On the heels of a playoff run that ended with a third-round loss to Alberni Valley, are the Chilliwack Chiefs ready to go all-in for 2023-24? Brian Maloney, hockey boss of the BCHL club, has never had as large a group of returning players as he has next season, and he’s thinking his team isn’t far away from being one of the league’s best.
“We’re going for it,” Maloney said. “We’re looking good.”
Going for it means returning a huge chunk of the team that just went to the Coastal conference final, despite being the youngest squad in the league. The Chiefs typically lose a lot of skaters to the NCAA ranks each summer, but not this year. Maloney doesn’t remember ever having such a large group of players coming back.
Guys like AJ Lacroix, Mateo Mrsic and Brady Milburn will return to anchor the offence, with Maloney anticipating all will take the next step in their development.
“They’re big-time players all of them and I’d predict, especially with Milburn and Lacroix, that they could score over 30 goals,” Maloney said. “Milburn took a big step this year and he’s got all the tools to score. It’s more him trusting in himself and believing he can be that good. I could see him putting in double the 16 goals he scored this year. All three of them play in the hard areas, which is why they have success.
“They drove us this year and we went to the third round, so I don’t see why they can’t drive us again. Two of those guys (Lacroix/Mrsic) are 17 years old. At 18 they should be that much better.”
They’ll be supported by returning depth guys like Nathan Morin, Dylan Kinch and Nico Grabas and talented rookies like Tyler Pretty, Savin Virk and Brendan Ruskowski.
There will be a huge vacancy on the blueline next season with the departure of Abram Wiebe. The captain and top defender in the BCHL is off to college, and no one skater can replace all that he brought to the table. Maloney figures it’ll be a group effort with several defenders poised to make a leap.
“(Duncan) Ramsey is gone too, so I’ll be looking for one or two guys, and any of our returning guys is capable of stepping up to help replace Abram,” he said. “(Brian) Morse took a huge step this year. He logged a ton of minutes down the stretch and was arguably our best defender. (Lucas) Sorace took a big step in the playoffs playing more physically and he was a big reason we got through the first and second rounds. OB (Olivier Beaulieu) and (Hunter) McInnes are two young guys who played well.
“I’m hoping those guys take a big step so instead of Wiebe doing everything out there, it’s better to have a good group of guys instead of just one guy. He’s gone, but if the rest of them come up and we do things by committee I think we’ll have a pretty good group back there.”
Chilliwack’s number one netminder returns. Austin McNicholas posted a 2.91 goals-against average and 90.2 save percentage in 34 appearances. He improved big time after the Christmas break, but he’s also had some health issues that Maloney is hoping don’t linger into next season.
The Chiefs had Lucas Szyskza as his backup this season, but he was selected fourth overall by Muskegon in the USHL’s Phase II draft, and he’s almost certainly gone.
“So I’m trying to figure out what we do to support Austin,” Maloney mused. “Do we go with a younger guy or support him with an older guy. Austin’s proven he’s a number one goalie in this league, but I’ll probably look for someone who can challenge him.”
Because of the split from Hockey Canada and B.C. Hockey, Maloney will also be on the hunt for a third goalie who might never play unless there are injuries.
“I don’t know what’s best for a young kid like that,” the coach said. “Is it better to be with us and get up to the pace of practice and face shots from our guys every day? Is he going to learn more practising with us and being around two older goalies, or practice a couple times a week and play weekends with a U18 team? I’m not sure what I’m going to do with that.”
Ultimately Maloney is relying on a lot of young guys to take steps forward, and if they do then Chilliwack will be well positioned to make a championship run.
“If everyone shows up after having a great summer then I think we’ll have a really good team,” he said. “It’s up to them. If some guys come in next fall and they haven’t progressed, then I’ll look to improve the roster, because we know the whole league is going to be better next year.”