivated and focused. We expect him to be a big piece for us on that back end and play a lot of minutes.”
Sward and his fellow defensemen will look to improve on last season’s showing when the team gave up an average of 38 shots per game. The Chiefs also allowed more than 40 shots in a game five times and more than 50 twice. Those numbers will need to improve greatly this season.
Raegan Wiles, who burst onto the scene last season, and Mac Gross are veteran defensemen who will be counted on for big minutes.
The Chiefs lost last season’s leading scorers, Adam Beckman and Eli Zummack, as Beckman is impressing at the Minnesota Wild’s preseason camp and Zummack aged out. That leaves veterans like Bear Hughes, Luke Toporowski, Cordel Larson and Jack Finley to be counted on for offense. Hughes and Toporowski spent last season in the USHL, while Finley missed the entire season due to injury.
Hughes, Toporowski and Larson are the team’s three 20-year-olds, as the Chiefs traded defenseman Jordan Chudley this week to the Tri-City Americans.
“Chudley was a great soldier for us, so it’s always hard seeing a 20-year-old like that go,” Maglio said. “With Bear and Topper and Lars, they’re certainly elite players in this league and they bring real strong character and leadership along with skills and abilities within our group. They’re kind of the total package you’d look for in a 20-year-old.”
The Chiefs mostly approached the spring season as a development year and allowed a number of younger players to get lots of ice time. Maglio expects those players, like Blake Swetlikoff, Reed Jacobson and Wiles, to name a few, to take another step forward this season.
“Anyone that participated with us last year, the purpose was to kind of set them up for a real season this year and use it as development,” Maglio said. “We’ve seen a lot of strides in that whole group that was with us last year.”
The Chiefs will also feature import defenseman Timafey Kovgoreniya, the team’s first import draft pick this past summer. Kovgoreniya, from Belarus, will be the team’s biggest blueliner at 6-foot-2, 196 pounds. The Chiefs also expect German import and center Yannick Proske to report this week, though it’s likely he won’t play in the team’s home opener.
The Chiefs are carrying three 16-year-olds in forwards Kooper Gizowski and Jake Gudelj, and defenseman Sage Weinstein. Weinstein played in five games in the spring. The Chiefs are also carrying 17-year-old rookies in forward Michael Cicek and defensemen Brayden Crampton and Ben Bonni. Gizowski and Cicek have impressed in the preseason, and the team will need to decide who stays by mid-October when rosters need to be down to 25 players.
The Chiefs open at home Saturday .
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