EVERETT — Braden Holt received a taste of what it’s like to face the best.
The Everett Silvertips goaltender was asked to stick around for a few days following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ development camp, which he received a free-agent invite to attend in early September. Holt was asked to spend some time with the NHL team’s main squad, and the Maple Leafs didn’t ease Holt in slowly.
“My first drill was with Mitch Marner, (William) Nylander and (Jason) Spezza,” Holt recounted about facing a trio of NHL stars. “Those guys can rip the puck so it was kind of a whirlwind, watching it on TV doesn’t do it justice. It was pretty cool to get in front of those shots to see where you’re at.”
Which dovetails with the biggest question facing the Silvertips when they open the 2021-22 WHL season Sunday at Spokane: Where’s Everett at with its goaltending? For the first time in years Everett enters the season without knowing exactly what it’ll be getting from its goalies, with both Holt and Koen MacInnes looking at their first shots at being a No. 1 WHL netminder. So “where it’s at” will go a long way toward determining the Tips’ fate this season.
Everett has an incredible tradition when it comes to goaltending, especially in recent seasons. Over the past six seasons the Tips put a stranglehold on the Del Wilson Trophy for the WHL’s best goaltender, winning it in five of six years — Carter Hart won it three straight years from 2016-18, then Dustin Wolf claimed it the past two years. It’s the most dominant stretch of goaltending by one franchise in WHL history, and it’s a big reason why the Tips won five of the past seven U.S. Division titles.
But Everett’s tradition extends even beyond that, as the Tips have almost always had quality goaltending. From Jeff Harvey to Michael Wall to Leland Irving, from Thomas Heemskerk to Kent Simpson to Austin Lotz, Everett knew its goaltending was in good hands before the season started. In the Tips’ previous 18 seasons there were only two instances — early in the 2008-09 season before Everett traded for Heemskerk, and at the start of the 2012-13 season before Lotz found his footing — where there were any questions in net at the start of the campaign.
“We’ve had some unbelievable goaltenders who give you a chance every night to win,” Everett coach Dennis Williams said. “Goaltending is like a quarterback: No team in the WHL gets to the playoffs without good goaltending. I have confidence in our guys. I love their compete, I love their drive right now. They have a good balance of respecting the competition, but also the grind of wanting to be No. 1.”
Holt has been the heir apparent, and he has the credentials. In April the 18-year-old from Bozeman, Montana, was summoned by USA Hockey to be the No. 3 goaltender for the U.S. under-18 team that competed at the World U-18 Championship, and although he went unselected in this year’s NHL draft he did receive the camp invite from Toronto. But even though he spent the previous two seasons with Everett, he barely got into any games as Wolf received the lion’s share of the starts. Holt’s entire WHL resume consists of 10 games, in which he’s 5-3 with a 2.00 goals against average and .916 save percentage.
“I’m definitely ready,” Holt said. “Wolfie was a great mentor. I learned how to work hard and how to be a pro from him, and I’m super excited to hopefully get the opportunity to move up the chain.”
MacInnes’ situation is similar. The 19-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., has two years of WHL experience, but spent both those years backing up Nolan Maier in Saskatoon, where in 31 games he compiled an 18-7-2 record with a 2.78 goals against average and .904 save percentage. Everett acquired him in August in exchange for winger Brendan Lee to provide competition for Holt, and with Maier back for a fifth season in Saskatoon it gives MacInnes a better shot at claiming a No. 1 job.
“I was pretty excited when I was traded here,” MacInnes said. “Everyone knows the history they have here, especially recently with Wolf and Hart. That’s kind of going through your mind when you’re traded here, that you’re going to such an incredible organization with the goalie pipeline they seem to have.”
Is it a daunting task thinking about being the next in line following legends like Hart and Wolf?
“It’s a big task, those are big shoes to fill,” Holt said. “But here in Everett we have a long line of great goaltenders and that’s the standard that myself and the next goalies coming in are going to be held to, so you just have to be used to that.”
Said MacInnes: “I haven’t really thought about that yet. I’m just trying to get through the preseason and be the night-one starter, that’s what I’m fighting for now.”
So how does Williams plan on dividing the goaltending duties? Does Holt’s tenure in Everett give him the edge? Or does the fact MacInnes pitched shutouts in both his preseason starts carry weight?
“Time will tell in who kind of separates themselves and becomes the No. 1, or maybe we’ll have a 1A and a 1B,” Williams said. “I can’t tell you where that will fall, that’s in the goalies’ court to give us that decision.”
Indeed, it’s all yet to be decided in net for Everett, and that’s something the Silvertips haven’t said in a long time.