Some legendary goalies have donned the pads for the Oil over the past quarter century and the organization believes they will have a duo in place for 2002-03 that can add to that storied history.
That’s no easy task when the list of former tenders includes Andy Moog, Curtis Joseph, Billy Ranford and the soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Grant Fuhr.
The current puck stopper Tommy Salo has been plying his trade in Oilerville since the trade deadline in 1999. A Swedish Olympian and NHL All-Star, Salo returns and is aiming to bounce back from a below average season. Salo was often his familiar brilliant self, but the 2002-03 season also had more blemishes on his performance than in previous years.
Salo will be the starter again; there is no question of that. When he is on top of his game Salo can be a top five goaltender in the league but in the wake of another first round playoff exit at the hands of Dallas, there are now concerns. Can the Oilers reach the next level with Salo minding the twine? He’s won both Olympic and World Championship gold but Salo has yet to win an NHL playoff series with either the Oilers or the Islanders.
Salo’s old back up goalie, Jussi Markkanen, was dealt to the New York Rangers in the summer leading to a changing of the guard. The move has not been without criticism from those who felt Markkanen was the perfect support for Salo. Management, on the other hand, has complete confidence on the player who some feel has been handed the job almost by default. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Edmonton’s goaltending tandem will be Tommy Salo and Ty Conklin.
“Ty is ready to come in and be the back up goalie in Edmonton and probably challenge for the number one spot there. We traded Jussi for a second round pick to the Rangers,” revealed VP of Hockey Operations Prendergast. “The classic line is ‘I love it when a plan comes together’, and this one worked out about as well as a team could have hoped for.”
Forhis part though, Conklin feels that the back up spot is far from automatically his.
“As excited as I’d like to get it doesn’t mean that I can have anything less than a great camp and still make the team,” said Conklin.
Assistant GM Scott Howson is also a strong supporter of Conklin’s.
“He had a good regular season but he was outstanding in the playoffs particularly in the finals where he played all of the games,” Howson recalled. “He was outstanding in every game, even the game where we lost 6-4, I couldn’t fault him on any of the goals that were scored against him.”
The highly decorated college goalie is definitely the odds on favorite to stick with the Oilers this year but Conklin isn’t the only Oiler prospect with high hopes.
The Oilers knew they needed to sign at least one more goalie over the summer simply to fill a vacancy on their AHL team in Toronto. Edmonton wanted a No. 3 goalie for the organization and they think they’ve found their man in 26-year-old Stephen Valiquette.
Valiquette has spent the past few seasons blocking rubber for the New York Islanders farm club in Bridgeport, winning a Calder Cup in the process. The Ontario born Valiquette could push Conklin for the No. 2 job if he was to turn in an exceptional training camp but the starting spot in Toronto has his name pencilled in right now.
“Valiquette has proven in the Islanders chain that he can come in and win,” said Prendergast. “I think Craig MacTavish will keep three goalies right until the end of camp. At this point I would say that Ty has the edge but the best man will win that job.”
Edmonton’s goaltender of the future is Jeff Deslauriers. Deslauriers will be back with Chicoutimi of the QMJHL but may also capture a roster spot with the Canadian Junior team for the World Junior Championships around Christmas time. Deslauriers was impressive last fall in training camp but finished the season with a 3.84 GAA and just 18 wins in 49 games with the Sagueneens. Since then though Deslauriers has had a good prospect camp in Edmonton and a terrific World Junior Camp in Calgary and appears to be on track.
Last fall Kristian Antila failed to make the kind of impression that the young Finn hoped to make on the organization and spent most of the year in the CHL playing for Wichita.
“He had a very disappointing year,” Prendergast recalled disappointedly. “He reported to camp overweight, which is very disappointing for me personally and for the whole organization. He kicked around a bit from league to league and hopefully it was a bit of a wake up call for him.”
The 23-year-old will have his work cut out for him to erase the bitter memories he created last year but Prendergast is optimistic that Antila can bounce back in good form.
“He went back home, and I’ve talked to his agent, he’s trained very hard this summer. He certainly has the ability to play at a higher level in North America and hopefully from a mature stand point he’s learned that from last year. Hopefully he comes to camp and challenges for the back up job in Toronto (Roadrunners) this year.”
Michael Morrison was Edmonton’s goaltender contribution to the Columbus Cottonmouths of the ECHL last season. In his 38 appearances Morrison only managed 9 victories and settled for a GAA of 3.48 on the third worst team in the league. The 6’3” goalie will battle with Antila for the back up job in Toronto.
The last goalie invited to camp is Joel Martin who played for the Vancouver Giants and the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL last season. The Alberta born Martin will look to earn his first professional contract at the camp.
“Joel’s been working out with our goalie scout, John Stevenson, all summer and John recommends him very highly,” reported Prendergast. “He probably played in a bad situation in Vancouver being that it’s a second year expansion. We’re going to have a battle for a back up position in Toronto and also to supply a goalie to Columbus of the ECHL so he’ll get a fair opportunity.”
With the regular season now just a month away the Oilers appear prepared to take on the year armed with dynamite goaltending. However, only time will tell if ‘T n T’ (Tommy and Ty) are enough to get the Oilers deeper into the post season than the team has gone in years.
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.