When the Spokane Chiefs hit the ice for the season opener Friday in Kamloops, British Columbia, their bench will look a lot different from the one that was eliminated in the Western Conference Finals last spring.
For one, there’s a new coaching staff. And the names fans are used to seeing – Anderson-Dolan, Reid, Woods, Brkin, Ty Smith – likely won’t be on the backs of any jerseys.
The Chiefs also have a new assistant general manager, a new associate coach, a new goaltending coach, and recently named former Chief Dustin Donaghy as an assistant coach. Needless to say, a round of introductions is in order in the dressing room.
The 2019-2020 version of the Spokane Chiefs turned over plenty from last season, but as it goes in junior hockey, the next batch of stars is cycling in, and the Chiefs still return lots of offensive firepower.
New head coach Manny Viveiros – who spent time as an assistant with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and coached the Swift Current Broncos from 2016-2018, winning the WHL championship in 2018 – inherits the team’s top two goal scorers from last season in Adam Beckman and Jake McGrew. Eli Zummack is the top returning point scorer. Zummack had 15 goals and 53 assists last season.
Beckman recently returned to Spokane after spending time with the Minnesota Wild, the team that selected him in the third round at June’s NHL draft. McGrew remains with the San Jose Sharks’ preseason camp, and his return is something to monitor. The 20-year-old is eligible to play for San Jose’s minor league affiliate, should the Sharks want him there. He could also be returned to Spokane.
Luke Toporowski, Ethan McIndoe and Jack Finley are other forwards who will be counted on for scoring.
On the back end, the return of Smith is questionable, but Noah King is back, as is Matt Leduc, who came on nicely late last season and in the playoffs. The team also traded for 18-year-old Jordan Chudley in the offseason.
The Chiefs received great news this week when the Toronto Maple Leafs returned defenseman Filip Kral to Spokane. Kral is entering his 20-year-old season and will be one of the team’s best blue-liners.
Smith is the other player currently at an NHL camp. His potential return is also to be determined, and might not be finalized until well into the season.
Smith is a highly touted prospect for the New Jersey Devils and could crack the team’s opening night roster. Smith is ineligible to play for New Jersey’s minor league affiliate due to his age (19), so he will either play in the NHL this season, or back in Spokane.
Even with the uncertainty, there will be some tough roster decisions to make. WHL teams are allowed to carry more than three 20-year-olds until Oct. 15 before they are required to get down to three. McGrew, Kral, McIndoe and King are the team’s 20-year-olds on the current roster.
The Chiefs goaltending situation got a little clearer Wednesday when the team released 20-year-old Reece Klassen, who was the backup for much of last season. That leaves the Chiefs with three goalies on the roster: 18-year-old Lukas Parik, 17-year-old Campbell Arnold and 16-year-old Mason Beaupit. Parik is a third-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings.
“We’ll have to make some very difficult decisions, not only in the goaltending situation but our 20-year-old situation,” Viveiros said at a recent practice. “We’re lucky though, because we have a wealth of pretty good talent here, and so that’s a positive. Unfortunately, not everybody can stay, so we’ve got some tough decisions to make. And I hate it.”
A third difficult decision centers on the import players. Teams are allowed two and the Chiefs have three on the roster – Kral, Parik and defenseman Matvei Startsev.
Kral will count as being one of three 20-year-olds and one of two import players if he remains with the team.
Beyond the roster decisions, the team will have to adjust to a new coaching staff and a new system. A few players are on their third coach in their Chiefs career.
Adjusting to a new system takes time, and making matters more difficult is the fact that the Chiefs had eight guys away at NHL rookie camps at one point in the preseason. That, coupled with some injuries, forced the team to play an entire preseason game against the Tri-City Americans at 4-on-4.
A new season also brings fresh-faced 16-year-old rookies into the fold.
Defenseman Graham Sward, the team’s first-round pick at the 2018 bantam draft, is one rookie who could see the opening night lineup. Sward got in one game last season and scored a goal.
Owen MacNeil is another 16-year-old who could potentially make the team. MacNeil played in two games last season as a 15-year-old.
Other 16-year-olds playing with the team in the preseason include Grady Lane, Blake Swetlikoff, Brandon Reller and Beaupit.
Viveiros likes what he sees in the young players.
“They all have (impressed). It’s tough for these kids to come in,” Viveiros said. “It’s such an age difference, physically and maturity-wise between 16 and 19, 20. It’s a process where these kids are learning every day, and more importantly they’re learning how to be self-sufficient in a lot of ways. At that age, the biggest thing for them is to learn time management. School, here (practice), workouts, homework, we’re on the road, so they’ve all impressed me so far of how good they are, without getting overwhelmed.”
The new season with the new roster and coaching staff begins Friday in Kamloops. The Chiefs play Saturday at Kelowna before their home opener against the Tri-City Americans on Sept. 28.
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