They say good things come in threes and that’s exactly what the Edmonton Oilers are hoping for because this season they have just a trio of prospects playing junior hockey. The rapid progression of Sam Gagner straight to the NHL and the advancement of Theo Peckham cut the number of junior eligible players nearly in half and when injuries are taken into consideration, Edmonton has really only had two active players in the CHL this year.
Alex Plante (D) – Calgary Hitmen WHL
Acquired: 1st round, 15th overall in 2007
Big things were expected this year from Calgary’s ‘other’ big blueliner but outside of a pair of games, Alex Plante has spent the first three months of 2007-08 on the sidelines looking in.
The problems for Plante began in Yellowknife, NWT during Oilers rookie camp in early September when he crashed into the boards. After missing all of main camp, Plante rejoined the Hitmen but only lasted a pair of games before the injury flared up again. During a team visit to Rexall Place in mid October, Plante described what the problem really was.
“What initially happened was a charlie horse and I couldn’t stretch it out at all, I was basically on bed rest there for a bit,” he explained.
A charlie horse is normally associated with a leg injury so when pressed for further clarification, the awkward truth came out.
“I had it in my… butt, but it went up into my back and I couldn’t lay on my back or sit down or anything, I had to always lie on my stomach and it affected everything in my lower body,” Plante said.
Hitmen General Manager and Head Coach Kelly Kisio was clearly frustrated with the ongoing health issue for one of his key players. When asked to talk about any development he’d seen in Plante from the previous year he had to be blunt.
“Well I haven’t seen much this year, we haven’t had much of a chance to play him,” Kisio shrugged. “Over the last couple of years he’s improved a great deal, his foot speed has come a long ways and his natural instincts have come out since he started to grow into his body. We’re just waiting for him to get back into the lineup so he can help our defense.
“He hasn’t been healthy since he came back from Edmonton,” Kisio continued. “He came back only about 65 percent healthy from what he was last year so we are patiently waiting for him to heal.”
That healing process has continued to drag on now well into November but Oilers management suggested recently to Hockey’s Future that the wait may finally be coming to an end. However, there is still the chance of a setback that would make things worse before they could get better.
“Any time he skates [the problem area] starts to press on the sciatic nerve and causes the pain and then his leg goes numb,” said Prendergast. “He’s been going for about a week now without contact, and they’re going to start him back with contact on Monday. If he can handle the contact on Monday he’ll be playing again next weekend.”
Obviously the situation is just as frustrating for the Oilers as it is for the Hitmen and Plante but Prendergast likes the fact that the 18-year-old has at least been able to keep up his off ice training. Asked whether or not the Oiler doctors have been following the case, HF was told that “[Plante] has seen [Calgary’s] doctors and our guys have been in contact with them, they saw the MRI they did and were happy with it.”
With luck, Plante may be back in WHL action in just over a week’s time.
Bryan Pitton (G) – Brampton Battalion OHL
Acquired: Drafted 5th round (133rd overall) in 2006
Much like Plante, goalie Bryan Pitton also sustained an injury in Yellowknife during rookie camp that caused him to miss both the main camp and the start of the OHL regular season. Pitton suffered a slight high ankle sprain while taking part in a shootout drill in the late stages of a practice in Yellowknife and says ice conditions probably played a role.
“I made a move and I made the stop but I was in the butterfly and my momentum, the ice was really crappy at that time, and my ankle didn’t really move but I felt it pop and when I skated out of the net I knew that something was wrong,” Pitton said from home recently.
Upon his return to his club team, Pitton re-aggravated the injury while preparing for opening night. It was decided by the team trainer that the best thing for Pitton and for the team would be for the netminder to rest the ankle to allow it to fully heal. In the end that meant missing nine games but it’s a decision that appears to have paid off in spades.
“He’s been outstanding,” praised Prendergast. “Since he’s come back, outside of last Sunday, I don’t think he’s had a bad game yet. Pete Peeters was in to see him for four days and is really happy with him and obviously the coach is as well. He’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Pitton agrees that he’s playing well but won’t accept all the credit for the performances he’s been able to string together.
“I’m playing well but the team in front of me is a lot better than last year so it’s easier for me to play good,” he said.
Now as a 19-year-old in the league, Pitton is being counted on to provide top quality goaltending not just from the Battalion but also from the Oilers who want to see him take his game to another level. So far he’s done that; his 2.31 goals against average is second best in the league and his .915 save percentage ranks seventh.
“Being an older guy, it’s hopefully my last year in the league, you have to perform to help your team and it’s expected of me by the Oilers and by the coaching staff here in Brampton,” he agreed. “I’ve got to go out there every night and give my team a chance to win. You have your bad games but you have to limit those to very few a year. Being a 19-year-old you have to play well and so far it’s been going pretty well for me.”
It’s been well enough that some might suggest he was overlooked by those making the selections for the ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. The OHL will be represented by Steve Mason (CLB) and Trevor Cann (COL), the latter of which has much weaker stats than Pitton. The Oiler prospect doesn’t deny his disappointment but won’t go so far as to call it a snubbing.
“I was hoping to get on there, but maybe I didn’t play enough games,” Pitton guessed. “I’m not really sure how [the selection committee] view me, obviously everyone thinks they’re good enough to play there and I would have loved the chance but those are two really good goalies. Maybe if I had started out with the team from the beginning and had played as well as I have maybe I’d have a chance but you never know.”
In the meantime, Pitton has enjoyed extra practice under the tutelage of Oilers goaltending coach Pete Peeters.
“[The team] had a day off on Monday, but me and [Peeters] and a couple of shooters were out on the ice and then after that we were out twice a day until the last game,” Pitton said. “Just working on the basics like angles and a lot of play from behind the net to the front; in the new league there are a lot of shots from in tight and a lot of cycling because you can’t hook and grab anymore so guys will be coming out from behind the net or the corners.”
Obviously the hard work is paying off for Pitton and the Oilers are extremely pleased with the way he has been developing this year.
Milan Kytnar (C) – Kelowna Rockets WHL
Acquired: Drafted in the 5th round (127th overall) in 2007
It might be too harsh to say that Kytnar has been a disappointment this year, but it would be fair to describe him as struggling to make the adjustment to North American hockey. Last season Kytnar was able to amass unbelievably good stats primarily because of the lower quality of league he was in. However, those inflated numbers likely set expectations higher than usual for this year.
A year ago in the U18 Slovakian league, Kytnar put up 91 points and a staggering plus-78 rating. By comparison, thus far in the WHL he has managed a measly 7 points and is plus-1.
“He’s struggling a bit,” Prendergast admitted. “He’s having trouble adjusting to the physical part of the game.” Despite the results, Prendergast says that he gets positive updates from the Rockets.
“They feel he works hard in practice and gives them want they want but [in games] he doesn’t have the puck a lot,” he continued. Asked if he felt all along that it would be tough for Kytnar to reproduce the same offensive numbers in North America, the Oiler exec confirmed that they always projected the forward in a defensive role.
“I think that’s what he’s going to be, a third or fourth liner irregardless of what happens, he’s just got to adjust to the game,” said Prendergast. “When we drafted him we thought he’d be a good third liner and a terrific penalty killer and shutdown guy but he’s still learning that part of it over here with Kelowna but they say he’s getting better.”
Kelowna head coach Ryan Huska echoed those sentiments.
“Over the last little while I think he’s feeling a lot more comfortable in how to play over here,” he said. “Over the last ten games or so he’s started to play very well. Most of his points that he put on the board have been just recently and he’s getting more quality ice time because his play has been improving.”
Asked to describe the role he is playing for the Rockets, coach Huska’s description was right in line with Prendergast’s.
“He’s the guy that we use to play against the top lines in our league and to kill penalties,” said Huska. “As he continues to get more comfortable with our club he’ll get used in different situations as well but that’s still what he’s working on. He wouldn’t be a guy that we’d look to every night to put points on the board, we look to him to be solid defensively and to contribute where he can.
“He understands the game and where he’s supposed to be defensively,” he added. “When he takes faceoffs, most times he does a very good job because that’s one of his strengths so I think that’s why we’ve started him in the role that he’s in.”
Off the ice the transition to North America appears to have been quicker than on it.
“He’s a very good kid and I wouldn’t say he’s your typical European,” the coach began. “He got into a fight on our last road trip and he did very well, he gets along very well with the players on our team and I think he’s going to be a terrific young hockey player. His English is very good, he has no problem talking to us or the group so he’s pretty good.”
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