The Chilliwack Chiefs are feeling very good about their goaltending as they head into the 2023-24 BCHL season. With Austin McNicholas returning, the addition of Vladimir Nikitin and the repatriation of Cole Savage, the junior A club looks to be three deep in capable stoppers.
How the playing time shakes out is still to be determined, but it looks like it will be McNicholas and Nikitin competing for the starter and top backup jobs with Savage the clear No. 3.
“Our staff believes that with our trio, there isn’t a deeper team in net,” said Chilliwack hockey boss Brian Maloney.
After struggling to adapt to the BCHL level, McNicholas came on late last season. He posted a 2.91 goals-against average and 90.2 save percentage in 34 regular season appearances.
“He would be the first to admit it was an up-and-down season,” Maloney said. “He started rough, but showed us the competitor that he is and put together a couple really solid months towards the end of the season and he’s shown signs early on that he’s taking another step this season.
“He will need to compete every day for his spot in the crease and we expect that he will.”
Nikitin is an interesting addition, coming to the Chiefs from Kazakhstan. He’s a National Hockey League draft pick (Ottawa Senators) who’s a year younger than McNicholas. Listed at six-foot-four and 204 pounds, he has the size of a modern netminder, and Maloney said he’s got the athleticism to compete on every shot.
“With the new rules in the BCHL (allowing two Euros) we were able to give this kid an opportunity to come over to Canada, earn a scholarship, develop and become a pro,” Maloney said. “He’s only 18, but we expect that he will push for starting minutes.”
Savage is in a weird spot. With the BCHL divorce from Hockey Canada/BC Hockey, the Chiefs can no longer carry affiliate players. That means they have to have a third goalie on the roster, and the Langley product seems OK with the role. He saw action in one of four preseason games, and barring injury may not see a minute of playing time during the season to come.
But the 20-year-old has been with the Chiefs before (2021-23), and the team is comfortable with him as a positive locker room presence.
“He’s been a starter in this league and also the Alberta league, so he has experience, and he’s also a fantastic person who will drive the culture in our dressing room,” Maloney said. “He has the trust with our staff that he can play games in this league, and we believe he will push the other two to be the best they can be.”