By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips took a big step forward during the 2013-14 season.
But despite the progress, the Tips aren’t satisfied, and they’re determined to keep the momentum moving forward.
Everett opens training camp for the 2014-15 season Thursday morning at Comcast Arena, and the team is looking to build upon the foundation put in place a season ago.
“I’m very excited,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said Wednesday as the players checked in for camp. “I like the way we finished last year and the way we played as a team. I think we have a real good core of returning players.
“We have an experienced goaltender, we have experienced defensemen and we have a large number of forwards returning, so that’s a real positive. I also think there’s a number of players off our list who are going to challenge for spots.”
Everett is coming off its best season in four years. The Tips, with Kevin Constantine returning to the bench for his second stint as head coach, finished last season 39-23-7-3, which tied Everett for second place in the U.S. Division and fourth place in the Western Conference. The 88 points the Tips earned were 31 better than the previous season and 21 better than Everett achieved in any of the previous three seasons, when the Tips finished eighth in the conference on each occasion.
However, Everett was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year, losing its best-of-seven series against Seattle in five games.
“Our team has a bitter taste in its mouth after the end of last year,” Everett overage center Kohl Bauml said. “You can tell everyone has the mindset that this is a year to win. I think everyone’s really excited for this year. I know I am, and talking to all the guys they are, too. It’ll be a good year.”
Everett’s returning players, as well as the prospects on the Tips’ 50-player protected list, checked in Wednesday afternoon. Those who received invitations to try out check in Thursday morning prior to the first on-ice session of camp, which begins at 10:30 a.m. at Comcast Arena. More than 70 players, grouped into four teams, will be taking part in practices and scrimmages over the four days of camp.
Camp concludes with the Green vs. Grey intrasquad game Sunday at 3 p.m. All on-ice sessions are open to the public free of charge.
Most of Everett’s veterans arrived back in town early and have been getting a running start, taking part in informal skates.
“I’m excited to get back to the rink and play with the guys who have been here the past couple days,” Tips overage defenseman Ben Betker said. “It will be exciting to get things moving here. The skates are fun. It’s interesting to see if anybody got better, and most of us have, it seems. So far, so good.”
There was one prominent veteran who did not check in Wednesday. Mirco Mueller, the team’s top defenseman who was selected in the first round of the 2013 NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks, is heading directly to San Jose for the Sharks’ camp. There’s a chance Mueller, a 19-year-old from Switzerland, will make San Jose’s roster this season. If he doesn’t, he’ll return to Everett.
“(Mueller) has a couple other things he’s committed to having to do, Player’s Association meetings and such, so he won’t be here,” Davidson said. “We may or may not see him again in a Tips uniform. Time will tell on that.”
Another player who was absent Wednesday was Alexander Zhebelev. The 17-year-old Russian forward, who was selected by Everett in this year’s import draft, has not committed to playing for the Tips.
Davidson said it’s still possible Zhebelev, who just finished playing for Russia at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, will come play for Everett this season. He is deciding between playing for the Tips or for Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL.
One player who will be attending camp is goaltender Dayton Rasmussen. The 16-year-old from Minnesota is one of the top goaltenders in the country in his age group, having recently represented the U.S. at the U-17 Five Nations Tournament in Germany. He’s not scheduled to arrive in Everett until Friday, but is expected to take part in on-ice sessions beginning Saturday.
Of Everett’s 15 picks in this year’s bantam draft, 10 are taking part in camp, including the team’s first-round pick, defenseman Jantzen Leslie. Forwards Nick Henry (third round) and Brian King (fourth round) are unable to participate because of injuries. Defensemen Nate Knoepke (ninth round), Matt Anderson (10th round) and Reid Hill (11th round), all of whom are from Minnesota and are strong candidates to play NCAA hockey rather than in the WHL, chose not to attend. Players selected in this year’s bantam draft are not eligible to play full-time for Everett until the 2015-16 season.
As for the upcoming season, scoring is the area Everett needs to address if it wants to improve upon last season. The Tips are set in goal with three-year veteran Austin Lotz firmly entrenched as the No. 1 netminder, and if Mueller returns, Everett is well-stocked on defense. But the Tips lost a huge chunk of their goal scoring to graduation as Joshua Winquist, Matt Pufahl, Jujhar Khaira and Manraj Hayer were four of Everett’s top-five scorers.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion about that,” Davidson said. “We’ve lost a lot of offense with graduating players and we were challenged at times to score last year. I think we played hard, competed hard and created a lot of scoring chances, but we needed to put a few more pucks in the net. I believe in this group we’ve got some players who in the past at other levels have been very successful offensively. So it’s their time and their chance.
“I also met with our coaching staff last week and we talked extensively about trying to work hard on our offensive game and improving our skill level,” Davidson continued. “We all realize we’ve lost a great portion of our goals from last year, so this is a good challenge for these young guys to step up, take the bull by the horns and contribute in that area.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.