Living with high expectations

  • By Nick Patterson / Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, May 2, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

EVERETT – In their first three WHL seasons the Everett Silvertips did just about everything. Winning records. Division titles. Even a conference title.

But in the 2006-07 season the Tips will have something new: Expectations.

After three seasons of exceeding the modest expectations generally placed on them, the Tips go into next season targeted as one of the teams to beat.

“It’s very exciting,” center Peter Mueller said when asked to contemplate next season’s possibilities. “I think we’re going to have a very strong team next year. We have a lot of returning guys and that should help us out in the long run.”

Everett is coming off a strong season, during which the Tips won the U.S. Division and reached the Western Conference championship series. With Everett’s vaunted 2003 Bantam Draft class just now reaching maturity, the Tips are a strong contender to be the WHL’s representative at the 2007 Memorial Cup just up the road in Vancouver.

The Tips will be loaded with top-end talent. Mueller, Ondrej Fiala and Brady Calla are all impact forwards who should be back, provided they don’t stick with the NHL team that drafts them in June. And Zach Hamill, who isn’t draft eligible until 2007, scored more points than any of them.

The Tips will also be deep on defense, with seven of eight defensemen expected back. Top it off with Leland Irving, one of the best young goaltenders in the world, and Everett has all the pieces for a lengthy postseason run.

“I think we have a great chance of winning the Memorial Cup with the talent we have and the coaching and organization,” Irving said. “With hard work and commitment we should be able to accomplish that.”

But the Memorial Cup is no gimme. Everett suffers some significant losses. Graduating overagers Torrie Wheat, Shaun Heshka and Mark Kress were all major contributors. In addition, leading scorer John Lammers and left wing Karel Hromas, are unlikely to return because of opportunities to play professionally.

“We know that we’re very solid in net,” Constantine said. “We know that although Shaun was clearly our best defenseman, that’s the only guy we’re losing. Our losses are that Kress and Wheat and Karel and Lammers all likely will not be back next year, and that’s a significant loss at forward.”

One player who will help fill the void is Kyle Beach. Beach, who will be a 16-year-old rookie next season, looked right at home once he joined the team in the playoffs. He appears poised for a substantial contribution in his first full season.

Everett should also get help from outside the organization. If both Lammers and Hromas play pro, then Everett will have just two returning candidates for the three overage spots, defensemen Cody Thoring and Jason Fransoo. That would leave one slot open for an additional overager, and there should be several useful options available. Also, the Tips can help themselves by picking a forward in the Import Draft.

Another player who could help is Kyle Okposo. Okposo, a member of Everett’s 50-player protected list, is a sturdy 1988-born forward who has been rising up the NHL Draft boards. The Minnesotan, who was the United States Hockey League Rookie of the Year for Des Moines (Iowa), is expected to be taken in the middle of the first round. Although he’s committed to attend the University of Minnesota, his choice could be swayed by the NHL team that drafts him.

While its possible the Tips could land Okposo, Constantine said there is less likelihood than when Everett was competing with the University of Minnesota for Mueller.

One issue Everett may have to address is the team’s toughness. The Tips had smaller players and played without an enforcer this season. That appeared to be exposed in the playoffs against Vancouver when the Giants overmatched the Tips physically.

“There’s a lot to be said about that,” Constantine said. “The easy thing to say would be, ‘Why did you lose, what was missing? Well, Vancouver was big and strong, so we need to get bigger and stronger.’ I’m not discounting that might be a good way of thinking.

“But you have to make sure that big and strong is also talented,” Constantine added. “There’s plenty of teams in the history of hockey that are big and strong, but can’t play or skate. Plus you have to look at what’s available to your organization.”

Despite a third successful season under his belt, Constantine, a former NHL coach, reiterated his stance that he’s not seeking another NHL job.

“I haven’t been contacted by anyone there,” Constantine said. “It’s not something I’ve really actively pursued. I guess there’s always the chance someone would call and you’d have to give it some consideration. But I’m under contract to coach this team.

“Our organizational success, the fan involvement, the great building, living in the Northwest, you add it all together and I’m a happy coach.”

Constantine did say he wouldn’t be shocked if one of his assistants, associate head coach John Becanic and assistant coach Jay Varady, were offered a position with a college or other junior team this offseason.

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