Oilers NCAA prospects update

By Guy Flaming

This year the Edmonton Oilers have seven players honing their skills both on the ice and in the classroom at various NCAA programs.  Of that group it would be fair to say that two are at one end of the development spectrum while the other five are at the other.

Edmonton has three freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors split among four forwards and three blueline prospects.  Although there are no seniors in the mix, arguments can be made that a few of the players might be ready to make the jump to the pro ranks before next season.

Hockey’s Future spoke with Bob Mancini who is currently the Player Development Coach for the Oilers.  Mancini is a former NCAA head coach having been on the bench for Ferris State University and Michigan Tech, which was preceded by a four-year playing career with Colorado College.  Mancini is also credited with being one of the architects of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, which has successfully produced a plethora of current NHL stars.   

Freshmen

Robby Dee, C – Maine Black Bears

He’s listed as a freshman, but the former third-round draft pick is actually late getting to class.  Serious shoulder injuries delayed his arrival to Maine by a full year but if you looked at the season stats sheet you might have mistakenly thought he still hadn’t shown up.

After 19 games, Dee has managed just a single goal and a pair of assists, all of those points coming since the Christmas break.  That lack of offense in itself is a major disappointment.  

Robby Dee has a history of being a goal scorer in high school hockey — he’s always gotten points,” Mancini began. “I think, even though he’s over 6’ tall and is a fairly stocky kid, he’s struggling with the physicality of the game at that level.

“He’s going to have to figure it out where he’s going to have to go to the net, be good in front and play hard in tight areas.  Eventually his skill will allow him to maybe give him a chance at the next level,“ Mancini continued. “To be quite honest though, he hasn’t shown the propensity to play that game in his career but unless he learns that, he doesn’t have a chance to play at the NHL level,” said Mancini.

So is Dee a write-off already?  Mancini cautions that this is just year one of a probably lengthy college career so it’s much too early to jump to any conclusions just yet.

“We’re looking at a four-year guy, you follow him, I make suggestions when I go in to see him and make sure he’s doing the right things — working out, listening to the coaches and doing everything to become that better player,” Mancini continued. “If the light turns on for him, he has the size and the tools and the skill to be a player but it’s really up to him and he has a long tough road ahead of him.”

Earlier in the year Dee broke his finger and subsequently missed a game but thankfully there have been no reoccurring shoulder problems that plagued him while a member of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers.

Riley Nash, C – Cornell Big Red

Unlike Dee, Nash is having a tremendous start to his college career.  Not only is the Kamloops, BC product flourishing while playing with big brother Brendon, but his 21 points in 23 games also happens to be a team high.  For the sake of comparison, the next highest scoring freshman at Cornell this year is forward Dan Nicholls who has just four points to his credit.  Further to that point, Nash’s numbers are tops among freshmen in the entire ECAC.

“This kid is a really good hockey player,” Mancini praised. “He has tremendous awareness and sees the ice very well, good offensive instincts, can make plays on the rush and he’s good down low.”

The biggest area that needs improvement for Nash appears to be in his off-ice conditioning and training in order to bulk up and add muscle mass.

“He’s got height right now, he’s probably about 6’2, but he’s missing strength,” agreed Mancini. “He’s still very slight, he’s young and he’s working hard at it.  It’s interesting though that he’s able to control the puck in the offensive zone because he has such good balance on his skates and when he gets bigger and stronger he’s going to be a real force to be reckoned with down low.”

Some were critical of Edmonton’s decision to trade the 30th and 36th overall draft picks to Phoenix in order to move into a position to grab Nash but from his perspective, Mancini says no one is regretting that selection now.

“I wasn’t with the [Oilers] last year so I think I can say this without sounding too self serving, but that was one hell of a pick!” laughed Mancini. “This is a kid that’s going to play in the National Hockey League.”

Nash had to work his way up from the third line where he began the year, typical of freshmen in college who have to earn their stripes before getting increased ice time.  It didn’t take long though before Nash found himself on the second line and the second power-play unit and just a couple weeks later he’d established himself on the top line and the top power play team as well.

“He adjusted to the college game and the coaches right away saw that and rewarded him for not only his talent but his ability and his work ethic,” explained Mancini.

Most recently, Nash scored both of Cornell’s goals during a 4-2 loss at the hands of St. Lawrence last weekend.

Jeff Petry, D – Michigan State Spartans

To join a top tier NCAA program and expect to get a lot of ice time as a freshman is normally pretty ridiculous, even more so if that team also happens to be the defending national champions.  However, seemingly a moment after pulling on his Spartans sweater Jeff Petry was thrust into a key role with Michigan State.

“He really started strong, made a huge jump onto the scene and was one of Michigan State’s top guys even as a freshman and was getting huge minutes,” Mancini reported. “He hit a little bump in the road right around Christmas, a little bit of a wall that freshmen usually do, but I saw him two weeks ago and he’s picked up his game again.”

Petry has earned 13 points this year, 11 of which came prior to the holiday break.  There was some quiet unease as to why the offense had suddenly dried up but overall the Oilers are still pleased with the way he’s continued to play, especially in big games. 

“In the Michigan series he was very good.  He’d hit a wall but then against the toughest team and the biggest opponent he brought his game back up to that level,” said Mancini. “I was really pleased to see that because that was a concern, I wanted to see where he was against one of the toughest teams he was going to play against and he really answered the bell.”

He’s shown offensive ability, strong defensive play and a willingness to be physical but now the Oilers have a new fear in regards to Petry.

“My biggest concern for Jeff coming through the stretch here is, he keeps telling me he’s 191 lbs and he’s 6’2 or 6’3 so there’s not a whole lot to him right now,” Mancini said. “He’s playing so much that the big concern is, is he getting worn out as a freshman? We’ll see how that goes down the stretch.”

The Spartans have six regular season games remaining but have the CCHA playoffs still to come and are likely headed to 16-team national tournament after that so there could still be upwards of a dozen games left to play.

Sophomores

Matt Glasser, LW – Denver Pioneers 

Former Fort McMurray Oil Baron Matt Glasser shares a similar situation in Denver to what Robby Dee is experiencing at Maine; both players have a history of injuries and are now floundering as collegians.  Glasser dressed for only 12 games with the Pioneers last year and hoped for a bigger role this season but that has clearly not come to fruition.  The Calgary native has played in 27 of Denver’s 28 games this season but is still well down the depth chart.

“Matt is not playing much,” admitted Mancini. “He’s a high-energy guy who works hard, a great kid who wants to be a player and he’s the type of kid that you put in the NCAA for four years and in his senior year you go back and see if he’s made the improvements and if he has a chance.”

It’s plain to see that this is a player the Oilers have put on the back burner to simmer, and are content to wait patiently and see if he cooks into something they can use several years from now. 

“There’s no fooling anybody about him maybe coming out early,” Mancini echoed. “He’s not highly skilled, he’s not overly big but he’s just a good solid hockey player who is really still adjusting to the higher level of college.”

Glasser bides his time playing third and fourth line minutes although he does reportedly get to be involved on the Pioneers penalty kill from time to time.  Simply put, at this point in his college career, Glasser is a depth player on a solid but not dominating team.

“After being involved in college hockey for so long, there are guys in college that you don’t count on making it but at the same time you don’t bet against them either,” Mancini said, suggesting Glasser fits the bill.

It wasn’t until just after Christmas that Glasser recorded his first collegiate point, an assist against Sacred Heart.  However, the former AJHL 25-goal scorer has potted a pair of goals since then including most recently getting a game opener in a 4-1 win against Minnesota this past weekend.  That said, his three points still has him below goaltender Peter Mannino on Denver’s team scoring race.

Chris Vande Velde, C – North Dakota Fighting Sioux

He had just nine points last year but with seven of those points coming in North Dakota’s final nine games, there was a certain amount of buzz surrounding Chris Vande Velde coming into this season.  With Jonathan Toews (CHI) leaving the Sioux, Vande Velde was going to get an opportunity to center the top line between T.J. Oshie (STL) and Ryan Duncan.  Could he possibly fill that role and help the Sioux sustain their contender status?

Vande Velde is third on the team in scoring, trailing only Oshie, a first-round pick of the Blues, and Duncan, the reigning Hobey Baker winner.  Clearly his stats of 23 points in 27 games are indicative that he’s been able to keep pace with the two high-profile players but that raises the question as to whether he’s simply living off of his linemates.

“The first thing you look at is, ‘does this kid belong with those two? Does he deserve to be on that line’, and he does,” said Mancini. “He’s been a really good compliment to those two players.”

Vande Velde’s development curve has the Oilers grinning from ear to ear including Mancini who had nothing to do with Edmonton’s 2005 Draft.

“I was told to go in and look at him because he’d made a step and that we may have a player… and we do,” Mancini said. “Here’s a kid that we didn’t expect to make this jump and be who he is.  Here’s a kid who now has a chance.”

Mancini then referred back to his earlier comments on Glasser and Dee to further explain Vande Velde’s rapid development.

“You put them in college, you let them develop and you hope that they raise their game to where they have a chance and once they do you hope they raise their game even more to be a guy that you want to sign,” he explained. “Chris Vande Velde has now put himself in that category; he’s raised his game and he has a legitimate chance.  I’m not saying that this is a kid that’s going to come out any sooner than his four years but what he’s done is made himself a better player and he’s given himself a chance.”

As good as he has been there is still much work to be done by Vande Velde before he’s ready to take the next step.

“He’s big and he’s strong but he needs to learn to play with more grit,” advised Mancini. “He needs to learn to be better in the defensive zone because that’s not a huge part of his game yet.”

The Sioux are once again a team considered a strong candidate to make an appearance at the Frozen Four, so opportunities in high-pressure games could very well be on the horizon for both Oiler prospects at North Dakota.
 
Juniors

Taylor Chorney, D – North Dakota Fighting Sioux

Coming into the season there were those who were trumpeting 20-year-old Taylor Chorney as one of, if not the best defenseman in NCAA hockey and an early contender for the Hobey Baker award.  He got off to a quick start picking up seven points in North Dakota’s first six games but then some onlookers felt that Chorney’s play started to sag.  Certainly his offensive production slowed to where he only added five more points over the course of the following 13 games.

Considering he was very close to leaving college for the pro ranks at the conclusion of last year, one has to wonder if the third-year player will return for a senior year or not.  His reasoning for returning to college was for both team success and personal growth in regards to stronger defensive play and physical maturity.  From their standpoint, the Oilers just seem to be waiting for Chorney to decide to take the next step.

“Obviously that decision is above my pay grade in the Edmonton Oilers organization and certainly out of my realm when it comes to the Chorney family making that kind of decision, but I don’t know how much more there is for him to prove in college hockey,” said Mancini. “He has tremendous skating ability, tremendous lateral movement.  He’s 5’11.5, maybe 6’ on a good day, but when he plays with a bit of an edge, a bit nasty or mean, he can control the game at the [college] level.”

Asked if his drop in goal scoring was a concern, Mancini said the question was an interesting one.

“You hit on one of the things that he really needs to improve on,” he said. “I love the fact that when he’s on the blueline and he just has to get the shot through he’s a selfless defenseman; all he’s worried about is getting it through to the net 6 to 12 inches of the ice and giving his forwards an opportunity to do something with the puck.  What he’s not good at is that one time a game where he gets the puck in the high slot or he makes the give and go at the top of the circles.  He needs to improve on putting that shot in the upper corner or finding the opening.

“It’s not surprising to me that he only has two goals because he’s not a kid with a big shot from the point,” he summed up, “but he’s a smart shooter from the point.”

Cody Wild, D – Providence College

As if Chorney and Petry weren’t enough collegiate good news for Edmonton’s future blueline, Cody Wild of the Providence Friars is having a terrific bounce-back year after an injury hampered his sophomore campaign.  Showing no lingering effects of the off-season surgery to repair the torn labrum that limited his effectiveness in 2006-07, Wild is proving that his production as a freshman was no fluke.

In 22 games, the fifth-round pick has 18 points and will almost assuredly set new personal bests in all offensive categories this year.  The Friars have been an offensive black hole the last few years under coach Tim Army, but have now really found their stride and Wild has been a big part of the reason why.

“Cody’s not afraid to jump into the play,” Mancini chuckled. “This kid likes to play offense, his skating is very good. He has very good anticipation on when to do those things and he can shoot the puck.”

That said, the one aspect Wild needs to improve on is his own end and coach Army deserves a lot of credit for helping the 20-year-old improve that facet of his game.

“The offensive part has always been there for me and that just comes easy for me but defensively I usually have a tough time but I’ve actually turned it around and have played pretty well defensively,” Wild admitted recently on The Pipeline Show. “I like to jump into the rush but I kind of do it too soon sometimes so I need to figure out the D-zone first and then jump into the rush.”

“With his ability it should never be that we or his coach doesn’t want him to join the play, he just has to be smarter on when to do it,” simplified Mancini.

The fact that he’s had such a strong season thus far has gone a long way to erasing the disappointment of last season and he’s now realizing some of the goals he’d set out for himself.

“Last year with the labrum was just miserable, it really was,” said Wild. “Getting up in the morning and not being able to put your socks on because you can’t even bend over and yet you have a game that night… it was really hard.  Now that I’m healthy it’s been great and I just want to have a good run at it in the playoffs.”

Providence has been ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams for the past several weeks and hope to outlast the more traditional power house programs in Hockey East to get back to the national tournament.

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