Things may have gone wrong for the Everett Silvertips at the tail end of their 2017-18 journey. The Tips’ season concluded Sunday with a 3-0 loss to the Swift Current Broncos in Game 6 of the Western Hockey League finals, leaving Everett two wins short of the first league title in franchise history.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this season the Tips got things oh so right.
The 2017-18 WHL season was one of triumph for Everett, as the Tips claimed their sixth U.S. Division championship and second Western Conference title in the franchise’s 15th anniversary season. But the story of how Everett achieved those accomplishments was not based in inevitability. This was not a team so talented that success was just a matter of showing up.
Instead, this season was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where the team’s fate could have branched in multiple directions depending on the decisions made at the time. In each case the Tips chose the path that led to the optimal ending.
Everett was right about its coaching decision.
There was much skepticism when the Tips chose not to renew head coach Kevin Constantine’s contract following last season. Constantine is the winningest coach in franchise history, and he had just come off leading Everett to a division title. There was more skepticism when Everett chose to replace Constantine with Dennis Williams, someone with no experience in the WHL and just three modest seasons in charge of the Bloomington Thunder of the United States Hockey League.
But the switch was a complete success. Williams was able to install systems that were faster and more offensive than Constantine’s, yet the team maintained the defensive responsibility cultivated by Constantine the previous four years. This exchange could have gone many ways, but Williams was able to coax the best of both worlds out of his team, and as a result Everett had the deepest playoff run in franchise history.
Everett was right in its overager choices.
Granted, this wasn’t the most difficult decision, but the Tips put together a historic overager trio this season. In Kevin Davis, Matt Fonteyne and Patrick Bajkov, Everett had three players who completed five full seasons with the Tips, combining for 1,202 games in Everett jerseys between the regular season and the playoffs — is that some sort of record? Not only did they lead the way in terms of production, combining for 78 goals and 175 assists in the regular season and another 26 goals and 35 assists during the postseason, they helped instill the culture of what it meant to be a Silvertip.
Everett could have cashed in on any of those players, particularly before the season began when the Tips weren’t expected to contend, or in the first month of the season when Everett started 4-9-1-0. But they were kept, and they were brilliant.
Everett was right in its decision about goaltender Carter Hart.
Speaking of cashing in, the biggest question around the league through the first half of the season was: When Hart would be traded and to whom? Hart, unquestionably the best goaltender in the league, was expected to warrant a king’s ransom in a trade, especially with three teams in the East Division believing they were championship contenders but lacking in the goaltending department. Everett general manager Garry Davidson had every chance to move Hart for a package of prospects and bantam draft picks that potentially could have set the Tips up for years.
But Davidson, with input from Hart, decided to keep the three-time winner of the Del Wilson Trophy as the WHL Goaltender of the Year. Hart’s presence allowed Everett’s skaters to play with freedom, knowing that if they made a mistake, they had the league’s best last line of defense behind them.
Everett was right with its big trade-deadline deal.
The Tips have been trade-deadline buyers in the past, but never before had they pulled off a deal that was as ideal as the one they made this season. The acquisition of Garrett Pilon and Ondrej Vala from Kamloops couldn’t have filled Everett’s needs better, with Pilon giving the Tips that much-needed additional offensive weapon and Vala providing a big and experienced body on defense. Those two integrated seamlessly into the team, and there’s no question the deal put Everett over the top in the conference.
And, despite reports to the contrary, Everett did not break the bank in making the deal. The Tips gave up six assets in the trade, all of which had value. But the only certain blue-chip asset Everett parted with was its 2019 first-round bantam pick. The players and prospects the Tips traded away have promise, but aren’t sure-fire future WHL stars.
All those decisions took a team that before the season many predicted wouldn’t even make the playoffs and transformed it into one that went all the way to the sixth game of the championship series. And there’s no shame in losing out to Swift Current in the finals. The Broncos began the season with championship aspirations, made three huge deals in which they dealt away six first-round bantam draft picks, finished the season with 11 19-year-olds on their roster and had home-ice advantage in the finals. Swift Current is a worthy champion — good luck in the Memorial Cup.
And in some ways — not all, but some — Everett is in better shape heading into next season than it was coming into this year. Sure, the Tips won’t have the league’s best goaltender returning the way they did this season, and next season’s overage group won’t be in the vicinity of this season’s group barring the highly unlikely return of players expected to play professionally next season.
But good teams are usually built around their 19-year-olds (hello, Swift Current). Coming into this season Everett had just one relevant 19-year-old skater in Sean Richards. Next season the Tips are stacked with 19-year-olds, including players such as Connor Dewar, Riley Sutter, Bryce Kindopp, Wyatte Wylie and Jake Christensen, who already are established as quality WHL players. It’s a great place to start.
However, there’s plenty of time to think about next season. For now it’s OK to continue to soak in this season, one in which Everett got everything right.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter @NickHPatterson.