Challenge ahead as Smyl reloads roster

The 2013-14 Chilliwack Chiefs will be vastly different than the 2012-13 team, with roster turnover aplenty.

After a week of exit meetings, Harvey Smyl’s 2012-13 Chilliwack Chiefs scattered to the wind on the weekend, leaving the general manager/coach with a loooooooong offseason to-do list.

Smyl heads into the summer knowing he needs to replace half his roster.

Maybe more.

The overhaul will start in goal, where reigning BCHL Coastal conference most valuable player Mitch Gillam is off to Cornell University and the Big Red hockey program.

Gillam’s season was a good one by statistical standards.

He appeared in 46 regular season games, posting 27 wins with a 2.53 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

But his stats ballooned in the playoffs, where the GAA was 2.95 and the SP .894, and Smyl admitted they may have played the Ontario native too much.

Chilliwack’s Josh Halpenny remains, and his stats were fine in very limited action. Eleven games played with six wins, a 2.73 GAA and .911 SP.

But he’ll only be 18 years old at the start of next season.

“He’s going to be a great goaltender in this league, but we’re not sure he’s ready to carry the load,” Smyl said. “This season, we felt we did play Mitch more, at times, than we wanted to, but I think Josh will be able to take on more next year.”

Elite goalies don’t fall out of the sky, usually. If Halpenny is to have capable competition in the crease, Smyl will have to search hard to find it.

“Usually you want your number one guy to be a bit older, because of composure and all those things,” Smyl said. “We do have some that we’ve identified, and now it’s a matter of watching them a little more and identifying which one we want to zero in on.”

The defensive corps might provide an even bigger headache.

Gone for certain are David Thompson (Penn State), Alexander Perron-Fontaine (RIT), Ben Masella (St. Lawrence) and Shay Laurent.

Laurent’s departure is a new development, with Smyl revealing his status as the future considerations in the Philip Zielonka trade-deadline deal.

Laurent will be wearing Coquitlam colours next year, leaving Cooper Rush, Eric Roberts and Kiefer McNaughton as the defensive holdovers.

Roberts is the easiest to be excited about after a stellar rookie season that saw him log 54 regular season and eight playoff games. The Abbotsford native developed into a steady defensive presence, greatly resembling Masella style-wise.

“I thought Eric had a wonderful year, making huge progress in his play,” Smyl noted. “Against Surrey he looked like a man, playing real physical. For such a young man to play with the poise and physicality that he does, defensively, I really like him and I think he’ll be a scholarship kid.”

For that reason, Smyl is unequivocal in his belief that Roberts will be a top-four guy next year.

“But still, we do have lots to do in that area,” he said. “We’ve been on the recruiting trail for two months working on it.”

The forward crew is the third of Smyl’s headaches.

Up front, two thirds of the top line is gone for sure, with Josh Hansen graduating and Luke Esposito heading to Harvard.

Austin Plevy is a wildcard.

He could go to Merrimack next year, to play for the NCAA division-one Warriors. Or he could stick around. The school has left it up to him.

“He’s still debating what he would like to do,” Smyl said.

Plevy would be a massive piece of next year’s puzzle if he returns. The Langley native was second in BCHL scoring this season with 30 goals and 73 points in 54 regular season games.

He added another nine points (six goals) in eight playoff games, and would give Smyl a top-flight player to build around.

Beyond Plevy, the eligible-to-return list includes Spencer Graboski, Mathieu Tibbett, Jaret Babych, Brodyn Nielsen and the Tanners, Burns and Cochrane.

Not a list that will keep opposing goalies up at night.

Cochrane’s status is also entirely up in the air after a serious injury in game five of Chilliwack’s first round playoff series versus Prince George.

The damage hasn’t been fully assessed due to swelling, but it looks like the Kamloops native has a badly messed up ankle. When words like ‘shattered’ and ‘pins’ start entering the conversation, he probably isn’t one to count on in 2013-14.

Graboski, on the other hand, will be counted on.

The Quesnel kid seemed to finally find his game in the playoffs, morphing into one of Chilliwack’s top players.

He posted two goals and 10 points in the postseason, but Smyl was even more encouraged by other things.

“His progression defensively has been way better and late in the year we had less problems playing him in that area,” Smyl said. “He didn’t just focus in on the puck. He had a better hockey sense and we were more comfortable in his complete game. Our expectation  for him is to be a top line guy.”

Tibbett is another player who impressed down the stretch.

The biggest challenge for the Delaware native is staying healthy.

“Because of his size and speed, he needs to work on the offensive side of the game and his finish,” Smyl said. “But the injuries have really hindered his progress. For him to be a 20-year-old next year, he’s going to have to make some contributions to the club, and not be in and out of the lineup. He knows that and supports that.”

If he can keep from getting hit in the head, Babych could take a big step forward next season.

The son of ex-NHLer Dave Babych, Jaret was twice concussed this season, missing all but three playoff games. When he plays, Babych does good things.

He may have the best shot on the team, one that Smyl describes as ‘NHL calibre.’

“He’s a character kid, a gritty kid with a great shot and we really missed him at the end,” Smyl said. “In the PG series he created time and space for others on his line, created room for his shot and played physical. He’s going to have to work on his skating, but he’s an important piece.”

Even if Babych and Graboski can maintain and improve their play, and become top-six mainstays, Smyl has a ton of holes to fill.

The good news is he has proven adept at pulling top six forwards out of mid-air.

Two years ago, who had a clue who David Bondra was?

Last year at this time, who saw Luke Esposito coming?

Smyl doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to find enough junior A calibre skaters who are ready to thrive at this level without seasoning.

But he feels the base of youth will be as strong as it’s been.

“We have more choices in players than we did when the franchise first came back to Chilliwack,” Smyl said. “Although a lot are very young, we have higher-end kids than we had two years ago. It’s a function of re-establishing the Chiefs program and getting back in the game recruiting wise.”