After a rocky start to the 2015-16 season, the Spokane Chiefs were dealt a lucky hand when last year’s leading scorer, Adam Helewka, was returned to the team from the San Jose Sharks organization. Hampered by injuries to a lineup already riddled with rookies – nine to be exact – the usually competitive Chiefs began the season with a 4-8 record, which was highlighted by a six-game losing streak. Getting Adam Helewka back is critical to the Spokane Chiefs, who seek a quick turn-around with his return.
After being selected in the fourth round (106th overall) by the San Jose Sharks at the 2015 NHL draft, Helewka began his season at training camp with the Chiefs, before being sent off to the main camp with the Sharks. Though Helewka seemed a longshot to make the big club, the potential for him to stick in the American Hockey League was very real, as he was entering his 20-year old season and would have AHL eligibility. Helewka impressed and did
indeed stick with the team’s AHL affiliate, the San Jose Barracuda. Skating in just three games with the team, Helewka earned one assist and a +2 plus/minus rating before being sent back to Spokane.
The Sharks clearly felt that it would be better for Helewka’s development if he were able to play big minutes in the WHL again; a decision that has made the Spokane Chiefs an immensely better team. Struggling out of the gate, the Chiefs saw the departure of incumbent starter and 20-year old Garrett Hughson, whose subpar play left an opening for up and coming goaltender Tyson Verhelst. Verhelst got off to a quick start with the Chiefs, winning three of his first four games; before coming back down to earth – unfortunately for the team, after Hughson’s departure. Injuries and suspensions to several key players thrust younger players up in the lineup, making consistency a difficult task for the team. After releasing Hughson, the Chiefs plugged a hole in their lineup by acquiring former Kamloops Blazer Luke Harrison in the 20-year old cut-down draft.
The return of Helewka gives the Chiefs their fifth 20-year old this season, but should provide them with enough stability that they won’t have to make many additional moves up front. The likely scenario for the Chiefs means Harrison could be the odd man out, but getting Adam Helewka back is crucial for a team that finds itself competing to stay ahead of the pack for an eventual playoff spot. Certainly, anytime you can add a premier scorer in lieu of a depth player, you have to take that opportunity.
Last season with the Chiefs, Helewka potted 87 points – good enough for eighth in the league in scoring. His 44 goals (5th in the WHL) were 19 more than any other Chief, and his 87 points gave him a full 25 more than the team’s second leading scorer, defenseman Jason Fram. His chemistry with then-rookie forward Kailer Yamamoto (western conference rookie of the year), gave the Chiefs a dynamic one-two punch. In spite of the departure of their center (overage forward Calder Brooks), getting the two reunited should be huge for the Chiefs moving forward.
Though not a terrific skater, Helewka is a big forward with silky smooth hands, who is excellent in traffic and finds ways to manufacture offense for his team on nearly every shift. His impact was felt immediately by the Chiefs in his first shift back in the league, on which he recorded his first assist of the season in a 6-2 loss to Medicine Hat to open the team’s longest road trip of the season. Helewka continued his strong play over the next two games for the Chiefs however; earning first star honors the next night in Calgary, with two goals, helping the team to a 6-3 win. Capping off a brutal stretch of three games in three nights, Helewka’s presence was felt once again as he added an assist, while goaltender Tyson Verhelst stood strong in the team’s 3-1 victory over the Central Division leading Red Deer Rebels.
With nine rookies in the lineup, the Chiefs are a team that has struggled to find scoring thus far. Prior to his return, the young team had just 30 goals in their first 12 games, an average of just 2.5 per game. Since Helewka stepped back into the lineup, the Chiefs have 11 goals in three games, already averaging a full goal more per game, a direct result of his four points over that span. Having him in the lineup should give the younger players a chance to develop in lesser roles, which will be important for a talented, young team that should be expected to contend for a league championship in the next two or three years. While it’s difficult to see the Chiefs as anything more than a middle of the pack team, the return of Helewka means they have a much better chance to make the playoffs for a tenth consecutive year.