EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips are 36 games into the 2017-18 Western Hockey League season.
That means they’re one of three WHL teams that is truly half-finished with the season, as the annual holiday break marks the unofficial halfway mark of each campaign.
Everett’s first season under new head coach Dennis Williams has really been two different seasons. The Tips lost 10 of their first 14 games and went to Kamloops on Oct. 27 with a 4-9-1 record and in last place in the U.S. Division and the Western Conference.
That night rookie goaltender Dustin Wolf debuted. Two games later goaltender Carter Hart came back from a bout with mononucleosis, and the Tips are 17-4-0-1 since.
Just how far have the Tips come? They opened the season with a 7-4 home loss to Portland in which the Winterhawks scored six second-period goals. In last Sunday’s first-half-ending contest, the Tips scored five times in the second period to top Portland 8-3.
“It was a good way to finish off the first half,” Williams said. “We’ve come a long ways as a group. (There were) highs and lows throughout it and we really liked the way we finished up.”
With 10 wins in their last 11 game before the break, the Silvertips (21-13-1-1, 44 points) once again inexplicably find themselves atop both the U.S. Division and the Western Conference.
Yes, it comes with a caveat as the Tips possess just the conference’s fourth-best winning percentage at .611. That’s because Everett has played three more games than Portland (.652), two more than Kelowna (.632) and five more than Tri-City (.629).
Nevertheless, Everett’s play in November and December represents a stunning shift from what seemed destined to be a long season. What follows is Everett’s midseason report card:
Goals scored: 111 (14th in WHL), 3.08 per game (15th in WHL)
Power play: 18.2 percent (18th in WHL)
Williams was brought in to instill a faster-tempo, more offensive mentality to the organization after former head coach Kevin Constantine’s contract wasn’t renewed last April.
The Tips have indeed adopted that emphasis and are averaging 33.75 shots per game according to www.dubnetwork.ca. That’s fifth-best among all WHL teams. That’s nearly three shots per game higher than last year’s average of 31.07 per game that placed Everett 15th in the WHL.
What hasn’t necessarily improved is the point production. Everett is averaging just 3.08 goals per game to place it 15th among the 22 WHL teams. It’s also not much different than last year’s end-of-year total of 3.15 goals per game.
The power play is near the bottom of the league, but that’s a problem that seems to have been rectified recently. The sub-par total includes a lengthy 1-for-45 showing during a 10-game stretch in November.
Despite less-than-stellar numbers overall, there are several individual Silvertips having outstanding seasons in terms of point production.
Patrick Bajkov (20 goals, 30 assists) picked up where he left off last season, while linemate Matt Fonteyne (16 goals, 22 assists) is also averaging better than a point per game. Sean Richards (14 goals, 15 assists) has seen his numbers spike since joining the top line part-way through the season.
Draft-eligible Riley Sutter (13 goals, 13 assists) and linemates Connor Dewar (12 goals, 12 assists) and Bryce Kindopp (11 goals, eight assists) have shown promise in providing secondary scoring, but at times lack consistency.
Kevin Davis (four goals, 28 assists) is a versatile and dangerous weapon on the blue line for Everett. He’s eighth in assists among WHL defensemen and third in power-play assists with 14.
From there the dropoff is fairly steep. Defensemen Jake Christiansen (two goals, 16 assists) and Wyatte Wylie (two goals, 10 assists) are the only other players with double-digit point totals.
Look for Tips general manager Garry Davidson to try to upgrade Everett’s offensive production before the WHL’s trade deadline on Jan. 10.
Goals against: 90 (fewest in WHL), 2.50 per game (fewest in WHL)
Penalty kill: 86.1 percent (first in WHL)
Everett leads the WHL in fewest goals allowed, lowest goals-against average and best penalty kill.
Obviously Hart is a big reason for those stats. But that would be to deny the stellar performance turned in from 16-year-old rookie backup Wolf as well as 15-year-old Blake Lyda who looked strong in his two-game cameo in mid-October.
You also have to give credit to an extremely young defensive corps led by overager Davis and third-year blueliner Christiansen — the next most-experienced defenseman on the roster.
But we’ll start with Hart who has put up “video game” numbers. In 17 games the two-time defending WHL Goaltender of the Year has a record of 13-3-0-1 with five shutouts, a 1.32 GAA and a .961 save percentage. He was named WHL Goaltender of the Week in the four weeks prior to leaving for Team Canada’s World Junior training camp and was the WHL Goaltender of the Month for November.
Yet Hart has played in less than half of Everett’s games. Wolf has been very impressive in the seven games he’s played since debuting on Oct. 27 at Kamloops. Wolf has a record of 5-2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .942 save percentage. He turned in his first career shutout last Saturday at home against Prince George.
Everett’s season turned when Wolf debuted on Oct. 27, won his first two starts, and was then replaced by a healthy Hart. For context, in Everett’s first 14 games (including two with an ailing Hart) the Tips allowed four goals per game. In the 22 games since, Everett has allowed just 1.55 goals per game.
The Davis-led youth movement on the blue line ought to be commended. But having the WHL’s top goalie, plus his heir apparent, is the true difference-maker.
This particular group of Silvertips frequently played above expectations in previous seasons under former head coach Kevin Constantine.
Little was expected in terms of success this season from this group, but they’ve once again defied odds so far. You have to credit the leadership group of co-captains Fonteyne and Davis, and alternates Bajkov and Dewar. The passion, heart and belief in themselves hasn’t wavered.
The addition of forward Luke Ormsby, a Monroe-born native who was acquired in a trade with Seattle in November, and of Akash Bains from Red Deer, has added energy to the third and fourth lines.
Those two become extremely important when 16-year-old rookie forwards Mark Liwiski and Ethan Browne were each placed on the suspended list and returned to their home provinces where they are now playing Junior A hockey.
And you can’t count out the Carter Hart Effect. The team went on its run when Hart came back, and Wolf’s performance hasn’t given the Everett skaters any reason to lose confidence.
You start to wonder where this team would be if Hart and Wolf had been healthy at the start of the season — particularly if Hart hadn’t been diagnosed with mono right before the team’s biennial trip through a weak Central Division.
The Tips finished 2-4 in those six games including an awful 5-1 shellacking at the hands of seven-win Edmonton.
Everett has never missed the postseason and figured to be in the mix for a wild card spot this season. To be in first place at the break seemed impossible early in the year.
However, you do wonder how much the stellar goaltending and hard work mask a young defensive corps and a still under-performing offense. Everett’s success has forced Davidson’s hand in what was predicted to be a rebuilding campaign. Look for him to try to add some pieces prior to the deadline.
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