Oilers Training Camp Preview

By Michael Speidel

Moreso than any other point in the recent history of the Oilers, the team has finally managed to acquire some semblance of depth, both in prospects and NHL ready players. The team does indeed lack the elite talent needed to win a Stanley Cup in the upcoming season (especially at the forward positions), but help may be on the way in terms of prospects and players in EDM who can still improve their games.

Here’s a look at the likely depth chart of the organization at G, D, LW, RW, and C, in terms of minutes played for the upcoming NHL season.

[NOTE: The first bracketed number refer to the prospect ranking assigned by HF’s Edmonton page, while the second number is the prospect ranking, at that position, given to the prospect by this writer.]

Goaltending:

1 Tommy Salo – clearly the #1 goaltender of the Oilers, a workhorse who hopefully will not have to relied upon as heavily as the past 2 seasons now that a seemingly capable back-up has been found in Markannen. Arguably a top 10 goalie in the NHL, almost certainly a top 15 on anyone’s list.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

2 Jussi Markannen – put up spectacular number last season as the Oilers back up (0.929 save%, 1.84 GAA in 14 appearances). Admittedly these numbers were against some of the weaker NHL sisters, but Markannen showed at the end of the year glimpses of starter potential. There is still hope for him to develop into a #1 goaltender, as he is only 27 years old, still relatively young for an NHL goaltender.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 80%

3 Ty Conklin (14, 2) – signed as a UFA last summer, probably the only time the Oilers will ever beat the Red Wings in a bidding war. Looked very good in 4 appearances with EDM (1.62 GAA, 0.939 save%), and had decent numbers with HAM. He didn’t inspire tremendous confidence in Bulldogs fans with his play, as he lets out some weak rebounds and allows some poor goals. He was not as good the past year as former Bulldog (and, coincidentally, now Red Wing) goalie Marc Lamothe. He is however still very much a prospect, and will be given another year or two to develop in the minors.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 18%

4 Kristian Antila (-, 3) – recently signed by the Oilers, Antila will need time to adjust to North American hockey before hopefully cracking the NHL down the road. He is not considered a good goaltending prospect, but the Oilers must see enough in him to bother bringing him over from Finland. Ordinarily one would expect Antila to back up Conklin at the AHL level, but given the EDM/MON shared franchise one would think that EDM will only be allowed to have Conklin on the AHL roster, thus Antila has to play elsewhere (CHL or ECHL).
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 1%

5 Jeff Deslauriers (6, 1) – Drafted 31st overall by EDM in the 2002 entry draft, he was the impetus behind the Hecht trade. EDM was sold on Deslauriers, and given that BUFF had 2 early second rounders EDM was willing to move Hecht to land Deslauriers (plus another early second rounder, which turned out to be Stoll). A big goalie with a tremendous competitive spirit, EDM sees him as a possible NHL starter in 3-4 years. He’ll almost certainly go back to Chicoutimi for the upcoming season, to continue to work on his weaker fundamentals; puck handling and rebound control.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 1%

Defense:

1 Janne Niinimaa – a solid #1 defenseman. Certainly not in the elite group with Lidstrom, Blake, Pronger, but Niinimaa is not too far behind. He is arguably one of the top 12 defensemen in the NHL, without question top 20. Logs all kinds of minutes, willing to play through pain and more than willing to play physically. Additionally, he’s a great tutor for young defensemen, hard to believe considering how mistake-prone Niinimaa was when arriving in EDM via the Flyers. A decent PP point man, but that is not his main strength. He is not a PP quarterback in the same sense as an Ozolinsh/Gonchar/Blake, but he can get the job done.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

2 Eric Brewer – had growing pains last year as more responsibility was added to his game. Isn’t necessarily going to become the dominant #1 D that some in EDM expect, but he should slowly improve his way up to a #2. He’ll get more PP time this year, with Poti gone for the whole season, and it’s up to him to use this playing time to develop into the force that some expect.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

3 Jason Smith – Will continue to be the best stay at home defenseman for the Oilers this year, assuming that he isn’t traded due to the $2.3 mil he has been awarded in arbitration. The team may be able to afford his salary this year, but likely won’t be able to next year with the monstrous number of RFA’s Kevin Lowe will have, and given that smith will receive, at minimum, $2.3 million each season until he is unrestricted.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

4 Steve Staois – Staois had a great year last year. He did everything asked of him, and then some. He’ll be asked for even more this year. It is a legitimate concern that he won’t be able to log the minutes necessary to play as a #4 D. EDM could certainly use another #2/3 D, and have the forward depth to trade for one, if one becomes available. The team would be better off to bump Staois down to the third pair, and not force him to play more than he should. Nonetheless, Staois will probably be a fixture in the EDM lineup for the next 3 years, as he isn’t eligible to become unrestricted until the summer of 2005.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

5 Ales Pisa – The Oilers apparently see top 4 potential in Pisa. He has the potential to contribute on the PP with his shot, something the Oilers could desperately use. The bid shot threat has been missing from the Power play since the days of Hamrlik, Mironov, and Arnott. It wouldn’t be too surprising to see Pisa jump up the depth chart quickly, with a strong training camp.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 60%

6 Scott Ferguson – Steady defenseman, plays exactly how MacTavish wants him to, safe and solid. He’s likely got a spot on the roster sewn up, though it is certainly possible that he could be bumped to the 7th d-man by year-end.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 90%

7 Kari Haakana – Another defenseman the Oilers envision as a solid, steady 6/7 guy. His fight for ice will likely be with Ferguson, though if none of Allen, Semenov, Pisa look like they can responsibly log minutes, AND help the power play, Haakana and Ferguson could conceivably be the 3rd pairing come opening night.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 75%

8 Bobby Allen (11, 3) – A late season trade with Boston brought Allen to the Oilers organization, where he seemed to blossom with a quick 7 pts in 10 games. The Oilers seem to see Allen as a nice depth player, perhaps 2nd pair potential, who can help move the puck out of the defensive zone quickly with good breakout passes.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 30%

9 Alexei Semenov (3, 1) – Semenov had what some would term a disappointing season in the AHL, in that he wasn’t particularly dominating at the AHL level. He apparently got more comfortable with the pro game in Hamilton as the season went along. Semenov has enormous size, and good speed for a man his size. He may take another year in the AHL, but looks like a very good bet to be a top 4 defenseman down the road. Semenov could definitely add some size and PP help to Edmonton’s defensive core, so with a strong camp he could certainly earn a spot on Edmonton’s roster this year.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 35%

10 Alex Henry (18, 4) – Henry is starting to reach make or break time. He’s had 3 seasons in the AHL now, and doesn’t appear much closer to making the team now than he did 2 seasons ago. Very unlikely to make EDM out of camp, though if he shows well he may have a chance, depending on his waiver status (if he has to pass waivers to go to Hamilton, the team may be inclined to keep him in EDM to take a look before risking sending him down)
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 3%

11 Jan Horacek (17, 9) – Horacek has decided to head back to the Czech republic for the upcoming season. He will not be at Oilers training camp this year, and for that matter, it is uncertain that he will come back at all in the future.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

12 Alexander Ljubimov (19,8) Ljubimov was somewhat touted before he came over to North America last year, but so far has had a “rough” transition. He was unable to stick with the Bulldogs last year, and will be in even tougher this year with the Hamilton roster being split with Montreal.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 2%

13 Mikko Luoma (-, 5) – Luoma is another overage defenseman drafted by Edmonton within the last 2 years (the others being Haakana and Pisa). He hasn’t been signed by EDM yet, and given Edmonton’s financial situation it is very unlikely they would bring Luoma over and incur the transfer fee.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

14 Doug Lynch (10, 2) – Lynch is still somewhat raw at the position EDM envisions him playing down the line: defense. It is very unlikely that he would crack the roster this year, Edmonton would probably rather see him get more ice time, and continue to grow as a defenseman, in Red Deer, regardless of how strong he looks at camp. Definitely one to watch though, just to see how far away he may be.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 5%

15 Matt Greene (20, 6) – Greene is a rough and tough prospect, likely 4 years away, as he will be going the US college route.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

16 Kenny Smith (15, 7) – Smith was a 3rd rounder for EDM in 2001, is still playing at Harvard and thus won’t even be invited to training camp
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

Left Wing:

1 Ryan Smyth – Smyth is a legitimate 1st line LW in the NHL. He has all the tools to be 30+ goals, 70+ point guy. Will this be the year he does so, as his contract is set to expire? The Oilers are in an interesting situation with Smyth, hoping he does well, but not too well, at least not until he’s signed at a reasonable rate (i.e. Less than $4 million a season), long term.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

2 Josh Green – Perhaps this is overrating Green on my part. However, given the words from Lowe, indicating that he traded Hecht to open up room on the top 2 lines for Green (or others if they force their way in, but Green was specifically mentioned), perhaps it is the most reasonable way to rate the LW players, in terms of ice-time. This is one spot that is very dependant on Mike York. If York switches to LW, then Green will either shift down this list, or over to RW. Additionally, a strong camp from Jani Rita COULD potentially force Green to the 4th line or press box.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 80%

3 Ethan Moreau – the chances of Moreau remaining an Oiler for the entire year are (hopefully) limited at best. He fills a role, well, as a 3rd/4th line PK guy. The problem in Edmonton is the number of guys behind him, who could also fill that role, perhaps not as well as Moreau for the upcoming year, but are at least cheaper and have more upside without being appreciably worse than Moreau on the 3rd or 4th line.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 50% (could be exposed in the waiver draft in an effort to lose his contract)

4 Shawn Horcoff – Horcoff is a player who many see being lost in the shuffle. With so many youngsters around it is not hard to see how this could happen, as there are simply more bodies around than there are roster spots. Ideally Moreau would be traded, to make more room for guys like Horcoff and Chimera. For Horcoff to solidify a roster spot he’ll have to play tougher, and avoid losing one on one battles for the puck. Horcoff is a solid defensive player, with surprising offensive instincts. He, if he has gained some size and toughness over the summer, would look perfectly in place on either the 3rd line with Marchant and Grier, or the 4th line, likely with Reasoner and Laraque. He is not longer waiver draft exempt, and as such he will start the year on the Oilers roster, unless traded before the season starts. Horcoff has the same worry from Rita that Green does.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 80%

5 Jason Chimera (7, 2) – Chimera FINALLY will arrive on the Edmonton scene this year. He looked okay in his 3 game stint with Edmonton last year, scoring a goal, but looked a little bit uncomfortable in the defensive end. Chimera’s waiver status (cannot be sent to HAM without clearing waivers) virtually guarantees he will be on the opening roster. The only question is if it will be in press box, or in the lineup?
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 80%

6 Jani Rita (1, 1) – Well, where do you start with Rita? A fast stocky Finn, he has had his year to adapt in the AHL. He was on fire in the playoffs, something that Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish will certainly appreciate. The main reason that we might not see Rita starting the year in EDM is strictly a numbers issue; if ability to play were the only concern he would likely be in the lineup. However, Edmonton already has 5 decent LW’s on one-way deals. Until a trade is made, barring a dominant camp, expect Rita to head down to Hamilton for a month or so, until Lowe can make a trade to clear room for Rita on the Edmonton roster. If he’s sent down, it likely won’t be for long.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 30%

7 Tony Salmeleinen (12,3) – Kevin Lowe has been singing the praises of Tony Salmeleinen for about 2 years now. Finally he’s come over to North America. Salmeleinen is another small fast winger for the Oilers, with some decent offensive upside. His speed is said to be roughly comparable with Todd Marchant, perhaps even better (he should be a treat to watch at training camp). The reality of the situation seems to suggest that Salmeleinen has little chance of cracking the NHL roster this year, as there are just too many guys ahead of him with one-way contracts. Additionally, it couldn’t hurt to let Salmeleinen have at least a year in Hamilton, to adjust to the North American game. In even a further setback, the Oilers are already small in the forward position, and thus would probably like to avoid adding another small guy like Salmeleinen if they can avoid it. They won’t sit on a player obviously ready to play, but Salmeleinen probably isn’t that guy just yet.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster –5%

8 Alexei Mikhnov (5,4)– Mikhnov is the Oilers 2000 first rounder, oft compared to Antropov. It has been very difficult to obtain information on Mikhnov’s maturation process, but what has become apparent is that he hasn’t logged the games, or the ice time, that the Oilers probably hoped he would have by this point. Mikhnov again denied an invitation to camp, which only makes sense given he isn’t singed yet, and probably wants to play another year in the Russian elite league in any event. Mikhnov is a big guy with soft hands. Some are starting to utter the “bust” word, but Mikhnov is about where the Edmonton scouts expected him to be at this point. He is a long-term project with great upside.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

Center

1 Mike Comrie – Comrie surprised everyone last year with his goal scoring efforts, and has vaulted comfortably into the position of the Oilers #1 center with the departure of Doug Weight. Arguably Edmonton’s best forward down the stretch, Edmonton needs to hope for Comrie to continue to develop. His goal totals may well come down this year, but his assist totals should rise with a full year on Edmonton’s number one line with Carter and Smyth
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

2 Todd Marchant – When Marchant was given his qualifying offer by the Oilers this summer, the writing was on the wall. The Oilers decided to allow Marchant to become a UFA in the 2003 summer (via Group V free agency), seemingly in an effort to cut costs. Marchant is unlikely to remain an Oiler all season (though it is a possibility if the trade offers aren’t significantly better than the 3rd rounder Edmonton would likely receive in compensation for losing Marchant), but until he is traded, will almost certainly log the second most ice-time for Oilers’ centers.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

3 Jiri Dopita – The Oilers hope the veteran Czech center will be able to solve, at least short term, the Oilers second line center woes. Dopita won’t necessarily receive much more ice time in Edmonton than he did in Philadelphia, but the ice-time he gets will be more crucial here. Injuries are a concern with Dopita, but he is a low risk investment for the Oilers, and hopefully will click well on a line with Mike York. The Oilers badly need size up the middle, which Dopita provides in spades
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

4 Marty Reasoner – After a trying time for most of last year, Reasoner found a niche as Edmonton’s 4th line center late in the season. His intensity went up, and his production followed modestly. Reasoner still has an offensive upside, but has now shown that he won’t hurt the team even in a 4th line role, something that the Oilers probably didn’t expect when they traded for him. In fact, his face-off skills will probably help to keep him in the opening night lineup, so long as he shows up with some effort in training camp.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 80%

5 Jarrett Stoll (8,2) – Stoll is seen by Edmonton as a solid character guy, likely to be a third liner but with second line upside should he improve his skating. The Oilers love adding players who have won, which perfectly describes Stoll, the Memorial Cup champion. He, like Salmeleinen, could probably use an adjustment period in Hamilton. Stoll also has to work uphill given that the 4 centers ahead of him on the depth chart (and Horcoff, who is listed as a LW in this article, but can play both) are all on one-way contracts. Expect Stoll to start in Hamilton.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 20%

6 Brian Swanson – Swanson has shown that he can score in the AHL. However, he is not going to play ahead of Mike Comrie, and with the acquisition of Dopita, probably won’t play 2nd line either. The Oilers ideally would rather use the 4th line slot on the two younger centers they see as having a slightly better NHL upside, Reasoner and Horcoff. Swanson would be an excellent press-box player though, in that he can probably sit for a week or two, come into the lineup, and not hurt you, plus he only makes about $500,000. Additionally, he could easily be snapped up through waivers by a team like Atlanta. This makes Swanson a difficult decision for the Oilers. He might stay in Edmonton until they can move a forward or two (Marchant and Moreau the likely candidates). Upon such a move Swanson would probably stay in the press box while Rita came up from Hamilton straight into the lineup.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 25%

7 Brad Winchester (9,3)– Winchester still has a full year of college left, and thus is not even attending Oilers camp. He is seen as a possible power forward, but more likely a big checking winger on the 3rd or 4th lines. He is probably Hamilton bound in his first pro season, which would be the 2003/04 season.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

8 Jesse Niinimaki (4,1) – The Oilers surprise 2002 first rounder will stay in Finland for at least one more year, to continue to improve his conditioning, add some size, and round out his game. Niinimaki is seen as a potential 2nd line center within 2 or 3 years.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 0%

Right Wing:

1 Anson Carter – Carter has a very streaky year in the 2001/02 season. He finished with a career high 28 goals, nothing to laugh at, but he went into the tank along with his teammates during a mid-season swoon, and did nothing to help his team turn it around. Carter can be a dominating player when he puts it all together, playing both aggressively and skillfully. He has added some muscle this summer to try and better cope with the physical abrasiveness he needs to be at the top of his game. Carter will once again log serious minutes, both even strength and on the power play.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

2 Mike York – York figures to be a key for the Oilers this year. If he can be a legitimate second line threat for the Oilers this year on a line with Dopita, the Oilers will have an excellent shot at regaining a playoff berth. York is a smaller player who plays big, never quits, and always gives his best effort. He can, and probably will, be used in all 3 game situations, and thus will get more than his fair share of the ice time.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

3 Mike Grier – Grier had an awful year last season, looking sluggish and docile for most shifts. If Grier’s shoulders will allow him to return to his robust playing style, he will be a key contributor to the team’s success. Though Grier may not appear to be the most skilled finisher in Oilers history, he does have 2 20-goal seasons to his credit, and is a definite physical threat in a lineup filled with some smaller players like Comrie, York, and Marchant.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

4 Georges Laraque – Laraque has come to camp in shape. That is about all that needs to be said about this guy. He may now be able handle the minutes that would allow him to move up to the 3rd or, gasp, even 2nd line. If he wants to play hard all the time, throw his weight around; it isn’t inconceivable to think he could play spot duty on the 2nd line with York and Dopita, or on the 3rd line with Marchant and Green, or some other combination. He may make Grier expendable by the end of the year if he can play a consistent physical game, and still attend to his pugilistic duties
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

5 Dan Cleary – The Oilers have invested a lot of time and energy into Cleary. He finally seemed to be rounding the corner early last season before a knee injury hit, and derailed him for the rest of the season. Cleary is now in a fight to keep his job. Though he will certainly be protected in the waiver draft, Cleary may well be traded early in the year should some of the youngsters behind him show themselves to be ready, and Cleary not look ready to go.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 100%

6 Ales Hemsky (2, 1) – Hemsky has proven, both at last year’s camp and throughout last season in Hull, that he has the skill to play the NHL game. He may not have the defensive effort or size needed yet though. The Oilers are in somewhat of a bind with Hemsky, as they can’t send him to AHL. They must either keep him in the NHL, or send him back to junior. Lowe is apparently concerned that things are too easy for Hemsky in junior; he isn’t being challenged enough to continue to work on his game. Edmonton may try to handle Hemsky as they did Ryan Smyth in his rookie year (or Boston did with Thornton), play him for 50 games or so, and slowly ease him into the line-up. If Hemsky shows that he is even close to being ready for the NHL, Edmonton will keep him, as they do not want to risk letting him stagnate in the Q, where he isn’t as likely to work on his flaws, as he would be in Edmonton, with NHL caliber players.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 45%

7 Michael Henrich (13,2) – Henrich has been a frustrating player for the Oilers organization. Even now, they see the potential for a good second line player, but he isn’t consistent enough to earn a look in the NHL. Even with a good camp he will almost certainly be returned to Hamilton to prove he can put up some offensive numbers, as well as play consistently.
i. Chance of being on the starting roster – 5%