For the first time in three seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have their own AHL affiliate in the Springfield Falcons and have continued their partnership with the ever-popular Stockton Thunder of the ECHL.
While fan support in Stockton continues to astound, ticket sales in Springfield still flounder despite the team’s much improved performance this season. By comparison, the Thunder open the gates nightly to roughly three times the number of people that their AHL big brother does albeit in a location that has far less competition for paying hockey fans.
Over the course of the current half season, there has been a lot of player movement within the Oilers system. Several players have come and gone between Edmonton and Springfield and nearly as many have shuttled back and forth from Massachusetts to California. In general, VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast says that the repaired minor league system has been a drastic upgrading over the last few years.
“It’s a huge improvement,” Prendergast began. “Obviously we’re in charge of the development and the comings and goings of all our prospects and you get a much better read on how they’re developing when you’re in charge of what they’re doing and who’s playing and who’s not playing.”
The off-season appointment of Kelly Buchberger to head coach raised the eyebrows of some who felt the club was simply looking to the past once again instead of finding the best person for the job. However, it’s three months into the AHL campaign and there are fewer critics now.
“Kelly worked with all of those kids last year. He has a great rapport with them and knows what they’re all capable of doing,” said Prendergast. “He’s tough when he has to be tough and gives them a break when he has to do that, but he demands the same type of thing from them as he gave when he played.
“He established a different kind of rapport with them last year as somebody that the players understood was helping them get there and now they have to play for him,” Prendergast continued. “I think they almost feel guilty if they’re not contributing to the team and making things better. I think Kelly made it perfectly clear to some of these guys that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that the organization was going to give opportunity to play to guys who deserved to play and it’s the same thing with his team; if you deserve to play you’ll command the ice time and if you don’t, you won’t.”
Norwegian Patrick Thoresen began the year on the farm but has worked his way back up to the NHL thanks to tremendous minor league play. During his current recall Thoresen explained to Hockey’s Future what makes Buchberger a coach that players respect.
“He knows everything about being prepared for every game,” Thoresen said. “He knows a lot about training; how to get in shape. As a coach he’s just a guy that can make you give 110 percent and get the job done because if you don’t do that you’re going to have a tough time. Many coaches can’t do that but he has that ability to get 110 percent out of a player and that’s a good quality to have as a coach.”
Currently the Oilers own the rights to 22 players who are skating in the minors and also qualify for prospect status under HF criteria.
Goaltending a strength
Over the last couple of seasons Devan Dubnyk has developed into the goaltender most looked to as the best goalie prospect in the system. After an ECHL All-Star rookie campaign, the hope was that the Calgary born netminder would continue his strong play at the AHL level this year. But has he?
“Devan probably hasn’t been as sharp as he’d like to be but I think a little bit of that early in the year was mental,” suggested Prendergast. “Pete [Peeters] was down there recently and spent a week with him and they went through things. I think he’s used to being the No. 1 guy but now he knows he’s in a battle and has to work hard and he has.”
Dubnyk is playing second fiddle to Jeff Deslauriers and has struggled in his 13 appearances but his dismal record of 2-7 is uglier than his performance has been. In those games he’s faced an average of 36 shots, suggesting the team is just as at fault as the goaltender. In three of his seven losses, Dubnyk held the opposition to two or fewer goals but the Falcons failed to give him any goal support of their own. His 3.23 goals against average certainly is a blemish but with a .906 save percentage tagged onto it, one has to realize that the 21-year-old is actually stopping a lot of rubber.
“He’s a pretty confident young man but he may have underestimated how tough the AHL was going to be this year and maybe didn’t put in the work in the summer that he needed to,” the Oiler exec continued. “At the beginning of the season Devan had a problem with his glove placement and was sort of fighting the puck a bit but Pete picked that up right away and the next game he stopped 40 of 42 shots.
“We’re not disappointed, but we knew it could be a tough scenario when you have two guys who could both possibly be No. 1.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Deslauriers has recaptured his standing in the organization with his terrific play for the Falcons. As of this past weekend, Deslauriers’ .920 save percentage was top 10 in the league although his 2.61goals against average had him ranked just inside the top 20.
Deslauriers has been a game star 11 times this year including 6 of 10 games in November when he was particularly strong. There are those who would say that the 23-year-old has been Springfield’s MVP this half-season.
“Jeff came into camp in tremendous shape and a tremendous attitude," Prendergast said. "He’s had a tough go of it in the American League but he’s worked extremely hard and he’s earned the number one position right now."
The resurgence of Deslauriers is a boom for the organization that, although had always publicly promoted him, obviously had concerns that the minor league affiliate trouble of the last few years would have irreparable harm to his development.
“You’re right, there was some doubt because of the playing time,” Prendergast admitted. “You need that playing time for development and Jeff didn’t get it and the other unfortunate part of it was that there were times in the AHL where we felt he was the better goalie but he didn’t get the opportunity. We were very worried about his mental make up and how, or if he would overcome it but he has exceeded everything we thought he could do so far and he’s continuing to get better.”
So with Dubnyk slowing a bit and Deslauriers coming on strong, what does that mean for the organization’s depth chart?
“We feel both of them are blue-chip goaltenders,” reiterated Prendergast, “Obviously Jeff has a bit of a head start in the AHL but it’s up to Devan to respond and competition is a great thing to have and it’s a good rivalry. They’ve become really good friends and there’s still more than half a season to go so we expect them to battle all the way through.”
Friends? Is that a genuine statement or simply an organization trying to dispel any talk of tension between the two young goalies? After all, both of the players as well as GM Kevin Lowe and Prendergast have admitted to tension between the keepers in the past.
“I know it’s hard to believe; I couldn’t even get them to look at each other at times last year but they’re very tight right now,” insisted Prendergast. “A lot of that is on Jeff’s shoulders because he’s the one who created the friction in the first place but he’s gone out of his way to be friends with Devan. They push each other hard at practice and I think they both understand that they’re both part of the organization and a big part of it.”
Bob Mancini is the Player Development Coach for the Oilers and offered his take on the AHL goaltending battle in November.
“It’s a great battle in Springfield that Deslauriers seems to be winning and is getting the starts and deservedly so,” Mancini began, “People have talked about [Deslauriers’] lack of consistency in the past but he seems to have put that behind him. It’s a great situation for us because we feel we have two goaltenders that have NHL potential, they’re right on track in their development and this is the type of situation you want to see; two young men with skill at the position who need to fight it out and one of them needs to step up and take the position and say ‘it’s going to be me.’”
Behind the two Springfield goalies is rookie pro Glenn Fisher who started the year brilliantly for the Stockton Thunder but has quickly come back down to Earth since then. The Edmonton native has appeared in 16 games with the Thunder thus far and after a 4-1 start, Fisher has just three wins. The former Denver Pioneer is staring at a 3.47 goals against average and a vanilla .900 save percentage.
“If you look over the last three years Glenn played once a week,” said Prendergast in regards to the platoon system employed by the University of Denver during Fisher’s tenure there, “Now he’s in a league where you sometimes play three or four times a week or you’re on the bus for twelve hours and you play two games, so I think he’s a little worn out. He’s working hard though; Pete was down there and was really happy with his mental outlook. This summer will be really important for him because his conditioning is going to have to be up to snuff to be able to play with these guys.”
Separation on the blueline
While both AHL goalies are playing well, the same cannot be said for the minor league blueliners who have clearly begun to separate into groups of players on the rise and those either stagnating or going backwards.
Leading the list of the good is rookie Sebastien Bisaillon who has played in both Springfield and Stockton this year and has turned heads wearing both uniforms.
“What a dynamic defenseman this kid is,” praised Stockton play-by-play voice Mike Benton in November, “The skills are there, the shot is there; three of his four goals he scored here were just pure bombs from just inside the blueline where he just simply tees up and overpowers goaltenders.”
Between California and Massachusetts Bisaillon has compiled 16 points in 26 games, the majority of that coming with the AHL Falcons.
Unfortunately Bisaillon’s strong campaign came to a screeching halt after suffering a deep laceration on the back of his leg on January 4th. The injury occurred when Bisaillon delivered a routine hit on a Providence Bruins player whose foot came around and accidentally sliced the defenseman’s leg. The rearguard was rushed to hospital where he underwent surgery to repair both a hamstring and calf tendon. He has just been released from hospital and although there is hope that he can begin putting some pressure on it and get rehab underway in as little as a week, it appears more than likely that his season has come to an early end.
Theo Peckham could have played another year in the OHL but the Oilers signed him and wanted him to play professionally despite a minor league logjam at the position. The move has paid off for the Ontario product.
“When we drafted him we knew he was a tough physical guy and he’s certainly proven that but the thing that he’s given us so far that we weren’t really expecting off of him is some offense,” said Prendergast hinting to the three goals and five points earned by the 6’2, 216 lb blueliner. “He’s worked really hard and at this point he might very well be our best prospect down there on defense.”
“It’s been wonderful to watch how he’s adjusted,” said the former OHL General Manager, “He was in the ECHL for only five days, called right back up, played and got a spot in the line up and didn’t let that spot go until the injury.”
Peckham had a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for a couple of weeks in November but have not hindered him since his return.
Young, well known for his steady defensive play over the last five years, is a team low minus-13.
“I don’t know if it’s that Bryan has put too much pressure on himself to perform after being called up to the big team last year but he’s getting himself into trouble by trying to do too much with the puck which is something he’s never done before,” Prendergast confirmed. “There are some nights that he’s very good and he’s the Bryan Young that we expect. Hopefully it’s just a bump in the road and he’ll get over it.”
For 3rd year pro Syvret, he’s finally a plus player but is no longer producing offensively as he has in the last couple of years, both of which were considered underachieving seasons as it was. Syvret has just frou points thus far and in order to try and give him a kick start for the second half of the season, the Oilers offered the 22-year-old up to Canada’s Spengler Cup team for the second year in a row.
“I think part of the problem might be that in Danny’s mind he’s not a minor league defenseman, and neither in ours, but he has to understand that first he has to excel at that level before you can get to the next one,” said Prendergast. “In Danny’s defense, early on in the year he took a slapshot in the face and that did a really bad number on his mouth and teeth and he had to play with a full shield and had trouble with that.
“He’s just had trouble getting into a groove and that’s why we let him go to the Spengler Cup,” continued the exec. “Last year he found his game over there and came back and played very well and in fact the last game he played [in Springfield] before going over Kelly said it might have been the best game he’d ever seen him play in the AHL. Hopefully he comes back with some confidence because we need Danny to be a leader down there.”
However, with only one point to his credit at the Swiss tournament, perhaps it would be too much to expect an offensively rejuvenated Syvret when he returns to the Falcons. Syvret is in the midst of a contract year and with the glut of defensemen in the system already with the possible addition of some current collegians to the mix next year, the former third-round pick could be in tough looking for a renewal.
As far as pleasant surprises go, surely Liam Reddox’s rise from ECHL mediocrity to AHL dependability takes the cake. Here’s a player who, aside from one month last season, struggled mightily playing in Stockton but has been called one of the players coach Buchberger now relies on in Springfield. It begs the question: How has he managed to take this major leap forward in his development?
“Nose to the grindstone,” Prendergast simply stated. “He bought into what he was told. Kelly spent a lot of time with him down in Stockton last year. He’s a bit of a funny kid in that, if you start to show confidence in him, he’ll respond to you and at the beginning of last year he had trouble getting into the line-up.
“He went home this summer and worked really had and came back with an unbelievable amount of confidence in his game,” he added. “there’s no doubt that game in and game out he’s been their best player. He’s on the first penalty kill, the first power play and all the things we thought he was going to do when we took him from Peterborough are what he’s become.”
Thoresen agrees that in Reddox’s case, it’s hard work that is paying off.
“The first priority to stay on top of your game is to be serious about your hockey and about your practicing and he’s certainly doing that,” said the Norwegian.
Yet when HF asked Reddox himself how he’s resurrected his prospect status he summed it up in one word: confidence.
“Confidence is a big thing in hockey,” said Reddox. “I’ve got it right now and I’m just trying to make good passes and good plays and it’s working out for me.”
Unfortunately Reddox injured his ankle in a pre-Christmas game in Houston and has missed the last few contests but he is expected to return to the line-up this weekend.
Russian born Slava Trukhno has had a much tougher go of it in Springfield than Reddox has. It’s obviously his debut season as a pro and that’s a big adjustment but according to the Oilers, Trukhno is still trying to get comfortable off the ice as well.
“The language barrier was something that he had to overcome and having to live on his own, something he’s never had to do, has been tough for him to do,” Prendergast said. “He’s coming though, he’s starting to get points now and he understands what we expect of him more than he did at the beginning of the year. He has talent but that said he has a long way to go this season and we expect him to get better.”
Hockey’s Future has spoken with Trukhno several times over the last couple years and language has never been a problem so Prendergast was asked to clarify what he meant by that comment.
“He speaks English but he’s very shy with it, he’s not confident with it, especially with the players on the team,” he explained.
Trukhno has bounced around from line to line, but is one player who is expected to have a stronger second half as his adjustment to the pro game solidifies even more.
The plight of Jean-Francois Jacques has been well covered. Again this season, Jacques failed to stick with the big club after lackluster play only to rebound back in the AHL where the hefty winger is able to contribute in all facets of the game.
“He hyper-extended his elbow and played with it, but he wasn’t very effective because he couldn’t handle the puck,” Prendergast said in December. “He just needs to get the focus of knowing the next time he comes up what he’s going to be and I think he’s put that extra pressure on himself thinking that he has to score goals and that gets him away from the physical part of his game.”
Jacques has 18 points in 30 games despite coping with injuries, yet for some reason he just can’t translate that success at the next level. The one ugly stat that stands out is his minus-12 rating, but as a stat that is often untrustworthy, one should at least be open to the possibility that it isn’t a clear indicator of Jacques’ performance this year.
“I can’t really put a finger on any one thing that he’s doing wrong because he’s playing pretty well,” said Prendergast. “He got a skate in the face a while ago and that sliced his face right open so he had to play with a shield on and then right after that he hyper-extended the elbow so it’s been tough for him to get into a groove.
“I still have confidence in J.F. and I think he’ll be with us for a long time.”
Of course the player most casual readers want to know about is Rob Schremp, who has made a switch from center to wing this year. When asked if the Oilers now viewed Schremp as a winger, Prendergast seemed open to that thought.
“I think he feels more comfortable there right now,” he began. “He still has a lot of work to do to play there in the NHL, but whatever deficiencies we felt he may have had in his skating they’re not showing up as much on the wing. He’s just got to learn to compete in the tough areas in the corners and along the wall a bit more.
“He’s played both and I haven’t seen much difference either way but I think he’s more comfortable on the right side. But with his hockey sense I don’t think either side would hurt him,” added Prendergast, which makes one wonder why the Falcons use Schremp primarily on the left side. Although he’s now more than a point per game player in the AHL, one informed source told HF that Schremp would be even more effective on the right wing or in the middle where he has traditionally been the most comfortable.
The increase in scoring is definitely a positive and like Reddox, has people wondering what Schremp has done to turn things around this year.
“He’s found his confidence again. Last year he was trying to do things too quickly and trying to force things and this year he’s kind of fallen back into what he was in London,” said Prendergast who also hinted that his dedication away from the rink has also improved. “He’s learning how to become a pro. I think his last call-up in Vancouver, he got hit a couple of times and he realized he really wasn’t strong enough to compete with those guys and I think it was a good wake-up call for him that he had more work to do to get there.”
Thoresen played a bit with Schremp last season in Wilkes-Barre and says he’s noticed a difference in the American born forward.
“For sure he has a different attitude towards the game and to practice,” said Thoresen. “He’s doing things he didn’t do last year. He’s riding the bike every morning to always be prepared and he’s more focused this year and I think he understands better what it takes to be a professional. I’m glad to see him playing so well because expectations for him are so big and now he’s delivering.”
The player with probably the second highest profile in Springfield is Marc Pouliot who until very recently looked like he’d built an addition onto the organization’s doghouse. One source speaking on the conditioning of anonymity suggested the Quebec City native “looked like he’d packed it in” after being reassigned from Edmonton in early November.
“Well he’s not playing as well as we’d like him to, that’s for sure,” Prendergast said in December, “When he’s good the team is good and when he’s ordinary so is the team so he’s obviously a big part of that team down there. We just have to be patient with him and get him to buy into what we think he’s going to be.”
Since those comments were given to HF Pouliot has picked up nine points in eight games so perhaps he’s turning a bit of a corner but he’s still a far cry off from where it was expected he’d be as a third year pro. With 63 NHL games under his belt, Pouliot is just two games shy of the magical line in the sand that would move him to the ‘graduated list’ under HF’s prospect criteria.
If it weren’t for bad luck, Tyler Spurgeon wouldn’t have any luck at all. He started the season late after getting injured in training camp and now is sidelined indefinitely after suffering a concussion. Sources tell HF that Spurgeon is progressing and although it’s a slow process right now, it’s still better than the first doctor’s report the player received.
“He was told by a doctor down there that he probably should retire but it wasn’t a sports doctor it was just a regular doctor in a hospital,” said Prendergast. “But [team physician] Dr. Naidu has looked at him and we have faith that he’s going to play again this year.”
One of the forms of rehab Spurgeon has taken up is playing hockey video games, recommended by one doctor who believes the focused visual concentration will aid in the recovery process.
Spurgeon has only dressed for 12 games this year but has eight points and is an impressive plus-7 in that time.
Swede Fredrik Johansson has been in and out of the Springfield line up and is currently in Stockton. In a checking role, Johansson has five points and is plus-7 in 25 AHL games.
“He’s been solid; some nights he plays on the wing and other times he’s back at center but he’s been a reliable player for Kelly,” Prendergast reported. “As the season progresses more and more points are going to come his way. He’s learning how to play in North America as compared to Europe and it’s a big step for a lot of these kids but he’s coming in the right direction and we’re happy with him so far.”
The other Swede in the minor system is Jonas Almtorp and he too has been back and forth between farm teams this year as he tries to find ice time. Despite appearances to the contrary, Prendergast says the Oilers are not disappointed with Almtorp’s inability to secure an AHL job.
“What we’d like to see is a little more offense out of him, but he’s sort of been structured that way in Sweden to only worry about his own end and the offensive creativity was taken away from him,” he said, “He’s someone we’d need to have patience with but he’s a great defensive player and solid penalty killer but to play at higher levels we’re going to have to see more offense out of him.”
Both Swedes are in contract years and could be in tough to be renewed.
“It’s probably an uphill battle for both of them but they’re going in the right direction and once we get to that point we’ll look at whether we want to bring them back again,” confirmed the VP.
One player who has become a coach’s favorite is Tim Sestito.
“He’s an aggravator, he works hard, a tough checker who is not afraid to mix it up with bigger and tougher guys and he gets involved,” described Prendergast. “To get to the next level his skating has got to get quicker and he has to get stronger but at the level he’s at right now he’s a big part of the team.”
Prendergast went on to confirm that Sestito’s name had been bandied about in regards to a call-up in order to inject some grit to the big team but thus far that has not happened.
Pro rookie Colin McDonald is having a respectable year where he’s earning a point every second game and his nine goals are tied for third most with the Falcons.
“Some nights he’s on the first line and some nights he’s on the second line. Coming from a program that struggled and didn’t win a lot of games his offensive creativity sort of stagnated a bit there for a couple years but now every night he gets a couple of opportunities to score and he’s competing in both ends of the ice,” Prendergast said. “He’s a player that if we have patience with, he’ll have a chance to play one day.”
Stephane Goulet has struggled to score goals this year, which is his game, so the Oilers sent him to Stockton to get more minutes and hopefully a confidence boost. While there he picked up 14 points in 12 games so the club brought him back up to the AHL but he still has just one AHL goal this season.
“He’s had trouble and skating is a part of that,” explained the Oiler exec. “If he’s going to play at a higher level he has to get back to what he was doing in Moncton when he scored 50 goals and that’s being a big body that goes to the net and scores.”
“Troy’s been good and bad; he’s a blue collar player who goes up and down his wing, he competes and he’s solid in his own end but what we’re going to need to see out of Troy next year is that he gets stronger physically to play at that level,” Prendergast described. “It’s his second year of pro, he played very well in Stockton last year but it was maybe a bigger jump to the AHL than he anticipated. Kelly’s very happy with his defensive game though.”
The tumultuous season of Ryan O’Marra continues. The former first-round pick began the year in Springfield but was soon demoted “to get more ice time” according to the organization. HF has spoken to everyone involved with the situation, but because the player has been asked to focus on playing and not talking, no one really wants to comment much beyond the press releases to shed any more light on the matter. Suffice to say that player and organization haven’t always seen eye to eye this year.
“I have no problem telling you that Ryan was upset and shocked and a bit taken back by his demotion to the ECHL, but it’s part of the development process and every player is going to go through that process differently,” said Mancini who traded for and coached O’Marra in Saginaw last season. “Did I foresee this? I think with the injuries that he had and the fact that he’d had so much success before all of that adversity, yeah I thought perhaps that Ryan was going to have a difficult time adjusting. That said, I’m pretty confident in Ryan’s attitude, his character and his desire to play the game that he’s going to overcome this.”
On the positive side, O’Marra was named to the ECHL All-Star team, which annually focuses on prospects in the league. Since then the Tokyo-born forward has been recalled to Springfield where he is pointless and minus-1 after nine games.
“Ryan has to understand that he can’t just play good one shift, score a goal and then take the rest of the night off; he’s got to get consistent in his game and solid in both ends of the ice,” said Prendergast. “It’s funny because he did that for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship but seems to be bucking it at the pro level.
“He is a big part of this organization but we didn’t trade Ryan Smyth for one player, we traded him for three players that we felt were going to be able to help our hockey team in the long run,” Prendergast continued. “He’s got the ability to play at the NHL level but he’s got to buy in and trust us that we’re trying to do the best things for him.
“The sky’s the limit for him and it’s no different from where Liam Reddox was last year but Liam bought into the program and came back and said ‘look I’m going to show you that I’m a better player than I was,’” he added. “We know he’s a good player but he’s not a first line player for the National Hockey League. He has to convince himself that he’s a second or third line player but that he’s going to play in a lot of key situations and once he’s bought into that I think he’s certainly going to be a good player for us.”
Considering the number of players in the minor league system this year, it was a tough year for Geoff Paukovich to turn pro. The former Denver Pioneer center opted to skip his senior season and has spent all of 2007-08 in Stockton as a result. The big Colorado native has 13 points in 31 games and is a minus-9 on the year.
“You leave college sometimes and you’re not ready for the riggers of pro hockey and I think Geoff has run into that a bit,” said the VP of Hockey Operations, “His conditioning isn’t where we think it should be to this point but he’s working hard every day. Geoff’s a big, tough physical guy that can beat up on people, and we need that type of player in the organization. The biggest thing for his hockey career is going to be next summer; he’s in college condition and that doesn’t make it in the NHL.”
Is he a defenseman or a forward? David Rohlfs can play in either spot but so far it looks like he’ll be a winger in this organization and the Oilers are pleased with his play so far in Stockton.
“In college he played a couple years as a forward and a couple years as a defenseman so he’s kind of been stuck in the middle but we feel that he’s going to be a forward,” confirmed Prendergast. “There are nights when he uses his size to go to the net and you can’t stop him and then there’s other nights when he’s a deer in the headlights so consistency is something that he’s going to have to learn.”
Minor League prospect notes: David Rohlfs’ minus-17 rating is a team low for Stockton… Ryan O’Marra had 10 points in his last seven games with Stockton before his recall to Springfield… Glenn Fisher’s 3.47 GAA places him 35th in the league in that category and he’s 27th for save percentage at .900… Rob Schremp is on pace to score 84 points this year which would have been good enough for fifth in league scoring last season… Schremp and former London Knights teammate Danny Syvret are roommates this season… The Falcons are fourth in their division and have 42 points so far this year, just 17 fewer than they ended with last year when affiliated with Tampa Bay and finishing in the cellar… The Thunder are on pace to finish about 20 points behind their 86-point performance in 2006-07…
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