EVERETT — For seven years the Everett Silvertips wandered the hockey desert, thirsting for success without a single oasis in sight.
Seven years without hanging a banner. Seven years without winning a playoff series. Seven years of being little more than a WHL afterthought.
In 2014-15 the Tips finally found succor.
Everett’s season may have come to an end with its Game 5 playoff loss to the Portland Winterhawks on Sunday, but it couldn’t diminish the accomplishments of a team that finally put the Tips back into a position of prominence.
“We accomplished a lot,” Everett captain Kohl Bauml said. “We had our doubters all the way to the end about what we could do. We gave it our all and proved a lot of them wrong.”
Little was expected of Everett before the season began. The Tips finished tied for second in the U.S. Division in 2013-14, but the loss of most of their impact offensive performers cast a cloud over the 2014-15 season. Everett was largely predicted to battle Tri-City for third place, and no one picked the Tips to challenge Portland’s four-year reign atop the division.
But Everett surprised everyone. Despite having a limited amount of top-end talent at their disposal, the Tips finished 43-20-3-6 to win the division title, the team’s first since 2007. Everett essentially led from start to finish, holding off a hard-charging Portland at the end.
Then after ending that drought the Tips ended another when they overcame Spokane in the first round of the playoffs. The 4-2 series victory was Everett’s first playoff triumph since 2007, when the Tips again topped Spokane by a 4-2 margin in the first round.
“I thought it was a great season,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “There’s a number of players who had been here a while and didn’t have anything to hang their hat on, no legacy. It was fun to watch that group, that really wanted to leave here and have something to be proud of for all the work they put in, accomplish something that told them they were good.”
The biggest surprise for Everett was the performance of the offense. Before the season began the main question surrounding the Tips was whether they would be able to score goals. But instead of being anemic, Everett actually had its best offensive output in its 12-season history, scoring 237 goals in 72 games for an average of 3.3 per game.
The acquisition of Nikita Scherbak played a big role in that. Everett, seeking to fill the void left by the graduation of offensive focal point Joshua Winquist, acquired Scherbak from Saskatoon in a blockbuster trade the first weekend of the season. Scherbak, a first-round pick by the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, led the team in scoring with 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in 65 games and gave the Tips an offensive gamebreaker.
“I thought we’d struggle to score,” Constantine said. “At this time last year we talked about the loss of a whole lot of the offensive makeup of our team from two years ago. We just thought we had lost too much to reproduce last year’s offense, which was just an OK offensive team. We thought we’d take a step backward, and the exhibition season was an indication it was headed in that direction. So the acquisition of Scherbak was really critical to make sure we had enough talent to be at least as good as last year. Then along the way a lot of guys improved in such a way that we were able to find a way.”
Among the players who improved were Bauml, who topped the 30-goal threshold, winger Carson Stadnyk, who finished second on the team in scoring with 69 points, and defenseman Noah Juulsen, who posted 52 points from his defensive position and turned himself into a candidate to be selected in the early rounds of this year’s NHL draft.
Everett also unearthed a gem in goaltender Carter Hart. The 16-year-old rookie spent most of the season as the backup to veteran Austin Lotz. However, Hart took over the No. 1 position down the stretch and ended up leading the league in goals-against average. He finished the season 18-5-2-3 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .915 save percentage, then followed up by posting even better numbers during the playoffs with a 2.28 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Yet Everett was still a team with just two NHL draft picks (Scherbak and defenseman Ben Betker) and one players certain of being selected in this year’s NHL draft (Juulsen). Contrast that to a team like Portland, which has eight NHL draft picks on its roster along with two players who are rated highly for this year’s draft.
“To overachieve you have to make sure the whole is better than the sum of its parts,” Constantine said. “I think we got a little more out of the group than maybe was on paper, and that’s a testimony to our leadership. Not my leadership necessarily, but the leadership of the guys in the room (Bauml and alternate captains Betker and Brayden Low) and all the coaching staff (assistants Mitch Love and Brennan Sonne and goaltending coach Shane Clifford).”
Constantine went as far as to compare this season’s team to the legendary first-year team in 2003-04, when the expansion Tips shocked the league by winning the division title and advancing to the WHL finals.
“I think it felt a lot like the first year,” Constantine said. “The first year we had an expansion team so there was no expectation of success. In addition we had a bunch of players who were castoffs in that they were exposed to the expansion draft, so they had a little bit to prove, and we had a very close group in the locker room. I think there was a lot of that in this year’s team. The expectations were lowered by the lack of success for a few years, and the players who had been here had built-up energy to finally get something done. We certainly weren’t predicted to be the division champions at the beginning of the year, so having something to prove to people was a motivator during the year.”
The result was a memorable season that will always be remembered by a banner hanging from the rafters of Xfinity Arena.
Betker will be finishing the season with the Oklahoma City Barons, the American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers selected Betker in the sixth round of the 2013 NHL draft, then signed him to an entry-level contract just before the playoffs began. … It’s possible Russian center Ivan Nikolishin will not return to Everett next season for his 19-year-old campaign. Nikolishin, who finished third on the team in scoring with 62 points in 72 games during his second season with the Tips, may remain in Russia.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.