By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
When the Everett Silvertips take the ice tonight in Portland for the start of the Western Hockey League playoffs, the majority of Everett’s youthful roster will be getting its first taste of the postseason.
Had history taken a different path, however, three of those players may have found themselves on the opposite bench.
Fate intervened during the offseason, bringing defenseman Ben Betker and forwards Tyler Sandhu and Mitch Skapski to Everett from Portland. Now those three are getting their first playoff experience against the team they hoped to break into less than a year earlier.
“It’s exciting,” Betker said about playing his former organization. “We’ve played them a few times and I have a few friends over there, but there’s no friends on the ice. Once we get battling, it’s going to be a lot of fun and we’re going to do our best to compete and win.”
Last May, Betker, Sandhu and Skapski were Portland prospects hoping to crack the Winterhawks roster for the 2012-13 season. Betker, an 18-year-old listed player, had signed an education contract with Portland and seemed set for a third-pairing role. Sandhu, a 16-year-old who was a second-round pick in the 2011 bantam draft, had also signed with Portland and was thought to be a legitimate contender for a roster spot. Skapski, a 16-year-old who was a fourth rounder in 2011, was a longshot, but was still one for the Winterhawks’ future.
“Sandhu may have been a question mark for them,” said Tips general manager Garry Davidson, who as Portland’s former director of player personnel helped construct the current Winterhawks roster.
“They had made some commitments to some 16-year-olds, so he would have probably been in a battle to make the team. Mitch probably wouldn’t have been in their plans this season. Ben Betker I’m sure would have made their hockey team, though he wouldn’t have cracked their top four.”
But circumstances, primarily in Everett, sent the trio in a different direction.
It began with the Tips dismissing general manager Doug Soetaert in February of 2012 and replacing him with Davidson, who’d spent the previous four years with the Winterhawks. Soetaert’s dismissal also played a role in Everett superstar prospect Seth Jones deciding he wouldn’t play for the Silvertips. But Jones would play for Portland, and the Tips were compelled to deal Jones to the Winterhawks.
Davidson, uniquely familiar with Portland’s prospects, was positioned to cherry pick the ones he wanted in return. Davidson chose Betker, Sandhu, Skapski and defenseman Reece Willcox. Willcox kept his commitment to Cornell University, but the other three found their way onto Everett’s roster.
While Jones has solidified his position as one of the top selections in the upcoming NHL draft, the Tips are happy with the return they got for him.
Sandhu had an excellent rookie season, tallying 19 goals and 14 assists in 62 games and being voted the Western Conference’s top 16-year-old. Betker has been a workhorse on Everett’s blue line, notching a goal, five assists and 100 penalty minutes in 68 games and being named Everett’s most improved player. Skapski, who joined the team midseason, had two goals in 34 games.
But do they ever think about what could have been? Do they imagine the possibility of playing for the league’s top team in Portland, of lifting the Scotty Munro Trophy for finishing with the league’s best record, instead of scraping into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s eighth seed?
“No, not really,” Sandhu replied. “I’ve moved here now. I’m an Everett Silvertip and I’m happy to be a Silvertip. I think we have a great team that can do something, and I’ll be excited if we get a chance to beat them.”
Skapski agreed: “You know what, I don’t (think about it). I’m here in Everett, I love Everett, and I’ll take it from there.”
While they may not find themselves atop the standings, there have been benefits. Sandhu and Skapski might not even be in the WHL if not for the trade, and all three players are getting more ice time than they would have in Portland. That’s done wonders for their individual development.
“When the trade happened I was shocked, but I had a good talk about it with my father and agent and we all looked at it as a positive thing that I would get to play more,” Betker said. “Things have worked out great, (Tips assistant coach) Mitch Love and I have worked a ton all season, and I’ve just continued to gradually get better as the season’s gone along.”
Everett believes it has a bright future. The Tips are young and talented, and they believe they’ll be much improved the next two seasons. Betker, who potentially has two seasons remaining with Everett, and Sandhu and Skapski, who both could play four more seasons for the Tips, should be key parts of the turnaround.
And the more the Tips improve, the more thoughts of Portland will be left behind.
“When I go into (Portland’s) Memorial Coliseum and play I get an eerie feeling,” Betker said. “But at the end of the day I’m a Silvertip and I’m really glad with the way things have turned out here. I love the city, and the fans are awesome, so things have worked out well.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.