The Spokane Chiefs went through numerous changes in the offseason. But none of the changes altered the club's outlook on the future.
The future is very bright for the Chiefs, who return the top-four scorers and a more-seasoned defensive unit aided by the addition of 2015 No. 1 overall bantam pick Ty Smith. Smith played a handful of games last season but is expected to make much bigger contributions this year.
Because I spent most of my hockey career between the pipes, we'll start this season preview by taking a look at the men wearing the big pads.
The goaltending situation from a season ago was has been resolved for Spokane. Last season Tyson Verhelst and Lasse Petersen split time between the pipes. Verhelst played more during the first half of the season, but Petersen grabbed the reigns and earned the job into the playoffs. Petersen played very well in a 6-game series defeat to Western Conference top-seed Victoria.
This season will see two new goalies for Spokane. The Chiefs acquired overage netminder Jayden Sittler from Lethbridge in May, and he will be the starter headed into the new season. Verhelst decided not to return to the club and Petersen was traded to Everett, so Sittler's backup will be 18-year-old Matt Berlin. Berlin played in a handful of games for the Chiefs last season and impressed enough in the preseason to make the club.
The biggest absence this season will be on the blue line. Five-year Chief Jason Fram played over 300 games and captained last year's squad. His eligibility and leadership are gone, but the void left by Fram should be filled by the exciting rookie that everyone's talking about. Spokane fans have been salivating to see Ty Smith join the squad full-time since he was drafted in 2015.
But as our own Brandon Rivers pointed out, it might not be a good sign if the reigns are being handed to a 16-year old. The group as a whole underachieved last season, which may have ultimately led to their downfall in the playoffs. Smith will join a cast that includes some rather large men: Trent Huitema (6'8"), Jeff Faith (6'4"), Matt Leduc (6'4"), Evan Fiala (6'4") and Tyson Helgesen (6'3") to name a few.
Huitema is the only defenseman on the roster that wasn't drafted by the club, which says something about the commitment to develop and produce talent on the blue line. This group must take a step forward this season if the Chiefs want to compete for a division title.
The Chiefs have an abundance of playmakers at the forward positions led by Spokane native Kailer Yamamoto, a possible top-10 pick in next year's NHL Draft. The younger of the two Yamamoto brothers potted 19 goals and had a team-high 71 points. He is also a player I hope to see play for Team USA in the World Juniors come December.
Kailer's brother, Keanu, along with Dominic Zwerger, Markson Bechtold and Hudson Elynuik, anchor the returning scoring. Jaret Anderson-Dolan started his first full WHL season with a hat trick against rival Tri-City, and parlayed that into a fantastic freshman campaign. If the Chiefs can get some secondary scoring from players like Ethan McIndoe, Curtis Miske, or Taylor Ross and the new import forwards, Spokane should have little trouble stacking up wins.
Speaking of the imports, Spokane utilized both of its import draft picks on forwards from the Czech Republic. Both Pavel Kousal and Ondrej Najman will be on the opening-day roster, which will force the Chiefs to move one of their imports as Zwerger already fills one spot.
On Monday this week the club released overage forward Jacob Cardiff, trimming down to just four overage players. Cardiff will likely find a spot in the league before September ends.
Spokane rookie forward Koby Morrisseau had a scary moment during a preseason game against Portland. Morrisseau was checked from behind by Portland's Brett Clayton into the boards, and he laid on the ice for nearly 10 minutes with doctors surrounded. He was stretchered off and taken to a local hospital and later it was said he expects to make a full recovery. Morrisseau was Spokane's other first-round pick in 2015 (9th overall) after the Chiefs made a trade with Saskatoon that wound up becoming the No. 1 pick. Here's hoping we see Morrisseau don a Chiefs uniform as quickly as possible.
One other roster note: as of this article being published, the club still has four overage players on the roster, Sittler, Keanu Yamamoto, Bechtold and Zwerger. The club also has three import players at the moment, meaning they will have to decide what to do with one. Dealing Zwerger would solve both those issues, and he would net a great return after leading the Chiefs with 27 goals last season. Spokane has until mid-October to complete those roster moves.
The biggest change of the offseason for Spokane may not have come on the ice, but in the front office. Longtime GM Tim Speltz left his position in August to join the Toronto Maple Leafs scouting organization. His replacement is Penticton, B.C. native Scott Carter. Carter has scouted for various NHL teams since the 80s and has a goalie equipment business in Penticton (I always remember the great hockey shop in Penticton!). Carter was previously a part-owner in the Penticton Vees of the BCHL and is a member of the British Columbia Hockey Hall of Fame.
Spokane has a shot to contend for the division title this season, but they are likely a year early with any division title predictions. This team will be one to watch in the coming seasons, but for this season I put them in the top portion of the U.S. Division. I have them right behind Seattle in my division predictions, and if the new pieces in net gel with the young but talented defensive core, a division title may not be far off.
Spokane opens the season this Saturday in Kennewick against arch rival Tri-City. The Chiefs return home the following week for their home opener against the Americans.