By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — One guarantee down, one more to go.
The Everett Silvertips fulfilled their guarantee of finishing no worse than sixth in the WHL’s Western Conference this season, winding up their campaign tied for fifth.
But next season the ante is raised, with the team needing to finish no worse than fourth to avoid owing a big credit to season ticket holders.
“Oh yeah,” Everett goaltender Austin Lotz responded when asked if he was ready to get fourth next season. “I’m ready for first next year. That’s the goal every year.”
A year ago February, the Tips issued their famous guarantee, telling season ticket holders that if the Tips didn’t finish at least sixth this season, they would receive a $100 toward their season tickets for 2014-15. Everett, which was mired in a stretch of finishing eighth and just scraping into the playoffs the previous three seasons, had to sweat things out down the stretch. But the Tips ultimately met that goal.
However, that guarantee wasn’t just for one season. Everett, making a commitment to returning to prominence, promised another step forward next season, guaranteeing the team would finish no worse than fourth to ensure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Therefore, the Tips aren’t planning on reveling in their 31-point improvement from 2012-13, which tied for the largest leap forward in the league. They’re committed to taking yet another step forward.
“You hope there’s been a standard of performance set so that guys understand what it takes to be successful; guys understand there’s a right way and a wrong way to play the game; guys understand the amount of effort it takes to be successful,” said coach Kevin Constantine, who just completed the first season of his second stint behind Everett’s bench. “Hopefully that base has been established.”
How realistic will finishing fourth be? From one standpoint the Tips are in excellent shape.
Everett returns a goaltender in Lotz, who will be a 19-year-old with two years experience as a No. 1. There’s a good chance the Tips will return five of their top six defensemen, depending on whether Ben Betker and Mirco Mueller are summoned by the professional ranks. Two of those top six were 16-year-olds Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen, who only can be expected to get better in their sophomore seasons. Everett already is one of the toughest teams to generate scoring chances against. With the kind of players the Tips return at the back, it won’t get any easier for Everett’s opponents.
“I’m pretty excited about our back end,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said. “We have a 19-year-old in Austin Lotz, who at times was real solid in goal. Consistency will be a very important thing for him. I think we’re in good shape at the back end with our goaltending and defense.”
But will the Tips be able to score goals?
Joshua Winquist carried Everett’s offense this season, setting a franchise record for goals in a season, tying the franchise record for points in a season and finishing with 34 point more than his nearest teammate. He won’t be back as he’s exhausted his WHL eligibility.
Indeed, Everett doesn’t lose many players, as the Tips were a younger team again this season. However, those who aren’t returning were core players.
Matt Pufahl, the team’s primary offensive weapon from the blue line, also graduated as an overager, as did the speedy Manraj Hayer. Jujhar Khaira also won’t be back, as he already signed a contract with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers and will play in the pros next season as a 20-year-old. Add in Winquist and four of Everett’s top five scorers won’t be back.
The Tips’ offensive cupboard isn’t completely bare, though. Ivan Nikolishin put up 59 points as a 17-year-old rookie, Carson Stadnyk emerged as a goal threat, Tyler Sandhu can be expected to rebound from an injury-plagued season and Patrick Bajkov showed promise as a 16-year-old. But Everett wasn’t a high-scoring team this season, and the player losses could make goals that much harder to come by next season.
“The points Winquist and Pufahl and Hayer and Khaira scored will be difficult to replace,” Constantine said. “I can’t say if we’ll be a better offensive team next year or not. Maybe overall we’ll be more thorough, because of the experience gained. But does that mean we’ll be able to score more goals? There’s some big shoes to fill offensively.”
Also, the Western Conference isn’t going to be any easier next season. Kelowna, Portland and Victoria all surpassed the 100-point mark this season, and all three teams seem well positioned to continue to challenge for honors next season. Therefore, the Tips can’t expect any help from the rest of the pack backing up.
One player who could aid Everett offensively is Tyson Jost. Jost, Everett’s first-round pick in the 2013 bantam draft, had a record-breaking season playing in the B.C. Major Midget League as a 15-year-old, leading the league in scoring and setting a league record for goals in a season with 44 in 36 games. Though he wouldn’t be expected to replace Winquist as a 16-year-old rookie, his addition could help.
However, the Tips are still in limbo with Jost as he has yet to sign a WHL education contract with Everett. Jost’s decision on whether to join the Tips or keep his NCAA options open will be one of the biggest developments of the offseason.
“He still hasn’t signed with us, but for me he’s a priority guy to get here next year,” Davidson said.”
Another player of Jost’s caliber is Patrick Khodorenko, who was Everett’s second-round pick in the 2013 bantam draft. However, Khodorenko is expected to spend the next two seasons playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.