Edmonton Road Runners season preview

By Guy Flaming

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The AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers are set to begin
their 23rd season in the league from their third new home in as many
years. Now based out of their parent
club’s own backyard, the Edmonton Road Runners are ready to roll for the
2004-05 season.

 

The Toronto Roadrunners, last year’s squad, managed to claw
their way out of the league cellar at the Christmas break all the way to the
postseason which was no small feat considering it was basically an expansion
year. After sharing the Hamilton
Bulldogs with the Montreal Canadiens in 2002-03, the Oilers basically assembled
a squad with a mixture of prospects and league castoffs and formed a club that
enjoyed an all too short playoff season.

 

This time around the team is much more refined and consists
almost entirely of prospects the team has drafted or signed with long-term
plans in mind. The Road Runners will
still play out of the Northern Division but will have games against teams from
the AHL’s Western Division, something they did not experience last year.

 

Departures:
Michael Henrich, Chad Hinz, Peter Hogan, Jan Horacek, Mikko Luoma, Jani
Rita, Dave Roche and Dan Tessier.

Arrivals:
Kyle Brodziak, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Simon Ferguson, Brent Henley,
Rick Mrozik, Toby Petersen and Brock Radunske.

 

Goaltending

 

Edmonton begins the new campaign without a clear No. 1
goaltender but team officials insist that the situation is not uncommon for
teams in the development league.

 

“In the AHL we traditionally platoon our guys and we want to
make sure we give them the opportunity to play,” explained head coach Geoff
Ward. “Down the stretch if one guy
emerges from the pack then we change our thinking but for us it’s always been
an opportunity to break in young guys and I don’t think it will be any different
this year.”

 

Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, pegged with the label of
franchise goalie, will begin the year in a partnership with career minor
leaguer Tyler Moss. Moss, the veteran
of 314 minor league games and experience with 15 different pro teams, is being counted
on for the guidance and tutelage of Drouin-Deslauriers. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The organization has high expectations of
Drouin-Deslauriers, but they realize that the rookie year for any player can be
a difficult one so they are ready and willing to ride out any rough spots
ahead.

 

“If he struggles at all we’re not going to force the issue
with him too much,” Oiler GM Kevin Lowe said during training camp. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “Jeff’s not a cocky kid but I think he’s
confident in his ability. He’s got a
great work ethic and a lot of natural ability.”

 

The odd man out from training camp was Mike Morrison
but his performance over the ten-day stretch was quite impressive and the team
has no qualms about using all three goaltenders at different times this year.

 

“The fact that we have three good goalies that can play is a
strength for us and you never seem to go through a year without injuries or
call ups so for us, we know we have depth at that position,” Ward said. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “As good as (JDD) has played, he still
hasn’t played any pro hockey yet.”

 

It is expected that Drouin-Deslauriers will split games with
Moss, although the latter is tentatively scheduled to get the nod on opening
night. The rookie was a standout with
Chicoutimi last year but fans should expect growing pains with any first year
players and especially between the pipes.
Moss, who’s new mask has arrived just in time that he can finally ditch
his old Vancouver one, has been a very steady keeper at the American League
level and he will definitely be expected to be the backbone of the team again,
especially if Drouin-Deslauriers struggles.

 

Defense style='font-weight:normal'>

 

Internally, the Road Runners believe that the defensive
corps of their squad is a vastly underrated strength. It’s an interesting mix of wily veterans and top-notch youngsters
without a soft player in the bunch. In
fact, if one thing can be said with utmost certainty this year it’s that no
opposing forward lines will leave Edmonton unmarked.

 

The top pairing on the backend consists of rugged Dan Smith
and highly regarded prospect Jeff Woywitka.

 

He’s a good leader
in the room; he was the guy who came to work whether it was practice or a game
and he’d make sure the guys were ready to go,” Woywitka described. style="mso-spacerun: yes">
“For me as a young guy, when I needed to get
hell he gave me hell and you need to hear that from a veteran. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> We played together and we were pretty good,
we usually played against the other team’s top line so for me he helped me a
lot down the way.”

 

The second duo is made up of 2004 AHL All-Star Doug Lynch
and gladiator-like Rocky Thompson. The
final three blueliners are Mathieu Roy, Brent Henley and veteran
newcomer Rick Mrozik who skated for the Rochester Americans last season.

 

At first glance it looks obvious that six of the seven
rearguards are strictly of the ‘defense first’ variety. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The smooth skating, puck rushing Woywitka is
the only one fans should expect to see joining an odd-man rush or attempting to
lead an attack from his own end.
However, a review of last year’s stats reveals that it was Lynch and not
Woywitka that lead the team in defensive scoring. Both Lynch and Woywitka have howitzer class point shots from the
point and should see plenty of power play time.

 

“I like the veteran presence that we have on our backend,”
Ward said. “We have three really solid
veteran guys that can settle our young players down and work with them and
we’ve got two pretty good prospects on their way up in Jeff Woywitka and Doug
Lynch. The make up of our backend is
one that is going to allow us to play a pretty good style.”

 

Scoring opportunities will be created from some of the
blueliners but make no mistake about it, the first priority of this group is to
keep the puck out of their own net. If
they can bruise some opponents in the process through either body checking or
knuckle chucking that’s considered a perk of the job.

 

“I take pride in being physical and tough in front of the
net, tough in the corners and sometimes I have to fight to do that,” shrugged
Lynch. “I’ve got no problems doing that
at all; I’ve fought my whole career in junior, I like the physical
aspect and getting dirty like that. I
didn’t have very many penalty minutes last year but that just wasn’t the role
that I was in. I was partnered with the
toughest guy in the league so I didn’t really need to step up but it’s something
I can do.”

 

Rocky Thompson is already a crowd favorite and towering
Brent Henley will be one within a month with his similarly aggressive style of
play. ‘The Henley Giant’ fought off
nagging back spasms through the September rookie camp and wouldn’t admit he was
still dealing with the discomfort through Road Runner camp. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The integrity and character of the 6’7
monster simply radiates off of him and his quick wit has already made him a
media go-to guy.

 

Forwards

 

It’s unclear at this point which of Edmonton’s top two lines
would be considered No. 1 and 2, but the job description for both is easily
discernable, score and do it often.

 

The trio of Mike Bishai, Jamie Wright and Brad
Winchester
is intact from last year and is looking to build off the late
season success they found together as a unit.
It’s a classic combination of playmaker, scorer and power forward that
is enough to give opposing teams fits in their own end.

 

I’m definitely
comfortable with them and I think we clicked for a while there at the end of
the season,” Bishai commented.
“(Wright) likes to shoot the puck and I like to dish it so we work well
together and Brad is a big guy, an excellent player and he’s going to be a real
force this year I think. His size and
strength really help guys like Jamie and me out there.”

 

Winchester,
Edmonton’s second round selection back in 2000, is now topping the scales at
6’5 and 230 lbs so driving to the net has definitely become an easier task than
when he first broke into the league.

 

I think I’m
developing and continually trying to take my game to a higher level,” said the
right-winger. “I had a good summer,
worked hard and I’m starting to fill in my frame more. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Everyone has their own timeline but as long
as I continue to work hard and I improve then I feel good about my game and now
I’m really looking forward to the start of the season.”

 

Bishai is coming off a year that was interrupted by an
extended NHL stint and looks as if the big league experience has fueled his
fire and accelerated his development.

 

“He’s improved his speed, he’s certainly improved his
competitiveness, and he wants to play in the NHL,” Road Runner GM Scott Howson
simplified. “He’s has good vision and
he competes for the puck. At the end of
one year he didn’t really impress us that much then the next year we had the
split in Hamilton and we sent him to the ECHL and he wasn’t very happy about
that. From then on he’s just worked his
way back.”

 

“I really want Bishai to emerge as an elite player at the
AHL level,” Ward said back in the summer.
“We think we saw that from him last year but I think this year is his
time to come in and assert himself as that person.”

 

More recently the coach reiterated his opinion that the
Edmonton born center should be his top player this year.

 

“He’s come an awful long way in a short period of time
because he’s really embraced the fact that he’s got to work so hard and I think
that’s allowed him to train better in the summer. As a result, I think we see a guy who is now ready to take that next
step and assume that elite status at this level.”

 

If the aforementioned combination is to be termed ‘line 1’
then the next trio would have to be called ‘1-A’. Jarret Stoll returns to the AHL after a complete season as an
Edmonton Oiler and he’ll center two diminutive but formidable wingers in Tony
Salmelainen
and Toby Petersen.
Having Stoll back on the team should help should help on both the power
play and the penalty kill units, both of which were no better than
average.

 

As far as that goes, Toby Petersen is another player who the
coaching staff is relying on for contributions when they have the man advantage
too. The former member of the
Pittsburgh Penguins managed just 15 goals last year but recorded 31 the season
before that while in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

 

“I remember playing against Petersen and he’s a really
creative with the puck and has great hands and (Stoll) is the same way; great
hands, quick feet and he has an unbelievable shot,” described blueliner Dan
Smith. “Both of those two guys are
going to bring a lot to our room.”

 

Tony Salmelainen was Edmonton’s third pick in the 1999 draft
and has shown improvement every year since being plucked from Finland’s amateur
ranks. The winger has big league wheels
and would have challenged for an NHL roster spot had there been a season this
year. Salmelainen is the only European
player on the minor league roster, but he’ll be in the spotlight on many
nights.

 

“This is Tony’s third season now with the team and he’s
comfortable playing at our level, with life (in North America) and he’s a guy
we look to have some big moments for us,” said Ward.

 

The checking line has a new center in Joe Cullen but
wingers Nate DiCasmirro and Sean McAslan are back in their
familiar roles. The third line was a
useful and effective tool for the Road Runners and should be even more so with
the further development of Cullen who replaces Chad Hinz.

 

“I think Cullen fits that role and he’s a great player,”
complimented DiCasmirro. “He’s a guy
that skates well, he can shoot the puck and he digs in the corners because he’s
big and strong.”

 

“I hope so, that’s the way it looks right now and he’d be a
good replacement that’s for sure,” McAslan replied when asked if Cullen was
right for the job. “He’s good
defensively, he’s fast and he can put the puck in the net too.”

 

The rest of the forward force includes returning center J.J.
Hunter
, the scrappy and agitating Dan Baum and rookies Brock
Radunske
, Kyle Brodziak and Simon Ferguson. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> After quietly putting together an impressive
rookie campaign in 2003-04, Hunter is a blue-collar player who fits in well on
a team that represents a city built on the same hard working philosophy.

 

After battling mysterious headaches and getting a late start
on training camp, Baum has finally been cleared to play and will dress for
opening night. Ask anyone and they’ll
tell you just how important a player like Baum is for the Road Runners. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> He’s the thorn that the Oilers have been
long searching for to jab under the skin of other teams and the fact that he’s
more than willing to take on anyone makes Baum a respectable pest; he doesn’t
need anyone else to fight his battles for him.

 

Simon Ferguson went through rookie and Road Runner camp as a
free agent but with a very tenacious style, not unlike Baum’s, he has earned a
stay with the AHL club. Practically
everyday Ferguson has had someone on the ice shaking his head in frustration or
has drawn the ire of a player after a run in.

 

“We told the guys when they came to camp to show us what
they can do as a player and to play to their strengths,” Ward explained. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “That’s something that’s in his game, he’s
shown that he can play here, he has no fear and not only does he stir it up but
he also creates scoring chances. This
is a guy who is more than a one dimensional hockey player.”

 

It’s more than likely that Ferguson, Brodziak and Radunske
will begin the year on some sort of rotation and that the coaching staff will
work them in slowly. It’s a major
adjustment to the pro ranks for a player coming out of junior or NCAA and so
fans should expect these players to come along slowly. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Making the team was perhaps the easy part;
getting a game day roster spot will be the challenge.

 

“I’m very happy so far with the way things are going but now
I have to work hard everyday to get into the line up,” agreed Brodziak. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “I know it’s going to be hard every night to
start with but that’s why with every opportunity I get I have to make the best
of it.”

 

Management

 

Head Coach Geoff Ward begins his second full term as bench boss
after succeeding Claude Julien midway through the 2002-03 campaign in Hamilton
where he began as an assistant. Known
as a player’s coach, Ward clearly has the ear of his room and he has created an
atmosphere of confidence for his team.
Patient, well spoken and a good leader, Ward has already shown the
ability to teach with the metaphorical open hand but gets his point across with
a closed one as well.

 

Joe Paterson returns to assist Ward with the everyday
development of the Road Runners.
Several players have identified the former NHL player and his wealth of
experience as being a great help in adjusting to the league. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> J.J. Hunter credits much of his success last
year to extra practice sessions with Paterson in which the natural center was
shown how to play the wing.

 

One of the two newcomers to the bench is a very familiar
face to Edmonton hockey fans. Kelly
Buchberger, the organization’s all-time penalty minute leader and long time fan
favorite returns to the city in a new role with the Road Runners. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> As an assistant coach Buchberger expects to
find himself in the same boat as several of his players — learning the ropes.

 

“Probably not getting out onto the ice and doing what you
can do,” ‘Bucky’ laughed when asked what the hardest part of his job will
be. “The only thing I’ve ever done is
play the game and now as part of the coaching staff you’re kind of stuck
watching.”

 

The last piece and most recent addition to the puzzle is
Steve Serdachny who was recently named as the skills and skating coach. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Serdachny is well known in hockey circles
for his power skating school, based in Edmonton, and the clinics he puts on all
over the hockey globe. With experience
working with players at all levels of hockey, the Road Runners believe
Serdachny’s teachings will help round their players into better skaters.

 

Outlook

 

The Road Runners are an eerie replication of their NHL big
brothers in many ways. Both teams are
very good five-on-five but noticeably struggle when it comes to their special
teams. Last season the ‘Runners had one
of the worst penalty kill records in the AHL and their power play was middle of
the pack. As stated earlier, much hope
lays in the additions of Toby Petersen and Jarret Stoll for both of those areas
but the maturing of Jeff Woywitka, Mike Bishai, Tony Salmelainen and Doug Lynch
should also be major benefit.

 

“Our power play was great in spurts last year and our
penalty kill percentage didn’t end up great but at points it was really good,”
countered Ward. “I think for us out of
the hop we want to make sure we’re making more of an impact with our special
teams.”

 

Ward believes that his team will again have little problem
putting the puck in the net despite only managing one goal in two preseason
contests.

 

“We scored the eighth most goals in the league last year so
we like the depth of our scoring,” he said.
“If you’re not getting the chances you start worrying about it but we
had quality chances on the weekend. We
feel that’s one of the strengths of our team.”

 

The biggest plus the team has going into the year is the
fact that there is a solid veteran presence to steady the nerves of the few
inexperienced players joining the team.
In a league where teams are often only as strong as their rookies, the
Road Runners have only four with them to begin the year and only
Drouin-Deslauriers will be a main focus in the early going. style="mso-spacerun: yes">

 

“Even though we’re still a young team, I think our
experience is going to be a strength,” the coach said. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “I don’t think we’ve had as many guys
returning in any year that I’ve been with this team so the fact that we have a
lot of bodies coming back is going to help us early.”

 

What most AHL teams have over the Road Runners this year is
a greater quantity of NHL players returning to their lineups. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Hamilton (MTL/DAL) and San Antonio (FLA) are
the first two teams on Edmonton’s schedule and both are equipped with notable
names. Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss
and Nathan Horton will lead the Rampage into Rexall Place just days after Ron
Hainsey, Trevor Daley, Steve Ott and the Bulldogs help open the season.

 

“Hamilton is going to be a tough team,” sighed Kevin
Lowe. “They’ve already played six
exhibition games so they’re ahead of us and they have the luxury of having some
pretty good players from Dallas as well with the Canadiens prospects.”

 

All the teams projected to do very well this year have at
least a pair or three returning NHL players but the Road Runners have only
Jarret Stoll to welcome back. It will
be a year where Edmonton will adjust to the travel from a new home, face new
teams in unfamiliar cities and arenas but in the end the ‘Runners should be
competitive enough to challenge for a playoff spot.

 

Few guarantees can be made in sports but here are two when
it comes to Edmonton’s AHL club. With
season ticket sales now well over the 5000-seat plateau, the Oilers will
definitely be in the top echelon for league attendance figures as last year’s
top team in that category, Manchester, averaged over 9000 fans in
attendance. Lastly, no team in the AHL
will boast a larger media contingent as legions of NHL television, print and
radio reporters desperately wait to sink their teeth into some hockey
action. If only either stat helped when
it came to the win column.

 

While the fan base has grown nicely, the organization
realizes that this has been a NHL market for several years and that it could
take time for hockey fans in Edmonton to recognize the Road Runners on an even
keel with the Oilers.

 

“It’s a slow process for people in the city to come around
to the fact that they have another team in town to cheer for,” agreed Lowe
recently. “I think people are going to
be pleasantly surprised at the caliber of hockey. Every time I go and see an AHL game I’m impressed with the level
of play. I’m not saying this because
you guys are here and we’re trying to promote the Road Runners, but I am
legitimately, personally excited about watching the game on Friday
night.”

 

 

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