For yours truly, it still feels like baseball season as the Indians season just ended 2 weeks ago. As I look out my Prince George hotel room with the sun shining and temperatures near 60 degrees, it's time to come to the realization that hockey season is upon us. The Spokane Chiefs open their 2017-18 campaign Friday night against the Cougars in the first of a two game series, and there's an air of excitement for this team. There is also a lot of change and motivation for this year's group of Chiefs as well, as there's a new man in charge behind the bench. Dan Lambert takes over for the franchise's all-time winningest coach in Don Nachbaur, who is now in Los Angeles with the Kings. Lambert brings plenty of WHL experience with him, as both an assistant and head coach. In Lambert's last tour in the league, he led Kelowna to the league title in 2015. Assistant Scott Burt returns behind the bench for his 4th season, and the team also added former Stanley Cup champion Adam Deadmarsh to the staff this season.
There will be a change in system philosophy for this club, as things will open up offensively for the team's young stable of forwards. The Chiefs return 11 up front, led by leading scorer Kailer Yamamoto. Yamamoto, who was taken in the first round by the Edmonton Oilers in this past year's draft, is impressing in his tour with the Oilers, and there's no telling when...or if...he will return to Spokane. One thing is certain, the Chiefs will be without Yamamoto for a while. Spokane is also minus their second leading goal scorer from last season as Jaret Anderson-Dolan is at Los Angeles Kings camp after being picked in the second round of the draft. The Chiefs will now play a waiting game with their top two returning scorers. Spokane's other NHL prospects are with the team as Hudson Elyniuk and Jake McGrew are back. McGrew missed all of last season with a knee injury and the team is excited to see what the San Jose Sharks prospect brings to the table, while Elyniuk returns for his 20 year old season. He'll have to be a big part of the offensive production for the Chiefs if they hope to get back in the playoffs this year after missing last season for the first time in 10 years.
Spokane also welcomes back Ethan McIndoe, Hayden Ostir, Taylor Ross, Riley McKay, Eli Zummack, Riley Woods and Rykr Cole up front as well. Cole and Woods are in their first full seasons for the Chiefs after being acquired from Regina midway through last year. Cole is one of the three 20 year olds for Spokane, joining Elyniuk and defenseman Tyson Helgesen, who has just re-joined the team after being in Calgary Flames camp. The returners up front are joined by rookies Cedric Chenier, Luke Toporowski, Adam Beckman and Carter Chorney. With the team carrying 16 forwards right now, the Chiefs will have to cut down by at least two here in the coming weeks, but it will be interesting to see who of the 4 rookies will stick for their first season in the WHL. The forward group is the strength of the team, as this group will be counted on to carry the team, particularly early on. Getting Yamamoto and Anderson-Dolan back will be huge boosts, but the Chiefs will have to have players like McIndoe, Ostir, Ross, Woods and Zummack step up in the scoring department in the interim.
Defensively, Spokane brings back 8 on blue line. While there is a lot of experience, some of the returners will step into more prominent roles on the penalty kill and power play, so how they handle it will be key for the club. Captain Tyson Helgesen leads the way in his 20 year old campaign, while veterans Jeff Faith, Nolan Reid, Jake Toporowski, Ty Smith and Dalton Hamaliuk will fight for top minutes. Spokane native Luke Gallagher and Matt Leduc are also back and will compete with rookie Tyson Feist in rounding out the defensive crew for the Chiefs. It will be a group that's expected to take a step or two this season, as the youth of the group showed at the most inopportune times last year. This year's edition should be improved, and will need to be with potent offensive teams like Tri City and Portland in the division ready to play Spokane 20 times between them this season.
Goaltending wise, the Chiefs have 3 right now, with returning starter Dawson Weatherill leading the group. Donovan Buskey, who saw limited action last season, and Declan Hobbs, who was acquired in a trade with Kootenay will fight it out for the back up spot. How the Chiefs stop the puck will be the #1 priority for this team if they hope to improve their division standing. In the 7 game pre-season, in which the Chiefs went 4-1-0-2, the team goals against was 3.49...a figure that will not get this team in the playoffs. The good news is that knocking it down a half goal a game will put this team squarely in the playoffs, so while there is room to improve; it's not a drastic amount.
Spokane is in probably the toughest division top to bottom in the league. Last year's league champ Seattle loses a lottt of its' offensive punch, and will fall a notch from their championship run. Tri City and Portland, two teams that owneddd the Chiefs in head to head match-ups last season, will be the favorites this time around. Everett, the defending division champ, will be formidable as well as they return a vast majority of their club, including goalie of the year Carter Hart. It's going to be a tough go for Spokane, but there are enough pieces in place to signal a return to the post season for the Chiefs. The early going could be a bit bumpy, especially the longer Yamamoto and Anderson-Dolan are gone from the lineup. How well Spokane gets through it will determine whether the Chiefs can build some confidence in their group as well.
The Chiefs will start their season Friday and Saturday in Prince George when they take on the defending B.C. champion Cougars. Spokane split their 4 game series with PG last season and will hope to start this 2017-18 with a quick start on their longest road trip within the Western Conference. The last time Spokane started their season in Prince George, they swept a 2 game series from the Cougars on the Chiefs way towards winning a Memorial Cup. It will be a longg shot that history repeats itself, but the start of the season is a time to dream, right? I'll have the call on 1510 KGA Friday and Saturday nights, with the pre-game show beginning at 6:30pm. Puck drops are scheduled for 7:05pm, although opening night on Friday will probably see that time pushed back. Here's to starting a new season, and I'll be posting weekly updates throughout the season on Krem.com.