Before the 2018-19 WHL season began, there was one question on everyone’s lips regarding the defending Western Conference-champion Everett Silvertips:
What happens after Carter Hart?
For three-plus seasons Hart was the face of the franchise. During Hart’s tenure as Everett’s No. 1 goaltender the Tips won three U.S. Division championships, tacking on a Western Conference title last season. In the process Hart won three Del Wilson Trophies, becoming the first player ever to be named the WHL’s Goaltender of the Year three times.
But Hart graduated to the professional ranks, and a deluge had to follow, didn’t it? How can a team expect to replace the most accomplished netminder in WHL history? Surely the Tips were going to take a step back in the goaltending department and subsequently fall in the standings.
Yet here we are at the start of December and Everett once again finds itself atop the Western Conference. And the goaltending? Dustin Wolf may have been handed the impossible task of succeeding a legend, but the Tips haven’t missed a beat in goal as Wolf has been one of the league’s best.
It turns out Everett had nothing to worry about in net. And why should anyone be surprised? After all, quality goaltending has been the greatest constant in Silvertips franchise history.
A strong line
At the expansion draft in June of 2003 the Swift Current Broncos made a deal with Everett, sending a pair of players to the Tips to prevent Everett from having its choice of those left exposed. One of the players traded to the Tips was Jeff Harvey.
Harvey had been an unremarkable WHL goaltender to that point, and as an overager it was even wondered whether he warranted a spot in the league. But playing for a plucky expansion team with a defensive emphasis under coach Kevin Constantine, Harvey had a season for the ages, going 24-14-5-2 with a 1.99 goals against average and .925 save percentage to lead the Tips to shock division and conference titles.
Harvey was Everett’s first big star, and he began the tradition of Tips goaltending excellence.
During every single one of Everett’s 16 seasons of existence the Tips had quality goaltending: Harvey was followed by Michael Wall, whose play earned him an NHL contract and who became the first Everett player ever to appear in an NHL game. Wall gave way to Leland Irving, who became a first-round NHL draft pick and gave the Tips three stellar seasons of goalie play.
Thomas Heemskerk was acquired to replace Irving, and he also earned an NHL deal while with the Tips. Heemskerk was followed to Kent Simpson, who became a second-round NHL draft pick. Simpson was succeeded by Austin Lotz, who held down the position for three seasons before giving way to Hart.
During Everett’s 16 seasons there were just two patches where there was any uncertainty about goaltending. The Tips had no established No. 1 at the start of the 2008-09 season, and the problem was rectified by trading for Heemskerk in December. At the beginning of the 2012-13 season Lotz needed an adjustment period as he became the starter as a 17-year-old, but he settled into the job before Christmas.
What makes the run even more impressive is that the goalies are almost all homegrown. Irving was part of Everett’s first-ever bantam draft class in 2003, and he took over as the Tips’ starter when he was 17. Since then all but one of Everett’s No. 1 goalies have been drafted and developed by the Tips.
“We’ve been fortunate for 16 seasons to have incredible Western Hockey League-quality goaltending,” said Silvertips governor Zoran Rajcic, who’s been a part of Everett’s front office since the beginning. “For the most part we’ve been fortunate that our goaltenders have been highly regarded. But the No. 1 thing we care about is them being great Western Hockey League goaltenders, and I don’t know that there’s credit to any one particular person.”
A rare occurrence
One may think Everett’s goaltending history is nothing out of the ordinary. Taking a look at the Tips’ U.S. Division rivals suggests otherwise. Since Everett’s arrival in the league in 2003 no other team in the division has had consistent security in net like the Tips.
For a long time the Tri-City Americans were the WHL’s goaltending factory, popping out future NHLers like Olaf Kolzig and Brian Boucher. During Everett’s first 12 seasons in the league that streak continued as the Americans produced goaltending stars like Carey Price, Chet Pickard and Eric Comrie.
But since 2015 Tri-City’s goaltending has been a quagmire. Tri-City had a roster that on paper seemed capable of competing for a division title, but the Americans were let down by their goaltending. Last season Tri-City was so desperate it turned to a journeyman overager who had been waived during the offseason in Patrick Dea. Dea ended up giving the Americans their best goaltending in three years.
The Spokane Chiefs, in the 16 seasons Everett’s been in the league, have had 12 different goaltenders who could be considered the No. 1, including a different lead goaltender each of the past six seasons. Spokane, too, had strong rosters, but was unable to overcome its goaltending.
The Seattle Thunderbirds have rarely had goaltending issues since Everett came into the league. But Seattle often had to look outside its own organization to address its goaltending. From 2012-2017, the T-birds had to trade for their No. 1 in four of their five seasons.
So what Everett’s had is a rare luxury, and it allows the general manager to sleep better at night.
“Like they say, when you’re winning it’s 50 percent of your team and when you’re losing it’s 100 percent,” Everett general manager Garry Davidson said with a wry smile.
“There’s been times with past organizations where I’ve had very good teams where we weren’t strong enough in goal,” Davidson added. “There’s times in the past I’ve seen the other team’s goaltending outplay ours and therefore we came up short. It’s a critical position and we’re fortunate the way it’s worked out here.
“It makes life a lot easier when you know you have goaltending, there’s no doubt about it.”
A nebulous explanation
Both Rajcic and Davidson used the word “fortunate” when describing Everett’s goaltending history. That’s not an accident.
“The difficult part is I don’t think there’s any science to it,” Rajcic admitted.
Indeed, there’s no formula the Tips employ to ensure they always have reliable goaltending. The trend has survived two general managers (the first of those, Doug Soetaert, was a goaltender himself), five head coaches and a passel of goaltending consultants. Constantine coaching the team for eight season, with his defensive and structured style of play, no doubt aided Everett’s goaltending statistics, but that doesn’t explain the other eight seasons.
It’s not like the Tips expended heavy resources on goaltending, either. Everett has participated in 16 bantam drafts, and only once has the team selected a goaltender with a premium pick, that being when the Tips picked Simpson with the last pick of the first round in 2007. Irving and Wolf were fifth-round selections, Lotz was a seventh rounder and Hart lasted into the eighth round.
So what’s the secret?
“I think there’s certain things we as a group of scouts are looking for in goaltenders,” Davidson said. “But the one thing I don’t think you can ever judge with youthful goaltenders is really their mental part of it. That’s what separates Hart and Wolf from many of the goaltenders in my opinion. They’re all positionally solid, but Carter at 16 was mature beyond his age and Wolfie is the same way. When you go watch a game you’re never sure about that, and you don’t find out until you really get to know them and work with them day in and day out.”
“I give full credit from day one to the scouts,” Rajcic said. “They look for some character in the player and look for some of the natural abilities. From there it’s all up to the player and their own development and growth. The goaltenders stand on their own island, there really isn’t a coach we have other than a part-time person to work with them. The goaltenders we’ve been fortunate to draft have worked hard, they’re the ones who wanted to improve their games.”
If the Tips have just been lucky, then they’re on some kind of hot streak.
With Wolf being just 17 years old, it seems the Tips are set in goal for at least two more years. After Wolf moves on, be prepared to hear the same questions about Everett’s goaltending that were asked upon Hart’s departure.
But Tips fans shouldn’t worry. History suggests someone new will be ready and waiting to be Everett’s next goaltender in line.