What we saw: 16s

In 2004-05 the Silvertips did something unprecedented in WHL history.

Everett was in its second season of existence, and the Tips’ options were limited. Everett was coming off a record-breaking expansion season, but seven of those players (five graduating overagers, plus two of the team’s five 19-year-olds) had to depart. Everett’s system was short on players ready to fill the gaps because the team had just one bantam draft’s worth of prospects eligible to play in the league. There just wasn’t any depth on the protected list beyond those taken in the 2003 draft.

So the Tips had little choice but to fill the holes with 16-year-olds selected in 2003. At the time WHL teams rarely carried more than one or two 16-year-olds on their rosters. Everett began the season with seven, then added another midseason. Those were numbers never seen before in WHL history, and I’m not sure anyone has approached them since.

That draft class, of course, went on to be historic. Those eight 16-year-olds included two first-round NHL draft picks (Zach Hamill, Leland Irving), a second rounder (Taylor Ellington), a third rounder (Brady Calla) and two other players who had long careers in Everett (Jonathan Harty, Graham Potuer). It was the best batch of 16-year-olds ever produced in franchise history, and it doesn’t even include Peter Mueller, who didn’t arrive until the following season as a 17-year-old.

This season’s group probably won’t surpass that 2004-05 group, but it’s the best collection of 16-year-olds Everett’s had since.

The quartet of defensemen Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen and forwards Patrick Bajkov and Matt Fonteyne performed beyond what anyone could have expected as 16-year-olds. None of them came into the season with the expectations of being immediate contributors. But each of them did more than anyone could have imagined.

It’s unusual for teams to have one 16-year-old defenseman who can be relied upon to take a regular shift. There are far more forwards who play in the WHL as 16-year-olds than defensemen because when forwards make mistakes or are overpowered physically, it’s just a turnover. When a defenseman makes a mistake or gets overpowered physically, it’s a scoring chance. There’s nowhere for a 16-year-old defenseman to hide, so we don’t see many of them.

Somehow the Tips unearthed two. Davis is a player who doesn’t look like he should be able to handle taking a regular shift as a 16-year-old defenseman because he’s small and doesn’t have eye-popping tools, yet he he was called upon regularly during five-on-five play and penalty killing from day one. Juulsen didn’t have quite as much rope early in the season, but he’d earned it by the end, and his physical tools are such that the sky is the limit. Those two will be the foundation upon which Everett teams are built the next three seasons.

As for the forwards, neither was even guaranteed to make the team. Frankly, Bajkov was completely off the radar when training camp began, and Fonteyne may have needed a couple other 16-year-olds to turn the Tips down to claim a roster spot. But Bajkov was a revelation, displaying unexpected offensive abilities, and he now looks like he’ll be an impact scorer for the Tips in the future. Fonteyne, meanwhile, made good progress late in the season and looks like he could develop into a Kohl Bauml-like two-way player.

Those four aren’t the only players from the 2012 bantam draft class who will end up playing for Everett, either. The Tips have struggled to produce impact bantam draft classes since that first one in 2003. Based on what we saw this season, it looks like the 2012 class will be the next to build a legacy in Everett.

Next: What will we see: Guarantee?

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