The Oilers took to the ice first with their split squad of 19 players destined to play that night against the visiting Flames. It was a solid practice, the team had been in Camrose for the past couple of days so all of the kinks had been worked out and it was all business during the practice sessions.
For some like former Michigan State captain Bryan Lerg, this was the first taste of what a pro camp is like. A glance around the dressing room shows a number of NCAA grads and that’s something that the one time Spartan says is making the transition easier.
“Seeing guys like [Colin] McDonald, he’s a good guy to follow because he’s been here so he knows some things and he helps us, he leads the way,” said Lerg, “Then you’ve got [Cody] Wild, me and [Taylor] Chorney as three first year guys so we’re trying to get help from the older guys so it helps out having some other college guys that we know.”
Much of the talk in regards to the Oiler prospects over the last couple of days has revolved around defenceman Alex Plante who opted not to report to the camp of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. Edmonton’s second of three first-round picks in 2007, Plante has been training with several veteran Oilers like Steve Staios while he waits for a trade from the Hitmen. Without offering much for details Plante did say that his decision was based on several opinions.
“Between the Oilers, my agent and myself we felt that it would be better to come here first,” he said. “I had lots of ice time with the Oilers and some of their AHL guys and we just felt that really helped pick up my tempo coming into this camp. Having said that, with the Hitmen right now I’m trying to make a good impression here and afterwards whatever happens, happens. I really have no idea how everything is going to fall out but when it does we’ll assess it then.”
Several players came into camp in much different condition than they ended last season in. Forward Ryan O’Marra beefed up from 207 lbs to 222 lbs for Friday’s weigh-in and fitness testing. Defenseman Cody Wild is now sitting comfortably at the 205 lb mark while netminder Devan Dubnyk went the other way and trimmed 15 pounds to come in at 200 lbs even.
“I just wanted to shed some body fat and I think the trade of will be that I’ll maybe be a little more quicker,” the 6’5 netminder said.
The Flames then took the ice and put all 25 of their players through a rigorous workout. It was an up-tempo pace for the players who had made the 3-hour bus ride up from Calgary to the picturesque rural community of Camrose.
The main focal point from this weekend from a Calgary perspective is Swedish product Mikael Backlund. Head coach Mike Keenan was asked by Hockey’s Future whether the 2007 first rounder was living up to the advanced hype.
“I don’t know if there’s hype but there are certainly his own expectations and he’s having a good camp, it’s early yet, but he had a good development camp in the summer as well,” said Calgary’s bench boss. “He’s got some talent, he’s had some experience under his belt now that he’s been drafted for a year. We’re going to give him an opportunity to see him play here throughout this camp and if he continues to excel which we expect he will, then we’ll see him in the big camp as well.”
It’s been over a year since forward Daniel Ryder had played a meaningful game but when asked how the newly returned center was making out with his comeback, Keenan was non-committal.
“He’s got a skill set that makes him a valuable player, he won the Gretzky award in junior in the playoffs, and he’s a talented young man who is learning how to be a professional,” he said.
One of Calgary’s greatest organizational strengths is the quality of netminders in the organization. The Flames brought three with them to Camrose including 2007 WHL playoff MVP Matt Keetley. The former fifth-round pick went under the radar in his draft year while playing a back up role in Medicine Hat. After a stellar finish to his junior career and a positive start as a pro, including a single NHL game appearance last year, Keetley is looking for more in an organization overflowing with goalies.
“I think everyone likes competition or a challenge; if it was easy then everyone would be there,” Keetley said. “The only goal I set for myself this year was to start in the NHL so I’ll start there and if that doesn’t happen then I want to be a starter in the AHL. I don’t get to choose how many games I get to start so I’ll just try to impress the coaches and get them to put me in as many as I can.”
Unfortunately for netminder Kevin Lalande, the poor ice conditions today may have led to a serious injury. Lalande apparently suffered a high ankle sprain and was seen later that evening with a walking cast/brace on his right leg.
The capacity crowd of approximately 2700 fans was mostly backing the Oilers as they took to the ice. The start of the game was delayed because a pane of glass behind Calgary’s net was shattered during the warm up and the off ice crew labored to get a replacement in place for an extended period.
That arena malfunction came into play just a minute and a half in to the game after Edmonton’s Colin McDonald bumped Flames defender John Negrin in to the end boards. The pane of glass next to the newly replaced one completely fell out and landed on the ice. Although it didn’t break, getting it back in place took another 20 minutes during which both teams warmed up for a second time.
Finally once play got back underway the crowd was treated to a fast-paced entertaining game. As expected there were plenty of hits, strong netminding and scoring opportunities at both ends of the ice.
The first tilt of the event came six and a half minutes into the opening period. The play began with 5’10 Bryan Lerg delivered a solid hit to Flames forward J.D. Watt who chased down the Oiler center and sent him flying with a borderline late hit in retaliation. There was no call coming so Edmonton blueliner Theo Peckham came across ice and engaged Watt in a spirited bout. Based on quality over quantity, give the decision to Peckham but it was a good showing to both combatants.
It would be the shorthanded Calgary Flames who would strike first when 21-year-old Brett Sutter crossed into Edmonton’s end and slapped a beauty past Devan Dubnyk. It was a 2-on-1 play that Dubnyk appeared to be thinking pass on and he was caught deep and slightly off his angle. Full credit to Sutter who roofed his powerful shot and completely handcuffed the Edmonton keeper.
The opening frame was the most entertaining of the three as both teams had multiple chances to score. Colin McDonald, a shooter, had a clear cut breakaway but was forced to deke when the puck bobbled on some bad ice. Calgary goalie Matt Keetley deftly snagged McDonald’s backhand out of the air to preserve his shutout bid.
“I needed to get it up a couple more inches but [Keetley] made a really good save and kept them in it,” said McDonald.
The Oilers had the better scoring chances in the first period but Keetley was able to limit them to single shots as opposed to the goalmouth flurries that were happening in Edmonton’s end. Edmonton was spurned on after Ryan MacMurchy leveled former Sarnia Sting defenseman Ryan Wilson but they couldn’t solve Keetley.
2008 first rounder Jordan Eberle nearly got the Oilers on the board with his own shorthanded effort as he corralled a loose puck behind the visitor’s net and just failed to wrap it in past Keetley.
Edmonton’s Josef Hrabal left the game in the first period with what is believed to be a shoulder injury but new NHL rules instruct teams to purposely be vague about the severity of the damage. Hrabal did not return to the game but further details are unknown.
Calgary’s best skater in the second period may have been Memorial Cup winner Mitch Wahl who seemed to have a lot of jump on the night as a whole but especially in the middle frame. Not known as a battler, Wahl turned heads with his pushing match against Sebastien Bisaillon in front of the Edmonton goal.
The Oilers had a tough enough time beating Keetley with shots but even when they did they seemed to be ringing everything off the iron. MacMurchy continued his strong play on the night when he unloaded a blast only to hear it ricochet into the netting after denting the crossbar. Cody Wild also hit the post and at least one other player did as well for the Oilers.
Dubnyk best save of the contest came after a turnover at the Edmonton blueline. Camp invite Jesse Dudas of the Swift Current Broncos coughed up the puck to Wahl who drilled a shot at Dubnyk. The former Kamloops Blazer goalie was equal to the task making an impressive pad save.
Things started getting uglier after the midway point. It seemed like only a matter of time before Hans Benson found a dance partner and after being hit from behind by Kyle Greentree, Edmonton’s newest pugilist didn’t waste any time sending an invite. Benson got to his feet and immediately dropped his gloves and started feeding Greentree who quickly turtled in surprise.
It wasn’t long after his penalty expired that Benson was at it again. After big blueliner Matt Pelech caught Lerg with his head down at center ice, Benson grabbed Pelech and was again penalized for rough housing.
Edmonton lost another defenceman at the end of the second period when former Kootenay Ice forward Adam Cracknell hammered Jesse Dudas awkwardly into the boards. The 20-year-old WHL player did not return and is out with a suspected ankle injury, not good news for Swift Current.
The lone highlight of the third period gave some in attendance a case of deja vu. After getting thumped behind his own net by Cracknell, Geoff Paukovich regained his feet and returned the favor by nailing Greentree from behind. The blow sent the former Philadelphia Phantom into the end boards instantly drawing comparisons to the infamous Robbie Bina incident from 2005.
Paukovich was tossed from the game and Greentree was carted off the ice on a stretcher although reportedly was able to wave to the crowd on his way out of the arena.
“I was just trying to be physical down low which is what I have to do to be successful,” said a clearly emotional Paukovich afterwards. “All I can say is that I hope he’s OK and that’s the biggest thing. There was no intent, I don’t play the game to hurt people.”
In the end, the Flames would take the game on the strength of that lone first period marker by Sutter. Both goaltenders were strong on the night while Edmonton and Calgary received terrific performances from several players each.
Theo Peckham – Taylor Chorney
Cody Wild – Sebastien Bisaillon
Josef Hrabal – Jesse Dudas
Devan Dubnyk/Glenn Fisher
Kyle Greentree – Mikael Backlund – Greg Nemisz
Brett Sutter – Mitch Wahl – Aki Seitsonen
Ryley Grantham – Dan Ryder – Adam Cracknell
Lance Bouma – John Armstrong – JD Watt
Keith Aulie – John Negrin
TJ Brodie – Matt Pelech
Ryan Wilson – Per Jonsson
Matt Keetley/Leland Irving