EVERETT — Off the ice, there was hardly any difference when Jake Christiansen returned to the Everett Silvertips from his two-and-half-month professional tryout with the American Hockey League’s Stockton Heat.
After a day of traveling, the long-time Everett defenseman joined the Silvertips last week in Medicine Hat — just in time for a team dinner in the middle of the Silvertips’ Central Division road trip. He conversed with teammates just like he’d never left.
But on the ice, Christiansen has been a different guy.
It turns out he learned a couple of things in his absence.
The 1999-born Christiansen collected eight points (five goals, three assists) over his first three games after being released from Stockton. It was a stretch that not only earned him Western Hockey League Player of the Week honors, but also a spot on the Canadian Hockey League’s Team of the Week.
“Obviously Jake was one of the premier defensemen in the Western Hockey League from what I saw (last year),” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said. “With a player of his capabilities on the power play running it … it rounds out the backend pretty good.”
Why was Christiansen gone so long? By playing against pros, he was hoping to earn an NHL entry-level contract.
The situation dragged on until early December as Christiansen stayed for 20 games in the AHL. He dressed for nine without recording a point.
“I was just going with the flow,” he said.
Does Christiansen regret the time away and the fact he came back without a contract? Not at all.
Christiansen was a healthy scratch the majority of his time in Stockton, the first time that’s happened to him since he was a 16-year-old in the WHL, but when he wasn’t playing, he was soaking up as much information as he could.
“It was awesome,” Christiansen said. “My whole time there it was really fun and I enjoyed it a lot. I’m thankful for the opportunity that I got there. I got an opportunity to learn and grow my game while trying out for the team, so I’m really happy with how that went and I’m just happy to bring back some skills that I’ve learned there and help (the Silvertips) win.”
Has Williams noticed a difference in Christiansen?
“You can tell he’s been playing with bigger, strong players, you know?” Williams said. “He’s playing with a lot of poise, a lot of confidence, not a lot of panic toward his game. He’s been able to slow the game down at times when it needs to be slowed down and zip pucks up when they need to be zipped up.
“It’s nice to have those guys (Christiansen and fellow defenseman Wyatte Wylie) back there. With him and Wyatte, they are good shutdown defensemen that can also add punch offensively.”
Stockton was a nice fit, Christiansen said, partly because of the familiar faces on the roster. Eetu Tuulola, a teammate of Christiansen’s in Everett in 2016-2017, plays for the Heat. So does former Silvertip Byron Froese, who is Stockton’s captain and was “a huge help” for Christiansen.
Christiansen’s return made for a difficult roster decision, though.
To free up an overage spot, the Silvertips traded forward Max Patterson to the Seattle Thunderbirds for a fourth-round bantam draft pick, leaving Everett down a forward and a center, a position where they are woefully thin.
What’s more, Patterson was an assistant captain and a well-liked figure in the locker room. His departure left a leadership void.
“For a guy like him, you’d send him to your ultimate enemy just to (keep) him in the league because of what he’s done here,” Williams said of Patterson. “He really embraced our culture and helped develop our culture and our leadership. I’m glad it’s all worked out that he can still play (in the WHL) and play an integral part in Seattle, too.
“I called him one of the ultimate Silvertips in my time here. He’s just a team guy, a leader, good in the faceoff circle, which right now we are struggling off it. … It was one of those bittersweet moments. You’re excited to have Jake back but you also don’t want to lose Max. Unfortunately, that’s the decision management has to make and our job as coaches to deal with it.”
With rookie import center Michal Gut injured, the only available center on Everett’s roster is Gage Goncalves, who is still learning the position after converting from the wing to center Everett’s top line with Cole Fonstad and Bryce Kindopp.
“We need centermen,” Williams said. “That’s been kind of the talk for a year.”
It will be center by committee for the foreseeable future, Williams said, which isn’t an easy task considering the expectations, especially in the defensive zone, of playing center. Players such as Jackson Berezowski, Justyn Gurney, Dawson Butt and Brendan Lee, all natural wingers, have helped the fill the void in the middle since Patterson was traded.
In Patterson’s absence, Everett has won just 41.8% of its faceoffs.
Conversely, Christiansen’s return gives Everett a defensive corps that once again rivals any in the WHL. With Wylie, Christiansen, Gianni Fairbrother and Ronan Seeley constituting Everett’s top-two pairings, as well as depth pieces in rookie Olen Zellweger, Parker Hendren, Dylan Anderson and Aidan Sutter, the Silvertips are not short of options on the blueline.
Since Martin Fasko-Rudas is off to World Juniors with Slovakia and Gut, Jalen Price and Tyson Phare are injured, the Silvertips likely will be down to 10 forwards, meaning all eight defensemen will suit up in an 18-man lineup.
In the meantime, Williams said, some of those defensemen may be asked to fill out Everett’s fourth forward line.
Josh Horton covers the Silvertips for the Herald. Follow him on Twitter, @JoshHortonEDH.