EVERETT — Once again, there’s a sense of cautious optimism pervading Angel of the Winds Arena.
With the Everett Silvertips coming off their third consecutive Western Hockey League U.S. Division title, conventional wisdom suggests they are due for a step back in 2019-2020. The cyclical and fickle nature of junior hockey makes it difficult to contend for division crowns year after year, especially after Everett sent away valuable assets in blockbuster deadline trades each of the past two seasons (for Garrett Pillon and Ondrej Vala in 2018 and for Zack Andrusiak in 2019).
Each of those years, outsiders didn’t expect Everett to be seeking additions through trades. The Silvertips were pegged as a middle-of-the-pack team in 2017-2018, but the Silvertips came within two wins of a Memorial Cup appearance after falling in six games to Swift Current in the WHL finals. Standout goaltender Carter Hart and a talented overage class aged out of the league, but Everett hardly skipped a beat last season en route to another division title.
The preseason expectations are similarly modest for 2019-2020, and it’s easy to understand why. Everett lost two talented forwards, Connor Dewar and Riley Sutter, as well as an experienced overage class in Sahvan Khaira, Artyom Minulin and Andrusiak.
Once again, Everett has plenty of holes to fill in its lineup.
Head coach Dennis Williams and general manager Garry Davidson have done it before. They’ll attempt to do it again.
Opening up the game
When a new coach is hired, it’s often representative of a dysfunctional program. But upon Williams’ arrival in 2017, a winning culture already had been established in Everett. In head coach Kevin Constantine’s second stint with the team (2013-17), the Silvertips finished no worse than third in the U.S. Division. His first go-around with the team (2003-2007) yielded three U.S. Division championships in four seasons.
“When I got here, I wasn’t going to disrupt much of the apple cart,” Williams said. “I was going to bit by bit put my own stamp on the program. You’re not going to right away just blow it up. It’s not like they were having bad years. They were having good years in terms of wins and losses. I have the utmost respect for Kevin and what he was able to do here, but I wanted to open up the game a little bit more. These are just philosophical differences and I don’t think there’s any right or wrong in terms of the way people coach — people will criticize the way I coach and the next coach, that’s just the way it is.”
Constantine’s teams were infamous for lulling teams into low-scoring games, and for the most part, his style was successful. He also instilled some terrific defensive habits in his players, which provided a solid base for Williams to build on.
“There’s some differences, but there are some similarities,” Davidson said of the two coaches. “Kevin put a lot of demand on the players to work hard and compete each and every night, and that’s something that has translated into Willy’s first two years here. … I think that’s something that was established by Kevin and Willy has maintained that, if not taken it to another level.”
But Williams favors a high-octane, transition-heavy style of hockey, something Davidson gravitated to back in his days coaching in the British Columbia Hockey League. That style also defined Davidson’s tenure as director of player personnel for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks (2008-2011).
“It’s a different style of play, there’s no question,” Davidson said. “We play an up-beat, transition, high-energy, high-paced game and it’s the game that’s being played today and the game our players need to play if they’re going to play at the next levels. That’s the development thing.”
Considering Davidson’s philosophy, it was rather surprising that he hired Constantine in 2013. But Constantine’s status as a local legend — he took the Silvertips to the WHL Finals in their expansion season — made the move a popular choice for the fan base.
But according to Davidson, Williams was always on his radar. Williams was on the Everett GM’s short list of candidates when Constantine was hired. At the time, Williams was the coach of the Amarillo Bulls of the NAHL — Everett and Amarillo are owned by the same conglomerate, Consolidated Sports Holdings.
So when Constantine was let go and Davidson was presented another bite at the apple, one of his first calls was to Williams.
With Williams at the helm, the relationship between the coach’s office and the hockey operations side is as symbiotic as it’s been in Davidson’s tenure in Everett.
“I think it’s important that we’re always on the same page,” Williams said. “If there is a disconnect between a GM and coach, it’s probably disastrous. It’s important that him and I keep a good rapport. We don’t have to agree on everything, that’s probably not healthy, either; we have to have our opinions on things. But at the end of the day, he’s my boss, but he’s also a great friend and mentor.”
In his first two seasons in Everett, Williams has shown a knack for unlocking the potential of players who were not highly regarded in hockey circles during the Constantine era. Williams harps on defense, like any coach, but offensively provides his players the freedom to be creative and make plays in the offensive zone.
“What we try and make them understand is that we want the playmaking, we want the creativity, but we also have to know when and where we’re doing it,” Williams said. “You have to let them have instincts, you have to let players play their game, because to me, what fun is that? You have to let them go.”
Patrick Bajkov scored 100 points in his first season under Williams. Matt Fonteyne’s point total nearly doubled from 47 to 88, and Dewar’s jumped from 30 to 68. As Dewar’s point total rose, so did his stock on NHL draft boards. After being passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, Dewar was picked in the third round of the 2018 draft by the Minnesota Wild.
All of Everett’s overagers from Williams’ first year at the helm earned pro contracts and three players were drafted — Dewar, Sutter and Wyatte Wylie.
The players who lived through both eras are grateful for what they learned early in their careers under Constantine, but understand what it meant for their futures when Williams took over.
“I think what (Kevin Constantine) did a good job of is getting us accustomed to the pro way as far as the defensive zone and preparing us that way. I think KC was huge for us in those first few years when we were super young,” Fonteyne said. “After we got that defensive base that got incorporated into our game, it was huge when Willy came and allowed us to be free and use our creativity and showcase our abilities. I think it paid off big time, especially for myself, (Bajkov) and (Kevin) Davis earning professional contracts at the end of the season. I don’t think that’s something we really had on our radar. We were just looking forward to having good 20-year-old seasons.
“I think it just goes to show he helped us in a ton of aspects in our game. We wouldn’t be able to get to where we got to without him.”
The Canadian Hockey League — which includes the WHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — is a breeding ground for professional coaches. Like his players, Williams would like to rise as far as he can.
“I think, like your players, you want to get to the highest level,” Williams said. “You want to coach in the NHL. That’s the one draw that brought me to this league is how well it produces players in the NHL and coaches in the NHL.”
After two division titles, Williams, who turned 40 in August, appears to be the right track.
Hockey Canada took notice last year. Williams was named the head coach of Canada’s U-17 black team that competed at the world championships in 2018. This past summer, Williams was an assistant coach for Canada’s Hlinka-Gretzky team at the U-18 world championships in the Czech Republic, where the Maple Leaf claimed a silver medal.
For now, though, he’s far from restless in Everett. He lives year-around in Lake Stevens with his wife, Hollie, and his two daughters, Elyse and Emerson.
“My kids asked me this past summer, ‘We’re not moving, are we?’” Williams said. “Unfortunately in the coaching world, you move all around. But right now, I’m pretty content here.”
As for Davidson? He’s not as spry and as trendy of a name as Williams, but his passion for the game is just as vigorous. Davidson is in the final year of his contract, but he’s harboring no thoughts of retiring.
What can Williams and Davidson build together in the upcoming season?
Everett will field a relatively young lineup in 2019-2020. As of Thursday, Everett had nine rookies on its roster, four of them 16-year-olds. But Everett returns an experienced defensive corps, led by defensemen Wylie and Gianni Fairbrother, and reigning Western Conference Goaltender of the Year Dustin Wolf.
Everett’s shipped away a great deal of assets over the past five years and could be due to restock the cupboard and move forward with a relatively young group. But, as recent history has proven, there may be more to the current group of players than first meets the eye.
“The group before has left another brick in the house, now it’s up to us to keep building off it and making that foundation stronger,” Williams said. “It’s going to be a challenge this year, but every year has given that challenge.
“As coaches, you want the challenge. You live to prove people wrong or right.”