Several players raised their stock on Edmonton’s depth chart this year while a few went the other way and disappointed the club by turning in poor performances. Oiler VP of Hockey Operations, Kevin Prendergast, as well as long time Oiler scouts Chris McCarthy, Bob Mancini and Brad Davis offered their knowledgeable insights on all the major players in Edmonton’s system. Other contributors by way of comments include GM Kevin Lowe, Assistant GM Scott Howson and Head Coach Craig MacTavish. While this ranking is definitely not theirs, it certainly could not have been done as effectively without their continuous help.
The top 20 is based on long-term impact on the hockey club and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL.
Quick Glance at the New Top 20
1.(G) Jeff Deslauriers – 20 – Chicoutimi
2.(C) Marc-Antoine Pouliot – 19 – Rimouski
3.(C) Jesse Niinimaki – 21 – Ilves Tampere
4.(D) Doug Lynch – 21 – Toronto
5.(D) Jeff Woywitka – 20 – Toronto
6.(D) Matt Greene – 21 – North Dakota
7.(LW) Jani Rita – 22 – Toronto
8.(LW) Alexei Mikhnov – 21 – Novosibirsk
9.(RW) Tony Salmelainen – 22 – Toronto
10.(RW) Colin McDonald – 19 – Providence
11.(C) Kyle Brodziak – 20 – Moose Jaw
12.(C) Joe Cullen – 23 – Toronto
13.(D) Tommy Gilbert – 21 – Wisconsin
14.(RW) Brad Winchester – 23 – Toronto
15.(LW) Jean-Francois Jacques – 19 – Baie-Comeau
16.(D) Mikael Svensk – 21 – Halmstad
17.(LW) Brock Radunske – 21 – Michigan State
18.(RW) Zack Stortini – 18 – Sudbury
19.(C) Fredrik Johansson – 20 – Frolunda
20.(RW) David Rohlfs – 19 – Michigan
KEY: Current Rank – (previous rank) – Name – Position – Age – 2003/04 Team
1.(1) Jeff Deslauriers (G) – 20 (on May 15) -Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL): The sensational goaltender from St. Jean-Richelieu, Quebec continues to top the list as the premier Oiler prospect. The importance of having an elite puck stopper has never been higher in the NHL and the Oilers believe the have one of the best around in Deslauriers.
“You can’t win in this game anymore unless your goaltending is elite and we certainly feel that Jeff is going to be an elite goaltender,” Prendergast proclaimed recently. “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get the chance to play at the World Junior Championships, but I think he learned from that and it was a motivating factor from there and he did a great job for Chicoutimi.”
Deslauriers carried Chicoutimi to the QMJHL semi-finals on a path that took them through Cape Breton, a team many thought was destined for top spot in the league. Noteworthy to point out is that the starting netminder for Cape Breton is none other then highly regarded Marc-Andre Fleury, the QMJHL goalie selected ahead of Deslauriers in the draft and also twice for Team Canada.
“Jeff just walked in and beat Fleury,” Davis pointed out. “He’s on an average team and they beat a team that was put together for no other reason then for the Memorial Cup.”
“He sometimes sees 50 shots a night and the defense on that Chicoutimi team is just terrible so he gets lit up sometimes but that’s not an accurate reflection on him,” explained McCarthy. “Every time I’ve seen him play his positioning has been really good and he’s controlling his rebounds to the corners.”
There is no doubt about it, Deslauriers is the designated goaltender of the future for the Oilers but is being chosen as the top prospect in the organization accurate?
“I think it could turn out to be one of the best picks we’ve made since I’ve come on staff,” Davis stated simply. “Hemsky was a great pick, but to get this kid at 31 is unbelievable!”
Deslauriers is pencilled in to be a Toronto Roadrunner next season but first the Oilers will have to sign the Quebec native. The deadline of June 1st is fast approaching and if a deal is not reached by then, Deslauriers will go back into the draft.
2. (4) Marc-Antoine Pouliot (C) – 19 (on May 22) – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL): Despite an injury-plagued season, Pouliot continued to develop and mature towards being the player the Oilers are hoping the native of Quebec City will eventually become. Scoring 58 points in just 42 regular season games, Pouliot was never 100 percent healthy until the post season where he notched 12 points in nine matches.
Pouliot had to over come a hip flexor in the summer, a pulled abdominal muscle early in the year that nagged him for several months, and finally a broken wrist. Even so, the Oilers do not feel that he is injury prone.
“No it’s just been a real fluke,” insists Prendergast. “He plays hard and gets slashed and hacked but he did play three weeks with a broken wrist which goes to show you that he’s a pretty tough kid to be able to go through that pain. He’s the captain of his team for a reason.”
“He’s creative, gritty, he’s got really good hockey sense,” added Prendergast. “We fully anticipate that this kid is going to be a number one center in the NHL.”
Next year Rimouski should be an even better team, largely because Sidney Crosby will be entering his draft year, but also because Pouliot will be another year older and hopefully stronger and free of the injury bug. After making a positive debut at Oiler training camp last fall, Pouliot will earn an even longer look the next time the team holds a session for its players.
3. (3) Jesse Niinimaki (C) – 21 – Ilves Tampere (Finland): what began as a tremendous season ended very quickly and far too early for Jesse Niinimaki. The highly creative center from Tampere was off to a terrific beginning for his Finnish Elite League team but suffered a season ending injury in game 10 of the schedule. Niinimaki stormed out of the gate and had amassed six points while playing on the second or third line before his luck turned very bad.
“Unfortunately Niinimaki broke his shoulder but he’s back training now,” said Prendergast in a recent update. “We’ve been told by his agent that he might be switching teams and going to HPS Turku next year which is one of the high-end teams so for them to be coming after him they must feel there’s some quality there.”
The shoulder was badly broken and required screws to piece the joint back together. Clearly the length of time off the ice and away from training is going to have an effect on his development. The question isn’t if, but how much, of a setback the injury might be.
“I would assume it would set him back a lot,” commented Davis.
Niinimaki has been able to train with the shoulder since early March and there is still the thought that the Finn could come to Edmonton to train for a while if the team’s top prospect camp does indeed get green lighted by the ownership group. That would enable the Oilers to stay on top of Niinimaki’s workout regime to help ensure that he is training the way they want him to.
“He knows he has the skill to play here but he has to put meat on him,” said Prendergast.
Despite his 6’3” height, the slender 21-year-old still only weighs in at 185 lbs, not enough for the NHL. If Niinimaki is able to stay healthy and has a productive season, look to the Finn to make the move to North America in 2005-06.
4.(8) Doug Lynch (D) – 21 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Considered to be one of the future cornerstones of the Oiler blueline, Doug Lynch had a fantastic debut professional season with the Toronto Roadrunners in 2003-04. Named to the AHL All-Star roster of Team Canada in mid-season, Lynch was also selected for the AHL Rookie Team in April.
Lynch was the highest scorer amongst Roadrunner rookies this year finishing with an impressive 36 points. The 6’3” 215 lbs defender played with confidence and maturity not normally found in someone in their first stint in the AHL. Lynch was a factor all season long and played in any situation during the course of a game.
“(Lynch) moves the puck and carries it very well,” complimented Prendergast. “He’s good on the power play and he’s tough.”
Based on his reliably stellar play on the farm team, Lynch was rewarded with a brief mid-season recall by the Oilers and saw action in his first two NHL games. Lynch is considered to be the leading candidate for graduation to the big club next year.
5.(5) Jeff Woywitka (D) – 20 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): There are plenty of similarities between Woywitka and Lynch and many of them stem from the fact that they have a history dating back to the WHL. As members of the Red Deer Rebels, Woywitka was partnered with Lynch and the duo was rated as one of the best pairings in junior hockey.
The Oilers acquired Woywitka from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Mike Comrie just before this past Christmas. The deal not only reunited Woywitka and Lynch together in Toronto but it also shored up Edmonton’s future defensive corps a great deal.
“He’s a solid two-way defenseman with good size and skills,” McCarthy described. “He uses his attributes to his advantage, can play the power play, and does the little things well. He skates well for a big man and so he can lug the puck out of his own end. He also has a very good shot from the point.”
Woywitka finished his rookie AHL season with 28 points but impressed the Oilers in aspects not pertaining to offense.
“He’s not as physical as (Lynch), Jeff is more of a calm player back there,” said Prendergast. “He makes that first pass out of his end very well, he goes into his own end and gets the puck and he can also carry it too. They fit each other so well that there’s a good possibility that they could be a tandem for us up here next year or the following year.”
6.(9) Matt Greene (D) – 21 (on May 13) – North Dakota Fighting Sioux (NCAA): The future for Matt Greene is completely in his hands. The rugged rearguard played for the team ranked No. 1 for most of the season before an unexpected playoff loss but even that cannot take away from the year Greene had in North Dakota.
“The times I saw North Dakota this year, Matt Greene was just a massive force, he was just throwing guys around,” beamed McCarthy. “I was there with Stu McGregor and Lorne Davis (Oiler scouts) and the three of us were looking at each other saying ‘this guy could play in our line up right now’.”
That opinion has become the consensus amongst Edmonton management and scouting staff.
“I think when he was here last summer he physically could have played,” complimented Prendergast. “Matt is an old school player, there’s a lot of Jason Smith in him. He’s very physical, uses his stick well and he’s a very tough kid.”
“You cannot believe the confidence he is handling the puck with,” said scout Brad Davis when asked if he’d like to see Greene move up to the AHL next season. “I want to see Matt move up from college to our blueline because his progress has been absolutely unbelievable!”
The only thing preventing such a move is Matt himself. Greene is supposed to decide by mid-May whether he will turn pro or return to North Dakota for another season.
“His number one goal in life is to be a hockey player,” began Prendergast. “Irregardless of the school whether it be Harvard, Notre Dame or North Dakota, if you want to be a hockey player there comes a time when you have to make the decision that ‘now is the time to go’. That’s where he is right now, he’s not sure if he’s ready to go or if he needs one more year of schooling before he makes that decision.”
It’s pretty clear what the Oilers would like to see the 6’3”, 225 lb defender choose to do.
“Matt Greene is going to be one hell of a pro defenseman, he really is,” McCarthy concluded.
“He has come so far and I loved him when we took him, I was one of the guys that wanted him,” Davis summed up. “As scouts, I’m sure we’ll all want to attach our name to Matt Greene one day.”
7.(2) Jani Rita – (LW) – 22 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): After three years of failing to meet high expectations, the bloom on Jani Rita has definitely begun to fade. Depending on whom you ask within the organization, the Oilers are either still very high on their first choice from 1999 or the prospect has turned into a suspect.
“He’s a guy that the organization believes has a lot of ability and hasn’t been given the opportunity,” Kevin Lowe told Hockey’s Future in late January. “Like Jason Chimera, it took him a few years before he got full time opportunity and Rita’s going to get that opportunity.”
“He’s one of those players we certainly haven’t given up on yet,” Prendergast said in March. “The opportunity will come and we think he has a good chance to become a player in the NHL.”
On the other hand, if you listen to what the coach says, it doesn’t sound nearly as cut and dried as that.
“Time is running out for him, and the organization as well, in terms of us having to give him a shot, having to give him a look,” MacTavish was quoted during the season. “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.”
“You have to make sure that they’re deserving of (a recall) in the way they play and apparently his presence here is proof that the organization feels that he’s deserving of a shot,” MacTavish explained.
It sounds like there is opposing points of view between the coach and others in the organization when it comes to Rita but unfortunately for the Finn, it is MacTavish who decides how much ice time a player receives. Over the course of two stints with the Oilers this season, Rita managed to make two game appearances and averaged just 4:33 in ice time.
Time is definitely running out for Rita who would have to clear waivers next year to return to the AHL, something the Oilers will probably not chance. Therefore there are only two scenarios in Rita’s future, somewhere in the NHL or back to Europe.
“He’s exempt from the waiver draft but he would need to clear waivers to be sent down,” Lowe confirmed. “I don’t think that’s anyone we want to expose to waivers so we’ll have to figure out something.”
The problem facing Rita, other then the potential snubbing from the coach, is that his position is over crowded already. With Brad Isbister, Ethan Moreau, Ryan Smyth, Mike York, Jason Chimera and Raffi Torres all with the big club and listed as left wingers, clearly at least one of those players would have to be moved to make room for Rita.
“In fairness to him, we’ve had him up and down a few times and hardly played him and that’s hurt his confidence a bit,” continued Lowe. “He’s an NHL calibre player and we’ve talked to him and asked him to just be patient and to keep working hard. I know he’s going to play in the NHL and I’d just assume and hope it’s for us.”
Rita finished the AHL season as Toronto’s third highest scorer with 41 points even though he played in just 64 games. Even MacTavish eventually seemed to acknowledge the fact that Rita probably can play in the NHL and deserves his shot.
“I really believe he’s reached a level that for him to improve he’s going to have to come up here and play,” he said.
Two seasons ago Jason Chimera edged Rita out for a roster spot and at that time many felt it was in part because he had a one-way contract. Last summer Raffi Torres was pencilled in even before camp started because of a similar contract. In order to convince Rita to resign with the club, it may take a one-way deal and if so, some sort of player movement will have to occur.
8.(6) Alexei Mikhnov (LW) – 21 – Sibir Novosibirsk (RSL): At the end of the March, fans were teased with their first glimpses of the big mysterious Russian who the Oilers drafted in the first round back in 2000. Kevin Lowe and Kevin Prendergast coaxed Alexei Mikhnov to North America in order for the young man to see first hand what he could experience daily if he opted to play in North America next season. Clearly this was an attempt at wooing the gigantic left winger but in the end, they also discovered some extremely valuable information.
Mikhnov skated privately with Prendergast and some others one day in nearby Sherwood Park while the team was on the road and the chief scout made a stunning discovery that day.
“I noticed when I passed him the puck that his head would always sort of follow the puck right into his stick,” recounted Prendergast. “Kenny Lowe had sent him to get his eyes tested the day before as part of his physical and he called me after the practice and said ‘you know, our boy is blind!’ That’s not a good thing to tell us on a first rounder!”
“(Mikhnov) said he’d had trouble seeing but that he thought it was the poor lighting in some of the rinks (in Russia).”
So the Oilers arranged for new spectacles for the power forward who had still somehow managed to score 14 goals in 58 games this past season despite his brutal vision.
“He picked up some new glasses before he watched us play Dallas and the first thing he said to Alexei Semenov after he put them on was ‘Wow, it’s a new world!’”
Mikhnov, with a new set of contacts, then went to Finland to train with Team Russia prior to the World Championships. While Mikhnov did not make that team, the Oilers see the invitation alone as a win-win scenario.
“From an organization stand point you would like to see him play but on the other hand if he does, it makes it harder to sign him,” grinned Prendergast. “It all comes back to him being picked first, how badly he wants to come over here to play and that’s all between Don Meehan and Kevin Lowe. They’ll come to some sort of agreement, one way or the other, very quickly because we don’t want to wait on this one too long. They will have preliminary talks there and when they get back from the Worlds they’ll continue.”
If all goes according to plan for the Oilers, Mikhnov will be playing in North America next year.
“We certainly think there’s lots of potential with him,” concluded Prendergast. “He’s what every team is looking for; a big guy with hands who can skate.”
Hopefully with his new vision, Mikhnov might see fit to repaying the people that picked up on his problem and did something about it; after all, his Russian club was blind to the fact that he couldn’t see.
9.(7) Tony Salmelainen (RW) – 22 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Toronto’s second leading scorer and quite possibly the fastest skater in the Edmonton organization, Tony Salmelainen continued to develop and is on his way to becoming a realistic NHL candidate.
Back in September he caught the attention of the Oiler brass when he turned in a terrific training camp.
“Tony had a great camp, not that we didn’t really expect it,” GM Kevin Lowe told Hockey’s Future in March. “He’s a guy who we regard very highly and we know he’s going to play in the NHL.”
In fact, Tony had two stints in Edmonton this year beginning in late October and then again in February. In all, Salmelainen played in 13 games and registered just a single assist but was impressive with his hustle and obvious internal drive.
“When I get my chance I try to do something so they notice me but there’s no magic tricks, just do your own work and hope they want me here,” explained Salmelainen.
The diminutive Finn is expected to challenge even more for a NHL roster spot next year and has the tools that simply cannot be ignored.
“Tony is an NHL player in my mind,” scout Brad Davis declared.
“I think Salmelainen is a perfect example of a guy has game breaking speed and he can put the puck in the net,” said MacTavish. “That’s something that we need.”
10.(10) Colin McDonald (RW) – 19 – Providence Friars (NCAA): It was the year the Oilers expected freshman Colin McDonald to have in Providence. The adjustment to the higher caliber of play took roughly half the season but once it was made, McDonald began showing what he could do.
“I saw Colin McDonald late last year and I really like this kid,” Davis said referring to the 2002-03 season.
The Oilers drafted McDonald in the second round in 2003 because of his blend of size, physical play, intelligence and scoring ability. In the second half of the year, McDonald was named Rookie of the Week once and then was selected to Hockey East’s All Rookie Team once the schedule was played out. Of his ten goals, five came on the power play and another was a short-handed marker. Clearly the coaching staff felt a lot of confidence in the youngster to have been playing him in those special team situations.
“Everyone next year is going to say ‘What a great jump Colin McDonald has made’ but really it’s going to be this process of development from his freshman year which will allow him to become that player next year,” scout Bob Mancini told Hockey’s Future in November. “If you were to put Colin against other players all his same age… he’d dominate.”
11.(13) Kyle Brodziak (C) – 20 (on May 25) – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): No one was really sure what to expect from the seventh round pick this year and certainly no one, including the player himself, was looking ahead to the offensive numbers that came. Kyle Brodziak finished the WHL season with 93 points, third in the league’s scoring race, and was one of the more dominating players in Western Canada.
“He’s had an outstanding season, finished third in scoring in the league, captain of his hockey club; he did everything that was asked of him,” Prendergast stated proudly. “He’s got great offensive tools, he’s very good in his own end, and he’s just a solid hockey player. Anybody in Moose Jaw will tell you that he’s been their MVP this year.”
“It was something I didn’t really expect coming into the season but a lot of things happened that I didn’t really expect,” said Brodziak with a smile.
In November, Brodziak represented the WHL in a two-game series against an outmatched squad from Russia. The season was highlighted by an invitation to Canada’s World Junior Team sessions in December where many onlookers believed he earned a spot. Next up for Brodziak is the move up to the professional ranks and a rookie season with the Toronto Roadrunners.
“I think he’s ready for that jump,” agreed Prendergast. “When he’s had the type of year he has had in junior this year you want to take that skill to the next level.”
“What we really like about Kyle is that he does a lot of the little things and he does them really well,” he continued. “He’s good on faceoffs, picking up men going back to his own end, great vision, he kills penalties and plays on the power play.”
“We feel like he can be a pretty good contributor to our club down the road,” Prendergast concluded. “As a seventh round pick it’s a bonus when you can feel that one of those players can play on your hockey club and we feel that Kyle has a really good chance of playing here.”
12.(NR) Joe Cullen (C) – 23 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): When it comes to rookies in Toronto who made a lasting impression, there were few more noteworthy then Joe Cullen. Cullen began the year quietly as he adjusted to his new surroundings but caught fire in the second half of the schedule.
“He’s one of those role players who just keep doing the same thing game in and game out,” described Bob Mancini. “They always make the right play, they’re tough but if the puck comes on their stick in the big games they end up getting the big goal or the big assist. He’s never going to be more than that third or fourth line player but he’s going to give you the exact same thing every single game.”
Cullen is physically the biggest center in the Oiler system right now coming in at 6’1” and 210 pounds and that alone might be enough to earn him a longer look at the next training camp but the native of Moorhead Minnesota has more to offer. As a rookie, Cullen scored 30 points in 69 games and he plays an exceptional two-way style.
“If you’re as good on faceoffs as Craig MacTavish was, you’re bound to go up in Craig’s eyes aren’t you?” asked scout Davis. “He’s the best faceoff man I’ve seen since I started doing this job.”
A big center that can win more then his fair share of draws is definitely something Edmonton would be interested in.
“Cullen really came a long way this year. If you go back on his progress through university he just got better all the time and I think that he’s got a pro environment at home with the family atmosphere and I think he just understands what it takes to get to that next level,” explained Prendergast. “He puts his nose to the grindstone, he’s got good hands, a great faceoff guy and he’s good at both ends of the ice. Every time we went into Toronto we saw an improvement in his play.”
“Cullen played very well this year and we have an inkling that he might not be too far away from being a fourth line guy and he’d be able to contribute,” McCarthy summed up.
13.(NR) Tom Gilbert (D) – 21 – Wisconsin Badgers (NCAA): Acquired at the trade deadline for Tommy Salo, the Oilers hope that their new Tommy will be able to fill one major hole that exists in their prospective depth. Tom Gilbert is an offensive minded blueliner playing for Wisconsin and is someone the Oilers have had an interest in for some time.
“He’s a guy we’ve always had an interest in and he fits in perfectly to what we have,” stated Prendergast. “He’s an excellent skater, he moves the puck really well, and his first pass coming out of his zone is always a good read. He’s not overly physical but he’s one of those players that offensively he gives you something. He goes to the net, he shoots the puck well, he quarterbacks the power play, he’s more than adequate in his own end, and he reads the play very well.”
In 37 games with the Badgers, Gilbert amassed 20 points. The sophomore has been one of the leading defensive scorers in NCAA hockey over the last two seasons.
“I really liked Tommy at the Viking Cup in 2002,” Davis recalled. “I saw him play this year at Wisconsin and he impressed me a lot.”
“When you throw him and Greene, Lynch, Woywitka and Svensk together we feel we have five really, really outstanding young defensemen,” concluded Prendergast.
14.(13) Brad Winchester (RW) – 23 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Like Cullen, Brad Winchester struggled early in his rookie season with the Roadrunners but overcame the poor start to play very well in the last third of the year. The towering 6’5” forward played the majority of the season on the right wing and was definitely able to find his scoring touch as the games added up.
Winchester finished the year with 19 points, 13 of which were goals, and also had the best shooting percentage on the team at .144.
“Winchester has been outstanding but it’s taken him a little while,” McCarthy told Hockey’s Future in March. “He’s starting to score, to use his size to physically dominate and fight for position, he’s making plays and he’s scoring goals. If he keeps progressing at the rate he is right now he might not be too far away either.”
“I liked the potential in Brad Winchester when we drafted him but if you had asked me last year, I’d have said I liked him when we drafted him as opposed to where he is now,” admitted Davis. “Maybe he shouldn’t have finished school as the situation hurt him and he ended up on a bad team and in a tough predicament and his skill level never got a lot better. He kept trying to play center when in my opinion he should have been playing on the wing and learning to play there as a great big guy. I think he’ll end up being a good NHL power guy and yet I think he’s behind where we foresaw him for sure.”
15.(17) Jean-Francois Jacques (LW) – 19 – Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL): The 6’4” 220-pound power forward from Terrebonne Quebec continued his development this year on a very mediocre team. As team captain, Jacques notched 44 points in 59 games and also added 70 penalty minutes all while playing with a bad shoulder.
“He had a really good year on not a very good hockey club,” Prendergast said. “He scored 20 goals, got to play in all sorts of situations and really improved his skill game this year. He had to stay on the ice more this year so from that stand point we’re really happy with his development.”
“J.F. Jacques really improved over the course of the year as far as using his size effectively and he became a really dominant force on a really (bad) team,” agreed McCarthy.
There is some concern about the shoulder but Jacques actually said it felt better at the end of the season then it did at the midway point. The Oilers will not take any chances with it however and are already testing the status of the joint. It seems unanimous though that Jacques has what it takes to make it to the big league.
“I think J.F. is an NHL player,” Davis summed up.
16.(16) Mikael Svensk (D) – 21 – Halmstad (Sweden Tier II): Few have seen him play but by all accounts, Mikael Svensk is well on his way in his development and could be ready for North America very soon.
“He’s a tough Swede and that doesn’t always go over too well at home so he spends a lot of time in the penalty box and he doesn’t get to play much because of it,” explained Prendergast. “Maybe it’s time to start talking to Mikael to see whether he wants to come over and play here next year. They just don’t like penalties in those leagues and the refereeing is very tight so if you run into a guy it’s a penalty but that’s the way he has to play to be successful. He’s not a finesse player although his skating is good, he just has trouble playing their system.”
But a physical defender is always in demand in North America so perhaps the timing is right for the rough and ready Swede.
“He’s a little disappointed in the season he had over there this year,” confessed Edmonton’s chief scout. “It will be put to him that if he’s interested in coming then we’ll start talking and hopefully something will get done.”
17.(19) Brock Radunske (LW) – 21 – Michigan State Spartans (NCAA): The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Brock Radunske is Brock Radunske. No one in the system is harder for Oiler scouts to get an accurate feel for then the 6’4” left-winger from Michigan State.
“Mancini will go in and say ‘man, someone has to talk to this kid’ and then I’ll go in and see the second game on the weekend and say ‘he was the best player on the ice’,” laughed Davis. “Three weeks later Mancini will go in again and say ‘Holy cow was Radunske ever awesome!’ and then Kevin & Kevin will go in and he (doesn’t impress). He can never seem to put it together.”
Radunske had a career high 12-goal outing in his third season with the Spartans but his overall point total dropped.
“The biggest problem that he has is that he plays at Michigan State and he’s going to end up having to play there too long,” Davis continued. “He’s got nowhere to go now; even if he wants to come out, where are we going to put him?”
“(Michigan State’s) system has killed his game,” the eight-year Oiler scout surmised. “When I saw him play in New Market in tier II, he lit it up. He was a big tall skinny kid that fought but was also in the top two or three in scoring as a 17-year-old but now he plays for the most boring college team of all time because they play nothing but the trap and defense. It’s really, really hurt his development.”
Still, overall the Oilers are encouraged by what Radunske has shown on many nights.
“Brock definitely had an improvement year,” supported Prendergast. “When you’ve got a 6’4” winger you’ve got your fingers crossed and there were nights when he showed us that he has a lot of potential and then there were nights when he showed us nothing. His consistency isn’t there and I don’t feel he’s strong enough yet to be a pro because he hasn’t filled into that body.”
Radunske will definitely be one player the Oilers will be watching closely as he enters his senior year in 2004-05.
18.(NR) Zack Stortini (RW) – 18 – Sudbury Wolves (OHL): The youngest prospect currently in the system, arguably none have taken bigger strides this year in their development than Zack Stortini. Singled out in a late season OHL coaches’ poll for hard work ethic and also for improved play, Stortini has impressed the Oilers since last summer.
The knock on Stortini has been his skating so last summer the captain of the Sudbury Wolves spent weeks in Regina attending Liane Davis’ power skating program with a variety of other players.
“My sister ends up with a house load of these kids every summer and he’s the captain there too basically,” joked Davis. “He controls every kid that’s in that house and that’s just the way he is.”
Stortini led the Wolves to the postseason, one of the goals he set for himself at the start of the year, and then finished off March and April by playing in the AHL.
“The character, the work ethic… this kid came to Toronto and was just supposed to practice with the Roadrunners but played down the stretch because he is going to make a difference,” complimented Davis. “He guaranteed Sudbury a win in game six as an 18-year-old captain of a team he also captained as a 17-year-old. He got the tying assist and then scored the winner in double overtime. He’s the scholastic player on his team every year. I think this kid will find a way to play and can he ever fight!”
It’s no secret that the Oilers like the fact that Stortini can definitely hold his own in the toughness category too. The 6’4” 225 lbs, Ontario born winger will take on any comers and could be pegged as the future replacement for Georges Laraque.
“I saw Stortini last week,” GM Lowe told Hockey’s Future with a smile in November. “I saw him score a goal and he had blood on his sweater so (laughs) I was happy to see that.”
19.(15) Fredrik Johansson (C) – 20 – Frölunda (SEL): There’s something about Fredrik Johansson that makes you take notice but it isn’t always his performance on the ice.
“He’s one of those kids that you look at and think that he doesn’t skate very well and there’s not much to him but at the end of the day he’s a plus player and he’s got some points,” Prendergast described.
Johansson was Sweden’s third leading scorer at the World Junior Championships in Finland and also turned in an impressive performance at other times in the last twelve months.
“I saw him in November in Finland with the ‘84’s and he was by far Sweden’s best player,” Davis said. “I think Fredrik Johansson is one of our great late picks. When I first saw him I said ‘who’s this big fat kid in a Swedish uniform with a ton of skill?’ and then the next time I saw him he was down about 20 pounds and you wouldn’t have known it was the same kid.”
Johansson’s progress is undeniable but there is still a ways to go before the Oilers feel he is ready for North America.
“In order for him to come over here his skating is going to have to improve and he’s going to have to get stronger but he’s got offensive talent and there’s guys playing in the NHL who aren’t great skaters who get the job done,” Prendergast said. “We’ll be watching him over the next couple of years and see if it warrants bringing him to the AHL.”
“He’s not the most heralded guy and he won’t be the most prolific scorer but he’s always going to show up and contribute,” concluded McCarthy.
20. (NR) David Rohlfs (RW) – 19 – Michigan Wolverines (NCAA): Raised his stock with the Oilers this season by turning in an impressive rookie year with the Wolverines.
“I saw Michigan in the regionals against UNH and he played a strong game, he was better than I thought he was,” said McCarthy. “He was faster then I thought he was, he was used on the penalty kill and he used his reach really well. I think his scoring tailed off a bit but that’s because he was getting moved around and not playing with the same guys. As an organization we were really pleasantly surprised with the year he had.”
The Oilers will be watching closely next year to see how the 6’3”, 220 lbs Rohlfs handles the sophomore jinx.
Just Missing The Cut
(NR) Nate DiCasmirro (LW) – 25 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): As he himself predicted, Nate DiCasmirro took big steps in his development during his second full professional year. At the conclusion of the schedule, DiCasmirro had totalled 35 points despite a nagging shoulder injury in the second half.
“The injury sort of brought him down a bit but he shows up to play every night,” said Prendergast. “He’s a grinder with fair hands but he gives you 100 percent on every shift and you win with guys like that around.”
(NR) Mike Bishai (C) – 25 (on May 30) – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): The shifty, hard-working center impressed during his mid-season call up to Edmonton and raised his stock from AHL depth guy to potential NHL role player.
“I don’t want to say he came out of nowhere, but our projections on him were for a couple of years but man he hasn’t shown us one thing that says he can’t play here,” smiled Lowe.
“You never know as a player how you’re going to fit in at this level and when you come out and have the type of success that he’s had in a limited role it can’t help but enhance your confidence in your ability to compete at this level,” MacTavish said in February.
With Adam Oates retired and Petr Nedved not a certainty, Mike Bishai could have an outside shot at a roster spot next season but at worst, he will be high on the list of potential call ups once again.
(18) Eddie Caron (LW) – 22 – New Hampshire Wildcats (NCAA): Caron’s role has changed in the last couple of years from offensive scorer to checker and the year layoff has clearly set the New Hampshire native back a bit. However, Caron is a second round draft pick and has just one more year of academic studies until he graduates from UNH and is ready to turn pro. It will be very important for Caron to have a big rebounding year next season after scoring just six points in 2003-04.
(NR) Dan Baum (C) – 20 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): “For years I’ve heard Kevin Lowe say that we need a guy like Darcy Tucker or Tyson Nash and that’s what this guy is but with skill,” said Davis. “He’s an agitator but he scored in Prince George.”
Both characteristics are of interest to the Oilers but Baum has to start showing something in September if he hopes to garner attention from the coaches in Edmonton.
“He has been absolutely brutal in every training camp we’ve had him at and we keep telling the guys ‘this isn’t Dan Baum, this isn’t Dan Baum!’” continued Davis. “He’s a guy to keep your eye on; I think he’s going to find a way to play.”
No Longer Qualify
A small number of players are also being dropped from the listing entirely because they no longer fall under the Hockey’s Future guidelines of a prospect.
This short list of names includes center Chad Hinz (because of age and games played in the minors), former first round draft choice Michael Henrich (minor league games played) and defenders Jan Horacek (age) and Bobby Allen (age).
Comment on this story at the Oilers section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.