Oilers 2002-03 Rookie Review

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers season may have ended on a bitter, and
all too familiar, note with a loss against Dallas, but a look back on the year
reveals plenty to be encouraged by.  A
plethora of new faces donned the oil drop this past year in place of some old
favorites.  Below is a review of those
new faces and how they performed. 

Draft Weekend

As it is with all teams, Edmonton’s season
commenced well before the first puck was ever dropped in October.  The season really began in June at the NHL
entry draft.  Kevin Lowe, who has been
known to be an active GM during drafts in the past, was so again in 2002. 

With their first round selection the Oilers chose
Finnish forward Jesse Niinimaki, a player who was well down the list on
many published prospect rankings.  Scott
Howson, assistant Oiler GM, explained  why they decided to take the Finn when they did.

“Our scouts saw him play in a tournament over in Europe
towards the end of the year and he was the best player in the tournament.  We sort of focused on him a little bit, had
a great interview with him at the draft. 
He’s an enthusiastic kid, lively personality, good sense of humor.  We hope with Mike Comrie being a fixture
here for years and years to come, we wanted to get a little size at center ice
too.”

“We didn’t think he was going to last into the
second round.  I think he had 23, or 27
interviews so we weren’t the only team to see him play as well as he did in
that tournament and we were confident that he would not be there in the second
round.”

It was at the start of the second round that Lowe
made his deal.  Forward Jochen Hecht was
sent to Buffalo in exchange for two early second round picks that the Sabres
had accumulated.  The first of those two
picks was also the first of the round and Edmonton immediately nabbed
Chicoutimi goaltender Jeff Deslauriers. 
The 6’3.5” net minder was ranked 10th in the draft by Central
Scouting, and was the top North American goalie heading into the weekend.  When he was still available, the Oilers
pounced with the 31st overall selection.

Edmonton also had the 36th pick, freshly
acquired from Buffalo, and used it to steal Jarret Stoll from the Calgary
Flames.  Stoll was originally a Flames
prospect in 2000 but  re-entered the
draft when he failed to come to terms on a contract with that team.  The former captain of both the Canadian
World Junior team and the defending Memorial Cup champion Kootenay Ice, was too
great a temptation to resist for Lowe and Co.

“He’s got great character and we think he can be a good
Oiler so it wasn’t much of a decision once he was there at 36,” said
Howson.  “Character is something that
Kevin Lowe is very high on and he really believes that you can’t win without
character so we put an emphasis on that.

When it came time to use their own 2nd round
pick (44th overall), the Oilers looked towards their blueline and
selected Matt Greene, a 6’3” 215lb giant from Green Bay of the USHL.

Camp Opens

As training camp opened in nearby Sherwood Park, the buzz
around town was that several veterans were on the bubble and were going to be
seriously pushed by a handful of eager prospects.  Todd Marchant, Ethan Moreau, Dan Cleary, Mike Grier, Marty
Reasoner and Shawn Horcoff were all under the public microscope after having a
disappointing ’01-’02 season. 

Local product Jason Chimera was the odds on
favorite to make the big club out of camp. 
Many outsiders believed that with his tremendous speed and checking
style, Chimera was poised to replace Moreau on the third line as a checker.

It was Jani Rita’s second training camp with the
Oilers and he was looking to build off of the strong playoff he’d had with
Hamilton the previous spring.  Rita’s
physical game and scoring touch seemed to be a threat to Mike Grier’s status as
a power forward with the team.

There were two new faces at camp that came with much
anticipation and hype, one was Tony Salmelainen.  Kevin Lowe commented that the Finn was the
fastest player he had ever seen, certainly high praise from a man who has seen
a lot of hockey players over the years. 
His speed was noticeable but his quick release was just as notable to
those who watched.

The other highly touted newcomer was Ales Hemsky.  The Czech born sniper was being promoted as
the best pure hockey talent the organization had drafted in several years.  Hemsky had been ripping up the QMJHL with
Hull for the past few seasons and was definitely ready for a step up.  But was he ready for the NHL?

There was also plenty of room for rookies on the
blueline.  With Tom Poti and Sean Brown
being traded the previous March, it appeared that at least two positions were
completely up for grabs.

Ales Pisa, Bobby Allen, Kari Haakana, Alexei
Semenov, Alex Henry… those guys are going to vie for those last two spots.  It’ll be interesting,” declared Howson.  “It does give a chance for a young guy to
step up if they’re ready.  I think it’s
only a matter of time for Alexei Semenov, whether he’s ready right now I’m not
sure but, that’ll be determined at training camp but he’s an outstanding
prospect.” 

In the opening days it was clear that Chimera was
certainly trying to make an impact.  He
laid out Ales Hemsky with a solid check that rang the Czech’s bells for a
couple of days.

As camp progressed there were a handful of other hopefuls
who were putting together excellent efforts, further clouding the big picture
for Coach Craig MacTavish.  Fernando
Pisani, Nate DiCasmirro, Brian Swanson, Alex Henry, Ales Pisa and Michael
Henrich
were all performing well, forcing the team vets to stay on top of
their game to keep their jobs.

Camp ended early for Henrich who was asked to leave the
team when he came down with mono-like symptoms. 

Despite having made terrific impressions on the
organization, most of the rookies were cut from the tryouts and sent to
Hamilton of the AHL or back to their junior teams.  The final cuts included Stoll, Pisa and goalie Ty Conklin.

The Season
Begins

Edmonton had three rookies in the opening night roster
against the Philadelphia Flyers.  Ales
Hemsky, Alex Henry and Kari Haakana all suited up in Oilskins for the first
time in the 2-2 tie.  Jason Chimera also
made the team but did not play in the season opener.

All of the rookies had spot duty during October and
November and saw action on an infrequent basis.  MacTavish was juggling his lines so much trying to find
combinations that had chemistry that there was little stability in who was
dressing and who was not.

Alex Henry was placed on waivers in order to make room for
Josh Green who was returning from a preseason injury.  It was a risk and the Capitals took advantage of the opportunity
and Henry joined former Oiler Mike Grier in Washington.

Eric Brewer was injured in November and so Ales Pisa was
recalled to fill the void on the backend. 
Pisa stepped in and took over as the 6th defenceman along
side Scott Ferguson, bypassing Kari Haakana on the depth chart.

Ales Hemsky had finally begun seeing consistent ice time
and was starting to generate opportunities. 
However, the young Czech was snake bitten when it came to scoring.  Despite a handful of dazzling one-on-one
chances, the puck just wouldn’t cooperate and would inevitably find a way to
stay out of the net.

Chimera had a strong run of games in mid-December
beginning with a two-point effort in Atlanta. 
Two games later it was Chimera again who likely had his biggest moment
of the season against the visiting Colorado Avalanche.  It was the hometown hero who converted a pass
from Steve Staios to lift the Oilers to an astoundingly emotional overtime win
over the Avs.

The Oilers were rolling at that point but soon injuries
and poor play led the team into a tailspin that lasted into the New Year.

Janne Niinimaa sustained a Charlie-horse, Steve Staios
went down with a concussion in Phoenix and Kari Haakana fractured his ribs so
the blueline suddenly became very thin for Edmonton.  As a result, both Bobby Allen and Alexei Semenov were recalled
from Hamilton.  Allen played just one
game, against Dallas, before returning to the AHL.  However, Semenov was with the big club for the rest of the year.

One of the defining months of the year was January when
the Oilers began to succumb to the injury bug. 
Already thin on the blueline from December, Edmonton suffered injuries
to Georges Laraque, Ryan Smyth and most notably to Mike Comrie. 

MacTavish was caught in a perilous situation where two
thirds of his top line was unavailable to play.  Fortunately, those holes were being filled quite capably and the
team hardly missed a beat for most of the month.

Chimera began playing regularly with Brian Swanson and
Fernando Pisani, the latter of whom was the statistical leader for Oiler
prospects in Hamilton up to that point. 
Later in the month both Jani Rita and Jarret Stoll were also recalled
and both made their way into action and onto the score sheet. Alexei Semenov was getting more and more ice time and
frequently played on the second defensive pairing with Eric Brewer. 

Edmonton ended January with a solid 7-3-2-2 mark, an
achievement considering the fact that the team sick bay was full and the
organization’s depth was tested. 
Luckily it was a test the youngsters passed brilliantly.

The All-Star break included the now annual Young-Stars
game in which Ales Hemsky was selected to play.  However, Hemsky was replaced by Shawn Horcoff for the game
because of soreness the Czech was having in his abdomen.

The bigger news came the following weekend when the Oilers
held their inter-squad skills competition in front of about 12,000 fans.  Jason Chimera smashed Mike Gartner’s old
“fastest lap” record and Alexei Semenov nearly broke Al Iafrate’s “hardest slap
shot” record.  Semenov’s blasts were 5
mph faster than those posted a week previous by the participants of the actual
All-Star game thus turning the famed cannon of Al MacInnis into a mere musket.

March was a great month for Oiler rookies.  The emergence of Fernando Pisani was as
fortunate as it was unexpected.  Quite
often a player excels in the AHL but not at the highest pro level.  Pisani, another Edmonton product playing at
home, had become a fixture with the parent club since early in 2003 and had
earned his way into the lineup in place of Dan Cleary.  Fernando scored twice against Anaheim early
in March and then notched his first career hat trick against the Washington
Capitals.  It was the first three-goal
performance by an Oiler since 2001. 
Pisani had another two-goal night on April 3rd versus the San
Jose Sharks.

Ales Hemsky was named the NHL Rookie of the Month for
March as he collected 16 points in 16 games, tops in the league for
rookies.  Hemsky found a home playing
with Ryan Smyth and Todd Marchant on the top line and the trio scored highlight
reel goals almost nightly.  Not
surprisingly, both Hemsky and Smyth had seven game point streaks in March, the
longest streaks by Oiler players all season.

The trade deadline deals involving Janne Niinimaa and Ales
Pisa that Lowe made opened the door for Marc-Andre Bergeron as the seventh
defender.  In his first couple games
with the Oilers, Bergeron quickly became a fan favorite by delivering big hits
and not shying away from confrontation. 
Bergeron had great games against the Islanders and the Flames before the
season ended.

Playoff Excitement

Once again the Oilers faced their longtime postseason
adversaries from Dallas in the opening round of the playoffs.  And once again the Stars would go on to win
the series but for the first time in a long while, it looked as though Edmonton
had a better than fair shot at advancing to the second round.

The rookie highlight of the playoffs came in the final
game, the only game that Marc-Andre Bergeron dressed for.  Bergeron caught Dallas’ Brendan Morrow
cutting inside of him and sent the forward up and over, cart-wheeling onto his
back with a text book hip check.  The
hit will be remembered for a long time and only served to strengthen Bergeron’s
popularity with Oiler fans for the coming season.

Long Summer Ahead

Edmonton recently came to terms with two young prospects
named Dan Baum and Doug Lynch to new three-year contracts.  Both players played in the WHL last season
and both will receive long looks this coming fall at camp.

Lynch, a well-spoken and down to earth fellow if
there ever was one, has an outside chance of making the club, especially if UFA
Cory Cross does not return to Edmonton. 
He’s
a big strong defensemen… very committed, very competitive so we think that Doug
Lynch has a great future in front of him,” Howson stated. 

Baum is characterized as a pest, something that the Oilers
have been lacking in recent years, and is coming off a solid season with Prince
George.  At 6’1” and 200lbs, Baum could
provide a mean streak the same way Tyson Nash does in St. Louis.

Last week the Oilers announced that they would be having a
top prospects mini camp at the end of June. 
It will be a great opportunity for fans to get to see much of the youth
in the organization, especially those college and foreign players who are not
permitted to attend fall camps.  Brad
Winchester, Jesse Niinimaki
and Alexei Mikhnov are three players who
will be making their first appearances in Edmonton at the session.

Now as preparations for the entry draft in Nashville fast
approaches, it is clear that the 2003-2004 season is about to begin again, even
though it will be a full four months before the first puck is dropped.