By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — It’s not easy being a 16-year-old defenseman in the Western Hockey League.
First, they’re facing opposition that is considerably bigger, stronger, faster and older than anything they’ve faced before.
Second, a defenseman has no place to hide. If a d-man makes a mistake, there’s a good chance the puck ends up in the back of the net, whereas a forward can make a mistake without immediate consequences.
Therefore, it’s much more difficult for a 16-year-old defenseman to make it in the WHL than a 16-year-old forward. Teams are usually happy if they can find any 16-year-old defenseman good enough to warrant a roster spot. If that 16-year-old d-man is capable of dressing every game and playing a regular shift, it’s a boon.
The Everett Silvertips are blessed with two of them.
Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen have dived head first into the WHL’s deep end, and the rookie 16-year-old defensive pair is demonstrating Everett’s blue line is well positioned not just for the future, but also for the present.
“I expected them as 16-year-olds to be able to hold their own,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said. “Lately they’ve done that and more. I’m really impressed with how both have played.”
Davis, a native of Kamloops, B.C., who was the team’s first-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft, played in 28 of Everett’s first 29 games, tallying four assists and a plus-6 rating. Juulsen, who’s from Abbotsford, B.C., and was Everett’s fourth-round pick in 2012, dressed in 24 of the first 29 games, notching three assists and a plus-8 rating.
And Davis and Juulsen haven’t just been watching from the bench, getting the occasional shift while the veterans received the bulk of the ice time. Both hop off the bench every third shift when the teams are skating five-on-five, with Davis also receiving extensive time on the penalty kill and the occasional shift on the power play.
“It’s going well right now,” Davis said about his rookie campaign. “It’s a challenge, for sure, but I think I’m doing fine and I want to keep improving day by day.”
Juulsen concurred: “It’s been a pretty good start so far, so I hope I can just keep it going. I think I’ve done pretty well. It’s hard when the other players are bigger and stronger than you, but it’s been pretty good.”
Having both Davis and Juulsen in the ranks is a massive luxury for the Tips. How rare are 16-year-old defensemen in the WHL? Just 13 of the league’s 22 teams have a 16-year-old d-man on their roster, and Everett is the only team with more than one.
In the previous 10 seasons the Tips had just eight 16-year-old defensemen who spent the entire season with the club, and just one of those — Ryan Murray in 2009-10 — played with the same kind of regularity as Davis and Juulsen.
“It’s hard to break in as a 16-year-old in this league,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “A lot of the times you’re playing guys who are five years older, bigger and stronger, so it’s pretty challenging. If you look around the league there’s not a lot of 16s playing, and often when they do play they’re getting limited ice time and a limited role. But those two have played pretty significant ice time and pretty significant roles for us. We wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t believe they could get it done, so it’s pretty impressive.”
Only one time in franchise history has Everett had more than one 16-year-old defenseman. In 2004-05, the team’s second season, the Tips fielded three 16-year-old d-men: Jonathan Harty, Taylor Ellington and Graham Potuer.
However, the circumstances were substantially different that season. Everett had little choice but to go young, as the Tips had just one bantam draft class that was eligible to play in the league, meaning the organization’s talent base was almost completely in its 16-year-olds. Also, there were no regulations regarding playing time for 16-year-olds, meaning Potuer could dress for just 29 games. Sixteen-year-olds are now required to dress in a minimum of 40 games.
Therefore, the preseason depth chart made difficult reading for Davis and Juulsen. Everett had five defensemen returning from the previous season, plus the offseason addition of overager Matt Pufahl. It seemed unlikely the Tips could get two 16-year-old defensemen their 40 games.
But Davis and Juulsen forced Everett’s hand with their play during training camp and the preseason. Since then Davis has impressed with his poise and decision making, while Juulsen has flashed physical play and a booming shot from the point. Both should zoom past the 40-game barrier.
Everett will have to make do without Davis and Juulsen following the Christmas break. Both were selected to play for Team Pacific at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge, which takes place Dec. 28-Jan. 4 in Nova Scotia. Their selection is further indication of what Davis and Juulsen will mean for Everett’s future.
However, the way they’re playing, Davis and Juulsen are having plenty of impact on Everett’s present, too.
“To have two 16-year-old defensemen at the same time, given the league’s rules, is a real exception to the rule,” Davidson said. “It’s an exceptional thing, and it’s going to very positive for our organization going forward.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.