Dramatic turnaround earns high marks

The Everett Silvertips reached the midpoint of the 2013-14 Western Hockey League season with a 22-10-4-0 record and in second place in the U.S. Division. Here’s a midseason report card:

Goal scoring

Goals scored: 114 (3.2 per game), 13th out of 22 in WHL

Power play: 22.0 percent, ninth in WHL

Everett’s 114 goals are nothing special, as those put the Tips squarely in the middle of the league offensively. However, when compared to previous seasons it’s a substantial improvement. Last season Everett finished dead last in the league in goals, and the Tips finished no better than 20th out of 22 teams in each of the past three seasons. Therefore, this season is the equivalent of an offensive explosion.

Leading the charge has been Joshua Winquist. The overage winger has developed into a bonafide elite scorer. He currently ranks third in the league in scoring with 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 36 games. The line of Winquist, Manraj Hayer and Tyler Sandhu has been a consistent source of offense. Defenseman Matt Pufhal, acquired during the offseason, has given the team a substantial offensive boost from the blue line, with 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 35 contests.

But Everett is still waiting for dependable secondary scoring options to emerge. Everett may have dramatically improved its puck possession — the Tips are outshooting their opponents 31.36-25.42 this season after being outshot 34.83-26.15 last season — but other than the first line, that puck possession has yet to translate into a large number of goals. Rookie Ivan Nikolishin has chipped in with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists), but much of that came while playing on Everett’s top power-play unit with Winquist and Pufahl. And the Tips’ power play, converting at a respectable 22-percent clip, has been hot and cold, going through large-but-brief outbursts mixed with long dry spells.

Grade: B-

Preventing goals

Goals against: 96 (2.7 per game), fifth in WHL

Penalty kill: 77.1 percent, 13th in WHL

For the most part Everett has done an excellent job keeping the puck out of its own net. The Tips are one of just five teams that have allowed fewer than 100 goals at the break. Everett’s had the occasional lapse, allowing six goals in a game six different times. But the Tips have also pitched six shutouts, and allowed two or fewer goals on 19 occasions.

The foundation has been the defense. Everett’s regular defensive corps is a good blend of experience and youth, and it contains both stay-at-home types as well as those who can contribute offensively. The defensemen are a big part of why the Tips have allowed so few shots on goal, and when they’ve needed help, Everett’s forwards are much improved from last season when it comes to tracking back and being responsible in their own end.

The biggest beneficiaries of the defensive work have been Everett’s goaltenders. Both Austin Lotz and Daniel Cotton rank in the top 13 in the league in goals against average. However, seeing fewer shots per game has required an adjustment, and neither ranks in the top 12 in save percentage.

Everett has aided itself by being the most disciplined team in the league. The Tips have a league-low 369 penalty minutes, which is more than 100 fewer than any other team in the conference, and that’s translated into a league-low 109 times short-handed. However, that discipline only had a moderate effect as Everett’s penalty kill has been leaky, meaning the Tips are still allowing as many power-play goals as teams that are penalized more, but are more effective on the kill.

Grade: B+

Intangibles

There’s no question the return of coach Kevin Constantine behind Everett’s bench has been a massive factor in Everett’s turnaround.

In recent seasons Everett’s play has been characterized by inconsistency. At times the Tips played well, but more often Everett looked confused and disorganized, frustrating the coaches no end. But under Constantine the Tips appear to have bought in. A plan is clearly in place, and the players are putting in a full effort to execute that plan. As a result Everett has built more of an identity.

Everett was supposed to be a better team this season after going through a full rebuild with a young squad last season. But not only are the players a year older and more experienced, they’re playing with a better sense of purpose, too.

Grade: A

Overall

This season Everett was hoping to end three years of futility, during which the Tips were little more than a WHL footnote as they finished eighth in the Western Conference all three seasons. Everett seems to have done that, and at times the Tips did it spectacularly. At one point Everett found itself occupying first place in the entire WHL.

The lull going into the Christmas break, during which Everett lost six of eight, puts a slight damper on what the Tips accomplished during the first half, but it doesn’t change the fact it was a remarkable turnaround.

Grade: A-

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