EVERETT — Everett Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson faced a dilemma this offseason.
He knew his team would be improved. It lost little from the previous season, and its young players would be a year older and stronger.
But one critical piece was missing. Landon Oslanski graduated as an overager, and he took his big shot with him. His cannon from the point, particularly on the power play, was one of Everett’s most dangerous weapons. For a team that scored the fewest goals in the Western Hockey League, losing Oslanski’s offense from the blue line was a significant blow.
What was Davidson to do?
Enter Matt Pufahl.
The Tips acquired Pufahl during the offseason specifically to replace Oslanski as Everett’s top offensive defenseman, and so far Pufahl is more than filling those skates.
“I’ve been extremely happy with his performance,” Davidson said. “I knew he would be able to come in here and help us on the power play, and he’s lived up to that expectation to this point. He’s just a confident, quality 20-year-old defenseman.”
Pufahl, who was acquired via trade from his hometown Saskatoon Blades, is off to a blistering start. In his first eight games with Everett he had five goals and five assists, and his 10 points are second on the team. He scored four of those goals during Everett’s recent four-game road trip through Alberta and northern British Columbia, and Monday he was named the WHL Player of the Week.
“I guess I’m a goal-scorer now,” Pufahl said with a chuckle.
“I really kind of established that last year, I guess,” he added of his offensive acumen. “I’m just trying to carry it over to this year. I’m not going to go out of my way to put up offense, but if the opportunity is there to jump into the rush or shoot the puck, I’m going to do it.”
Pufahl is in his fourth season in the WHL, having spent a season and a half each with Red Deer and Saskatoon, and he wasn’t always an offensive threat. In his first two seasons he had just two goals and 13 assists in 75 games between the Rebels and the Blades. However, Pufahl broke out last season, notching six goals and 37 assists in 69 games with a quality Saskatoon team that loaded up as the Memorial Cup host.
That caught Davidson’s attention. While Davidson was on the lookout for Oslanski’s replacement, Saskatoon was overflowing with overage candidates. The Blades ended last season with a staggering 14 19-year-olds, meaning they needed to offload. Therefore, Davidson targeted Pufahl, and he indicated how important Pufahl’s qualities were by giving up promising 18-year-old defenseman Ayrton Nikkel in the trade that brought Pufahl to Everett.
“When I looked around and saw the opportunity of trying to acquire a 20-year-old defenseman, he quickly went to the top of the list,” Davidson said. “For a while we weren’t able to make that trade happen. We had to give up a (1995-born) defenseman to make it happen. That was a dimension we were looking for, and that’s the dimension we’ve got here.”
Pufahl went from a Saskatoon team that won 44 games and played in the Memorial Cup to an Everett team that had spun its wheels in eighth place in the 10-team Western Conference each of the past three seasons. However, Pufahl said he had no concerns about making the switch.
“I was excited,” Pufahl said about his reaction to the trade. “There was a new staff and a new coach, so that was a big thing. Then there were a lot of good young players who were here last year. We’re still a young team this year, but with our work ethic it helps us win games.”
Though Pufahl has made his mark with the Tips offensively so far, he’s intent on focusing on the defensive side of the game.
“I try to chip in offensively when I can, but I really want to focus on getting my defensive game better,” Pufahl said. “I want to be a guy they can count on in the last few minutes of the game to try and shut down the top lines. I really want to help the young guys and be a leader.”
Everett coach Kevin Constantine said if Pufahl continues making strides, his hockey career can extend beyond this season.
“I think he has enough gifts to play some pro hockey,” Constantine said. “If he just keeps working on a few little wrinkles to his game and improves on the details, I think he can play pro hockey. It’s kind of fun to help that process along this year and see if we can get him a job in pro hockey next year.”
In the meantime, the Tips will enjoy the fruits of Pufahl’s labors. Especially on the scoresheet.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.