By Nick Patterson Herald writer
EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips spent three years in a rut.
They believe this season began the turnaround.
Everett’s season ended Saturday with its first-round playoff loss at the hands of the Seattle Thunderbirds. However, the Tips’ efforts this season returned the franchise to WHL relevance.
“Looking back on it overall it was a successful season,” Tips captain Matt Pufahl said. “I think we turned this organization around the way we want it to go. That’s one thing I wanted to do this year, help make sure it’s going on the right path, and I think that’s where it’s going.”
Everett finished the season 39-23-7-3 and tied for fourth in the Western Conference. The 88 points accumulated during the season were the third-most in the franchise’s 11-year history, and the Tips had a winning record for the first time since 2009-10.
More importantly, the Tips pulled themselves out of a lull that saw the team earn no more than 67 points the previous three seasons, when Everett squeaked into the conference’s eighth-and-final playoff berth on all three occasions. Though the Tips were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the seventh straight year, at least this time around those playoff games had meaning, rather than Everett merely serving as first-round fodder.
“I guess you could say this season was a lot better,” said center Manraj Hayer, who suffered through the previous three campaigns. “My first three years we were just fighting for that eighth-and-final playoff spot. This year was a lot more fun, winning games and getting that winning culture back in the Silvertips organization that was there the first few years. It’s been a lot better.”
This season saw the return of coach Kevin Constantine to the fold. Constantine reached legendary status during his first stint behind Everett’s bench, winning three U.S. Division banners while guiding the Tips during their first four seasons of existence from 2003-07. His return also proved successful as he had the Tips playing with greater discipline and purpose than they did the previous three seasons.
“I think our whole program, on and off the ice, we started doing things way better as an organization,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said. “Obviously bringing Kevin back was a huge part of it. Our team was always well prepared. We had a regimented approach to doing business here, which I think is important. As an organization I think we’re getting to where we need to be to be a well-rounded program.”
Everett’s season was more like three seasons. The Tips stormed out of the gate, going 20-4-4-0 in their first 28 games to reach the top spot in the WHL standings. Then injuries set in, with Everett going 6-17-3-1 over the next 27 contests. But the Tips finished with a flourish after regaining their health, going 13-2-0-2 down the stretch to secure the franchise’s guarantee of finishing at least sixth in the conference, as well as nearly steal home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Numerically it was a considerably better season for Everett. The Tips were the lowest-scoring team in the league over the previous three seasons, never potting more than 183 goals. Everett still wasn’t a high-scoring team, but the team’s 215 goals were a significant improvement, pulling the Tips comfortably out of the league’s scoring basement. Meanwhile, the 203 goals Everett surrendered tied the Tips for fifth in the league in fewest allowed.
Among the players, no one did more to lift the Tips than winger Joshua Winquist. The overager in his fifth season with Everett had a record-breaking year offensively. His 47 goals set a new single-season franchise record, and he matched the franchise single-season record for points with 93 as he carried the Tips offense.
Everett’s defense, marshaled by summer acquisition Pufahl along with returning veterans Mirco Mueller and Ben Betker, contributed to the Tips allowing the second-fewest shots on goal in the league. When those shots managed to get through on goal, Austin Lotz usually did a good job stopping them. Lotz had a bit of a down spell during the middle of the season, but overall he had a solid season, going 31-18-3-2 with a 2.53 goals against average and .905 save percentage.
Everett also received excellent efforts from its 16-year-olds. Defensemen Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen and forwards Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne all appeared in 56 or more games, and all four skated a regular shift when in the lineup.
“You want to get the most our of what you can do as a group of players and coaches,” Constantine said. “I think for the most part that got done. When healthy I think we were very competitive and found our share of victories. One thing we couldn’t do is sustain through injuries, so we might need to get a little deeper to survive the injuries. But I thought the team did a good job.”
Three Everett players will finish their seasons in the professional ranks as they’re headed to the American Hockey League. Winquist and fellow forward Jujhar Khaira are joining the Oklahoma City Barons, while Mueller is joining the Worcester Sharks. Khaira (Edmonton) and Mueller (San Jose) had already signed professional contracts with the NHL teams that drafted them. Winquist signed an amateur tryout contract with the Barons Monday. … Everett will also be represented at the U-18 World Championships as forward Ivan Nikolishin will play for Russia. The Tournament is April 17-27 in Finland.