There are three crucial components to building a team in the Western Hockey League, Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson said: the draft, trades and listing undrafted players.
The highly touted draft picks and the splashy trade acquisitions are often the apple of everyone’s eye, while the third pillar often falls into obscurity. But undrafted players can make a significant impact, as Silvertips rookie Gage Goncalves is demonstrating this season.
The 18-year-old — his birthday was Wednesday — went undrafted in the 2016 bantam draft, yet he’s carved out a role in Everett’s lineup that’s earned him ample ice time as a first-year player.
“When I put our line together every night with my staff, I don’t look down our roster and say, ‘OK, who is our first-rounders we picked, who are our second-rounders?’” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said. “It’s just, ‘Who is performing?”
And lately, Goncalves is performing. While he doesn’t boast gaudy statistics — he has one goal and seven assists in 43 games this season — the 2001-born forward has emerged as a regular fixture in the Silvertips’ lineup after starting the season toiling on the fourth line or sitting out as a healthy scratch.
It’s been a progression for Goncalves, Williams said.
“He’s been given a pretty good opportunity, and like I say, the ball is in his court,” Williams said. “He came not prepared, like a lot of young players, not physically ready and not understanding of the concepts. He’s done a good job of sticking with the battle, going on extra ice and getting extra workouts. Just doing all the little things.
“You think back to four or five months ago, his game from then to now is night and day. Hopefully he keeps projecting in the right direction and in four months he gets that much better. I’m really happy with his progress.”
Over the past two weeks, Goncalves has earned the ultimate stamp of approval, earning regular shifts with the Silvertips’ leading point-scorers, Connor Dewar (58 points) and Bryce Kindopp (45).
“Some of the stuff they can do with the puck is incredible,” Goncalves said. “Puck possession is huge with them, passes are always tape to tape … there’s not one bad pass on that line. The opportunity to play on that line is incredible and I hope I can stay up there.”
Goncalves played his bantam year at Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, British Columbia, just south of where he grew up in Mission. He played more of a secondary role on a team that captured the Canadian Sport School Bantam Hockey League (CSSBHL) championship. That team featured eight players who are either in the WHL — including first-round bantam picks Josh Williams (Edmonton), Rhett Rhinehart (Prince George) and Jackson van de Leest (Calgary) — or are committed to NCAA Division I schools.
“I was a little bit undersized, wasn’t as fast,” the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Goncalves said. “I was in more of a grinder role, so they didn’t get to see a lot of my skill. … I think (it hurt) a little bit. But in practice you get to go against those best players every single day. The games are kind of tough and my playing time got cut down, but in the long run, I think it did help.”
Even then Goncalves was on the Silvertips’ radar. Jag Bal, an Everett scout based in British Columbia, noticed Goncalves during his bantam draft year and convinced him to attend the Silvertips’ training camp in 2016 after he wasn’t selected.
Everett kept tabs on Goncalves and invited him back to training the next year. He eventually caught the eye of Alvin Backus, who is now Everett’s director of player personnel, but at the time was a scout for the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens. Backus urged Davidson to keep a keen eye on the undersized, yet intriguing forward.
After a torrid start with the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds major midget team, Everett listed Goncalves and he signed a few weeks later, on Jan. 3, 2018. He finished his 16-year-old season with an offensive breakout, piling up 71 points (30 goals, 41 assists) in 40 games for the Thunderbirds.
“I think it helped a lot, just to get that confidence up,” Goncalves said. “I never had that much confidence growing up, so to have that breakout year really took my skill-set up another step and my confidence up another step and just helped me a lot.”
Goncalves was born and raised in Mission, British Columbia, which is situated next to the Fraser River about 20 minutes north of the Canadian border crossing at Sumas. He’s of Portuguese and Canadian descent, as his father, Fernando, immigrated to Mission when he was about 6, Goncalves said.
In the summers, Goncalves was a fervid baseball player and played up until last year with the Abbotsford Junior Cardinals. In 2014, his team advanced to the finals of the 2014 13U national championships in London, Ontario, where they lost, 11-10, on a walk-off single.
“It was rocket, right up the gut,” said Goncalves, who played shortstop. “I just stood there and watched it go by.”
Nowadays, Goncalves has his sights set solely on a long and fruitful WHL career with Everett.
— Everett Silvertips (@WHLsilvertips) November 12, 2018
The Silvertips are bullish on the player he could become, especially offensively.
“Quite often players that come into this league as a rookie have to assume a role that you haven’t had to at other levels, with the idea that you assume a different role as you get older in this league” Davidson said. “I think Gage has the potential to be a top-six offensive-type guy in this league. Hopefully he grows into that sooner (rather) than later.”