EVERETT — Different year, somewhat similar expectations, but the same pressing problem faces the Everett Silvertips’ lineup in 2019-2020:
Can it find four capable centers to roll out a full lineup?
That was a major struggle for Everett most of last season, especially when Riley Sutter went out for months with a lower-body injury. With Sutter moving on to professional hockey, and the same with Connor Dewar — a left winger that moved to center for a majority of shifts to help out — and with 20-year-old Max Patterson’s future unknown with four overagers still left on the Silvertips’ roster, those questions are only intensified this season.
“We’re really thin down the middle,” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said. “You normally rely on three heavy centers to do a lot of the work, more so on the defensive side of the puck and the faceoff circles. If you don’t win faceoffs, you’re chasing the game and last year we chased the game a lot off of faceoffs. It’s things we’re going to work on and see.”
There is perhaps one certainty at the pivot position, and that’s 2001-born forward Reece Vitelli, who has two seasons under his belt playing the position. His progress could be key in unlocking the best lineup for Everett in 2019-2020.
“I do think it’s time that he makes that jump,” Williams said. “It’s there for him, he can do it. It’s not a lack of effort, he does all that stuff. He’s an unbelievable person, he’s an unbelievable teammate, he’s an unbelievable hockey player. But again, for me, for Reece to make that jump it’s about what he does without the puck and details on the penalty kill.”
Vitelli was a bit of an anonymous, yet steady contributor to the Silvertips in his first two WHL seasons, centering the third line in two playoff runs — including Everett’s run to the WHL finals in 2018-2019 as a 16-year-old.
As he grows a year older, Vitelli’s confident he’s primed to make the jump.
“I came into the offseason wanting to dominate this year,” said Vitelli, whose 27 points last season were eighth on the team. “Having a lot of guys leave, I wanted to take on that leadership role and step up for the team and be a guy the coach can rely on in all situations. I have to work in practice and the preseason games leading up to the home opener to prove that I can do that.”
Williams added he was impressed with Vitelli’s progress from the end of the season through the summer, in which Vitelli said he gained about 10 pounds and refined his shot. The summer workout program left Vitelli feeling more comfortable skating with and engaging in puck-battles with the bigger, veteran players in the league, something that hasn’t always been the case in his rookie and sophomore campaigns.
“I’m feeling way faster out there,” Vitelli said. “I wanted to get a better shot — I didn’t have a very good shot (before). I wanted to get a quicker release that’s more powerful and more accurate, just to score in all situations on the ice. I think I accomplished that over the summer and I want to show that on the ice throughout the season.”
His teammates have noticed improvement, too.
“Reece got a lot bigger over the summer and stronger and got even faster — I don’t know how that’s even possible,” Silvertips forward Gage Goncalves said. “It seems like out there in practice, he’s developed more of that scoring touch and he worked on it a lot last year trying to bury pucks coming out of the corner and stuff.
“I just think he’s so agile on the ice. Down low, he’s probably one of the best on our team in cut-backs and taking the puck to the net. If he does that, he can be the No. 1 center on this team and lead us a long way.”
Behind Vitelli, even if he does make the jump, there are some question marks.
Especially if Patterson isn’t on the team as a third overager, which means Vitelli is the only true center on the roster — or at least the only player Williams is comfortable bestowing the label to.
There are some options that could fill out the lineup, mainly Michal Gut, who centered a line for the Czech Republic during the Under-18 Hlinka-Gretzky cup, but Williams said he didn’t want to put too many expectations on the 17-year-old import — nonetheless proclaiming him a top-six center. After missing training camp due to a visa issue, Gut is finally on the ice for Everett and will skate with the Silvertips over the weekend.
Jacob Wright, a 2002-born forward, played center for the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds in the British Columbia Major Midget League, but whether he’s able to stick at that position in the WHL as a youngster has yet to be determined.
The preseason will help Williams figure out which players may be able to stick up the middle.
“We’ll let guys work that out over the next six games,” he said. “We’ll have lots of times to put people in different spots and see how those guys do.”