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Sports >  Spokane Chiefs

Analysis: Chiefs’ rebuild led to inexperience and missing postseason for first time in five years

March 18, 2023 Updated Sat., March 18, 2023 at 8:39 p.m.

Spokane Chiefs General Manager Matt Bardsley, left, introduces new coach Ryan Smith during a 2022 press conference at Spokane Memorial Arena.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs General Manager Matt Bardsley, left, introduces new coach Ryan Smith during a 2022 press conference at Spokane Memorial Arena. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Kevin Dudley For The Spokesman-Review

If you don’t count the two seasons when COVID-19 prevented the Western Hockey League from hosting playoffs, this spring will be the first time since the 2016-17 season that there will be no playoff hockey in Spokane.

As soon as the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation on March 11 at the Arena and the Chiefs and the visiting Kelowna Rockets readied for overtime, the one point in the standings each team got for going to overtime meant the Rockets had officially clinched the last playoff spot in the WHL’s Western Conference.

The Chiefs and Victoria Royals will be the two teams out of the playoffs in the West.

The Chiefs are clearly in a state of rebuild and on the downside of junior hockey’s cyclical nature. So where did it all go wrong?

The rebuild was accelerated when the team missed out on finishing the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chiefs were among the top three teams in the league then and among the favorites to have a deep playoff run.

The next season was a 21-game affair with depleted rosters due to top-end players being loaned to United States Hockey League teams so they could play a full season and enhance their development.

Had those two seasons been normal, perhaps the Chiefs could have built on the team’s success.

Instead, former general manager Scott Carter and current GM Matt Bardsley were left to forecast the road ahead and opted to trade veteran players for younger ones and draft picks.

Gone were veterans Jack Finley, Cordel Larson and Luke Toporowski during the 2021-22 season. This season, Bardsley dealt NHL draft picks Graham Sward and Mason Beaupit, as well as veteran Blake Swetlikoff.

On the ice, the Chiefs were prone to giving up lots of goals and shots on net, particularly in the first half of the season.

The Chiefs are third worst in the league in goals against and 31 goals away from the next-worst team.

Center Tommy De Luca is a rookie with the Spokane Chiefs.  (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs)
Center Tommy De Luca is a rookie with the Spokane Chiefs. (Courtesy of Spokane Chiefs)

The Chiefs are also third worst in the league on the power play and second worst on the penalty kill. Neither goalie – Dawson Cowan nor Cooper Michaluk – has a save percentages above .89.

The Chiefs don’t have enough players who can change the game on offense, and no player has reached the 70-point mark, though Chase Bertholet has 64 entering Saturday’s game at Tri-City.

But despite the poor team numbers, there are signs of better days ahead for the Chiefs.

The team’s most skilled forward – Berkly Catton – is in his 16-year-old season. Catton ranks fourth in the league among rookies in scoring and is tops among players in their 16-year-old seasons.

The Chiefs’ only import player, Tommy De Luca, ranks seventh among rookies in scoring. De Luca is in his 18-year-old season.

Perhaps the team’s most complete defenseman – Saige Weinstein – is in his 17-year-old season. Cowan and Michaluk are 17-year-olds and, despite their save percentages, they’ve shown maturity and command in net as the season’s moved along.

The Chiefs have just six players on the roster playing in either their 19- or 20-year-old season, and the other 16 players on the roster are 16, 17 or 18. Those players have been thrown into the fire at a young age, and the experience will only be beneficial.

The Chiefs have also had to move players around the lineup due to injuries throughout the season. Ben Bonni, normally a defenseman, played on the wing for much of the second half of the season and never looked out of place. The Chiefs carried four 16-year-olds during the season.

The team is young, which is often a hallmark of rebuilding teams.

Spokane is in line for a top-three pick in this spring’s bantam draft, if the draft lottery goes as planned.

The Chiefs drafted Catton first overall in the 2021 bantam draft after getting some fortunate lottery luck, so anything can happen.

Catton is the type of player the team can build around.

It’s not often the Chiefs play the season’s last two weeks with no chance at the playoffs, but the team’s last four games – including Saturday’s at Tri-City – will at least be an opportunity to display the pride that head coach Ryan Smith wants to see.

Two of Spokane’s final three games are at home, where the franchise boasts the league’s second-highest average attendance, despite the down year.

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