Oilers 2007-08 AHL/ECHL review

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers got reacquainted with the benefit of having their own AHL affiliate for the first time since 2004-05, much to the delight of several players who otherwise might have been in the ECHL for another campaign.  The first year in Springfield was a mixed bag of results — some positives, some negatives with a few items at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

The biggest problem the Falcons had to contend with in 2007-08 was a rash of injuries that led to a seemingly endless parade of players in and out of the lineup.  As a result, there were a total of 49 players who wore a Falcons jersey and 11 of them played fewer than five games for the team. 

Goaltending

The organization’s biggest concern with not having their own farm team over the last couple of seasons was the probable long-term developmental effects on netminders Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk

With Deslauriers playing very sparingly for two seasons and heading into the final year of his entry-level contract, the Oilers needed to find out how far behind in his development he was.  This would mean playing a significant amount of games and yet the club had to provide enough starts for Dubnyk who also needed an upgrade in quality playing time.  That delicate balance was thrown out the window early on as Deslauriers started the year strong and rookie head coach Kelly Buchberger opted to ride the hot hand.       

By the midway point of the schedule, Buchberger was on record saying that his netminder had been the team’s MVP to that point and that he had no qualms about predicting Deslauriers’ NHL future.

The St. Jean-Richelieu, PQ native played in 57 AHL games, three more than he had combined with Wilkes-Barre and Hamilton over the previous two seasons, however, his 26 wins only equaled his mark over that same time span. It should be noted that his save percentage improved for the fourth consecutive season as a professional. 

Deslauriers was not without his inconsistencies this year and when his play began to slip, Dubnyk was able to take advantage and began to earn more playing time. February saw Deslauriers appear in six games for the Falcons while Dubnyk played 10 times.  It was the only month of the year that Deslauriers’ save percentage dipped below .900.  Dubnyk also struggled at points that month; four times he ended games with a goals against average greater than 4.00.

Dubnyk appeared in 33 games and came away with a disappointing 9-17 record but a key stat to keep in mind is that although his 3.12 goals against average is high, he did have a .904 save percentage.  Deslauriers was able to keep his goals against average to 2.90 simply because his save percentage was an even better .912.  Clearly, the biggest reason the goalies allowed so many goals was not because they weren’t making saves it was because they faced a ridiculous number of shots on a nightly basis. 

In general, both netminders proved that they are still very much on the right path.  Deslauriers is a restricted free agent this summer but is expected to be re-signed.

Both Glenn Fisher and the newly-signed Bryan Pitton also made single-game appearances, playing less than a period each. 
  
Defense

Amazingly, Springfield had 19 different defensemen this year.  That staggering number can be attributed to the injuries that plagued both the Oilers and the Falcons themselves leaving the AHL club scrambling to find bodies on short notice as they waited for wounds to heal.

The top defensive prospect on the farm for Edmonton was unquestionably Theo Peckham.  The rugged man-child surprised the organization with his rapid development and has some in the organization thinking he could make a statement at training camp in the fall.  His 13 points were somehow third most among Springfield’s defensive corps but that’s more of a statement to the Falcons’ lack of offense than an accomplishment for Peckham.

Peckham’s game is built on physical play and that’s a department that he excelled in.  Crushing body checks and a willingness to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate has made him one of the most popular players on the farm and will have NHL brass watching closely in September as well.

In the later stages of the year, the Falcons were relying on the 20-year-old to log heavy shift loads which some nights meant playing upwards of 30 minutes. 

Sebastien Bisaillon was enjoying somewhat of a breakout season as the injuries opened the door for him to play and he made the most of his chance.  The former Val d’Or rearguard sustained a horrible cut on his calf from a skate and missed most of the year as a result.  Although he managed to get back on the ice in late March, it was in the ECHL with the Stockton Thunder.  Bisaillon should play a much larger role with the Falcons next year and will be expected to at least continue on his .5 points per game pace.

Former third-round selection Danny Syvret didn’t last the year in Springfield despite having the credentials to fill the team’s biggest weakness — offense from the blueline.  The former London Knights captain managed only a single goal and eight points in 36 games with Springfield before he was dealt to Hershey.  The Oilers had donated Syvret to Canada’s Spengler Cup team with hopes that the Swiss tournament would kick start his play but when that failed he was deemed expendable.  Syvret then had more points in fewer games with the Hershey Bears, a fact that some might argue points to a flawed offensive system in Springfield.  Syvret, an impending RFA, will not be re-signed by Edmonton.

It was a tale of two seasons for defensive defenseman Bryan Young.  At the turn of the calendar to 2008, Young was a minus-14 and had just a pair of assists.  The problem was that the former Peterborough Pete was simply trying to do too much and once out of his comfort zone, was coughing the puck up and becoming a defensive liability for the first time in his life.  However, in the second half of the year, Young was a plus-10 and completely turned his game around by just getting back to basics and playing the style that got him drafted in the first place.

Living with former junior teammate Liam Reddox, they were the poster boys for dedication and work ethic, being two of the first players at the rink for off-ice training each day.

Providence Friar Cody Wild joined the club for the final 13 games of the campaign and got a valuable taste of what the AHL is all about.  The freewheeling blueliner wasn’t able to play his style while he got his feet wet and because his defensive play has never been considered a strong point, Wild was victimized in his first few games.  However, by the end of the 13-game stint, the 20-year-old looked comfortable and played with much more confidence.

Veterans like Rick Berry, T.J. Kemp and T.J. Reynolds filled the leadership roles and Oiler Ladislav Smid was reassigned for eight games.  The other nine defensemen who played were of the band-aid variety including former Oiler draft pick Kenny Smith and one time Edmonton Road Runner Brent Henley.

Two of the fill-in players will have the option of returning to the club again next year thanks to impressive play or résumé.  Mike Gabinet was considered one the Falcons best blueliner during his 19-game run and sources tell HF that the Oilers plan to bring him back again in 2008-09.  It was a bit of a return to the organization as Gabinet was a training camp invite a couple years ago.

The same goes for former University of Alberta captain Harlan Anderson who played nine AHL games after leading the Golden Bears to their 13th CIS National Title. Anderson, a power-play quarterback in CIS hockey, got better after his first few games but finished the year with no points.

“Harlan’s very smart, he uses his head,” Prendergast said. “The biggest adjustment he’ll have to make if he wants to come back is that he’s got to get stronger to play at that level.”

The rotating door on the back end has been blamed for one of the Falcons’ biggest problems during the year — being badly out shot.  Over the course of the schedule, Springfield was out shot 2666 to 2164, that’s giving up just over 23 percent more shots on average.  The Falcons held their opponent to fewer than 25 shots only four times all year, the last coming on Feb. 15.  By comparison, the Falcons recorded fewer than 20 shots six times and had more shots than their opponent just 18 nights out of the entire 80-game year.

Was it injuries or a lack of offensive strategy that led to problem? 

“I think it was a combination of both,” said Prendergast. “We didn’t have the defensemen, with the injuries, that could go and get the puck and make the good first pass and make it easy for us to get out. We had guys who just banged it off the wall or whatever and it just got us into more and more trouble so a play that should maybe result in one shot on goal ended up with us being in our end for a minute or a minute and ten seconds and there’d be four or five shots on goal.  Guys like Bryan Young and Rick Berry and Theo [Peckham] to a degree early on in the season, they just struggled with puck movement and simple plays became disastrous.”

Yet even when offensive defensemen were added to the roster and shots for went up, the shots against were still greater.

“Harlan [Anderson] went down there at the end of the year and it was a big adjustment for him and he struggled at times in the games and it was the same thing with Cody [Wild] until the last three games of the year where he started to find himself as a player,” Prendergast continued. “It was tough, our defense had trouble getting the puck up to the forwards, there’s no doubt about that and we got caught in our own end in panic mode an awful lot and a lot of that had to do with being a young team.”

Forwards

It was a successful year for the club’s top offensive player and fans of Rob Schremp have reason to believe that the NHL is still in the future for the former OHL dynamo.  He easily led the Falcons in all offensive categories including points; his 76 in 78 games was nearly double that of the next highest scorer on the team.  He scored two goals in the AHL All-Star game, one giving Planet USA a 3-2 lead and the other in the shootout. 

All of these accomplishments came while making the adjustment to not playing at center, the position he’d played his entire life.  Earlier in the year he’d confessed to Hockey’s Future that the right wing would be more comfortable for him, but it was the left side where he spent the vast majority of his time. 

Schremp will have a full off-season regiment of training including enrollment in Chad Moreau’s California based session.  The Oilers fitness guru has whipped the NHL roster into the best shape ever and with conditioning being No. 1 on Schremp’s ‘must do’ list, it’s a step in the right direction. 

Talk earlier this spring about a potential move to Europe has abated as he has made it clear to management that his priority is playing in the NHL and for the Oilers.  With no vacancies on the current NHL roster, it would appear that a trade would be necessary to get Schremp to the next level whether that means moving to another franchise or that Edmonton deals some bodies this summer thus creating a hole for someone to fill.

“If he has a good summer of training, injuries are going to come into play [next season] and if he gets stronger and plays the way that he did at the end of the year he’ll have a chance to make the team,” said Prendergast. “I was really impressed with the way that Robbie competed at the end of the year.”      
 
Marc Pouliot spent 55 games on the farm and had just two fewer goals than Schremp did in his full season.  The Quebec City product finally stuck with the big club in March after appearing to finally have some confidence after a decent AHL season. 

The forward who developed the most under coach Buchberger was without question Liam Reddox.  Just a face in the ECHL crowd the season before, Reddox was one of Springfield’s leading scorers all year. Forty-four points in 65 games, some played with lingering injury, Reddox raised his stock in the organization to the point where he now appears to have outside NHL potential as a fourth line agitator. 

Most impressively for Reddox, in comparison to the rest of the club, his plus-10 rating sticks out as the best on the squad.

Tim Sestito, another favorite of the coach, played the third line center role for the Falcons and took to the job with dedication and hard work.  The former Plymouth Whaler had the worst plus/minus rating on the team at minus-25 yet dressed for 77 games.  He managed just 17 points in that time while managing to rack up 175 penalty minutes, one more than Theo Peckham though obviously Sestito’s were of the two-minute variety.  The forward was re-signed to a two-year extension before the season had even expired.

An outsider might question why a player who appears limited offensively, takes a ton of penalties and has stats that would suggest he struggled in his shutdown role, would get opportunities ahead of those the organization invested a draft pick or more in.  It would appear that with the success of Reddox and the nightly opportunities for Sestito at the expense of drafted players like Slava Trukhno or Ryan O’Marra there was a definite comfort from the coach in playing players who are very much the unsung hero type that he was in his own playing career.

Trukhno joined the pro ranks this year and was expected to bring the offensive touch he’d shown in the QMJHL along with him.  Unfortunately, outside of a three-week stretch from late Feb. 29 to March 23, Trukhno was not much of a factor on the score sheet.  From the start of the season until the start of the streak the Russian managed only 16 points, the same number he would add to his season total over the following 23 days.  In the last nine games of the year, Trukhno reverted back to form and chipped in just three more points.

Colin McDonald was drafted in 2003 because of his offensive upside and most expected to see a return to form as a pro after four stagnating years at Providence College.  The winger seemed to run out of gas midway through the year and had the bulk of his production before Christmas.  McDonald played all sorts of roles for the Falcons but even at the end of the year when he had a chance on the top line for a few games, his stick was firing blanks.  McDonald hit the score sheet only once after Feb. 24.

The case of O’Marra is a complicated one with several different perspectives many of which contradict.  What is known for certain is that the former first-round pick was quickly dispatched to the ECHL after the first three AHL games of the season.  In Stockton, O’Marra played well enough to earn All-Star honors and was recalled to Springfield in time for New Year’s celebrations.  Once back with the Falcons, the center took eight games to get acclimated then went on a run scoring seven points in the next nine outings while playing largely in a checking role. 

The hot streak didn’t last much past mid February and then a mysterious head injury led to an extended stint in the press box.  A fallen O’Marra and a teammate met behind the net in what has been described as a knee on head collision.  Questions about the severity of the injury have been posed, but no one involved has been willing to talk on the record about the situation.  O’Marra would only play two more games down the stretch despite the Falcons desperate playoff push and large scale injuries.  

Like Schremp, O’Marra is currently in California training vigorously under the watch of Chad Moreau.   

Troy Bodie, Stephane Goulet and late NCAA addition Bryan Lerg should all be back again next year.  J.F. Jacques and Tyler Spurgeon both missed significant time due to injury and there has to be long-term concern for the playing careers of both players.  It is expected that Swedish forwards Fredrik Johansson and Jonas Almtorp will not be re-signed this summer by the Oilers.

Stockton Thunder

 

Edmonton’s ECHL affiliate barely scraped into the postseason and failed to capitalize on a great opportunity to oust the Las Vegas Wranglers in the opening round.  The Thunder opened the series with a road victory then blew a late lead in game 2 before returning home for three straight.  The three Oiler prospects of note that spent the season in California were forwards Geoff Paukovich and David Rholfs and netminder Glenn Fisher.

 

Rohlfs had a tough first half but finished strong as his stats line proves out.  At the end of 2007 the former Wolverines had compiled 10 points and was a whopping minus-15.  Over the last three months of the season Rohlfs turned his game around and notched 21 points and was a plus-13.  The former fifth-round selection should play in Springfield next year.

 

Former Denver Pioneer center Paukovich probably didn’t envision playing in the ECHL when he cut school before his senior year but the knock on him back in September was his conditioning.  The 6’4 and 215 lb forward was hot and cold in terms of his production and, like many collegians in their first pro season, appeared to run out of gas as the year went on.  With conditioning being a primary concern for this off season, the Colorado native has already been in California training with Chad Moreau in preparation for next month’s mini camp.

 

Local product Fisher began the year hot winning four of his first five contests, however, the 25-year-old ended the campaign with a 3.36 goals against average despite an .903 save percentage.  Once the playoffs came around, Fisher was relegated to the backup role and did not play a minute of the post-season series against Las Vegas.  With Bryan Pitton recently being signed and Fisher’s impending restricted free agency coming up, the future for the one time Fort Saskatchewan Trader is up in the air.

 

Other Oiler properties to have spent at least some time in the ECHL this past year included Ryan O’Marra, Jonas Almtorp, Fredrik Johansson, Stephane Goulet and Sebastien Bisaillon.  

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