SPOKANE, Wash. — As I type this recap of the Chiefs season this year, the WHL Finals are just getting underway as Vancouver, the team that ended the Chiefs season a week ago, is playing Prince Albert for the right to head to the Memorial Cup. I don't know which is harder to believe...that the season has come to an end....or that it 's been over for a week. The ride this year with this club just seemed to fly by, and yet, the final month of the regular season and the playoffs feel like they're still going for me. There's no doubt this season turned into a special one as the club advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2011 and brought excitement into the Spokane Arena that hasn't been seen in several years.
It was a roller coaster ride for the club this season, no doubt about that. The season opener was an absolute disaster as Tri City rolled over the Chiefs 6-1 way back in late September. The club was without Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who was beginning his season with the L.A. Kings in the National Hockey League and would be gone for over the first month of the season. Ty Smith was still with the New Jersey Devils, although he would return within the week after the opener. Defenseman Filip Kral was still healing up from an off season shoulder surgery. Forward Jake McGrew was still with San Jose in the NHL. Goalie Dawson Weatherill was the returning starter with a lot expected from him to help this club that was ranked #6 in the first CHL poll. While the club had a number of returning players, 17 in all, a number of new faces were in the lineup anxious to prove themselves. Rookie forwards Adam Beckman, Jack Finley, Cordel Larson, Carter Chorney, Erik Atchison, and Connor Gabruch were unknowns with a lot of questions as to how they would contribute. Spokane's strengths were in their returners, as they had both Weatherill and Bailey Brkin back in net. Veteran defensemen Nolan Reid, Matt Leduc, Luke Gallagher and forwards Ethan McIndoe, Eli Zummack, Luke Toporowski, Jeff Faith and Riley Woods would have to carry the load early in the season until the rest of the veterans came back on the roster.
The early part of the season was about as up and down as a team could be. The club didn't have a winning streak over 3 games..or a losing streak over 3 games...in the first half of the season. It was becoming apparent the team that had been so highly regarded to start the season, was going to have to make some changes as the season went along. Spokane made a couple of trades that would turn out to improve the club tremendously. Faith was sent to Kamloops for forward Luc Smith in an exchange of 20 year olds. Chorney was then sent to Swift Current for 19 year old defenseman Noah KIng, who would have an immediate impact playing beside Ty Smith on the blue line. The Chiefs would end the first half of the year winning 5 of 6 and 3 straight.
The Christmas break seemed to break up the team's momentum though, as Spokane came back in the second half and lost two of their first three, including another 6-1 thumping at Tri City in the annual New Year's Eve match up. The Chiefs would start the New Year of 2019 on a much better note, as they would win their first 4 of 2019. As fast as the excitement built during that win streak, the team blew a 3-0 first period lead at home against Vancouver and ended up losing 6-4. That loss sent Spokane on their way to a 5 game losing streak, their longest of the season. The club was also without the services of Eli Zummack, who ended up missing close to a month with a leg injury.
Spokane would end January on an up note though, as they thrashed Portland 7-2. That victory, along with Zummack's return would jump start the Chiefs, as they would win 7 of 8, including 4 straight, through early February. The Chiefs were holding steady in 3rd place in the U.S. Division and they were in a dog fight with Tri City for the race for the 2nd-3rd playoff match up and the first wild card in the West playoffs. In their inconsistent play that would plague them through the year though, the Chiefs would lose three straight going into late February. Just as quickly though, Spokane would turn things around in the win-loss column.
If there was a turning point in the team's season, it would come in a 4 game road trip to end February and open March. Spokane had been a couple games under .500 on the road entering the journey to Prince George, Portland and Tri City but the Chiefs turned all that around as they swept the 4 game trip, picking up their first wins in Portland and Tri City on the season. Spokane would drop their first game back home against U.S. champ Everett, but would end the regular season winning 5 of 6 to pass Portland for second in the U.S. Division and gain home ice against the Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Chiefs were playing their most consistent hockey of the year, in large part due to getting their full lineup healthy and playing together over the last month of the season. The team had 4 lines rolling up front and were playing their most responsible defense as a unit all year. Goalie Bailey Brkin also found his game as the Chiefs went into the post season trying to exorcise the demons that had plagued them against Portland over the past decade.
Spokane had not won a playoff series against the Winterhawks since the 2002-03 season, and had dropped 4 straight series to the Hawks since 2010, including a 7 game loss last year. After splitting the first two games of the series in Spokane, the Chiefs headed to Portland and won back to back overtime games to seize command of the playoff. Spokane would return home and wrap up the series in 5 games with a 4-1 victory to advance to the Western semi-final round for the first time since 2013. Awaiting the Chiefs were the Everett Silvertips, who had dominated the season series by winning 6 of 8. Spokane served notice that the playoffs would be a different story though, as they swept the Tips in Everett in the first two games of the set. The Chiefs then hosted the next 3 games of the series, and that paid off for Spokane as the Chiefs won 2 of 3, including a 2-1 victory in game 5 that wrapped up the series for Spokane and let them advance to the Western Conference Finals to face the #1 team in the West in Vancouver. It was the Chiefs first trip to the West finals since 2011 as they faced a Giants team that had won 3 of 4 from Spokane in the regular season.
The West finals would take on a different look from the previous two series, as the Chiefs fell behind 2-0, including losing a 2 goal lead in the third in game two. Spokane would bounce back with a dramatic overtime win in game 3, but would then drop game 4 the next night in OT after coughing up yet another 2 goal lead in the third period. Game 5 would see the team fall down 2-0 after one and despite a gutty effort from a banged up team, would lose 3-2 and see their season end with a 4-1 series loss. Many of the teams' top players were battling injuries, including Luc Smith, who was lost for the series in game 1 and Filip Kral, who was lost after game 3. Ty Smith, Nolan Reid, and Eli Zummack, amongst others, were playing through major injuries in the post season, and there's no question it caught up to them as the playoffs went along.
The team did finish in the final four of the WHL this season though, so there's no question the season was a highly successful one for the Chiefs. Riley Woods, who led the team in scoring in both the regular and post seasons, along with Reid and Luc Smith, saw their Chiefs careers come to a close. Jaret Anderson-Dolan, who had a strong second half of the year, will be playing in the L.A. Kings system next year. As for Ty Smith, he has a shot to make the New Jersey Devils in the NHL, and if he makes the roster, will also be departing Spokane. Otherwise, he'll be back for Spokane next year. Spokane will also be losing at least one goalie, as both Brkin and Reece Klassen will be 20 year olds next season, and the team will have Campbell Arnold in the wings to back up one of those players in net.
Defensively, the team may or may not have Kral back, as he'll be a 20 year old import. Toronto has not signed him yet, so that leaves the door open for Kral returning, but Spokane can't count on him being back on the blue line, as he could sign in his native Czech Republic. Noah King will almost definitely return as a 20 to lead the blue line. Matt Leduc, Bobby Russell and Michael Ladyman will also be back on the blue line for the Chiefs. As for import Egor Arbuzov, his status is up in the air as he saw his playing time fall off as the season progressed. Spokane could easily release Arbuzov and get a new import in the draft if they choose. Up front, Jake McGrew may or may not be back as a 20 year old from San Jose. McGrew is signed by the Sharks, so they could easily put him into the American Hockey League.
If there was a pleasant surprise to the season for Spokane, it was rookie forward Adam Beckman. Beckman, who was grossly passed over as the Western Conference rookie of the year, led the club in goal scoring in the regular season with 32 and in the playoffs with 8. He was the second leading rookie scorer in the league, and will be a huge part of the team moving forward next year. He and Luke Toporowski seem like sure bets to be drafted by the National Hockey League in June. Rookie center Jack Finley also progressed a great deal this year as well. He was a major face off man and penalty killer for the Chiefs in the second half of the year and there's no doubt the experience he gained will serve him well next season and beyond. Ethan McIndoe will probably be back as a 20 year old and Zummack will return after a career year up front. Cordel Larson, Michael King, Eric Atchison, Bear Hughes and Connor Gabruch will also be back up front, while Kaden Hanas will probably be on the outside looking in as a 20 year old next season.
The team will welcome some new faces next season as well, led by the top two picks in last year's draft in defenseman Graham Sward and forward Owen MacNeil, both of whom saw playing time this past season. There will be some big decisions as to who the three 20 year olds will be for the Chiefs next season. Does the club keep Brkin in net for one spot? If McGrew and Kral are both available to return, what will that mean for McIndoe? Noah King seems to be an almost certain returner at 20, but if Kral is back, do you keep two 20 year olds on the blue line? It will prove to be an interesting off season indeed for Spokane as they should once again have one of the top forward groups in the WHL next season. If the club is able to keep King, Ty Smith anddd Kral on the blue line, the defense should be pretty good as well. Finally, if Brkin is back in net, the team should be a great position to pick up where they left off from this year. There's no doubt this year's Chiefs took major steps into developing into a winning team for the next couple of seasons. If you're like I am, you're looking forward to next year's edition of the Chiefs!