I don't think it's really set in for me yet, but the hockey season is upon us once again!
I'm still finding it hard to believe that the Chiefs open the season Saturday in the Tri-Cities, but the reality of the situation is, the opener will take place in close to 80 degree temperatures in Kennewick.
While the offseason has seemed to fly by in one respect, it was awfullyyyy long in another. Memories of last season's Game 7 third period meltdown against Portland have faded away...a bit...but the disappointment of last season still lingers with those returning this year. The playoff series loss was the last game for several Chiefs, including leading scorer Mitch Wahl and the league's leading goal scorer Kyle Beach. Game 7 also marked the final game for head coach Hardy Sauter, who was let go after two seasons as the man in charge on the Chiefs bench.
This season will see a facelift in some respects for the team, as former Seattle and Tri-City coach Don Nachbaur takes over the reigns this season. Nachbaur will have some veteran performers back, including 20-year-old goalie James Reid. He'll have to carry the load for this young team early in the season. Rookies Chris Sharkey and Mac Engel are battling for the backup spot, and will get plenty of opportunity to show themselves during the first couple of months of the campaign.
Defensively, Spokane returns Corey Baldwin, Tanner Mort, Brendan Kichton, and Garrett Leedahl. Kichton will miss the first three weeks of the season after suffering a broken knuckle on his left hand, but fortunately, the schedule is light with games during that stretch, so Kichton should be back in the lineup within the season's first ten games. Veteran Bruin McDonald was acquired from Prince George in the offseason to shore up the blue line, while former first round pick Reid Gow will play his first full season with the team. Rookie Cole Hamblin will round out the defensive crew.
As for last year's captain Jared Cowen, he continues to be in the Ottawa Senators training camp, and there is certainly no guarantee that the Sens will return their top pick from two drafts ago to Spokane. It's really a wait-and-see approach on whether Cowen will ever wear a Chiefs sweater again.
On offense, the team is not nearly as experienced, but there's a lot of exciting, young talent. Levko Koper is back for his 20-year-old season, while Brady Brassart, Mitch Holmberg, Anthony Bardaro, Steve Kuhn, Matt Marantz, Kenton Miller, T.C. Cratsenberg and Dominick Uher all return from full time roles last season. Tyler Johnson and Blake Gal are still in NHL camps with Minnesota and Philadelphia respectively, and while Gal is a pretty sure bet to be back, there's no guarantee the 20-year-old Johnson will return to Spokane. Johnson would be a huge return for the Chiefs if Minnesota doesn't sign him.
Mike Aviani saw some time last year for Spokane, scoring a goal before the Christmas break, while rookies Skyler Hladun (pronounced la-doon), Marek Kalus (pronounced ka-loose), and Collin Vancourt will find their way through their first season as Chiefs.
It's going to be a rebuilding year, and there isn't going to be a 90 or 100 point season that Chiefs fans have seen the last three years. It will be exciting to see how the young talent grows this season for this team. This year is going to remind me a bit of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, where Drayson Bowman, Mitch Wahl, Mike Reddington and Jared Spurgeon found their way through the WHL in their first seasons.
Saturday's season opener in Tri-City will provide a formidable test for the boys, as the Americans are the defending Western Conference Champions and have a ton of returning players from last season. While results in the win-loss column may lack early on, hopefully progress in the development of the young players will be taking place to help bring some wins down the road.
I'll be back on the air on 1510 KGA on Saturday night from Kennewick beginning at 6:30pm, with the drop of the puck sometime after 7pm. With opening night, it could be anywhere from 7:05 to 7:30, so who knows?
I look forward to talking with you during the year, and here's to another successful Chiefs season! See you at the rink!