It's never too early to take a look at how the next WHL season will shape up and now is as good of a time as any, to do just that.
In breaking down the U.S. Division outlook for 2016/17, let's go over the teams in order of their finish last year.
2016/17 U.S. Division Early Preview Part Four: Spokane Chiefs
-The Chiefs were a bit of a surprise last season as a pretty young team won 33 games and gave Victoria all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs. The good news for the Chiefs is their very talented youth core will be a year older.
-Five-year d-man Jason Fram aged out of the league, as did forwards Presten Kopeck and Wyatt Johnson. Kopeck and Johnson were acquired from Red Deer as part of the Adam Helewka trade. Even with the loss of those three, Spokane should be okay, considering they return their top-four scores from last year's squad and six of their top-seven.
-Top 2015 Bantam Draft selection: d-man Ty Smith showed a lot during his two-game stint with the Chiefs, notching two assists and looking like he is loaded with potential. He should get a lot of top-four minutes, which will be great for his development. Another d-man from that draft, Matt Leduc could crack the top-six. He was a second round pick for Spokane. Though he is an incoming 16-year-old, he already stands at 6'5" and 195 lbs.
2016/17 Overage Situation:
-This got a lot more complicated in May, when the Chiefs traded for 1996 born goalie Jayden Sittler and a fifth round pick in 2016 for two other draft picks (likely conditional). Sittler joins a crowded group of 1996 born players and also further complicates the goaltending situation. Also 1996 born and on the Chiefs' roster are forwards Keanu Yamamoto, Jacob Cardiff, Markson Bechtold, Austrian import Dominic Zwerger and d-man Matthew Sozanski. Zwerger, Yamamoto and Bechtold were numbers two through four on the team in scoring last season, so you would think that they would be the favorites to be the final three overagers. However, Spokane could definitely use Sozanski on a blue line that will be hurting with the loss of Fram. Also, acquiring Sittler means that they are definitely looking at him as the possible number one option over returning starter Tyson Verhlest and the guy who carried the torch in the playoffs, Lasse Petersen. Outside of maybe Cardiff, whomever the Chiefs decide not to keep, should get them some assets via trade.
2016/17 Import Situation:
-Dominic Zwerger could very well get offered a professional deal somewhere and simultaneously take himself out of the mix for an overage spot, along with one of the two import spots. If he does return, Spokane would be tempted to keep him as a two-spotter. Zwerger has a lot of talent and is a potential 70-point guy after improving from 26 to 38 to 55 points in his first three seasons with the Chiefs. Danish forward Nik Andersen is their other import and had 18 points last season as a 17-year-old rookie.
Three Big Questions:
1) Past or Future?
-Do the Chiefs choose to move out the likes of Zwerger, Bechtold and Sozanski in order to give more ice time to the likes of Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Ethan McIndoe, Hayden Ostir and Ty Smith? Or do they continue to try to stay competitive and get those four core guys playoff experience. That decision about what benefits you in the long run will be a tough one for Don Nachbaur and the Chiefs to make.
2) Three-Headed Goalie?
-Last season Spokane played four different goalies. Garret Hughson played four games before ending up in the OHL. Tyson Verhlest had an up and down season before getting hurt and giving way to Lasse Petersen. The latter goalie was solid in the playoffs setting up a goaltending controversy in 2016/17. Then the Chiefs traded for Jayden Sittler, adding a third goalie to the mix. Sittler was stellar last season as part of a two-headed goalie duo in Lethbridge, but makes this a three-headed combination. Just like last season, I would expect the Chiefs to hold onto all three up until they are forced into trading or releasing one of them. By that point, they should know exactly what each one brings. I'm thinking that Sittler and Petersen will be the last goalies standing and Verhelst will find a home somewhere else.
3) How Will They Attend to the Center Hole?
-Jaret Anderson-Dolan was asked to be a number one center at times last season as a 16-year-old rookie. The Chiefs gave him more time to grow into that role by trading for both Johnson and Kopeck and trying Markson Bechtold out as a center. Both Johnson and Kopeck are gone now and Anderson-Dolan and Bechtold are, once again, slotted for the top two center spots on the depth chart . As a 17-year-old, JAD should be more prepared, but I'd feel better about the team's chances in 2016/17, if they traded for another top-six center and didn't force a very young player into such a pivotal role. Curtis Miske, right now, is the only other returning center on the roster and he seems better fitted as a third-line center-man.
-Nachbaur and G.M Tim Speltz try to win both now and in the future and battle it out with Everett for the spot right behind Seattle in the division. They will be a very intriguing team to watch over the next couple of seasons as their high bantam picks mature and they become the U.S. team with a slew of elite talent.