Are the Everett Silvertips for real?
That’s the question I sought to answer as I rolled up to Angel of the Winds Arena on Saturday night for the Tips’ game against the Kamloops Blazers.
Everett was was off to a historic start, having not lost in regulation in its first 18 games (16-0-1-1). Meanwhile, Kamloops (16-2-0-0) was also steamrolling everyone in its path. These were the runaway leaders in the WHL’s Western Conference, and Everett and Kamloops were ranked second and third, respectively, in the entire Canadian Hockey League, making Saturday night’s game the conference’s biggest of the first half of the season.
But despite the Tips’ record, there were two circumstances that left a smidgen of doubt as to whether Everett was actually that good. First, no one expected the Tips to be this strong before the season began. Second, because of the coronavirus pandemic Everett went nearly two years without facing a foe outside the U.S. Division, so it was impossible to know whether the Tips were that dominant, or whether they were getting fat off inferior competition.
So Saturday night was the litmus test. How Everett performed against B.C. Division-leading Kamloops would give us an indication of how the Tips stack up against the best.
Well, I have good news Tips fans. Even though Everett lost 3-2, bringing its franchise record for consecutive games earning a point to an end, I came away more confident that the Tips have what it takes to be a legitimate contender this season.
Everett played well. The Tips outshot the Blazers 43-29, and they controlled stretches of play when they got physical on the forecheck, making life uncomfortable for the Kamloops defense. The Blazers’ goals that gave them a 2-0 lead came on a fortunate bounce and a preventable Everett turnover. If a game between these two teams is played like that, I suspect the Tips would prevail more often than not.
“I thought we played really well,” Everett coach Dennis Williams said. “We’ve won games this year we probably shouldn’t have won, and I wouldn’t say we deserved to win this one, but I thought we played well enough to win the hockey game.”
What was evident Saturday is that Everett has two legit No. 1 defensemen in Olen Zellweger and Ronan Seeley. These are players who are capable of dictating play when they’re on the ice, and they aren’t paired together, meaning the Tips have one of the two on the ice 75% of the time (or more should Williams desire). It’s rare to have one player like this, let alone two, and it’s a real headache for opponents to deal with.
Everett is also deep up front. The Tips’ are a legitimate 10-deep at forward, and Everett’s top three lines are virtually indistinguishable with regards to level of play. It means opponents aren’t able to scheme a way of shutting down Everett’s most dangerous line, because there’s no specific line to key on. And offseason acquisitions Alex Swetlikoff and Niko Huuhtanen showed their value Saturday as the big-bodied forwards led the forechecking charge.
The biggest question coming into the season was how the Tips would replace superstar goaltender Dustin Wolf. Well, Koen MacInnes played well Saturday, and he and Braden Holt have both been excellent this season, so that’s no longer a concern.
Yep, Everett has the elements necessary to contend for a championship.
“I think we’ve always got to be confident (about being a championship contender),” Everett co-captain Jackson Berezowski said. “We have a good group here and we have a good thing going. You can look at our record or not, but we put in the work on and off the ice. In the locker room we have chemistry going, so I think it’s going to be good.”
However, Saturday’s game also revealed what else the Tips could use. The difference against the Blazers was finishing ability. Kamloops has some gamebreaking talents at forward who can turn one little slip into a goal at the other end. As deep as Everett may be up front, the Tips are lacking that gamebreaking offensive talent, which on Saturday meant that Everett’s puck possession in dangerous areas didn’t always translate into dangerous scoring chances.
Everett is also lacking left-shot wingers, and that was visible Saturday during attacks down the left. Those right-shot wingers who were playing down the left needed that extra split second to get the puck onto their forehands, and that split second was enough to prevent shots from being released with full power behind them.
Finally, Everett is small on defense. This may not actually be a problem, as the game seems to be trending in a direction where size on defense is not nearly as important as it used to be. But the Tips are testing this to the extreme, as Seeley is Everett’s only defensemen who’s at least 6 feet tall, and at 6-foot-1 Seeley is no giant himself. The lack of size wasn’t an issue Saturday, but it could be in a seven-game playoff series when opponents will try to exploit this by physically pounding on the Tips’ d-men.
Given how top-heavy the WHL appears to be this season, with Everett, Kamloops, Winnipeg and Edmonton separating themselves, the Tips may need to make a move to get over the top. A deal like the one they pulled off in 2017-18, acquiring playmaking winger Garrett Pilon and big defenseman Ondrej Vala at the trade deadline (from Kamloops, of all teams), would be perfect. They just need the handedness to be flipped, with the winger being a left shot and the defenseman being a right shot.
In conclusion, based on Saturday’s game there’s no reason why Everett can’t be a championship contender this season. However, the Tips may need to make one big move if they want to claim their first ever WHL championship.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.