SPOKANE, Wash — This season will mark my 21st with the Chiefs. I've seen the ups and downs of a junior hockey season more than most and the last couple of years have been a rollercoaster for the club, from the ups of a 10 game win streak to end the 2020 season, to last year's winless start over the team's first 7 games that helped lead to the subsequent firing of a head coach in mid-season for the first time in over 3 decades. Last year's slow start would be overcome by a fast finish from a young team that rallied around interim head coach Ryan Smith to vault from last place in the Western Conference up to 7th. The Chiefs playoff run would end with a 4 game sweep at the hands of second seed Kamloops but the playoff experience proved valuable to a young club that would be returning most of its' roster for the 2022-23 campaign.
Spokane also got a boost when Smith was promoted from the interim title to become the team's head coach over the off season. Assistant coach Dustin Donaghy was also retained, bringing stability to the coaching staff for the young club. Another assistant, Stefan Legien, was hired from the Memorial Cup champion St. John's Seadogs, to round out the staff for new general manager Matt Bardsley. Bardsley took over for Scott Carter in the off season, after having built the Kamloops club that had beaten the Chiefs in the playoffs this past April. I'm excited with the staff that is in place as they have the experience and ability to lead Spokane towards the top of the league in the next few seasons.
Performance on the ice all starts with the players though, and the Chiefs will return most of the roster from last season, while welcoming some exciting newcomers this year that will be making an impact for the club for the next 3 to 4 years. If there's one area you want experience, it's in goal, and the Chiefs certainly do that as they return their player of the year in Mason Beaupit. Beaupit was selected in the 4th round of the NHL draft by San Jose and will get the opportunity to attend the Sharks rookie camp. Backup Manny Panghli returns as well, but will be pushed by Cooper Michaluk. who is back after being called up late in the season and stepped in during the playoff series vs. Kamloops when Beaupit was lost to injury midway through the series. Experience counts, especially between the pipes, and the Chiefs will have plenty of it this season.
Defensively, the team will be led by returning 20 year olds Raegan Wiles and Mac Gross. Western Hockey League teams can only keep 3 twenty year olds, and whether the team keeps both Wiles and Gross and have just one 20 year old forward remains to be seen. Nineteen year old D-man Graham Sward, who was drafted in the 5th round by Nashville in the NHL draft, is the lone 19 that is back for Spokane and led all defensemen in scoring for Spokane last year. 18 year olds Brayden Crampton, Logan Cunningham and Ben Bonni all return, but it's doubtful all three will remain with the team this season as the club is welcoming a good crew of young defensemen. Saige Weinstein is back for his 17 year old season and helped lead Team Canada to a gold medal in the Hlinka tournament this summer. Sixteen year olds Will McIsaac and Nathan Mayes saw brief time with the Chiefs last year and were both impressive in their limited times with the club. One or both should make the club this season. I've listed 9 defensemen and the team generally keeps only 8, so one of the players will be the odd man out. The logical assumptions are keeping only one 10 year old between Wiles or Gross, or keeping just 2 of the 3 18 year olds, or sending one of the 16 year olds down. The team does have some experience on the blue line though and a lot of depth, which is a good problem to have.
Offensively, the club will be having to make some major decisions as the Chiefs will have a lot of experience back as well as a lot of exciting newcomers. 20 year olds Erik Atchison, Cade Hays and Reed Jacobson are fighting for limited spots. With only 3 twenty year old spots available, it's guaranteed the team is only keeping two of those forwards at the most, and with the depth coming in, it's probably a better bet only one of the three will stay with the Chiefs after the deadline. The 19 year old group will be led by leading returning scorer Chase Bertholet, who's the third Chief who is attending NHL camp, with Winnipeg. Blake Swetlikoff, Ty Cheveldayoff and Grady Lane will complete the 19 year old group and they will have to take big steps in their games offensively to lead the club past the first round of the playoffs this season. The 18 year olds will have Carter Streek and Michael Cicek back and those two will be counted on to help lead this team in minutes and points contributions this year. They will joined by Italian import draft pick Tomasso De Luca, who has shown some great offensive instincts in the preseason. Jake Gudelj and Kooper Gizowski are the two 17 year olds and having played a full season as 16's, they'll be definitely looked upon to grow their games this season. Number one overall bantam pick Berkly Catton leads the 16 year old group as he will be a top 2 line player and a major contributor offensively for Spokane. Second round pick Luca Shcherbyna, Will Jamieson, Cole Wadsworth and Cam Parr are the other 16 year olds in the mix, but it would appear 3 of them will probably be waiting until next year for their turn at a full time roster spot.
There's a lot to look forward to with this club this season. Yes, it will be a young group, and yes, there will be growing pains with mistakes made at inopportune times. The exciting part though is this team will grow from those mistakes and become a better team as the year goes along. Many of them will be back over the next 2 to 3 years as well. promising a bright future for the Chiefs. I've seen this cycle more than a few times in my career with the team, and this is always the fun part for me. The last couple of seasons have been tough at times, but I expect things to turn upward as this season progresses and see a bright future for this group. It's hard to believe the games begin to count this week when the Chiefs head to Victoria to play back to back games on Friday and Saturday, It's a return trip to the site that saw the Chiefs clinch a playoff spot in the final 2 games of last year's regular season. It all starts for real Friday night at 7:05 pm, as I'll have the call on 103.5 FM the Game and 1510 AM KGA with the pre-game show at 6:30 pm. Saturday's game will be at 6:05 pm with the pre-game at 5:30 pm. The home opener is just a week after that, so it's time to gear up Chiefs fans! Let's hope to get off to a good start and we'll see you on the radio!