Silvertips willing to take chance on top American prospects

EVERETT — Patrick Khodorenko has everything one could want in a 15-year-old hockey prospect.

The Walnut Creek, Calif., native already has the requisite size for a top WHL center, measuring in at about 6 feet and 180 pounds. He has the physical tools, as he’s displayed a nifty set of hands and the ability to turn on a dime. He’s also shown the vision needed to make plays for his teammates.

But perhaps Khodorenko’s most important quality as far as the Everett Silvertips are concerned this week? He’s here.

Khodorenko embodies the player-acquisition strategy being employed by Everett general manager Garry Davidson, in which the Tips are willing to take a chance on top-end American players who may never play for Everett. And Khodorenko’s presence during training camp this year may be the next step toward that strategy bearing fruit.

Khodorenko was Everett’s second-round pick in this year’s bantam draft, and so far he’s been one of the standouts of camp.

“It’s been exciting,” said Khodorenko, who is attending camp to get a first-hand look at what the WHL has to offer. “I like the place, it’s nice, and the guys have been cool. It’s a nice area, I like the practices and games, they’re fun. I feel pretty good about how I’m playing, I’m actually doing well.”

Davidson described Khodorenko as “very impressive for a 15-year-old. He looks like he could play right now, which he can’t, unfortunately (because he’s too young).” Under different circumstances Khodorenko would have been among the top five players picked in the bantam draft, Davidson added.

“He’s so strong on the puck, makes great decisions and shows real good finish, and also shows good vision to get the puck to other people,” Davidson said. “He looks strong for his age, too; he’s hard to move off the puck. He does a lot of good things out there.”

So why did Khodorenko fall to the second round? That’s because he’s an American who has options. For top American players, there’s a constant tug-of-war between the Canadian major-junior leagues and the NCAA. Elite Americans the Tips have drafted and lost to the NCAA in the past include Zach Budish (an 11th-round pick in 2006 who went to Minnesota) and Austin Wuthrich (a 12th-round pick in 2008 who went to Notre Dame).

The possibility of losing a top American talent doesn’t bother Davidson. He believes drafting players like Khodorenko — who hasn’t made any kind of commitment to Everett — is a risk worth taking.

“I think the philosophy is you take the best player available, then you recruit him,” Davidson said. “That’s the approach we were using in Portland (when Davidson was the director of player personnel), and I try to instill upon our people here that when we get going here, we have to go after the best possible players. Then our job is to get them to come and play for us.

“In the past, even myself at times, I’ve looked at a player and said, ‘It’s a longshot we’ll get this guy, so we’ll take this other player,’ who’s a longshot to ever play for you because of his ability,” Davidson continued. “These people are not longshots because of their ability to play in this league, they’re longshots because it’s a tough recruit.

“I’d rather go after the top-end kids and have a chance at them as opposed to trying to develop some longshot who may never have the capabilities of playing in this league.”

Khodorenko isn’t the first example of Davidson swinging for the fences. In the 2012 bantam draft, Davidson’s first in charge, Everett also used its second pick on a top American talent, selecting Phoenix-based center Auston Matthews in the third round. Matthews didn’t attend training camp as a 15-year-old, then committed to the U.S. National Team Development Program during the summer. He’ll spend two years with the national team, then the Tips will make another run at Matthews for the 2015-16 season when he’s 18.

Also a candidate for the national team, Khodorenko is in a similar position as Matthews was a year ago. Khodorenko indicated that if he’s invited to join the NTDP, he’ll likely accept. So it’s possible that, like Matthews, the Tips will have to be patient.

But Khodorenko isn’t the only high-end American the Tips convinced to come to camp this year. Alec Mehr, a 16-year-old center from Irvine, Calif., also has been impressive in camp. When the Tips selected Mehr in the 12th round of the 2012 bantam draft, it was thought to be a longshot pick since Mehr and his family expressed little interest in the WHL. But the Tips were able to convince Mehr, who unlike Khodorenko can play for Everett this season, to give the organization a look. Now the Tips are at least in the conversation.

“I think it was just good to see what it’s like around here and see what the team is all about,” said Mehr, who is being recruited by NCAA heavies like Minnesota and Wisconsin. “I think this camp will help a lot, seeing what we want to do, and then deciding.”

It remains to be seen whether the Tips will be able to successfully recruit Khodorenko or Mehr. But getting getting American players of that ability to training camp is the first step.

“I think we’re certainly heading in the right direction,” Davidson said. “When we actually get them to signed onto Western Hockey League contracts, that will be the big step. We’ve made some nice little steps in that direction. It’s like anything else, if you get one or two and they have success, they go back and talk to other people and you might get three, four, five as you go forward.”

The Tips are hoping this is the year those dominoes begin to fall.

Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.

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