KENNEWICK -- During the past three seasons, the Tri-City Americans won U.S. Division banners, and last year they won their first Western Conference title.
There were no titles to celebrate this year, but general manager Bob Tory still called the season a success.
"We had a great season regardless of where we finished in the standings," Tory said. "To win over 40 games for the fifth consecutive year is a testament to our organization. We have lofty goals here. We expect to win a U.S. Division banner every year. We thought we had the team to do it this year, but we ran into some injury problems. Portland and Spokane also had very good teams."
The Americans finished the 2010-11 season with a record of 44-24-2-2 (92 points) and finished third in the U.S. Division and Western Conference. They swept Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs, then lost in the Western Conference semifinals to rival Spokane in six games.
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"We went into the playoffs with a goal to go further than we did the previous year, which was the league finals," Tory said. "Losing to Spokane was disappointing. Could we have won that series? Certainly. We lost a three-goal lead in that last game. It happens. Should it happen? No. But it did happen, it's part of sports, and that's what makes sports exciting. The outcome is always unknown."
The Americans suffered without Brendan Shinnimin early in the season when he was suspended 12 games for a checking-from-behind penalty. Tri-City weathered that storm, only to be faced with others along the way, including injuries to goaltender Drew Owsley and forwards Adam Hughesman, Mason Wilgosh and Neal Prokop.
"We felt we had a better hockey team this year than last year when we made it to the league finals," Tory said. "But to be that successful, you need to have a few breaks go your way, and you need good talent. The breaks bounced the other way this time."
Tory felt he made the right move in bringing in forward Carter Ashton and defenseman Matt MacKenzie, both league veterans, but in the end, Spokane proved to be too much.
"We went out and acquired a couple of players, but we ran into a good team that beat us," Tory said. "I'm proud of our players, and I'm proud of our coaches. If anyone saw the emotions of our players after that last Spokane game, you really knew how much they care, not only about our team, but our city."
The Americans will have a bevy of talent returning up front next season, but Tory must beef up the defense to stay competitive.
"If you look at our team, we return as many or more of our top-end offensive guys than any other teams in our division," Tory said. "We have more depth in goal than we have ever had since I arrived. Where we have some issues is on the blue line. We don't know if Matt MacKenzie will be back. That leaves (Zach) Yuen, (Sam) Grist and (Drydn) Dow. We've got a couple of young guys coming in -- (Justin) Hamonic and (Riley) Guenther -- but I'm going to need to address the blue line. I'm going to probably have to trade for a defenseman."
Tri-City also could see Russian defenseman Nikita Nesterov join the team, but Tory is not counting on him until he arrives.
Among the returning players are seven 20-year-olds. Each WHL team is limited to three. On that list are Hughesman, Owsley, MacKenzie, Ashton, Shinnimin, Wilgosh and Brock Sutherland. Paul Sohor and David Conrad were informed the team would not bring them back.
"We graduate a lot of 19-year-olds, but again we are going to return our own 20-year-olds, which is something we have done almost every year," Tory said. "That gives you leadership, and it gives you guys who care about your team and your franchise."
Who those three will be, will be decided at a later date.
"We have a lot of skill coming back up front with Shinnimin, Hughesman and Wilgosh," Tory said. "On the back end, we could have a choice of MacKenzie or Sutherland and Drew in goal. It's not always who are the best three, but who the team needs most."
The Americans will lose team captain Kruise Reddick, defenseman Tyler Schmidt and Prokop, who worked hard to come back from a broken leg to join the team in November. Reddick and Schmidt played their entire careers for Tri-City.
Schmidt owns every franchise playoff record for a defenseman, as well as regular-season records for defenseman for games played (320), assists (132), points (165) and penalty minutes (643).
Reddick has played more playoff games (65) than any other Americans players. He also is first in assists (38) and second in points (57).
"Those guys are a family and are a part of the fabric of our team," Tory said. "Those two gave a big part of their life to this team and to this city. You look at the wall of records, and most are dominated by players who have been here since I arrived here, and a lot by guys the last five years."
Tory and his staff are a step ahead of where they were last year at this time. Most of their recruiting is done, and their top prospects are signed.
"We are going to be a good hockey club next year," Tory said. "I understand the fans want us to win a Memorial Cup, and I do, too. There was a time here when they were cheering for the team to win a hockey game at home, let alone make the playoffs. Making the playoffs was something far from accomplishing. We have come a long, long way."
* Annie Fowler: 509-582-1574; email@example.com