I think of Dennis Williams and Garry Davidson as being little bit like the WHL’s version of the magician duo Penn & Teller.
Williams, the Everett Silvertips’ head coach, may not sport Penn Jillette’s trademark ponytail. And Davidson, the Tips’ general manager, certainly isn’t as silent as Raymond Teller. But they sure have shown a penchant for pulling rabbits out of hats with the same flair as the conjuring pair that’s been headlining Las Vegas casinos for nearly two decades.
As the Tips conclude training camp with their annual Green vs. Grey Game on Sunday at Angel of the Winds Arena, I find myself curious about how they’re going to pull off the magical feat again this season.
Everett came into training camp as a team few WHL observers fancy as a title contender. The preseason roster contains just three NHL draft picks, none of whom were selected higher than the fourth round. The team has only one player who scored more than 47 points last season. Everett seems destined to be a support piece in this season’s WHL show, while other teams take the top spots on the marquee.
But here’s the thing: People said the exact same thing about the Tips at this stage each of the past two years, and both times it turned out Williams and Davidson were weaving a spell of misdirection that had everyone looking the wrong direction.
Take the 2017-18 season. There was legitimate buzz around the league that Everett may miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The only questions people were asking about the Tips before the season began were when star goaltender Carter Hart was going to get traded and how big a haul Everett would receive in return. Instead, the Tips raced to U.S. Division and Western Conference titles, coming just two wins short of hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions.
How about last season? After selling out to aid their run in 2017-18 and suffering heavy player losses to graduation, everyone expected the Tips to fall back into the middle of the pack. But no, Everett finished with an even better record in 2018-19 than it did the previous season and claimed yet another division championship, the franchise’s third straight.
So when people say that Everett, on paper, doesn’t look like any kind of contender this season, I figure I’ve seen this trick before. It’s the one where Williams and Davidson take that piece of paper, say “Abracadabra,” and it turns into a dove that soars above the onlooking crowd.
“I sure want to see that happen,” Davidson, speaking during Thursday’s first day of camp, replied with a smile when asked whether the Tips can defy expectations yet again. “I know we weren’t picked very high last year, there were a lot of people who thought we weren’t that good. But I was optimistic and positive we had a pretty good group last year. We haven’t won or lost a game yet, but I like what we’ve got here, I believe in our coaching staff, and I believe in the character of the type of players we have in our group here. I wouldn’t be shocked or surprised if we’re right in the hunt again.”
Yes, there are major questions about where Everett will find offense considering Connor Dewar and Riley Sutter, the two players who made the Tips’ offense go last season, are moving onto the professional ranks. And yes, there are concerns on defense, where half of last season’s airtight six-player unit is gone after Artyom Minulin and Sahvan Khaira aged out of the league and Ian Walker decided to retire.
But two things we can be certain of about Everett are that the Tips will have exceptional goaltending — Dustin Wolf won the WHL’s goaltending triple crown last season — and an excellent overage trio from whichever three of forwards Bryce Kindopp and Max Patterson and defensemen Wyatte Wylie and Jake Christiansen end up as Everett’s 20-year-olds. Guess what? Those were the same assets (Hart in net; Kevin Davis, Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne as overagers) the Tips had entering 2017-18. Williams and Davidson tossed those into an ornate chest, spun it around three times, opened it and emerged with a pair of banners.
“I like the pieces coming back,” Williams said. “We have some holes we’re going to have to work at and fill. But I think the one thing we’ve been able to do is build that foundation. I think we have a strong core of guys coming back who know the expectations of how we want to play and what we expect as a coaching staff. When you have that in your locker room I think it starts you off strong.”
I can’t say how the Tips are going to make the magic work this season. I’m right there with the majority in wondering how Everett is going to be able to generate enough offense to compete with the WHL’s top teams. I’m concerned that while the defense remains talented, it’s going to be too young and too small of stature to keep opponents away from the net the way it did the previous two seasons.
But I’m certainly going to have my eyes glued to the act as I perch expectantly on the edge of my seat. I’ve played cards with Williams and Davidson enough to know that however the deck appears to be stacked, they always seem to pull out an ace.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.