To buy, or not to buy. That is the question for Everett Silvertips general manager Dennis Williams as the WHL trade deadline approaches. However, answering that question isn’t as straightforward as it usually would be.
The trade deadline arrives next Monday, and the Silvertips profile as a strong buyer in the market. Consider:
— Everett is 23-6-2-2 and sits atop both the U.S. Division and the Western Conference, making the Tips clear championship contenders.
— Despite the record, Everett has a couple areas that could use some tweaking. Perhaps some size on defense, and maybe an elite playmaker.
— The teams chasing the Tips in the U.S. Division standings have already made moves to improve themselves, with Seattle acquiring big-time scorer Lukas Svejkovsky from Medicine Hat and Portland shoring up its goaltending with the acquisition of Taylor Gauthier from Prince George.
It all screams, “Buy, buy, buy!” like a stock broker in the midst of a bull-market feeding frenzy. Under normal circumstances Williams would be slinging draft picks and prospects around like an ultimate Frisbee player, trying to load up for a lengthy playoff push.
But this year is different, because the coronavirus pandemic means there’s no guarantee the playoffs even happen.
“Obviously it does play in the back of our minds,” Williams said when asked if his approach to the trade deadline is affected by the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. “But at the end of the day we can’t let that worry us. We have to do what we think is right for our group, we owe it to them. But it does play in the back of our minds, for sure.”
Make no mistake, the WHL is going to do everything within its power to have a full season and playoffs this year. The league’s teams took a huge financial hit with the 2020-21 season being reduced to 24 games and played without fans, and in most markets attendance hasn’t bounced back to anything approaching pre-pandemic levels (Everett’s actually doing as well as anyone in this regard). This is a league that is attendance-dependent to generate revenue, and the postseason is typically where teams make their profit, so from a financial standpoint the show must go on.
But the virus doesn’t care about the financial health of junior hockey teams. We saw the reality of the situation over the weekend when just one of the league’s 23 scheduled games took place because 15 of the league’s 22 teams were on pause due to COVID-19 protocols. That included Everett, which had all three of its games postponed.
The Tips were cleared to resume team activities Monday, so they’ll be back in action against Tri-City on Wednesday at Angel of the Winds Arena. But this episode illustrates how tenuous the situation happens to be.
Is the risk involved in mortgaging the future for a chance at a championship worth it when there’s a non-trivial possibility you won’t be able to make that run in the first place? Even if the playoffs do happen in full, who’s to say a team won’t get hit by the virus at just the wrong moment during the postseason?
The Tips have already been burned once by the pandemic. At the 2019-20 trade deadline, then-Everett general manager Garry Davidson made a series of moves to consolidate Everett’s position as a championship contender, surrendering a haul of draft capital to bring in winger Ty Kolle, center Ethan Regnier and defenseman Kasper Puutio. Those moves worked great for two months, as Everett headed into March on a tear and was on track to pass Portland for the league’s best record.
But then the pandemic hit and shut down the rest of the regular season and the playoffs, meaning all that draft capital was spent on a big, fat playoff goose egg. Not only did none of those three players ever appear in a postseason game for Everett, Regnier was the only one who even played another WHL game.
Maybe this is the season to say, “Let’s just roll with what we’ve got and see how it plays out.”
“If we feel there’s something that can help us we’ll definitely look into it,” Williams said. “But at the same time, I really like our group. We have a tight-knit group, and any opportunity to add pieces has to be the right fit.”
The good news is that what Everett has is good. I’m skeptical about whether it’s championship-level good, but given that no one expected the Tips to be anything special this season it’s mostly gravy anyway.
Williams has difficult decisions to make. Everett has the core of championship team in place, and the Tips are thirsty for the organization’s first WHL championship — something that’s slipped through their fingers for both on- and off-ice reasons in recent seasons. It all should add up to being a buyer at the trade deadline. But Williams has to decide if the reward is worth the risk, considering that reward could end up being nothing but an empty box.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.