As the second half of the WHL season commences Tuesday, the Everett Silvertips have to ask themselves an uncomfortable question:
Should they be sellers?
The Jan. 10 WHL trade deadline is fast approaching. The previous eight years that meant it was time for Everett to do some post-holiday shopping, bringing in a shiny new present or two to try and put the Tips over the top and become champions.
But the circumstances are different this year. Everett finds itself hovering just above .500 at 16-14-1-0, and while the Tips are in fourth place in the Western Conference, they are well off the pace of the top three, and are 15 points behind the the U.S. Division’s two leaders.
Teams have three options at the trade deadline. They can be buyers as they look to load up for a long playoff run. They can be sellers and sacrifice the present for assets that can help the team win in the future. Or they can stand pat and forge ahead with what they have. Typically a team in fourth place in the conference would be a buyer, or at least stand pat. But does that make the most sense for Everett?
Full disclosure: I’m probably the wrong person to be delivering this message. I have long been a believer that good organizations don’t get rid of their best players, and that certainly colors my opinion about this question. But I acknowledge that in these circumstances the question is a valid one.
So let’s look at the pros and cons.
Arguments for selling
1) Everett isn’t winning anything this year. The Tips just don’t appear likely to catch either Seattle or Portland. Not only are they well off the pace in the standings, they’ve won just once in nine meetings with the two. Add in B.C. Division leader Kamloops, which also has a better record than Everett — and has the added incentive of being the Memorial Cup host, meaning the Blazers will likely be big buyers at the deadline — and the Tips seem more than a couple players away from competing with the conference’s top teams.
2) Everett could get a huge return on the market. The typical sellable asset is a player who provides a major impact and won’t be back in the league the following season. This includes overagers, and Everett has a pair in forwards Jackson Berezowski and Ryan Hofer who would be coveted. But acquiring an overager comes with the built-in cost of having to move a current overager. The fact that it’s a upgrade rather than an addition brings the cost down.
However, the other category is 19-year-olds who will be playing professionally next season. Ah, Everett has one of those. Not just one, but perhaps the most valuable one possible in defenseman Olen Zellweger. Zellweger’s skill set as an elite offensive defenseman may just be the rarest in the league. The Tips could get a king’s ransom from a team like Kamloops for a player like Zellweger.
And those asset can help build a champion. Look at the past two WHL champs, Edmonton last year and Prince Albert in 2019. In both instances the team’s core was built substantially via deals made as sellers in previous seasons — Edmonton in 2016-17, Prince Albert in both 2014-15 and 2016-17.
3) Everett still probably makes the playoffs even if the Tips sell out completely. One thing that has to be taken into consideration is that the Tips have a streak of making the playoffs in every season of franchise history. Everett doesn’t want that to end, particularly in its 20th-anniversary season. But in the Western Conference eight of the 10 teams make the postseason, and there are already two teams that have sold in Victoria and Spokane. Both are languishing at the bottom of the standings, and although it’s unlikely, it’s possible that neither the Royals nor the Chiefs will reach the 33 points Everett already possesses.
Arguments against selling
1) We haven’t really seen what Everett has this season. The Tips have been hit harder by injuries than any other team in the WHL by some margin. In four of the past six weeks Everett has had eight players listed on the injury report, which on two occasions was double the next-afflicted team. Everett’s star players have generally avoided injury, but it’s wreaked havoc with the team’s depth, especially when it comes to defense and secondary scoring. Everett was 12-5-0-0 before the injuries hit. Tips associate coach David Struch said last week that the team expects the injury problem to clear up in mid or late January, so it may be worth seeing what the Tips can do at full strength.
2) Everett can still make noise in the playoffs. If the playoffs began today, the Tips would be hosting a first-round playoff series. Regardless of whether you believe Everett has a chance of beating Seattle, Portland or Kamloops in a best-of-seven series, the Tips would be favored to make it through at least one round. Those additional playoff games represent extra development for the players, and those added home dates are extra revenue for the organization. So getting to the second round of the playoffs has real value.
3) If you’re trying to build/maintain a winning culture, you have to demonstrate that you value winning. Nothing tells the players more that winning games isn’t important than by being a seller at the trade deadline. If you look at Everett’s history of success in winning six of the past eight U.S. Division titles, it isn’t based on having superior talent. It’s because the Tips have created a winning program. Does Everett want to risk disturbing what it’s created?
And while the past two WHL champions were aided greatly by selling, there are plenty of examples of champions that didn’t lean on assets acquired through selling in previous years. Swift Current’s 2018 championship team (which beat Everett in the finals) wasn’t built from prior selling. Neither was Seattle’s 2017 titlist. The Kelowna Rockets are often held up as the model WHL franchise, having won three championships since Everett entered the league in 2003, and they never sell.
It’s all food for thought for Everett general manager Dennis Williams. Williams is preoccupied right now as he coaches Canada’s team at the World Junior Hockey Championships, which don’t end until Jan. 5. Once they’re over, Williams he’ll have to quickly go through the uncomfortable process of deciding which path the Tips should follow.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.