Oilers: Training camp preview, Part III, right players for right wing

By Guy Flaming

Only ten
natural right wing players have been invited to Edmonton Oiler training camp so
far, that’s less than any other position with an exception of goaltenders. 
Why so few?  It would appear
fairly obvious that there are no changes planned, or at least no deletions from
the right side.


Last
season’s Oiler rookie sensation was young Ales Hemsky. 
Brought along slowly during the first half of the year, Hemsky flourished
down the stretch playing with Ryan Smyth and Todd Marchant. 
The Czech was awarded with Rookie of the Month honors for March and
finished tied for seventh in rookies scoring despite playing in just 59 games. 
With much of the team’s offensive hopes resting on his shoulders,
Hemsky is a lock for a spot on either the first of second line.



n lang=”EN-CA” style=”mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt; mso-bidi-font-family: Times New Roman”>Hemsky’s
only serious challenge for the top line comes from Radek Dvorak. 
Acquired at the trade deadline along with Corey Cross from the Rangers,
Dvorak is being counted on to return to his sniper form of a couple seasons ago. 
Dvorak notched 31 goals back in the 2000-01 season prior to sustaining a
serious knee injury that the speedster only recently felt fully recovered from. 




In
his month long stint in Edmonton to close last season off, Dvorak showed flashes
of his former self especially when scoring the Oilers highlight goal of the
playoffs.  However Dvorak broke his
hand against Dallas and did not complete the series.  There has been some concern as to whether the injury would
nag the winger through the summer and into this coming season.



Kevin
Prendergast, VP of Hockey Operations, gave a quick update on all three of the
Oilers who struggled with injuries at the end of the year.



“I
talked to Mike Comrie yesterday and he feels like he’s 100%.  I talked to Mike York’s doctor and trainers and they feel
that by the time he gets here for camp Mike will be 100% and Dvorak’s hand is
just fine now.”



2002-03’s
surprise of the year had to be Fernando
Pisani
.  A mid-season call up
from AHL affiliate Hamilton due to injuries with the big club, Pisani played
well enough to hold onto a roster spot for the remainder of the season and
finished with 13 points in 35 games.  Playing
as a part of the ‘RPM’ line with Marty Reasoner and Ethan Moreau, Pisani
established himself as a worthy checker and also showed an ability to bulge the
twine.  Pisani’s hat trick against
Washington in March was the first by an Oiler since 2001.



Recently
signed to a new three-year contract with one-way money, Pisani is clearly an
important cog in the Oiler machine.  Not
offensive enough to supplant Dvorak or Hemsky on the top two lines, the Edmonton
native should find himself in familiar territory on the third line, riding
shotgun to Marty Reasoner.



Perennial
crowd favorite and the NHL’s most feared tough guy, Georges Laraque is the
anchor on Edmonton’s fourth line.  Contract
negotiations continue with the big man and if they drag on it might open a door
for a small assortment of younger hopefuls.



The
one prospect that gets a unanimous vote of confidence from his peers about his
potential to make the team is Jani Rita.



“It just
amazes me how strong he is on the puck and how he uses his strength all over the
ice,” confessed Bulldog teammate Jarret
Stoll
. “ I think he’ll be a great player someday in the NHL.”


It
is a sentiment echoed by other players as well.



So
much strength on the guy it’s like he can put one in at any time and change
the scene of a game,” described Raffi Torres. “With his explosive power he’s always going to
give himself the chance to put the puck in the net.” 
 



The
highly touted Finn entered last year’s training camp amidst projections of a
Calder Trophy type season.  However,
Rita’s fortunes were far less than expected as he fought through several
slumps during the year and finished with 48 points in 64 AHL games.

“I
don’t think he’s slowing down,” defended Howson, “I think he’s gone
through a time that he probably wasn’t expecting and he’s got to fight
through it but that can be beneficial to any player.”


Rita
did manage to get into a dozen Oiler games as an injury replacement but failed
to stick after totalling just four points. 
With so much competition on the left wing it is quite possible that Rita,
who has experience playing the right side, could be moved to fit him into the
line up.  And he’s not the only
one.



Tony
Salmelainen

played better and better as the Bulldogs season went on and had a very solid
playoff run to the Calder Cup Finals.  Like
Rita, the natural lefty can also play on the right wing, which increases his
chances of one day making the NHL squad.



“(Tony)
was a little spark plug out there for us.  He
was able to get us going a lot of the times when we really needed it,” said
Stoll.


Salmelainen’s
gift is his explosive speed, a quality that is held in very high regard in
Oilerville.


Next on
the depth chart is Michael Henrich. 
Henrich is somewhat of a victim of circumstances in that in the midst of
a very impressive training camp last fall, the 1998 first round draft pick came
down with mononucleosis.  The
illness left Henrich bedridden for some time and basically wiped out his season. 
Henrich will be back to prove that he’s not lost a step from two
seasons ago, his best to date as a pro.


Another
player trying to earn his way back into hockey is Jay
Legault
.


“Jay was
a former draft pick of Anaheim, he did not play at all last year,” Prendergast
recalled, “He’s a big kid at 6’4” 215 lbs and I think being away from
the game for a year has given him a bit of a wake up call. 
He’s worked very hard in Peterborough this summer. 
We know he can play in the AHL so if he can come here and show us that
he’s ready to play then he’ll get a fair chance to play in Toronto (AHL).”


J.J.
Hunter
spent
last season playing for the Columbus Cottonmouths of the ECHL and collected 53
points in 70 games.  The native of
Shaunavon Saskatchewan had a decent camp last year and will look to find his way
to the AHL this year.


Brown
University’s Chris Legg managed only eleven points in 34 ECAC games last year and
is looking for a professional contract with the Oilers. 
Edmonton drafted Legg in the sixth round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and
hosted him in June at the prospects camp in Sherwood Park.


Dallas
Anderson
played
in Tulsa of the CHL in 2002-03 and finished the year off with 21 points in 48
games.  With a full roster in the AHL this year, there may be room
for Anderson there if not in Columbus with the Cottonmouths.


The small
number of invitees for the right wing position is a clear indication that
Edmonton is pretty set on that side.  Unless
injuries or contracts prevent coach Craig MacTavish from icing the same four
players, the right wing position is not going to change much.


“We
think the top four are pretty set but again we have interchangeable
situations,” reaffirmed Prendergast. “Ryan Smyth can go to the RW if we need
him to go over there, Rita can too if we need that. 
If we have to move players we know they are capable of playing on the
other side.”


Edmonton’s
training camp opens on September 12th at Millennium Place in Sherwood
Park, Alberta with a weekend of day sessions open to the public.



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