The Stanley Cup and the individual
hardware has been awarded for 2004, so all teams in the league are once again
back on equal ground. Only one NHL
event still lies ahead on the calendar before the work stoppage expected to
interrupt 2004-05 begins in September, and the Edmonton Oilers, like all teams,
are geared up for the annual Entry Draft.
A handful of Oiler brass, scouts and
medical staff were on hand to watch the fitness combines in Toronto at the end
of May. It’s at these important
sessions where many teams will sit down and meet a large number of draft
eligible players and the Oilers were not an exception.
“We met and interviewed 51 players that
week,” said Oiler VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast, who added that
there were very few meetings that he would classify as poor. “There were some guys who were very eager to
meet but for the most part of the 51, maybe two or three of them weren’t what
we would call good and I think it had more to do with them being European and
having trouble with the language.”
“The players are well schooled and so
they’re not intimidated anymore,” continued Prendergast. “We don’t go really in depth, we’re just
trying to put a face to what we see on the ice and get an idea of what type of
body they have and if they are capable of getting bigger. We had Daryl Duke with us and he went and
watched the physical testing and we’ll combine those with what the scouts see
on the ice.”
After months of travelling to all the
corners of the hockey world, Edmonton’s scouting staff gathered in Salmon Arm,
British Columbia for seven days to debate, scrutinize and finally formulate
their draft player list. The week of
June 3-10th at the B.C. interior retreat of GM Kevin Lowe was spent
golfing and socializing but was obviously focused on the task at hand. Now that the strategy has been hammered out,
the waiting game begins as teams around the league begin shuffling deck chairs
and kicking tires in making last minute attempts to solidify their teams.
Most draft pundits believe that the
Oilers are seeking a scoring forward or two in the first round but fans should
not be surprised if things do not turn out that way.
“It’s not set in stone that we’re going
to take a skater with our first and a goalie with our second pick in the first
round at all,” 12-year scout Chris McCarthy explained in reference to the
team’s two first round opportunities.
“We’re going to go BPA and then BPA again, for example, we’re not going
to draft a forward if a better defenseman is there.”
The NHL Entry Draft from Carolina is
being held on June 26 and 27.
Will Impact Scouting
If there is a prolonged delay or even a
cancellation of the NHL season next year, one of the ramifications will be a
greatly altered scouting regiment. An
Oiler scout normally criss-crosses the continent throughout the year and also
travels overseas a couple times but that will not be the case next year if
there is no hockey.
“(The scouts) are going to stay in their
own areas as much as possible, I don’t need them to see games for the sake of
seeing games,” revealed Prendergast.
“We’ll adjust each month as we go along and obviously there are going to
be players that we’ll simply have to see but certainly all costs are
huge factors for the organization going into this lockout.”
The obvious question stemming from this
scenario is whether the Oilers will have proper scouting coverage in all areas
of the continent, especially considering Michigan based Bob Mancini is leaving
the organization after the draft to become the GM of the Saginaw Spirit.
“If there’s an area that will be
under-serviced I think it will be the USHL,” Edmonton’s head scout said. “That’s a league that’s really coming on and
losing Bob Mancini leaves that area wide open.
It leaves it up to Brad Davis to cover that, the CCHA and the OHL, which
is almost impossible for him to do alone.
However, Chris McCarthy has pretty good ins with the USHL too.”
Thankfully the World Junior Championships
are not in Europe this time around but are actually rather centralized by being
held in Grand Forks North Dakota.
“That’s a lot easier for us,” Prendergast
added. “That’s one of those costs but
we have enough tickets and hotel rooms to cover everyone coming in and out but
that’s a decision Kevin will have to make with me as for how many of our guys
we will send there.”
On the other hand, the European
tournaments could see very few Oiler scouts in attendance. Kent Nilsson, Frank Musil and Prendergast
himself could be the only ones to take in the November Five Nations tournament
and the year ending U18 Championships.
“As of right now we don’t know if we’ll
be going to Europe at all until the New Year unless the CBA gets settled,”
confirmed McCarthy. “KP might go by
himself with the Euro scouts to the tournaments over there and we might end up
with a Euro and a N.A. list and KP would put it together from there. We haven’t gotten that far ahead.”
“So far we won’t be coming to training
camp though because there probably won’t be one.”
Could the coaching staff of the Oilers
possibly lend a scouting hand during the expected work stoppage?
“I’m sure they can, but that’s a
decision Kevin Lowe would have to make,” said Prendergast. It would be pretty hard for them to go from
the scouting end back to coaching if all of a sudden the lockout ends… they
might see a guy once over the course of the year and that would make it
fruitless for us. How Kevin is going to
go about using the coaches or what he wants them to do next year, I don’t
know. They might just look at our
players that we’ve drafted already or just go into Toronto from time to
time. It’s going to come down to costs,
I don’t think we’re going to spend money for something unless we think we’re
going to get a lot back out of it.”
One positive note in regards to the
scouting situation is that 73-year-old Lorne Davis will be back again despite
rumors that he was close to retiring.
“Lornie says every year that he’s
retiring!” joked McCarthy.
“Every April and May he gets
‘close to retiring’ but then we have our meetings in June and he gets
rejuvenated and all set to go again!” laughed Prendergast. “Lorne Davis is a lifer; as long as he wants
to work here there’ll be a job for him and if he feels he’s tired we’ll accommodate
him in any way possible.”
There will be opportunity for some fresh
faces next year on the blueline for the AHL Toronto Roadrunners. Jan Horacek is fully recovered from
midseason kidney surgery but will return to Europe for at least the next
season. Another veteran leaving the
team is Mikko Luoma who appears destined to play in the Swedish Elite League
“He’s talked to a Swedish team and
they’ve contacted us about it but we haven’t seen anything official on it yet,”
admitted Prendergast on Wednesday.
“Mikko was a good player for us last year but I think at his age it
didn’t pan out and I don’t think he wants to go back and play next year in
Toronto anyway. We’ll maintain his
rights and if he wants to come back again after next year if there’s hockey in
the NHL we’ll certainly give him another opportunity.”
One of those resultant openings will be
filled by newly signed Brent Henley who split last season between the
AHL and the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays.
“He’s big and he’s tough and he certainly
didn’t embarrass himself at all when he was in Toronto,” commented Prendergast
on Henley’s expected contribution to the organization. “He’s got to work on his foot speed a little
bit but he’s ready, willing and able to do that. We’re going to have another young team down there and we need
somebody to protect the kids. Rocky
Thompson did a great job for us last year as a leader but we can’t expect him
to go out and fight everybody every night.
I think Brent gives us that presence, with him and Rocky back there it
should give our young forwards more room to play out there.”
With feisty Dan Baum also on the
roster, the Roadrunners could be a very intimidating team to play against.
“Baumer’s a beauty I tell ya!” laughed
Prendergast. “Those guys give you 100
percent every night and there’s ability there too. We think Brent Henley has an upside to him that if he can get his
skating to improve there could one day be the opportunity for him to play in
On the coaching front, nothing is signed
yet but it appears to be a mere formality now that Geoff Ward will return as
head coach for the Roadrunners in 2004-05.
“It hasn’t officially been announced but
Geoff will be back, he did an outstanding job for us last year and I know his
negotiations are pretty much all done,” revealed Prendergast. “We just haven’t got the signature back yet
but we expect to get that at the draft.”
Also returning to the team will be Ward’s
assistant coaches who have been playing the roles of player development coaches
“Within the farm team, Jeff Beukeboom
works with our young defensemen and Joe Patterson works with our young
forwards,” the chief scout said. “They
are full time coaches down there but their job is basically to work with the
young kids to improve them.”
“Having three coaches in the AHL we feel
is enough at this point,” explained Prendergast. “Maybe having one other scout going around and helping out might
be a viable thing too because it worked out really well when Mark Lamb was
In recent years the name of Kelly
Buchberger has come up frequently in the news linking the former Oiler captain
to such a position but for now that too is still speculation.
“With Kelly being a former player and
living in Edmonton, I’m sure that would be something Kevin (Lowe) would be
interested in talking with him about but if Kelly’s interested in doing
something like that I’m not sure,” confessed Prendergast. “That’s between Kevin and Kelly.”
Another player who will definitely be
playing in Toronto next year is Kyle Brodziak who reached an agreement
with the Oilers on his first professional contract last week. The Moose Jaw star finished third in WHL
scoring last year with an impressive 93 points. Not only can Brodziak score but he knows his way around his own
end too as his +30 rating would suggest.
“What we really like about Kyle is that
he does a lot of the little things and he does them really well,” described
Prendergast. “He’s good on faceoffs,
picking up men getting 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.”
Brodziak was one of the last players cut
from the World Junior team but did represent the WHL in a two-game series against
the Russians in November.
A year ago Misha Joukov was
rushin’ to become Swedish but now that he’s accomplished that, he’s found it’s
sweeter to return to Russia. A mere
seven months after securing a Swedish passport, Russian-born Joukov is headed
back to his country of birth to play hockey following a tumultuous season.
“I guess he got pretty disillusioned
while playing for his dad all those years (in Sweden) and he got comfortable
but when he switched teams he had trouble adapting to a different system and he
felt that the best thing for him is to go back home for a year, probably make
more money than he would have in Sweden, then go from there,” Prendergast said.
So he’ll make more money but is the move
back to Russia good for his development?
“Provided he’s going to make the team and
play, he didn’t play a lot in the Swedish Elite League,” Prendergast stated
bluntly. “He has the tools to play in
the Elite League but he has to get his head screwed on straight and realize
that there are systems that coaches use that he’s going to have to play
Because of the recent departure of the
Columbus Cottonmouths from the ECHL, Edmonton’s new ECHL affiliate has been
announced as the Greenville Grrrowl, located in Greenville, South Carolina.
“Johnny Marks has got the experience in
the NHL and he’s done and outstanding job, in the ECHL his track record is
second to none,” Prendergast said confidently.
“We really feel our kids are going to get great coaching and a really
good opportunity to play down there.”
The arrangement with the Grrrowl is the
same as it was with the Cottonmouths in that the Oilers will have to supply at
least four and as many as six players to the ECHL club. The Grrrowl will also
be affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks.
You can narrow Jani Rita’s
possible destinations next year down to two leagues, either the NHL or the
Finnish Elite League. In order for the
Finnish winger, once called a can’t miss prospect, to play again in the AHL he
would first have to clear waivers, and that’s a situation the Oilers will not
even consider testing.
Rita is back in his homeland awaiting
word from his agent Craig Oster of Newport Sports who spoke with Hockey’s
Future in late May.
“We certainly feel that Jani is ready for
an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League,” stated Oster. “Unfortunately through a whole host of
circumstances, the opportunity that’s been afforded to Jani hasn’t been ideal
but at the same time we know from speaking with the Oilers that they certainly
still view Jani as a legitimate prospect and somebody that they would like to
keep within their organization.”
During one of his two brief stints in
Edmonton this past season Rita confessed that he would much rather play in
North America, even in the AHL, rather than return to Europe. However, because that option seems very
unlikely, the Finnish alternative is back in play.
“The option to go back to Europe is
always there but I know Jani wants to be a NHL player and still wants to
proceed down that path but the other option always exists if there is not a
good opportunity for him here,” the agent said.
Is there a chance Rita was just posturing
when he made those comments, certainly aware that the AHL was more than likely
not a feasible league for him next year?
“In all circumstances you want to put
yourself at the position that’s closest to the NHL if there isn’t an NHL
opportunity,” Oster began to clarify.
“I think when Jani said that, it’s also presuming a lot of different
things. The AHL experience comes after
legitimate NHL experience, or legitimate NHL opportunity, and it comes
with knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For whatever reason, that NHL opportunity
hasn’t developed so while I say it’s not posturing, I think it’s just Jani’s
way of saying that he still wants to pursue his NHL dream and he feels that he has
played well at the AHL level, he feels that he can play well at the NHL
level given an opportunity and he’s looking to prove himself. I think the comment comes from if he was
given the opportunity and he was proven not to be worthy of it, I think he’d
want to continue his development at the AHL level rather then the European
level if the opportunity still existed for him to continue forward.”
The next step is for the Oilers and Oster
to begin discussions but that will come after the draft.
“It’s for us to work on a negotiation to
come to a deal that makes sense for everybody and recognizes Jani as a
legitimate prospect and something that will allow him to have a legitimate
opportunity with the Oilers,” said Oster.
You can be sure that one thing the Rita
camp will be seeking is a one-way contract similar to ones recently signed by
Jason Chimera, Fernando Pisani and Raffi Torres over the last couple of
“It’s certainly something we’d hope for
and something that we think that Jani has earned, but we don’t know what to
expect,” countered the agent. “As you
well know, between now and July 1st there could be substantial
changes with the Oilers as there are with teams throughout the league. There will be, throughout the league, some
players that may not get qualified which creates some different opportunities
for teams. There are always trades that
happen at the draft or around that time frame.
There are a lot of different factors that go into determining whether
that is something that makes sense for the Oilers. Part of the problem that Jani has faced with the Oilers is that
due to very positive drafting and development, they have had a surplus of NHL
To put it bluntly, there are two or three
left-wingers currently on the Oiler roster in Rita’s way from getting his
opportunity and one of them would have to either be traded or not resigned to
convince Oster that a fair scenario exists in Oilerville for his client. Brad Isbister is one of those players who
may not be given a qualifying offer.
Would Edmonton move Chimera in favor of the highly touted Finn? Or perhaps it is Rita himself whose days in
the Edmonton organization are drawing to an end.
Comment on this
story at the
Oilers section of the Hockey’s Future