Oilers Rookie and Prospect Report
With the future of the Oilers staying in Edmonton in doubt, the once bright future is looking pretty gloomy. Oiler fans are faced with the thought that the talent pool of fresh, young prospects that they watched mature might come into their own in front of hockey ignorant Houstonians. But they do have at least three more years to watch their beloved Oilers and the incoming Bulldog grads during those years should give fans something to look forward to.
The Oilers continued to sport a roster with more young guns than any other team in the NHL, this year suiting up a 4 pack of rookies: Boyd Devereaux, Steve Kelly, Joe Hulbig and Dennis Bonvie. While some might question Sather’s rationale, not to mention sanity when you consider that the team also has quite a few sophomores, they’re earning their jobs after excellent training camps and look to be here to stay.
Boyd Devereaux looks to be the type of player that Stevie Yzerman is–a true combination of grit, skills and tremendous character. Drafted 6th overall only two years ago, Devereaux was star of Team Canada’s gold medal team as well as the class act captain with the Kitchener Rangers. Arguably the best 2-way player from the ‘96 draft, Boyd has shown a maturity and poise thusofar in the NHL that is uncharacteristic of a 20-year-old. While he hasn’t yet put up the numbers, Boyd’s been playing smart defensive hockey without the usual rookie jitters. As his confidence grows, he’ll start taking the offensive chances. Devereaux is a strong Calder candidate if he does start putting up the points.
Steve Kelly is a name synonymous with speed. Not just speed but blinding, explosive speed that enables him to fly by anyone, anywhere. But that not all there is to Kelly. It’s not too often that you have finesse player that racks up 203 PIMs, but Steve Kelly is one of those players. His speed and complete package of offensive skills–good, hard shot, accurate passing and the ability to find small openings–is compared to that of Geoff Sanderson. But unlike Sanderson, Kelly hasn’t shown the proven ability to finish and find a consistent scoring touch. He’ll likely develop that in time.
Joe Hulbig was with the Oilers for last year’s playoff run and he impressed management enough to earn a regular job. A power forward that will flourish playing behind Jason Arnott, Hulbig has excellent skills. He can knock the goalies senseless with his deadly hard and accurate shot but also has the brains to make some pretty plays. Joe dominates along the boards and in the corners and is a decent enough skater to get where he needs to be. He can fight when he wants to or needs to. An older rookie at 24, Hulbig has waited a while for his chance in the limelight and should put on a show to make sure he stays there.
With the departure of Louie DeBrusk, the Oilers were in need of a legitimate heavyweight. Enter Dennis Bonvie and his 522 PIMs. That’s right, 522 PIMs. Needless to sat, Bonvie isn’t afraid of anybody and the devil-may-care attitude is a valuable asset since current bruiser Kelly Buchberger isn’t exactly a young lad anymore. Dennis also has some offensive skills, particularly some pretty passing, that will surprise many an opponent. Bonvie will earn his keep and become a team and fan favorite in no time at all.
With a trip to the Calder Cup finals under their belt, the Hamilton Bulldogs know what it takes to win and they should make another run this season. Edmonton management is thrilled to have such a tremendous farm to develop their young talent. The Bulldogs are a talented corps with solid veterans that have a steady influence in the growth of fresh draftees. Here are a few of the notables that should graduate to the Oilers in a year or two:
The Oilers have the best goaltending tandem in the AHL right now in Steve Passmore and Jean-François Labbe, which leads to some speculation that Essensa could be dealt. Either way, the Bulldogs are so strong in the pipes that they can focus on offense, offense, offense. Both goalies are comeback kids that will undoubtedly shine. Labbe, last year’s AHL goalie of the year and MVP, was picked up by the Oil after he was dumped by the Avalanche. He’s good enough to be a number one netminder in the NHL in a year or two. A tremendous athlete and class act, J.F. has climbed his way to the top from the Colonial League. He’s small but has the tenacity, desire and skills to make it in the big time. Steve Passmore has battled back from a mysterious blood disease that caused muscle spasms, making it impossible for him to play longer than 10 minutes. Fortunately, he’s now illness-free and has shown consistent improvement. Passmore has exceptional skills that include quick reflexes, good lateral movement and positioning, as well as an outstanding work ethic that should earn him a chance with the Oilers in the very near future.
When Polish speedster Mariusz Czerkawski was involved in a contract dispute before this season, management shipped him off to the Islanders for former Boston University rookie standout Dan LaCouture. LaCouture has the size, skills and grit to be a dominant power forward at the NHL level but needs to work on consistency and defense. A year or two in Hamilton should do the trick.
Another product of the US college system is Mike Watt, a graduate of Michigan State, The Oilers have been in need of some scoring wingers and Watt seems to be part of the solution. He has a nose for the net, as well as the determination to get there. He has good size, hockey sense and is a tremendous skater but needs to work on his two way game.
With Dennis Bonvie already holding the enforcer job for the Oilers, Georges Laraque might be taking up that job in Hamilton for quite some time. A hulking power winger, it’s no surprise that Laraque is also an good skater. The points he does earn, however, come from hard work and effort. Primarily a grinder, Laraque’s forte is fighting and making his presence known.
The Oilers also have quite a few mentionables not in Hamilton. Most are back with their junior team while one has chosen to finish his schooling in Switzerland. But they are what makes the future promising as they continue to develop on the path to the NHL.
Swiss standout Michel Riesen may have been the steal of the draft in that there’s nothing about him Oiler management doesn’t like. Well, except for the fact that he resigned on with his Swiss team Biel-Bienne for another 2 years to finish his schooling instead of coming to North America. But that’s beside the point. Riesen has what it takes to play in the NHL right now, skill wise, but he’ll need to bulk up some.The Suiss born and bred star, and the highest drafted Suiss in NHL history, was a one man show at the recent European Junior Championship, outshining all with his strong and complete game. While he led in scoring, Reisen also impressed with his excellent balance and puck protection as well as good hockey sense and a great shot, similar to Jaromir Jagr. They both have natural goal scoring abilities and superior hands. Riesen is also extremely versatile and can play all three forward positions. He’s arguably the best talent in the Oilers prospect system.
Another young face that could easily be in the NHL right now is Chris Hajt. Mature and poised, he’s a huge defenseman that the Oilers are taking the proper precautions by sending him back down to Guelph–they want to see him in an Oilers uniform for years to come. References to Brian Leetch aren’t far off target, in that Hajt plays a smart positional and practically error-free game. He’s offensively gifted and head mans the puck out well, creating opportunities and making plays. Next year should be his breakthrough year in Edmonton as Chris Hajt makes a name for himself in the NHL.
Peter Sarno and Mike Minard are somewhat of enigma concerning their future with the Oilers. Sarno is a proven scorer at the junior level but hasn’t shown the consistency or complete game it takes to play at the next level. He was sent back down to Windsor and will likely spend the next few seasons there and in Hamilton working to make his game meet NHL standards. Minard was assigned to Hamilton but hasn’t been playing with them.
The biggest question mark of them all is Jason Bonsignore. The highest pick in Edmonton history has only one thing keeping him from a successful career in the NHL: lack of desire. Jason Bonsignore was arguably the most offensively skilled player available in 1994 and continues to earn comparisons to Mario Lemieux, yes Le Magnifique himself, from teammates and coaches for his brief flashes of utter brilliance. All the makings of a superstar power forward–skills, size and strength– are there but what frustrates Oiler management is a seemingly lack of heart. Jason has been to Oiler camp for the past four years yet hasn’t shown the desire to earn a regular spot on the roster. Regarded as a ‘bust’ by most in the hockey world, Bonsignore’s time has about run out. There’s no questioning his superior playmaking and slick skating, with terrific straight-away speed to open up the ice, but Bonsignore seems unwilling to work in traffic or finish his checks despite dominate size. If he ever manages to do that, Jason will be an unstoppable force in the NHL.
All in all, the Edmonton Oilers have a fairly decent farm system that should prove valuable for years to come. Hopefully they’ll be able to play in Edmonton but if not, this fresh young talent will make hockey extremely popular in Houston.