As Bil La Forge, then in his first season as the Silvertips’ director of player personnel, and scouts Doug Sinclair and Gary Ryhorchuk, who’ve scouted for Everett since the franchise’s inception in 2003, walked side-by-side out of the Western Hockey League bantam draft in Calgary, Alberta, in 2014 they could hardly contain their excitement.
They couldn’t believe what they pulled off, so much so that Sinclair eventually blurted out, “Wow, that was a big one. That was a good year.”
Nearly five years have ticked by and Sinclair’s proclamation holds true.
Still standing in that 1999-born draft class are five cornerstones to one of the most successful eras in Everett’s history: forwards Connor Dewar, Bryce Kindopp and Riley Sutter and defensemen Jake Christiansen and Wyatte Wylie.
All five were somewhat unheralded as bantams, but each has blossomed into an upper-echelon player at his position, a difficult feat for any organization that’s projecting 14-year-olds to transform into elite hockey players five years later.
“That’s a very good draft, when you have five guys come in and stick for as long as they have and contribute to the level they have,” said Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson, one of the main architects of that 2014 draft.
As you may imagine, the group’s resume is outstanding: Since the class united in Everett in 2016-2017, the Silvertips have won three consecutive U.S. Division regular-season championships, all five are part of the Silvertips’ leadership group this season and they formed Everett’s top power-play unit before Sutter went out with a long-term lower-body injury just after Christmas.
The exceptional feature of Everett’s 2014 bantam draft class isn’t just how it turned out. It’s the process of how it came together.
The Silvertips’ first-round pick, Jantzen Leslie, suited up in just four games for Everett before being traded and eventually flamed out of the league and Everett possessed no second-round picks. Nick Henry, the Silvertips’ third player selected as a third-rounder, did not report to the team and his rights were eventually traded to Regina, where he’s developed into a star.
But Everett reaped considerable value in the third-to-sixth rounds in 2014 to set the table for the Silvertips’ recent prosperity.
“I think we have a philosophy for players in what we’re looking for in a player,” Davidson said. “Whether we’re picking them in the first round or the 10th round. Those are players that we can build upon and grow. If a player doesn’t possess some of (those traits), we’re probably never picking that player. Everybody we pick possesses growth and potential and something we can grab onto and project this player to be a western league player.”
That philosophy has helped maintain the Silvertips’ unblemished record of advancing to the WHL playoffs in every season since the team was conceived in 2003, even though Davidson’s also supplemented the team through trading away assets for immediate impact players.
In the four drafts since the aforementioned 1999-born group was selected, Everett has dealt two of its first-round picks and two of its second-round picks.
“I value those three-through-six-round picks because we’ve had a lot of success there,” Davidson said. “And certainly I don’t devalue first-round picks, don’t get me wrong. But when you give up a first-round pick, you typically acquire someone that helps you immediately. A first-round pick doesn’t help for a couple years.
“The philosophy we’ve kind of taken is that if we have had a good team and we want to add to it, then certainly we may have to give up a first-round pick. And therefore we have to do a good job in rounds three-through-six. And that’s why I value those picks, because I think there are always players there.”
The 1999-born group is the gold standard of that philosophy.
‘You know, he’s awesome’
The Lloydminster Heat AAA bantam team in 2013-2014 was one of the best in western Canada and Kindopp was parked on the second line of a squad that was brimming with WHL talent.
But every time La Forge watched the Heat play — and he did frequently, enough for Everett to become infatuated with the team’s captain, Leslie, in the first round — he noticed a theme with Kindopp.
“He was the mainstay on the second line,” La Forge said, “but I always found that if they needed to kill a five-on-three, he was out there. If they needed to score a goal late in the game, he was out there. He was kind of the next option all the time, until it was a really key situation, then he became the option.
“It took him little while to get to the production level he’s at now. But we always thought it was there.”
It hasn’t been instant for Kindopp, the first of those aforementioned five 99s to fly off the board in 2014 at 49th overall in the third round. He didn’t make the team as a 16-year-old and was a marginal contributor at 17 with seven goals and seven assists in 60 games.
Kindopp was a breakout player in the second half of last season, potting 18 goals over the last 41 games of the season after scoring just six in his first 31.
The slow start may have stemmed from some uncertainty under new head coach Dennis Williams. But some of it may have originated with a bit of trade anxiety.
Williams said he caught wind that Kindopp feared he would be traded, pulled him aside and assured him, “I love your game, so calm down. You aren’t going anywhere.”
“Sometimes maybe you worry a little too much about stuff like that,” Kindopp said. “I definitely was a little bit. But it worked out good I think.”
It sure has.
Entering Saturday, Kindopp’s 39 goals this season ranks 10th in the WHL and leads the Silvertips.
“He’s probably the least appreciated and understood as a player from people on the outside looking in,” Davidson said. “He’s one of the guys that you really just want on your team. Sometimes players are coach killers. This guy isn’t. This is a guy that’s a pleasure to work with day-in-and-day-out. He goes about his job somewhat under the radar, but I think all of the sudden he’s starting to appear on everyone’s radar.”
Eclipsing 40 goals can certainly do that.
Everett’s scouting staff envisioned this type of player when he was younger. It’s been a thrill for them to see Kindopp blossom into that.
“Every time we would go watch him play, we’d leave saying ‘You know, Kindopp is awesome,” La Forge said. “We all just loved him as a player. … He was just so smart. I remember watching him in a playoff game and he was just absolutely dominant. More so than (Zane) Franklin and (Kobe) Mohr and guys that went higher than him in the draft. But we just really felt that he was the guy that stirred the drink and he was the guy that was always there.”
‘Yup. He’s a Silvertip’
In some ways, the Silvertips stumbled upon Christiansen by accident.
When La Forge first saw the West Vancouver native play for the Hollyburn Huskies bantam team, the Silvertips’ scouting staff had their sights set on one of his teammates.
But after watching the puck-moving defenseman play, La Forge started to inquire: “Why don’t we have a scouting report on this kid?”
La Forge watched him a number of times after that, and every time he remembered leaving the rink thinking, “Yup. That’s a Silvertip.”
“He reminded me of Kevin Davis a little bit in that he always made the right decision and he skated so well,” La Forge said. “He was always good. Every game consistently he was their best player.”
When Christiansen was drafted by the Silvertips, there was a feeling that he would grow to be as tall as his father, Eric, who was a 6-foot-5 basketball star at Capilano College when he was younger, or his uncle, Derek, who played at the University of British Columbia and was the Canada West player of the year in 1992-1993.
Christiansen never quite hit that growth spurt — he’s listed at 6-foot, 190-pounds. But sleek skating and hockey acumen have proved to be his biggest assets.
It’s why he’s developed into one of the league’s best puck-movers and a top power-play guy for Everett as a 19-year-old.
— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) September 9, 2018
Undersized and overlooked, but not outworked
After the completion of the bantam draft, another WHL scout posed a question to Sinclair, one of the biggest proponents of Dewar in Everett’s scouting circle: “Why would you pick Connor Dewar that high?”
All Sinclair could muster was a chuckle. Maybe at the time it was a valid inquiry, but it hasn’t aged well as the fifth-round bantam pick continued on to a tremendous WHL career after Everett nabbed him with the 107th overall pick.
While some teams may have considered Dewar nothing more than a late-round flyer, the Silvertips nabbed a player they fell in love with throughout the scouting process.
“He hit some of my big check marks,” Sinclair said. “With the way he competed and way he played the game the right way, in my opinion. He played really good hockey away from the puck. He knew what to do when he didn’t have it, which is really difficult for a 14-year-old. He had good game sense. I liked his skating too.”
At 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, Dewar was a diminutive forward from The Pas, a rural community in northern Manitoba, that billeted with a family in Dauphin, Manitoba, because there was no bantam team by where he grew up to play for the Parkland Rangers. The future Silvertips captain worked his way up draft boards after turning in a 66-point season as a bantam.
Dewar still had his doubters, but the Silvertips certainly weren’t one of them. After Sinclair watched him numerous times, he determined there was a special player there.
“Doug Sinclair was the one that pounded the table hard for Connor,” Davidson said. “He saw the character and the commitment and the drive. When you see a player just once or twice, it’s hard to know that sort of stuff.”
Outside cynicism around his game is nothing new to Dewar, and while he’s been able to overcome many obstacles, he still possesses his doubters to this day, even though he was selected in the third round by the Minnesota Wild in his second year of draft eligibility in 2018. The lack of an invite to Team Canada’s selection camp for the U20 World Junior championships is the most recent example.
It’s nothing foreign to Dewar. Even at age 14.
“I think some teams said they didn’t want to take the risk on me,” Dewar said of the bantam process, adding it was because of the rural lifestyle he would go back to in the summers in The Pas and the scarcity of rinks.
Again, it was never an issue for the Silvertips. Everett was confident the tenacious skater with a relentless motor would turn out all right.
He was undersized and overlooked, but never outworked.
“When going to watch Connor play, as much as I hate playing against him now, I still enjoy watching him play because he plays with such a passion,” La Forge said. “He was going to work through any deficiency he had.”
‘He’s a Sutter’
The Sutters are to the WHL as the Kardashians are to pop culture. They’re both iconic and plentiful in the kingdoms they occupy.
While many consider the Kardashian’s rise to fame serendipitous and overdramatized, the Sutter’s originate from humble beginnings. Six brothers each made appearances with the Lethbridge Broncos of the WHL before enjoying careers in the National Hockey League — a seventh brother, Gary, was the best player of them all, or so the legend goes, but elected to stay on the family farm instead.
Ron, the youngest of the seven siblings along with his twin brother, Rich, is the father of Riley, who became the 12th Sutter to be drafted — joining his father, five uncles and five cousins — to the NHL when the Capitals chose him in the third round in 2018.
But as a bantam, some may have characterized him as an average player with an illustrious surname.
“He was a big gangly guy,” Davidson said. “He didn’t have any leg strength. There were some shortcomings in his game.”
But there were key intangibles the Silvertips recognized, mainly his hockey sense and an upward trajectory in terms of projection. The rest they were confident would take care of itself.
He’s a Sutter, after all.
“I was a Sutter fan, too, because I thought he had great hockey sense,” Sinclair said. “He was a little weaker side, skating was just OK at that point. I think we contributed with a little bit of physical strength and we just had this feeling obviously, being a Sutter, he’s going to figure things out quick. That was another guy that we couldn’t believe we got him where he got him.
“My assessment of Riley Sutter is he’s an OK bantam, he’ll be a better midget and an even better junior player. He was one of those kids that was just going to get better and better.”
The hometown kid
At first, La Forge recalls, the Silvertips were more enamored with Brendan Studioso, a prolific scorer for the Everett Jr. Silvertips out of Mukilteo, Washington. But every time Davidson and La Forge made the short walk over to the community rink to watch the Jr. Silvertips skate, another player caught their eye.
“I remember Studioso reminding me of Patrick Bajkov,” La Forge said. “We were watching Studioso, and every time we’d watch Studioso, Garry and I said, ‘Woah, that Wylie guy is pretty good.’”
Each time they watched him, their interest in Wylie only intensified. Everett eventually took both Studioso and Wylie in the bantam draft that year, but Wylie’s play elevated on the ice to the point where he surpassed his teammate and close friend on the Silvertips’ draft board.
Not only was Wylie a smooth skater and possessed a heavy shot, he played with a physicality the Silvertips were fond of.
“One thing Wyatte demonstrated is that he played with a little bit of edge,” Davidson said. “He stepped into guys and made some big, physical hits.”
La Forge corroborated Davidson’s account to Wylie’s early play style, recounting a key playoff game in which Wylie’s physicality was the deciding factor — in a bad way.
“He got two late penalties just for hitting too hard, and his team ended up losing the game on one of the penalties,” La Forge said. “But Garry and I were like, ‘Well, that’s OK. That plays for us. That’s fine.’”
Wylie eventually moved to Texas to play for the Dallas Stars U16 program in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League as a 16-year-old, which at the time was a considerable step up in competition from the Jr. Silvertips.
The full-court press was on for Davidson and Silvertips to ink Wylie to a contract, as the Snohomish County product kept his options open in terms of playing major junior or NCAA hockey.
“I watched him play a couple times over that season and he just kept getting better and better,” Davidson said. “I talked to his midget coach and he told me, ‘I think he has a chance to be a pro,’ and I agreed with him.”
The Stars programs and many of its counterparts in that league also possessed a propensity for pumping out high-level Division I prospects. But eventually, the Silvertips’ interest won him over for good.
He was the last of the five to sign, inking a contract in February 2016.
“I definitely was considering going that route at some point, but Garry came to a lot of my games and really seemed interested,” Wylie said. “And you can’t really pass up being a hometown player in the WHL. For him coming to those games and showing he was supportive and showed that he wanted me, it just gave me hope. When I made that decision it just made me proud and excited to be here.”
Davidson is pressed with some tough decisions to make in the offseason.
With the addition two more 1999-born players to the group, Robbie Holmes and Max Patterson, through midseason acquisitions, and Akash Bains still on injured reserve, Everett’s 19-year-old class stands at eight players. Only three players can remain on the roster as overagers, per WHL regulations.
The powers that be may settle decisions before the offseason. Sutter and Dewar have both signed entry-level contracts with their respective NHL teams, the Capitals and the Wild, and are eligible to play in the American Hockey League next season.
Wylie, who was a fifth-round pick by the Flyers in 2018, hasn’t signed, but could very well sign and head to the pros to forego his final season. Christiansen earned an invite to Flames training camp last season and will likely get another look, either in Calgary or somewhere else. Kindopp, after another breakout year, will undoubtedly be given a chance at an NHL training camp, too.
The future is bright for all five members, but it was a gradual rise to success.
“If you look at those guys, none of them were top guys when they got here,” Williams said. “They all had to take different paths and hurdles to overcome. What happens is you see they have 35 goals and they’re NHL draft picks, but I don’t think people realized what they went through and the work they put in.”
Through all the struggles — the healthy scratches, the grueling training camps, going to Everett High School, finding their niche on the team — they all grew close.
“We were all buddies right from the start,” Christiansen said. “I remember texting Bryce right after the draft and we started talking right away. I just thought, ‘This is going to be a good group that can grow up and be something special.’”
There’s a chance that all five members of the original 1999-born bantam draft class will start and finish their WHL careers at Silvertips, depending on how the offseason shakes out.
Regardless of who returns for their final season of WHL eligibility and who doesn’t, the 1999-born class has stamped its legacy as one of the best in Silvertips history.
Those five undoubtedly were a major component of sustainable excellence, an unparalleled feat in the cyclical and somewhat erratic beast that is junior hockey.
Sinclair was right. That was a big one.