Wanna hear something wild?
The Everett Silvertips, despite being major sellers at the WHL trade deadline, could still end up with home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Hear me out on this.
On Friday night I decided to head out to Angel of the Winds Arena to get a first-hand assessment of the Tips following the WHL trade deadline. How would the team look without arguably its top two players, defenseman Olen Zellweger and center Ryan Hofer, who were traded to the Kamloops Blazers? What was the mood in the locker room following a deal that signaled the organization was prioritizing the future over the present?
Based on what I saw and heard Friday, as well as what the Tips did in the week as a whole, I think Everett may still have what it takes to finish fourth, and considering the circumstances that would be a tremendous accomplishment.
There’s a reason why the Tips decided to be sellers at the trade deadline. Given the way Everett was constituted, and given the way the teams ahead of them were loading up, it seemed unlikely the Tips would finish any higher than fourth in the Western Conference. Then Kamloops gave Everett an offer it couldn’t refuse, shipping four players and 10 WHL prospects draft pick to the Tips for Zellweger and Hofer. For the first time in the franchise’s 20-year history the Tips were sellers at the trade deadline.
“It was a whirlwind couple days, that’s for sure,” Everett captain Jackson Berezowski said following Friday’s game. “But I think every trade deadline is kind of like that. We got some great players and gave away some great players, but that’s the price to play in this sport. We gave away two heart-and-soul players, we’re fortunate with the return we got, but obviously it’s always sad seeing two brothers like that go.
“But the morale’s still pretty high,” Berezowski added. “We have a good group in there and we have to have confidence in that group.”
Before the trade deadline, and before Everett suffered a rash of injuries, the Tips were firmly the fourth-best team in the Western Conference, well behind the big three of Seattle, Portland and Kamloops, but ahead of the rest. Player absences saw Everett fall back into the pack, and now the Tips are in a four-way battle with Tri-City, Prince George and Vancouver for fourth, with just three points separating the teams.
How valuable is finishing fourth? Not only does the team that finishes fourth receive home-ice advantage in the first round, it avoids having to play any of the three heavies. So it’s a goal worth chasing.
Did the Tips look like a team that could still finish fourth against the Blazers last Friday? For one period I would have said, “No chance.” Kamloops dominated play as Everett struggled just to get the puck out of its own end. By the end of the period the Tips trailed 4-1, and I was bracing for a hiding.
But you know what? Everett came out a different team in the second period. The Tips took the game to the Blazers, scored twice to pull within one, and created several good chances to tie it. Kamloops wasn’t able to put it away until less than three minutes remained in regulation.
Add in the 9-3 victory at Spokane last Wednesday — talk about a response to what happened at the trade deadline — and Saturday’s 3-2 overtime victory over Tri-City, and Everett actually moved itself back into fourth last week. And fourth remains the Tips’ goal, despite the trade.
”We want to be contenders, that’s our goal, it’s been our goal all year,” leading scorer Austin Roest said. “I think home ice, slipping into that fourth spot, that’s our goal, to finish fourth in the conference and go from there. Come playoff time it’s anyone’s game. You saw last year against Vancouver, when they were the eight seed against a one seed and they beat us. So come playoff time it’s a whole new season.”
Now, I don’t necessarily consider the Tips favorites to earn home ice. Among the four teams battling fourth, two were modest buyers at the trade deadline (Tri-City and Prince George). Also, the B.C. Division teams (Prince George, Vancouver) have a decided schedule advantage in that they don’t have to play a bunch of games against Seattle and Portland the way the U.S. Division teams do.
But Everett has some scheduling factors in its favor as well, most notably having six games remaining against Spokane, which is in last place in the conference. The Tips have a brutal stretch of games from March 3-11, when they play six straight against Seattle, Portland and Kamloops. But if Everett is in any kind of position after that, the Tips have a chance as their final five are all against beatable foes.
For fourth place to happen, Everett needs several things to break right. The Tips need consistently good goaltending, something the recently-acquired Tyler Palmer has provided after taking a couple games to settle into his new home. Everett needs to get offensive production from forwards other than Berezowski and Roest — playmaking winger Ben Hemmerling can’t return from injury soon enough.
But if those things go right, the Tips may just wind up in the same position they were destined to finish had they stood pat at the trade deadline. And how big a coup would it be if Everett still earned home ice in the first round, despite being a seller — and adding a huge bounty of draft capital — at the trade deadline?
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.