With the team going through its worst season ever, the Everett Silvertips somewhat surprisingly cut ties with general manager Doug Soetaert on Thursday.
The move essentially marks the end of a largely sucessful, but increasingly frustrating, first chapter of the Silvertips' existence. Soetaert built the team from scratch after being hired in 2002, preparing the Silvertips for their first WHL season in 2003-04. That year, Everett shocked the league by winning the U.S. Division and advancing all the way to the WHL final. Two more division titles followed over the next three years, but the franchise's momentum has stalled recently: the 'Tips haven't made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2006-07, when a 54-win club disappointingly bowed out in the second round.
This year has been by far the worst in franchise history. At 12-30-1-8, the Silvertips sit at the bottom of the WHL. However, the team has played considerably better as of late, going 5-4-1 over the last 10 games and moving within shouting distance of the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Nick Patterson of the Everett Herald got these comments from Soetaert's boss about the decision:
"Doug's contract was expiring this year, and we've been spending months evaluating our direction," Silvertips president Gary Gelinas said. "We made the decision not to renew his contract. We decided to make the decision sooner rather than later so we could find the right individual to bring in and lead the organization.
"It's always difficult," Gelinas added. "Doug's been an integral part of the organization, he's given a lot to the organization and the community, and he's a good person. It's never easy, but we have to do what's best for the organization." (Everett Herald)
Soetaert made it no secret that the club was going to be embarking on a complete rebuilding process this season under new coach Mark Ferner, and he's not going to get the chance to see it through. It might seem a little cold to have the plug pulled before getting a chance to turn things around, given his track record with the franchise.
On the other hand, it's sometimes been hard to tell -- at least from afar -- just what exactly Soetaert's plan was. He opted not to blow up the team this season and actually added more veterans in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break. The Silvertips traded future bantam draft picks for the likes of role players JT Barnett, Josh Caron and Teal Burns (who was released after 15 games). Everett actually traded away more bantam draft picks than it received this season.
Leading up to the trade deadline, Soetaert refused to entertain the notion of trading celebrated defenceman Ryan Murray, a projected top-five pick in the upcoming NHL draft, despite Murray's status as a 1993-born player who may very well spend next season at the next level.
The team's second-best player, goaltender Kent Simpson -- a 19-year-old veteran whose numbers have suffered greatly as the team has declined -- also wasn't moved at the deadline.
The only notable Silvertip who has been traded this season essentially forced Soetaert's hand. Tyler Maxwell, the franchise's all-time leading goal scorer, became so fed up with the team's losing ways in November that he went home to California and asked out of Everett. Soetaert shipped Maxwell to the Edmonton Oil Kings, and the overage sniper is having a big season for the Eastern Conference's top club.
With a full complement of three overagers plus five 1992-born players who all play a prominent role on this year's team, the Silvertips will have some holes to plug going forward -- not necessarily encouraging news for a team that's won 12 of 51 games.
With the rest of the front office being retained, Soetaert is essentially being singled out for the state of the franchise:
"The front office we have is one of the best organizations in the nation, especially the WHL," Gelinas said. "We want to support that with the product on the ice, by competing every year for the WHL championship. Mark is in his first year, he's a quality coach and we're pleased with the fit. Now we need to identify someone to build a hockey operations department that will produce a more competitive team and give the fans what they deserve." (Everett Herald)
There are some encouraging signs. Rookie Kohl Bauml has emerged recently, collecting 9 goals and 14 points in January. Young 16-year-old goaltender Austin Lotz looks like a promising building block for the future. Defenceman Nick Walters, a 17-year-old, is a potential future team leader.
Beyond that, the Silvertips have a group of young forwards who play hard, but don't score much. Combine that with a group of older returning forwards who also don't score much, and it's tough to see where goals are going to come from next season.
For now, assistant GM Zoran Rajcic will share management duties with Ferner on an interim basis until a new hire is made. Those two might now have to wonder if they'll be in the plans of whoever comes next.
Scott Sepich is a WHL contributor to Buzzing the Net. Follow him on Twitter @SSepichWHL (Photo: Everett Silvertips)