The Silvertips’ Olen Zellweger in action during a game against the Winterhawks on Jan. 1, 2022, at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The Silvertips’ Olen Zellweger in action during a game against the Winterhawks on Jan. 1, 2022, at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

5 burning questions for the Silvertips this season

A look at the most pressing topics as Everett gets set to open the 2022-23 campaign on Saturday.

The Everett Silvertips’ 2022-23 WHL season begins Saturday when the Tips host the Vancouver Giants at Angel of the Winds Arena. Everett is coming off a season in which it went 45-15-5-5 and won the U.S. Division championship. However, the Tips were upset by Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs, and Everett has many questions as the puck prepares to drop.

Here are five burning questions as the Tips head into the season:

1) Will Olen Zellweger return for his 19-year-old season?

This one question will determine much of Everett’s trajectory this season. Zellweger is as good a player as there is in the WHL, as last season he tallied 14 goals and 64 assists in 55 games en route to earning the Bill Hunter Trophy as the league’s Defenseman of the Year. As a 19-year-old he should in theory be back for another star turn with the Tips.

However, Zellweger is attending training camp with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, who selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft. The Ducks are a rebuilding team, and it’s possible Zellweger, who further increased his stock by starring as Canada claimed the gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships in August, could stick in the NHL as a 19-year-old.

Zellweger is able to appear in nine games with the Ducks before burning the first year of his three-year entry-level contract, and Everett general manager and head coach Dennis Williams said he expects Anaheim to use those nine games before making a decision. So it may not be until November that Everett gains clarity on Zellweger’s status.

And Zellweger’s fate potentially affects more than just him. Everett has five strong overage candidates (forwards Jackson Berezowski, Ryan Hofer and Jacob Wright, defensemen Dylan Anderson and Aidan Sutter) and must get down to three by Oct. 10 — though Williams said he’d prefer to make a decision earlier than that. Does Williams pick his trio based on whether he thinks Zellweger is coming back?

2) Who lines up at center?

Last season Everett had three outstanding centers in Alex Swetlikoff, Michal Gut and Ryan Hofer, and that quality at center played a large role in the Tips’ success. However, Swetlikoff aged out of the league and Gut elected to spend his overage season playing professionally in his native Czechia. In addition, No. 4 center Matthew Ng chose not to return this season because of injury issues.

That leaves Hofer (who’s still an outside bet to play professionally in the Washington Capitals’ system this season) and a lot of uncertainty.

In all likelihood Everett will need to take players who have played primarily as wingers and switch them to center — and take on the additional defensive load that comes with it. During preseason 18-year-olds Austin Roest and Beau Courtney, who saw short stints at center last season, drew much of the assignment. Williams also said 18-year-old Ben Hemmerling, who played center during his minor-hockey days, is capable of making the switch.

3) Can Braden Holt become a lockdown No. 1 goaltender?

Everett has a long history of goaltending excellence, and the Tips believe the 19-year-old Holt is capable of being the next in line. Last season Holt split the goaltending duties down the middle with Koen MacInnes, going 24-6-2-2 with a 2.56 goals against average and .909 save percentage during a campaign that saw its ups and downs.

MacInnes was traded to Regina during the offseason, and Everett’s other options in goal are rookies Evan May and Tim Metzger. Therefore, the net is theoretically Holt’s. At 19 now is the time for Holt to become a difference maker. Given Everett is not expected to have as strong a team in front of him this season, the Tips will likely need high-caliber goaltending to keep up.

4) What can the Tips get from their import players?

Everett has two brand new European players, and they have big shoes to fill. Last season the Tips had their most offensively-impactful European duo in franchise history in Gut, who was arguably the team’s best playmaker, and winger Niko Huuhtanen, who unquestionably had the team’s most-dangerous shot. Both are gone, with Huuhtanen heading back to his native Finland to play professionally as a 19-year-old.

Everett could really use some production out of 18-year-old Czech winger Dominik Rymon, who was selected in the first round of this year’s CHL import draft. Rymon, who Williams described as a winger version of Gut, showed promise during preseason with a goal and three assists in five contests.

Metzger, a 17-year-old who was selected in the second round of the import draft, won’t be providing any offense. But the 6-foot-6 netminder from Switzerland is an intriguing prospect who Williams described as raw, so it remains to be seen how much he can contribute this season.

5) Even if everything goes right for Everett, will it matter in a stacked U.S. Division?

No matter how the dominoes fall for the Tips, they’re still in a division with the Seattle Thunderbirds.

The T-birds are the defending Western Conference champions, and not only do they have the bulk of their roster back from last season, they’ve augmented it with the addition of dynamic overage winger Kyle Crnkovic via trade with Saskatoon, as well as the recruitment of highly-regarded 17-year-old center Gracyn Sawchyn away from the NCAA track. Seattle will be a tough nut to crack, no matter how things play out for Everett.

The T-birds aren’t the only challenge. Portland is always a tough opponent, and the Winterhawks have a strong returning core as well. And Spokane is expected to be improved this season.

All of which makes Everett’s prospects for 2022-23 unknown as the season begins.

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