By Dylan Kitzan/For The Chewelah Independent
The first year I was a season-ticket holder for the Spokane Chiefs, way back in 2005-06, they failed to make the Western Conference postseason. It was the second-consecutive year the Chiefs missed out on the playoffs and before the following campaign began, the front office came out with a guarantee, offering a partial refund on season tickets if Spokane missed a third-straight postseason.
In 2006-07, the Chiefs made the playoffs and the year after that, they took home the Memorial Cup, the biggest prize in the Canadian Hockey League.
One-third of the way into the 2016-2017 campaign, Spokane finds itself in ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference, with the top eight teams reaching the playoffs and while it’s not quite the money-back guarantee that the front office put on the table 11 years ago, I’ll guarantee a Spokane Chiefs playoff appearance. I have my reasons.
Spokane’s success starts with its offense, evidenced during a 10-1 pasting of the Vancouver Giants on Friday, Nov. 25. Carolina Hurricanes third-round draft pick Hudson Elynuik and 17-year-old Jaret Anderson-Dolan led the way with a hat trick apiece while Spokane’s own 20-year-old forward Keanu Yamamoto assisted on six of the 10 goals.
Keanu’s 18-year-old brother Kailer, meanwhile, enters his NHL draft-eligible year lighting the league on fire with 31 points in just 21 games. Currently out day-to-day due to injury, Kailer has played in fewer games than eight of the 10 players ahead of him in scoring and is expected to be a high draft pick in June.
Kailer and Anderson-Dolan lead a core of underage talent that is expected to turn the Chiefs into strong contenders down the road, but makes Spokane a very dangerous team right now. Defenseman Ty Smith and forwards Koby Morrisseau and Eli Zummack represented Canada in this year’s Under-17 World Hockey Challenge and are making an immediate impact despite being relatively new to the team.
Smith debuted last season for Spokane and is tied with captain Tyson Helgesen for the team’s scoring lead among defensemen with 10 points while Morrisseau and Zummack each have a goal and an assist while playing in only 16 and five games, respectively.
The Chiefs were forced to part ways with their second-leading scorer from a year ago in Dominic Zwerger due to restrictions on overage and import players, but replaced him with 18-year-olds Pavel Kousal and Ondrej Najman, who have combined for eight goals and 11 assists thus far.
Ethan McIndoe and Hayden Ostir, a pair of 17-year-old forwards, are also coming into their own, with a combined seven goals and nine assists to date. The more these two, as well as the aforementioned forwards, get acclimated to life in the WHL, the more dangerous they’ll become. Over the course of a long season, it’s safe to say the Chiefs have far from hit their stride offensively.
Helgesen and Smith lead a defensive core that is in a similar boat as the forwards: young, untested, but with a high ceiling. Evan Fiala, 19, and Matt Leduc, just 16, lead all Chiefs defensemen with a +5 rating while fellow 16-year-old Luke Gallagher made his WHL debut on Saturday, Nov. 26 in a 6-5 defeat to the Edmonton Oil Kings. An assortment of 18 year olds, including Dalton Hamaliuk, Jake Toporowski and Jeff Faith, still have two years of eligibility and give the Chiefs experience now and in the future.
Spokane is backstopped by the tandem of 20-year-old veteran Jayden Sittler and 17-year-old Dawson Weatherill. The two have spelled each other this season, with each having made 14 appearances. Their goals against averages are nearly identical (3.42 for Sittler, 3.43 for Weatherill) and neither have put a strangehold on the starting job, though each have shown moments of brilliance in limited playing time.
With longtime coach Don Nachbaur at the helm and four months before the playoffs roll around, the Chiefs have plenty of time to develop. They may not be at their absolute best for a couple seasons, but they are very exciting to watch now and when this team reaches the postseason, they have the talent at every position to make a run against any team that stands in their way.
ABOUT DYLAN KITZAN: Dylan is an EWU journalism graduate who currently resides in Spokane. He will be updating Chewelah on how the Spokane Chiefs and Gonzaga Bulldogs are doing throughout the season.