When the expansion Edmonton Oil Kings took part in their initial WHL Bantam Draft, the 2007 edition, they looked in their own backyard to select Mark Pysyk in the first round, third overall. Since then, the versatile defenseman, a native of Sherwood Park, Alberta, has produced exactly what a top draft pick is expected to deliver.
"Ever since he started as a 16-year-old with us, he’s been our best defenseman," said Oil Kings head coach Steve Pleau. "He’s a real leader for us."
It’s heady stuff coming from Pleau, a young veteran WHL coach. He has seen plenty of impact players who have excelled early in their junior careers.
"You see your share when you’re in the game," Pleau said. "But there’s always something special about each individual. Mark has good hockey sense, skating is his strength and he makes that first pass very well.
"We’re trying to get him to jump up in the play a little more to create some offense. We believe he has the ability to that and the points so far show that he’s starting to do that, so that’s some important growth for him."
Pysyk has appeared in 23 games this season, chipping in with three goals and 11 assists on an Oil Kings team that has won only eight times in 30 tries. His 14 points are a team high among defensemen. The Oil Kings have absorbed four overtime losses and also four shootout losses. According to Pysyk, it’s those tight games in particular that really seem to sting.
"We’re struggling right now," he said. "I think our record could be a little better than it is. I mean a few of those games that ended for us late, we just lost a bit of focus. Who knows? Some bad bounces. Those games go a different way and it’s a totally different story (in the standings). But there’s no excuses. We need to get out of this little slump."
The Subway Series experience
It’s an annual six-game tour across Canada by a team from Russia with two games against an all-star squad from each of the country’s major junior leagues. In recent years, the series has not produced particularly competitive hockey. Subsequently, an examination of recent rosters suggests that the three leagues have begun to include a few younger, draft-eligible players along with the veteran juniors said to be auditioning for a shot on Team Canada’s entry for the WJC.
This time around, Pysyk suited up for Team WHL and was one of eight players to appear in both of the games that were played in the British Columbia cities of Victoria and Kelowna. The lanky, 6’1, 175-pounder was excited and very appreciative for the opportunity to participate and learn from his teammates.
"It was incredible to be playing with guys like (Brayden) Schenn, (Jordan) Eberle and (Carter) Ashton," Pysyk said. "It was cool to see what they do before games, how they got to where they are and how they do things on the ice."
While Team WHL won both tilts, by scores of 2-1 and 4-2, Pysyk wasn’t quite satisfied with his play. He finished with a plus-1 rating in each game. After the second game, which was played at Prospera Place in Kelowna, he commented on the back-to-back games on the international stage.
"You’ve got to do the things that got you to this game," he said. "You can’t try to do too much. I think this game early, I was trying to do too much and things just weren’t going for me. I think it was just my legs. We flew here today from Victoria and it took awhile to get my legs under me. So I decided to simplify my game and I think that’s why I ended up having a better game."
Home is where the heart is
Playing major junior hockey in one’s hometown is not a frequent proposition for many players in and around Edmonton. The region is a hotbed for competitive bantam and midget hockey, an area that is heavily scouted.
"It is the best hockey area I’ve been in," Pleau said. "Just the passion for the game here is incredible and that’s what makes it fun and challenging. As far as the kids wanting to be Oil Kings, I think when they come to our games and are exposed to the WHL and when they understand the education package, it’s certainly a positive."
Pysyk wholeheartedly agreed that playing in his own backyard has been an enjoyable experience. And then prior to this season, the Pysyk family welcomed another member of the Oil Kings into their home, 18-year-old import forward Robin Soudek from the Czech Republic.
"It’s definitely been a big plus for me playing at home," Pysyk said. "I still live at home with my parents. I have a roommate now, so that helps too. I’ve got somebody there to connect with from the team and somebody who knows what I’m going through as well.
"I think my parents adjusted well to me having a roommate, like two sons, I guess. Last year, (Robin) was pretty much at my house all the time. He wasn’t really that outgoing, coming to a different country. He was spending most of his time at our house, so I guess we might as well move him in."
The head coach likes the arrangement, too.
"It’s great," Pleau said. "The Pysyks are a great people. They’ve taken in Robin. He and Mark developed a good relationship and a bond last year and so they wanted to do that for him. I think both players have done very well with it and I hope it continues."
The draft-eligible Pysyk
Pysyk 11th spot overall in the current ISS rankings, and second in the WHL by Central Scouting. He is behind only Brett Connolly in the WHL in both rankings, and first-round material by all accounts.
When asked about expectations in Edmonton during his draft year, Pysyk was clear in his view that the team is giving him every opportunity to develop.
"They’re giving me more ice time," he said. "I’m killing penalties and playing more on the power play. It’s a good opportunity for me and I try to do the best I can in every situation."
And the coaching staff likes that they can depend on Pysyk.
"Mark is an extremely mature kid, both on and off the ice," Pleau said. "What comes to mind with me is he is an all-around hockey player. He kills penalties, plays on the power play and he obviously plays against the other team’s top players.
"He eats up a lot of minutes for us."