Youth has been served

By Dean Belanger

One year ago, the Oilers were in the middle of a terrible slump, a slump so bad that they missed the playoffs. A nice run in the last month of the season brought them close to the playoffs, but they ran out of time and missed the playoffs with an impressive 92 points. This year they are on pace for 94 points, and still a playoff spot is in no way a lock. So what is the difference between this year and last? Rookies, and lots of them!

Depending on the night, the Oilers are either the youngest or second youngest team in the NHL, with Florida being the most immediate competition for that title. So how have the Oilers managed to get younger and not slip in point production? The answer is that all of their key players are a year older, and have all taken a step forward. Todd Marchant is the most obvious player that comes to mind as he is having a career season. Anson Carter, Mike York, Mike Comrie and Ryan Smyth are also producing their fair share of points. One cannot overlook though the contributions of the several rookies that have come to the forefront, especially when the Oilers recently had a rash of injuries.

When Steve Staios received a concussion in late December in Phoenix, the Oilers had a major problem. Niinimaa was already on the limp with a bad knee, so the call went to Hamilton. Summoned to the team was a second round pick from 1999, a mammoth player who would make his NHL debut. That player was Alexei Semenov. While most casual fans had no clue who this fresh faced youngster was, there a select few who were waiting for this moment since the first time they saw him at his first training camp. It wasn’t the most exciting debut, as Semenov only saw 10 minutes of ice, but he showed enough to warrant another game or two. Fast forward to February and Semenov is now a fixture on the first pairing with Eric Brewer and is getting 20 minutes of ice time, often against the other teams top lines. Once Semenov gets more comfortable in the NHL and puts on a bit more weight, look out! He is going to be a force for years to come. One would think he could probably start to look for a house in Edmonton.

In January, The Oilers were missing two thirds of their top line. Mike Comrie was already out with a broken thump courtesy of a shot from Dan McGillis of the San Jose Sharks. Then it was Ryan Smyth’s turn to hit the sick bay. His was a shoulder problem as a result of a hit against the Los Angeles Kings. Fernando Pisani followed his old linemates to Edmonton from the Hamilton Bulldogs, and coach MacTavish decided it was time to re-unite one of the AHL’s best lines from last year. Playing with Brian Swanson and Jason Chimera, the three showed an excellent combination of size, grit, speed and offense that was a much-needed boost for the tired and beleaguered team. Before the addition of Pisani, Brain Swanson was living on popcorn in the press box, and Jason Chimera was getting 8 – 10 minutes of ice time if he was lucky on the fourth line. Since the injuries, Chimera has managed to move up near the top of the leaderboard for rookie scoring, and has exceeded all expectations. His play as of late reminds me of what we saw from Carolina’s Eric Cole in last year’s playoffs.

The one rookie that has been with the team all season and was expected to be was Ales Hemsky. His season has gone as expected, except that maybe he didn’t expect to have so much trouble scoring. To this point in the season, he has only managed three goals; with one of those being the game winner on Wednesday against the Ducks. What wasn’t expected was the unofficial total of “jaw-dropping” plays this budding superstar has managed to pull off thus far. Every game I’ve attended this season, I’ve found it very hard not to watch his every move on the ice! Unfortunately he has been hampered by a nagging stomach injury that also forced him from the lineup just before the all star break. Because of this injury, he had to give up his spot in the “Future Stars” game. Hemsky has all the early makings of a superstar waiting to happen. If you don’t believe me, look at the stats of some other first year; first overall pick players and judge for yourself. Kevin Lowe looks like he pulled of a steal picking Hemsky at 13th overall in 2001.

Ales Hemsky – 37 games 3 goals 10 assists 13 points

Joe Thornton – 55 games 3 goals 4 assists 7 points

Rick Nash – 45 games 11 goals 15 assists for 26 points

Vincent Lecavalier – 82 games 13 goals 15 assists for 28 points

Edmonton fans we’re also lucky enough to see appearances from two other sensational rookies. First round pick from 1999, Jani Rita displayed his explosive speed for six games, and scored his first NHL goal. Also getting the call was much talked about Jarret Stoll who was drafted this year in the second round after he failed to sign with Calgary. All he was able to do was get an assist on his very first shift in the NHL, and go +1 to help beat the Minnesota Wild. When the all-star break began, both players were sent back to Hamilton. You can bet the farm that both will be back in starting roles in the not too distant future.

How does that line in the song go? “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”! While this season will be a dogfight until the end, the Oilers do have a chance to actually win their division. It would take a collapse by the Canucks, and they would have to hold off the surging Avalanche, which doesn’t look likely at this point. The fact that the Oilers are not only surviving, but also thriving with this much youth on the roster bodes well for the future. With a season and a half left until the collective bargaining agreement expires, the Oilers just have to tread water and maybe they could actually ice a contender again if a new beneficial agreement is struck. Then Edmonton fans can only hope that 2004 will look something like 1984 did at the end of the season.