Oilers rookie review 2003-04

By Guy Flaming






Oiler Rookies Season In Review

 

The Edmonton Oilers had six of their
rookies in their line up at different points this season, some making their NHL
debuts while others established themselves as bonifide major leaguers. 

 

Marc-Andre Bergeron 
(54GP – 9G – 17A – 26PTS – +13)

 

Bergeron made the team out of training
camp but he really made strides in the second half of the season after a
temporary demotion to the AHL.  It was
obvious from the outset of the schedule that the Oilers were relying heavily on
Bergeron’s power play abilities to outweigh his lack of NHL experience and
potential defensive lapses. 

 

“He makes that first pass and that’s
important in our offense,” veteran Shawn Horcoff told Hockey’s Future in
October.  “When he’s going, we’re a team
that creates a lot more offense.”

 

After a handful of games though, Bergeron
was forced to watch a series of contests, which was a bit discouraging for the
rookie.

 

“For sure it’s always tough to watch from
upstairs but I’m in the process right now as a first year player and I
understand my role,” said Bergeron at the time.  “I have to improve on the ice every time I can and I can’t take
anything for granted, if I start to do that I’ll be in the stands all the
time.”

 

It wouldn’t take long for the Quebec
native to work his way back into the line up but he still struggled noticeably
at times including during a game against the veteran laden Detroit Red Wings.

 

“Bergy was a guy who got a lot of pucks
knocked down and it’s a good lesson for him,” said head coach Craig MacTavish
after tying Detroit.  “He played in the
OT because, well… he can make plays you know?  You don’t want to take that out of his game but when you’re in a
hole… stop digging!  We need some high
risk guys back there that can make plays, we’ve got to have some guys that can
do it but a little common sense back there when things are going bad is
valuable.”

 

Unfortunately for Bergeron he continued
to struggle and was reassigned to the AHL in the early part of 2004.  Bergeron played 17 games for the AHL Toronto
Roadrunners before he was brought back by Edmonton and his season really took
off from there.

 

I
don’t mind that I went down there because I got to play a lot of hockey,”
Bergeron recalled after the season. 
“There was a lot of pressure here and it was hard on everyone but going
down there was a little cooler, so when I came back up I was ready to
play.  I had some tough times this year
but the good thing is that I found a way to get back on track and get back
playing.”

 

He
certainly did that.  In fact, Bergeron’s
second half performance was so strong statistically and impacted the team so
positively that he should realistically garner attention when it comes time to
naming the rookie all-star teams. 

 

Bergeron’s
26 points was third in the league for rookie blueliners in scoring behind only
John-Michael Liles (34) and Joni Pitkanen (27).  Considering Bergeron played 17 fewer games than Pitkanen and 25
less than Liles yet averaged more ice time than both, a convincing
argument could certainly be made on his behalf.

 

Then
again, personal recognition is not where it is at for Bergeron.

 

“The
overall picture is that I played a lot of good hockey when it was crunch time
and that’s something I’m proud of,” said the 23-year-old.  “I wanted to help my team win and that’s
what I did.”

 

Bergeron
had a seven game point-scoring streak in March, the longest of any Oiler this
past season. 

 

“I’ve
seen a good evolution in myself this year,” Bergeron concluded.  “My confidence picked up and I was able to
play a lot of good games back-to-back so now I can see myself being an NHL
player and I have the confidence to be here every night.  Something I’m more proud of than anything
else is that I’m a good player at both ends of the ice.  I look at my plus/minus and last year I was
+40 (AHL) and this year I’m like +13 so it’s something I’m really proud of that
my coach is not afraid to put me on the ice. 
He knows that I can create something offensively without giving away any
defense and that’s something I’ve gotten better at in my career.”

 

Marc-Andre
Bergeron has returned to Quebec where he plans on playing in an annual men’s
league tournament with some of his friends. 
It’s notable for Bergeron this year because it’s the first time he’s
ever been able to participate because until now, he’s always been playing in
the playoffs in whatever league he’s been in.      

 

Mike Bishai (14GP – 0G – 2A – 2PTS)

 

The most unexpected rookie contribution award
definitely goes to 24-year-old local product Mike Bishai because he was
on no one’s radar at the beginning of the season and yet as Kevin Lowe told
Hockey’s Future in March, he’s not an unknown quantity anymore.

 

“I don’t want to say he came out of nowhere, but our
projections on him were for a couple of years,” confessed Lowe.  “But man, he hasn’t shown us one thing that
says he can’t play here.”

 

The Oilers recalled Bishai from the Roadrunners on
January 28th and the 5’11” center stayed with the club until the
acquisition of Petr Nedved in early March. 
During that period Bishai played in 14 games and he recorded a pair of
assists including his first NHL point, which came against the Los
Angeles Kings on January 31st.

 

Despite several chances earned from sheer
determination and hard work, Bishai could not score a goal.  In his first game he dug a puck loose from
under the pads of Chicago’s goaltender and poked the disc into the net but the
referee had prematurely blown the play dead. 
Bishai may have gone snake bitten in the goal-scoring department but his
effort was definitely noticed.

 

“He could have had points in all the
games he’s played so far and that’s a positive thing,” said Lowe in
February.  “He’s always put points on
the board so clearly he’s a guy with offensive ability.”

 

But it won’t be his continuous hustle, his terrific
work ethic or his great personality that Oiler fans will remember Bishai for
this year.  The image of Bishai throwing
a rapid sequence of fists on the dome of Serge Aubin while standing in the
Atlanta Thrashers’ bench has been permanently ingrained on the minds of the
Oiler faithful.

 

"I
just ended up in there," said Bishai after the game.  "Somebody tugged on my sweater and
pulled me in or something. I just got up and got going."

 

Bishai
is hoping to create a whole new array of Oiler memories next year.

 

 

Doug Lynch 
(2GP – 0 PTS)

 

The former Red Deer Rebel and Spokane
Chief was in the middle of his debut season with the Toronto Roadrunners when
he was recalled briefly by Edmonton on New Year’s Day.  Injuries to Jason Smith and Cory Cross necessitated
the recall of the 21-year-old Vancouver native. 

 

Lynch played his first NHL game on the
road in Minnesota on January 2nd. 
While Lynch did not register a point in his two-game audition, he did
impress with his physical play.  In
fact, of all the prospects in the Oiler system, the 6’3” blueliner probably has
the best chance to graduate to the big club next season. 

 

 

Jani Rita (2GP – 0PTS)

 

The enigma that is Jani Rita continued to
frustrate Oiler fans this year.  Every
summer the team trumpets Rita as an exceptional prospect to watch for in the
coming season and then every fall he fails to make the team out of camp.  It could be as simple a reason as that the
left wing position is too crowded to accommodate Rita but many are beginning to
feel that the Finn simply cannot play the style of game demanded by the Oiler
coach.

 

“Jani we felt would really be in the mix
here so we wanted to give him a good opportunity to play, and we did,”
MacTavish explained after cutting Rita from camp.  “At the end of the day, he didn’t outplay the guys that he had to
in order to stay here.  There are a few
things that he does better than a lot of the guys in this room but there are a
few areas where he’s got to improve and then he’ll be here.  There’s nothing too great, he’s very close
to playing here and a lot of that is attributable to the depth that we have in
the organization especially at the forward position.”

 

But when injuries arose and Rita was
recalled from the AHL, he sat and watched games from the press box.  The explanations from the coach and from the
GM seemed, at times, to conflict with one another.

 

“Well time’s running out for him and the
organization as well in terms of us having to give him a shot,” MacTavish said
in late January.  “You have to make sure
that they’re deserving of it in the way they play and apparently his presence
here is proof that the organization feels that he’s deserving of a shot.  We’ve got to make a decision on him and he’s
seemingly been at the same stage at this point the last couple or three years
and we keep expecting him to progress to the point that he’s established
himself as an NHL player and this is the first step to that.” 

 

However, when Kevin Lowe comments on
Rita, it sounds more like he wants to see him given a bigger opportunity in
Edmonton.

 

“He’s a guy that the organization
believes has a lot of ability and hasn’t been given the opportunity,” Lowe said
later that same day.  “Like Jason
Chimera, it took him a few years before he got full time opportunity and Rita’s
going to get that opportunity.”

 

In the end, Rita only played two games
this season for the Oilers and averaged a miniscule 4:33 in average ice
time.  However, MacTavish’s comments on
February 20th seemed to hint that Rita could have a more certain NHL
future ahead of him next year. 

 

“I
really believe he’s reached a level that for him to improve he’s going to have
to come up here and play,” said the coach.

 

Now is
that an indication of a one-way contract this summer for Rita or is it simply
more of the same propaganda that the Oilers have issued annually on this
topic?  

 

 

Tony Salmelainen (13GP – 0G – 1A – 1PT)

 

The human bullet, Tony Salmelainen made his first
appearance in the NHL on October 30th, at home against the Columbus
Blue Jackets.  The non-stop hustle of
Salmelainen was an instant hit with the fans of the team and the coaching staff
as well.

 

“I think he’s a guy that has game
breaking speed, he’s not afraid to take the puck to the net, he can shoot well
and we saw a little bit of that in the first game against Columbus,” said
MacTavish.

 

Salmelainen went back and forth to the AHL a couple
of times during the season but the recall in February would be the last time he
would skate for the Oilers this year. 
However, if the Finn has another training camp like he did at the start
of the past season, it will be hard for the Oilers to send him down again.

 

“Tony had a great camp, not that we didn’t really
expect it,” GM Lowe said.  “He’s a guy
who we regard very highly and we know he’s going to play in the NHL.”

 

 

Jarret Stoll (68GP – 10G – 11A – 21PTS)

 

Few players climbed the depth chart as much as Jarret
Stoll did in 2003-04.  At training camp
he was in a struggle with Peter Sarno for the last forward spot and an
opportunity to stick with the big club even though he would likely be regulated
to watching more games than he played. 
Stoll sat for most of October but finally got his chance on the 25th
against the Calgary Flames, ironically, the team that had originally drafted
him in 2000.

 

However, Stoll suddenly came down with tonsillitis
and was scratched from the line up, thus the reason Sarno was recalled from
Toronto.  Stoll would miss five games
before returning to action against the Rangers and scoring his first ever NHL
goal.

 

“The puck sat there and I just spun and shot it and
it went in and we came back and won the game, which was even better,” Stoll
excitedly recounted at the time.  “It
was exciting and everything I had dreamed about, it was good to get it out of
the way!”

 

Once that first goal went in, Stoll began scoring at
a regular clip, first in Boston and then soon after in the Heritage Classic.

 

Injuries to Marty Reasoner and Mike York kept Stoll
in Edmonton and the rookie began to play on a regular basis.   The versatility of Stoll enabled him to
play with a vast array of wingers and in many different situations.  At one point he was centering Ethan Moreau
and Fern Pisani as Reasoner’s replacement. 
Later it was the Stoll-Georges Laraque-Jason Chimera trio that was
really anchoring the team on many nights. 
It seemed Stoll could do no wrong.

 

When the Oilers acquired Petr Nedved from New York,
Stoll saw his ice time and his offensive opportunities lessened.  By the end of the season though, the
Saskatchewan-born Stoll had become a fixture on the penalty killing units and
was someone who the coaches trusted in any situation during any game.

 

“I can see Stoll being a very good NHL player with
great leadership and great upside who could play anywhere in your line up,”
Kevin Lowe told Hockey’s Future in March.

 

The immergence of Stoll largely filled the defensive
hole created by the departure of Todd Marchant last summer.  When it came to the trading deadline, there
were a few players in Edmonton who were definitely untouchables and Stoll was
near the top of that short list of names.

 

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