As players cycled through the Everett Silvertips offices for their exit meetings and dressing room cleanout on Monday, some were somber and reminiscent. Others appeared optimistic for the future and eager to return for training camp in August.
Most, though, displayed a combination of both.
The Silvertips, despite entering the postseason as the U.S. Division champions, were upended in five games by the Spokane Chiefs in the Western Conference semifinals.
But a season that ends in disappointment doesn’t define the season as a whole.
The Central Hockey League preseason rankings, while an imperfect process, indicated the Silvertips were finally going to take a step back from divisional supremacy. Spokane was ranked No. 6 and Portland was No. 7, while Everett was omitted.
After an 0-2 start with back-to-back losses to Vancouver, Spokane’s opponent in the Western Conference finals, the Silvertips ripped off a 27-5-1-1 stretch by the Christmas break to take a commanding lead in the U.S. Division.
Thus, expectations re-calibrated.
“When you start the season, I always give it a little time before I go overboard,” Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson said. “You have to compare where you’re at with other teams and a team that could challenge.”
Thus, Davidson went out and added to his club. Sahvan Khaira was already acquired in the preseason from Swift Current’s 2018 Memorial Cup squad, but the Silvertips added to that group with overage defenseman Artyom Minulin in late October and forward Max Patterson in early December. Everett also swapped Sean Richards, draft picks and a prospect to Seattle for proven goal-scorer Zack Andrusiak on New Year’s Day and Robbie Holmes at the closing moments of the trade deadline on Jan. 10.
Despite Davidson bolstering the team through trade deals, the significant lower-body injury to 19-year-old center Riley Sutter put a cloud over the season.
The lines were a jumbled mess and lacked consistency all the way until the last week of the regular season. The team lacked depth in the middle and Sutter’s abscence forced Connor Dewar to play center despite being more natural and effective on the wing. Sutter returned for Game 3 of the Spokane series, and his presence was a positive impact to the club, but too late to add any real stability.
The team still wrapped up the U.S. Division in early March and boasted a robust defense, which led the Central Hockey League in goals allowed with 130, which is also a franchise record.
On the other side of the state, Spokane started to click with its lineup regaining full health, winning 10 of its last 12 games to end the regular season.
A deep and dangerous Chiefs team knocked out the division champs, but Everett wasn’t throttled by any means. The Silvertips’ coaches and players will remind you they were only a goal behind during the final minutes in three of four of those losses to Spokane.
By the same token, Everett struggled to score, scoring only one goal in three of the five contests.
For Dewar, the effort was there. Just not the results.
“We didn’t quit. No one quit,” Dewar said. “Losing Riley (Sutter) for half the season was hard on us. It forced a lot of guys to play out of position and play a lot more minutes than they would be expected to. At the end of the day, it’s playoff hockey. (We lost) almost every game by one goal with an empty-netter, it’s frustrating. And (we) outshot them every game. They were opportunistic.”
The Silvertips were confident they’d remain a championship contender this season despite outside expectations which weren’t that high. After all, graduating an iconic 20-year-old class of Matt Fonteyne, Patrick Bajkov and Kevin Davis — as well as losing Carter Hart, Garrett Pilon and Ondrej Vala to the professional ranks — is a big pill to swallow.
The performance of Silvertips 2001-born netminder Dustin Wolf, who was named the Western Conference goaltender of the year after leading the league in every major statistical category, was a big reason why those expectations eventually rose, inside and outside the organization.
“I think people from the outside didn’t understand what we’re all about and what we had here,” Davidson said. “We have a lot of good pieces back and we had a young goaltender that people had no idea how good he was, but I’m not one bit surprised by what Dustin did in net by replacing Carter, who had an unbelievable career here in Everett.
“(Wolf) was still unproven to carry the mail and very quickly we saw he could do that, and that was a key part in moving forward to where we could look to acquire and shore up some areas of concern.”
An eventful season that ended in failure can’t be considered an overall failure, as that would contradict the overall spirit of junior hockey that combines competition and development.
The Silvertips failed to bring home an Ed Chynoweth championship trophy, but they made strides in other directions, according to Davidson.
“The regular season I thought was really positive,” Davidson said. “I guess losing in the second round to a team that finished (12) points behind is obviously a disappointment, but on the other hand, I’m very pleased with the work our coaches did (with) the development and growth with our players and our business people did a great job and saw a nice increase in numbers for attendance and those sorts of things.
“All-in-all, I thought it was a very, very good season for us on-and-off the ice.”
For Thursday’s paper, we’ll take an early look at the Silvertips’ outlook for next season.