Two weeks ago, things looks simple. Not anymore. Not after the Everett Silvertips upgraded their offence in a big way.
Following the NHL’s 2010 entry draft in Los Angeles, pundits and fans began predicting a banner season for the Portland Winterhawks after no less than eight players had been drafted. Most, if not all, are expected to return, though there are question marks beside the No. 4 overall pick in Ryan Johansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) and the No. 5 overall pick in Nino Niederreiter (New York Islanders).
If Portland has all eight players for 2010-11, then pen the Hawks in for a deep playoff run. If not, then the Western Conference becomes a toss-up, with Everett in the mix.
Last week, the Silvertips announced they landed prospect Josh Birkholz of Maple Grove, Minn., a 19-year-old forward who played last season in the NCAA with the University of Minnesota. The 6-foot-1 Birkholz was selected in the third round, 67th overall, of the 2010 draft by the Florida Panthers.
Birkholz played 36 games with Minnesota, recording five goals and one assist in 36 games. The season prior, he played in the USHL with the Fargo Force, registering 21 goals and 15 assists for 36 points in 55 games.
Also last week, the Silvertips acquired highly sought-after forward Landon Ferraro from the Red Deer Rebels in a trade that saw Everett ship 19-year-old fellow centre Byron Froese to the mid-Alberta city. Correctly called a blockbuster trade by Nick Patterson of the Everett Herald, Ferraro was the second overall pick of the WHL’s bantam draft and was selected in the second round, 32nd overall, of the NHL’s 2009 draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
In his first WHL campaign, 2007-08, Ferraro had 13 goals and 24 points in 54 games. In his sophomore season, he had 37 goals and 55 points in 68 games, but his numbers fell in his third season, registering 16 goals and 46 points in 53 games in 2009-10. Froese, meanwhile, had 29 goals and 61 points in 70 games last season.
In related news, click here for the Red Deer Rebels' take on Froese and here for Rebels forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being selected to Canada's under-18 summer team. Both stories are penned by veteran WHL writer Greg Meachem of the Red Deer Advocate.
While Ferraro and Birkholz aren’t first-round NHL draft picks, having a second- and third-round pick is certainly a big injection into a team’s offence.
“It was one of those things where you had to give something good to get something good,” Everett general manager Doug Soetaert said of landing Ferraro. “We just felt that we wanted to make a little bit of a change up front, and we feel that by adding Landon, it gives us a little bit more grit to our lineup. He’s a guy coming off a sub-par season and I’m pretty sure he’s going to be chomping at the bit to make amends for last year.
“So we’ll have a very motivated young player, and he’s the kind of guy who can be a game-breaker. He has that ability, and we felt we needed to change the chemistry a little bit and to get a player of that calibre, you have to give up something good. It was tough parting with Byron, but we felt the team needed a little bit of a change.
“So, in saying that, I think we’ve become a little bit of a tougher team to play against.”
Ferraro comes from NHL bloodlines, with his dad, Ray, a former NHLer (1,258 games with the Hartford Whalers, New York Islanders and Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Atlanta Thrashers and St. Louis Blues) and WHLer (Portland Winter Hawks, 1982-83; and Brandon Wheat Kings, 1983-84). With Brandon, he tallied 108 goals and 192 points in 72 games.
“I know the Ferraro family is very happy that Landon is in Everett,” said Soetaert. “I tried to get him last year at the trade deadline and we weren’t able to get him. So, when we found out he was available over the course of the summer, it took time and it took patience, but we were able to get the deal done.”
As for Birkholz, the Silvertips listed him more than a year ago, prior to him getting drafted. Once he was drafted, Everett opened up the phone lines.
“We knew he was going to the University of Minnesota (when we listed him), but what happened (in Minnesota) was he was limited to a number of shifts per game,” said Soetaert. “He wasn’t playing very much, and, coming out of the USHL, he was a highly sought after player. He went to Minnesota, where he felt he wasn’t developing as he should be, with the limited amount of ice time he was getting.
“A lot of (NCAA) programs, they bring young guys in and if they’re good enough to play, they just keep them on the fourth line and give them limited action. He felt that it wasn’t good enough for him; he wants to be a pro sooner than later and he didn’t want to be on that four-year program, waiting for your ice time, so he decided to give us a look.
“He came out with his mother and father about two weeks ago and took a look at the city, the sites and the building. We had great conversations with his family, myself and (head coach Craig Hartsburg) plus our assistant coaches, Jay Varady and Chris Hartsburg
“That’s what our league is all about. When they come out and see it and hear it and check out the buildings, they start to understand that the WHL is a great league, despite all the negative things that are being said by universities and colleges in the States. They were pretty impressed and they jumped on board and we were able to pick up a top-six forward, so we’re pretty fortunate to have him.”
With Ferraro and Birkholz now on board, Soetaert agrees the Western Conference will be hard to predict this coming season. If Portland doesn’t return all their players, that is.
“Every year, it’s always a battle out West. Vancouver is stocking up again, Kamloops is due to break out this coming season, Kelowna always has a very tough team to compete against, so it’s a very, very competitive conference,” said Soetaert. “I don’t think there’s one team that can truly run away with it, though Portland came out of the blocks last year, but faded in the end. With all the number of kids they’ve had drafted, they should be a very competitive team, but if they don’t, it might be a different story. But it’ll certainly be a battle. We know we’re expecting a battle every night, and that’s good for the players, good for the fans, good for the coaches.”
In other news, Everett defenceman Ryan Murray was named to Canada’s under-18 summer team on Tuesday for the upcoming Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Aug. 9 to 14. Today, he was named Canada’s captain.
Murray, a 17-year-old mobile defenceman, had five goals and 27 points in 52 games last season, his rookie campaign. He was Everett’s first-round selection, eighth overall, in the WHL’s 2008 bantam draft. He is not draft-eligible until 2012.
Everett also signed two other prospects this summer: 1993-born Manraj Hayer, who had five goals and 15 points in 38 games with the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL last season; and 1992-born Cody Fowlie of Airdrie, Alta., who played last season with the UFA Bisons of the Alberta 3A Midget Hockey League. A 5-foot-11 right-winger/centre with speed, Fowlie had 16 goals and 45 points in 35 games last season.
Soetaert said the 5-foot-10 Hayer, a good skater and playmaker, could have made the team last year, but that he needed extra development time. More on Hayer’s signing here from Patterson.