The dressing room was a mix of emotions on Saturday night. There was an almost eerie silence with an unmistakable sense of anticipation and excitement in the air. An hour earlier, the word had come down; the final roster cuts would be made immediately following the game.
The announcement had barely been made on media row when beat writers and radio jockeys began predicting the outcome of Craig MacTavish’s upcoming slashing frenzy. There were plenty of potential victims to select from but few candidates were decisions one might describe as ‘clear cut’.
In the end, the axe fell on the hopes of four skaters leaving the roster at 24 players. One more will have to go before the regular season starts on Thursday night in Edmonton against San Jose.
The players who were on the bubble were visibly worried as they shed their gear and walked around the dressing room. Peter Sarno had so many butterflies that he was practically hovering as he paced back and forth awaiting his turn to be called into the coach’s office.
"Man, I’m pretty nervous," Sarno confided. "I’ve gone pretty far in camp…I don’t know what to think right now. I hope I did enough to impress and to stick."
It was the longest that Sarno had ever made it through an Oiler camp and he was taking that as an accomplishment in its own right.
"I’m pretty proud of myself to have gotten this far and I hope I can end it off in good fashion."
It was just a few minutes later when Edmonton’s VP of Public Relations, Bill Tuele made the announcement and named the players who were reassigned to the AHL. Bobby Allen, Tony Salmelainen, Jamie Wright and Jani Rita were all given the tap on the shoulder they had been dreading thus their Oiler camp came to and end.
"I guess I’m here for at least another day," whispered Jarret Stoll as he tried to tone down his excitement amongst those who had just been cut.
The news was hardest for Rita but didn’t come as a complete shock to the highly touted winger.
"Of course it’s disappointing but I kind of had a feeling," sighed Rita. "I knew I was on the bubble."
Rita’s performance at camp was impressive early on but never really progressed along with the rest of the participants and that made it a clear choice for MacTavish and his staff.
"At the end of the day, he didn’t outplay the guys that he had to in order to stay here," explained MacTavish. "There are a few things that he does better than a lot of the people in this room but there are a few areas where he’s got to improve and then he’ll be here."
In Rita’s opinion, he did everything he could on a daily basis and he’s satisfied with his performance in the camp and the preseason games.
"I think the last couple of games I played were…alright," described Rita. "I make some mistakes but I have my good moments too, I’ve just got to cut down those mistakes."
Now he will have to get refocused back in the AHL for the third straight year. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone who has as many expectations on his shoulders as the 22-year old Finn has.
"The more times you’re here you expect to make the team but I was kind of on the bubble; there was a chance to make the team or a chance to go to Toronto. I tried to do my best and now I’ll have to go back there, turn the page and try to play myself here again."
"I have no regrets."
Meanwhile, Craig MacTavish excused Tony Salmelainen and claimed the glut on the right wing was to blame for the speedster’s ousting from the fold.
"Strictly a numbers game," concluded MacTavish. "You look at our right side and you see we’ve got (Dvorak), Ales (Hemsky), Pisani, who we really like, and Georges (Laraque)."
MacTavish did say that Salmelainen did warrant consideration for the emergency calls that will inevitably be placed to the AHL this season.
"(Salmelainen’s) close and we think he’s going to be here this year at some point," offered the coach. "He’s a dynamic, offensive player but we want him to play and it’s as simple as that."
So with there still to be one more player to be dropped from the roster, the glaringly obvious place to look would be on the blueline where there are still eight names listed. Mikko Luoma is still the likely candidate for a demotion but MacTavish has seen enough to know that he wants to examine things for just a little while longer.
"Mikko is intriguing right now because of the way he moves the puck," said MacTavish. "We’re not ready to do anything with him at this point so we’ll give him a little bit of time next week to see how he settles in and learns the system here."
Being a solid passer and a good playmaker is what has helped keep Luoma around and those are also traits that benefited Sarno too.
"Peter Sarno’s the same way," MacTavish continued. "He does a lot of things to help us on the power play, moves the puck and makes good decisions and it’s not going to hurt him to stay here for a little while longer while we try and decide what we’re going to do with the final roster spots."
Once he knew his neck had been spared the guillotine, Sarno was clearly in different spirits. Adrenaline coursing throughout his system wouldn’t allow him to sit down and he walked around the dressing seemingly in an attempt to burn off some energy. When asked how the relief felt, Sarno sighed deeply, rolled his eyes and replied with a forced whisper.
"Oh man, I can’t even think right now, I don’t know where to sit or where I’m going," the overexcited center said. "Yeah it feels good."
Just four more nights of sleep remain until the regular season officially gets under way. Perhaps now some of the Oilers will finally be able to get a good night’s rest.
Tommy Salo — Played an outstanding game earlier in the week in Vancouver and followed that up with a game star performance on Saturday against Calgary. Through those two games Salo faced seven two-man disadvantages.
Jarret Stoll – Saved his best for last and played very well against Minnesota, Vancouver and Calgary to finish off the preseason.
Ales Hemsky – Clearly the most gifted Oiler on the ice, Hemsky already looks to be way ahead of where he was last year and could very well lead the team in offensive totals provided he does not fall victim to whatever disease took hold of Dan Cleary annually prior to the regular season.
Jani Rita – For the third straight autumn, Rita fails to meet expectations and is demoted to the AHL.
Alexei Semenov – For a guy who easily surpassed Al MacInnis’ hardest slap shot last season, Semenov uses his biggest offensive weapon far too seldom. What use is a cannon if the fuse is never lit?
- The Oilers dressed Cross, Ferguson, Staios, Luoma, Allen and Semenov against the Flames (less their top line) on Thursday and allowed four goals. On Saturday Edmonton iced Smith, Brewer and Bergeron in place of Cross, Ferguson and Staios and the Iginla led Flames only manage to score twice.
- The penalty killing duos against Calgary on Saturday were Chimera/Moreau and Hemsky/York. Edmonton successfully killed off eight penalties including two two-man disadvantages.
- Edmonton scored six times on the power play against Calgary on Tuesday night, something they had never managed to do in a regular season game, ever.
- Peter Sarno went 8 for 11 in the face-off circle on Saturday for 72% effectiveness, tops on both teams.
- Grant Fuhr will have his #31 retired at the home opener on Thursday. Fuhr will also be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this fall.
- Ryan Smyth’s finger will not prevent him from playing in the season opener against San Jose on Thursday. The star Oiler claims that he has sat out the last week of exhibition hockey due more to precaution than to necessity.
- Shawn Horcoff (hip) is listed as day-to-day but is not expected to miss any regular season time either.
- The blade of Dean McCammond’s stick cut Brad Isbister on Saturday to the tune of 17 stitches. The nasty looking gash fills the space between "Izzy’s" top lip and his nose, resembling a zipper.
- Eric Brewer (shoulder) and Bobby Allen (concussion) returned to play this past week.