The Chilliwack Chiefs are going to be a young team in 2022-23, and that includes between the pipes.
Hockey boss Brian Maloney is pairing 19-year-old Cole Savage with 18-year-old Austin McNicholas, hoping the two netminders will push each other for playing time.
“They’re going to be given the opportunity to fight for that crease,” Maloney noted. “We’ll be patient with them because it’s a big jump for Austin and more responsibility for Cole.”
Savage returns to the Chiefs after a challenging first season in 2021-22.
The Langley product made 20 appearances as the backup to Grant Riley, winning eight with a 2.91 goals-against average and 88.6 save percentage. Maloney said the 19-year-old has all the tools to succeed, but he will need to elevate his game.
“He has to show he can eat more minutes for us, and he his carrying himself with a little more confidence from what I’ve seen so far,” Maloney observed. “I think he was fighting it a little bit last year and he knows he needs to be better. We’ll see. I’ll get him into some games early and he can have that chance to hopefully get into a groove.”
Maloney described Savage as a “phenomenal kid” with work ethic that’s off the charts, and the coach said he’ll always bet on the potential of a kid willing to put in the time.
“He battles on every drill and every shot and never quits on any play,” he said. “When you’re doing that you’re giving yourself a chance to get better and improve. He’s here because his work ethic has earned him the opportunity to play every night.”
McNicholas hails from Buffalo, NY and spent last season playing high school hockey at Salisbury, a prep program based in Connecticut that has been a pipeline of talent for the Chiefs. In 17 games for the Crimson Knights, he had a sparkling 1.78 goals-against average and 92.6 save percentage.
“He’s been a winner his entire life at every level he’s played at, but he’s younger than Cole,” Maloney said.
When Chilliwack announced the signing of McNicholas in April, goalie coach MacKenzie Skapski said it was his ‘compete level’ that impressed the most.
“He has a very calming presence about him and we are excited to continue his growth as a player with our organization,” Skapski added.
This isn’t the first time Maloney has gone with a youthful goalie tandem, and it worked very well the first time. Daniel Chenard was 18 years old and Mathieu Caron 17 in 2017-18, a season that ended with Chilliwack winning the Royal Bank Cup as national champs.
“That was a 1A and 1B situation where Caron was pushing Chenard, and that’s what I’m hoping for this year,” Maloney recalled. “With Cole (Savage) and Austin (McNicholas), it’s not so much an age thing for me. If they can come in with confidence and play well, we won’t have any issues. But they have to start off with a good first couple months here, and if they do that they can have success with these kids.”
Maloney said he’ll be patient with the netminders, something he can afford to do in an 18-team league that lets all but two teams into the playoffs.
“Everyone wants to come out of the gate flying and you want to win the (Coastal) conference and league and everything, and we’re striving to do that, don’t get me wrong,” Maloney said. “But I have all the patience in the world for kids who have the right attitude and work ethic, and as long as they’re becoming students of the game and progessing, that’s what I want to see.”
After a five-game preseason slate that starts Sept. 7 versus Merritt (in Hope) and includes home dates Sept. 9 (vs West Kelowna) and Sept. 10 (vs Powell River), the Chiefs open the regular season with a Sept. 23 road game at Langley.
The BCHL club will host the Merritt Centennials in its home opener Oct. 1 at the Chilliwack Coliseum.