Oilers AHL 2004-05 prospect review

By Guy Flaming

‘Runners Reflect on Failed Season

All good things must come to an end and thankfully for Edmonton Road Runners fans, that old adage was true for disappointing things too. Not that having professional hockey in town during the NHL lockout wasn’t appreciated, but the spectacular implosion of the fledgling AHL affiliate of their beloved Oilers left many with a bitter taste in their mouth.

With the majority of their home dates plotted in the first half of the season, the Road Runners burst out of the season gate as one of the hottest teams in the league but all that came to a quick end in mid January.

After splitting a home series in early January with powerful Rochester and then again on the road against Manitoba, the ‘Runners came home to a newly crafted dressing room and the St. John’s Maple Leafs. In what was probably the most memorable game of the home schedule, the Leafs beat Edmonton 3-0 in a classic minor league game played right out of the script from legendary hockey movie Slap Shot.

Edmonton’s Rocky Thompson took exception to a decidedly low hit thrown at his knees by David Ling, chased down the agitating forward and tackled him to the ice sparking a line brawl that highlighted a fight-filled evening.

The ‘Runners lost the game, but seemingly had something to rally the troops around and build some serious team chemistry. Unfortunately the complete opposite happened; the team rattled off five consecutive losses and fell apart.

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The hot streak came to a sudden end and then the real trouble began. From February 6th to March 9th the ‘Runners didn’t register a single victory, dropping nine straight matches and earning just four points due to overtime or shootout losses.

Edmonton lost the services of Jarret Stoll who was deeply cut on the back of his leg when an opposing player inadvertently stepped on him. Stoll, one of the inspirational and offensive leaders of the team, was out of action for about five weeks. Surprisingly, Edmonton temporarily halted the hemorrhaging of their season with Stoll out of the line-up based largely on the play of rookie Kyle Brodziak and others like J.J. Hunter and Brad Winchester who stepped up in the absence of their fallen leader.

Most of February and March was spent on the road including a brutal 12-game, 17-day trip that would prove to be the undoing of the team’s playoff drive. Capturing only two wins and seven of a possible 24 points was obviously a devastating blow, but what couldn’t be seen from back in Edmonton was that the chemistry in the dressing room had fallen apart.

Veteran winger Jamie Wright had been sent home from the road trip but rejoined the team before too long. Questions began to arise concerning the effort and heart being shown from some players expected to carry the team much more. Raffi Torres had scored 14 goals in his first 20 games but his offense had completely disappeared along with Toby Petersen, Tony Salmelainen and the aforementioned Wright. Mike Bishai, who had struggled all year, was one a few veterans who seemed to regain his abilities in March and the Edmonton product actually had a pretty good month.

Goaltending, a position of strength earlier in the year, became a area of concern as Tyler Moss was no longer playing up to his earlier form. With Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers making the 22-man clear day roster, he was given spot duty until an early summer was practically a mathematical certainty.

Upon their return to Edmonton, the ‘Runners had a pivotal two-game series against Hamilton, the team they were battling for playoff contention. However, after displaying two of their least inspiring efforts of the entire season, their playoff hopes disappeared and some changes were made.

Drouin-Deslauriers began to see more action and responded very well. The 20-year-old netminder earned a split against the powerful Chicago Wolves and went 2-5 in his final seven starts of the year with all but one of his losses coming in one-goal games. Although his record wasn’t great in the seven games, his personal performance was and he was named a game star on several of those nights.

However, with Hamilton playing extremely well it was only a matter of time until it finally the coffin was nailed shut on Edmonton’s season after a split with St. John’s made it official.

High Points

As players cleaned out their lockers and said their farewells to team staff and the local media, they were able to reflect on some of the personal highs and lows of the 2004-05 campaign. For most it was a season they would like to forget, but for a select few it was a year that helped establish them as definite NHL prospects.

“There are always some (highlights) but right now it’s hard to think about those because we’re not in the playoffs,” a glum Tony Salmelainen said as he carted his gear and sticks away. “I scored my first pro hat trick and that was fun but with this team, you can’t really help but have fun. I hope I get to play with a lot of these guys again, hopefully with the Oilers.”

“Definitely our start, we were one of the best teams in the league for the first six weeks of the year and everything was clicking and the boys were playing hard for each other,” said rearguard Doug Lynch, who clearly did not have the season he had hoped for, largely due to a wrist injury.

“Unfortunately I didn’t have the year I wanted to have,” he continued. “A couple of things contributed to that but this is pro hockey and some years you’re not going to be at your best. But I have to try and keep those years to a minimum and keep looking forward,” said the ever optimistic B.C. native. “It was a tough year for myself and definitely one that I want to learn from and rebound off of for next year by coming back and having a very good camp.”

Lynch’s old friend and teammate Jeff Woywitka also had a season most would consider a step backwards, but the Vermilion product would argue it wasn’t a year completely devoid of personal accomplishments. Although he fell just two points short of matching his rookie total, Woywitka did score more goals than during his debut year, a small silver lining perhaps.

“I had some good times but not as many good times as I would have liked to. But that’s the way it goes in a long year,” said Woywitka. “I think there were a few games after Christmas where I played pretty well, personally I was getting some points and playing with confidence and for me it’s all about confidence. When I’m playing lots and I have confidence and moving my feet, I think I’m a pretty effective player.”

J.J. Hunter’s highlight of the year came very early in the schedule but says it will stay with him long after his playing days have come and gone.

“I think the first game was the high point,” said Hunter who scored both the tying and overtime winning goals on opening night. “Winning that first game in overtime in front of a big crowd and just the fact that it was here in Edmonton, being the hockey city that it is. Looking up in the rafters and seeing Gretzky, Kurri and Fuhr’s names is pretty special. The whole experience of coming to Edmonton and playing at Rexall Place was an absolute high. Playing hockey for a living is an experience that I’m going to cherish forever. I play the game because I love it and I have a passion to do it and being able to do it for a living at this time is a highlight for me because I’m doing what I love every single day.”

For some other young Road Runners, their achievements were much simpler in terms of their importance in the grand scheme of the team, but represent milestones on a personal level.

“I think the first goal I scored was a pretty high point for me,” said the team’s Rookie of the Year winner Kyle Brodziak. “As the year progressed it just got better and better for me personally but my goal at the beginning of the year was to just get in the line-up and stay in the line-up and that’s something that I accomplished.”

“The high point for me is when I just started playing regularly,” echoed Defenceman of the Year Mathieu Roy who added that winning that award was definitely at the top of his highlight list. “That was unbelievable, I didn’t expect that at all and it was a great honor for me to be named the best defenseman. It’s every guy’s dream to win an award like that or MVP, so I’ll work hard this summer to come back next year and win best D-man again.”

For Jason Platt, who missed a large chunk of the preseason and training camp attending his brother after a major car accident, singling out a special achievement wasn’t easy.

“I think the highest point was probably just making the team, I wasn’t really expecting it coming into camp,” admitted the likeable rookie. “Becoming a big part of the penalty kill was just about the biggest thing because I’ve always taken pride in my penalty-killing and for them to have the confidence in me to throw me out there and count on me to block shots, it really meant a lot to me.”

After a moment though Platt reflected on the road game played in San Jose against the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, a contest that was a homecoming for the native Californian.

“It was unbelievable playing in San Jose in front of a home crowd,” smiled Platt. “I probably had about 300 fans at least there cheering for me. When I came out after the game there were hundreds of kids waiting for me behind the gate and they all knew my parents… it was pretty unbelievable.”

Low Points

The fact that summer came far too early for the Road Runners is clearly a disappointment to everyone on the team and for some it’s a new experience.

“It’s really tough coming here today knowing that our season’s done. I’ve had some long years and this is the first time I’ve missed the playoffs,” said Woywitka whose Red Deer Rebels always went deep into the postseason and even capture a Memorial Cup back in 2001. “It hurts for me and all the guys are feeling the effects of it; it’s going to be a long summer and we just need to regroup and make sure we come back next year with the right frame of mind and be ready to go.”

Head coach Geoff Ward was able to single out the lowest part of the year for his team when he said “Probably the sorest part of it was from about February 10th to the middle of March where we only won a couple of hockey games.

“I think when we had two wins there in 21 games during that road trip, that hurt us big time. It was a long road trip and we couldn’t bounce back during the trip,” Woywitka agreed. “We were in the playoff hunt at that time, two or four points up on Hamilton, but we just kept losing ground and games in shootouts… we just couldn’t find a way to win a game and put a streak together. Consistency and confidence were two big things on this team that we couldn’t get.“

For Drouin-Deslauriers one might expect that the low point of the year would have been his demotion to the ECHL, but the goalie said it was the freak accident that led to that transfer that he is most disappointed about.

“I would say the low point was the injury,” JDD said in reference to taking a shot off his shin in practice that bumped him from active duty for several weeks. “You learn a lot in that type of situation, but you want to play and it’s harder for the head to accept it. There’s a lot of frustration because a couple weeks before that I was running, walking and playing good then all of a sudden I’m limping and not playing. I didn’t have to relearn how to skate but it was hard to skate after that and to keep in shape and that was hard.”

“After that was Greenville and sure, after playing at a high level you don’t want to go down, but sometimes it’s good,” admitted Drouin-Deslauriers. “We expect to go up though and not to go down and that was the biggest thing at the time but I remember I went there for one month, had a good record and at the time, it was my job to be down there and so I did what was asked of me.”

Say Goodbye

For a number of Road Runners, mostly long in the tooth veterans, the loss on April 16th was likely their last game as a member of the Oiler organization. Leading the group of players without a contract in place for next year is captain Dan Smith, Rick Mrozik, checker Sean McAslan and banished winger Jamie Wright.

The Oilers hold an option on center Mike Bishai but it’s a one-way NHL deal, meaning should the 25-year-old not stick with the Oilers he would still receive big league money while on the farm; not a scenario or an option that the cost-conscious Oilers are expected to pick up.

Joe Cullen was involved in a friendly swap with the Florida Panthers in the first half of the season; a transaction that both teams say cannot be finalized until a new CBA is in place. Neither Cullen nor Eric Beaudoin, whom the Oilers received from the Panthers, played very well for their new team.

Goaltenders Tyler Moss and Mike Morrison are both set to become unrestricted free agents, going by the old and long since expired CBA, but most expect the Oilers will want to bring the latter keeper back to platoon with JDD next year.

Jarret Stoll has already gone on the record saying that if the same scenario comes up again next fall as it did this year, he would likely pursue options in Europe as he would no longer be under his entry-level contract with the Oilers. It would be difficult to imagine Raffi Torres not following suit.

The restricted free agents are Brad Winchester, Tony Salmelainen, Brent Henley and Jesse Niinimaki. After enjoying a breakout year, Winchester’s re-signing is a forgone conclusion. The question is more as to where he will play and if the contract will involve a one-way deal the same that Jason Chimera, Fernando Pisani and Torres all had at similar points in their careers that virtually guaranteed them a NHL roster spot with the Oilers.

Whether or not Salmelainen comes back to Edmonton rests completely on the negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA.

“Yeah… I have to talk with everybody and figure out right now what the best thing is for me,” said the speedy Finn. “My goal is to play in the NHL and I’ll do anything to do that. Everything is so open because you don’t know what’s going on with the NHL, but that’s my main goal and has been for a long time.”

“Right now it’s difficult to say so we’ll take a few months to see how anything is going,” Salmelainen told Hockey’s Future. “We’ll talk with the brass here and the coaches and see what’s going on in Europe and try to figure out for myself where I can get the best out of myself so that when the NHL starts I can possibly be with the Edmonton Oilers.”

Barely three days after that conversation came reports out of Europe that Salmelainen has signed a deal with HIFK Helsinki for the coming year, a deal which will surely have a NHL release clause built into it.

Salmelainen’s fellow countryman Niinimaki is also at the end of his current contract and after a very forgettable season, the future is uncertain for the former first round selection. Niinimaki’s year was very limited in respects to games played, 18 in Europe and just 24 in the AHL, and was also limited on the impression scale. Hampered by a shoulder that is pain free but far from 100 percent effective, Niinimaki struggled on the ice. Off the ice, life was just as challenging for the 21-year-old who said he knows fans are down on him and admits that it was a season to put behind him as quickly as possible.

“I just played bad, that’s all, what else am I going to say?” Niinimaki said. “Everybody knows I didn’t play so well.”

Dealing with the harsh fan criticisms is just another difficult adjustment for the youngster who also had to adapt to life in a new country and being away from home for the first time.

“Yes of course,” he answered when asked if the criticisms from fans disturb him. “I had to learn a whole new game, it’s so much different than Europe with the smaller ice and everything is a little different. People don’t know me but of course that bothers me.”

But the larger question is whether or not Niinimaki is planning to return to Edmonton or if he will pursue other opportunities in the Swedish Elite League or in his native Finland as he has hinted at in casual conversation.

“I can say it now that it was just a bad season for me but not playing games and stuff I still learned a lot about what I have to improve on if I’m going to play over here; I have to get better,” he said before being pressed for a more decisive answer on his possible return. “I want to come over but of course it depends on what the Oilers want, it’s not my choice but yeah, now I know what I have to do better.”

So while he has now gone on the record saying that he wants to return to Edmonton for next season, all that is left is to work out a suitable arrangement with the Oilers who have said all along the want him in North America. Niinimaki’s first choice is Edmonton, but Europe is a fall back plan that is still there.

“Yeah, those are all options for me, Sweden or Finland,” he said, “but like I said, it depends what the Oilers want.”

In regards to Brent Henley, in just 27 games separated at times by many weeks of pressbox duty because of injuries or being scratched, the 6’7 blueliner’s future with the organization is uncertain but there is at least some interest in bringing him back.

New Recruits

The extensive depth that has landed the Oilers inside the top 10 of the Hockey’s Future Organizational Rankings for the past few years is slowly starting to mature to professional age and that natural trend will continue next season. In 2003-04 there were only Brodziak, Drouin-Deslauriers and Platt that played significant roles as rookies while Marty St. Pierre, Brock Radunske, Simon Ferguson, Kenny Smith, Jordan Little and J.F. Jacques all made brief appearances.

All of the names in that last grouping will be seeking to entrench themselves on the AHL club next fall as full time players. Surely St. Pierre and Jacques lead the assemblage in that regard.

Turning pro from the WHL will be 6’5 winger Troy Bodie whose Kelowna Rockets are currently fighting to reach the Memorial Cup to defend their title. Zack Stortini is already under contract to the Oilers and will be in Edmonton next year as well after completing his fourth tour of duty with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. From the QMJHL will come Jacques but also promising center Marc-Antoine Pouliot who scored 114 points this past regular season and as the captain of the Rimouski Oceanic, is leading his club to a seemingly destined appearance at the Memorial Cup in London.

The only US collegian guaranteed to be on his way is lightning-fast Jake Brenk who has now completed his tenure with Minnesota State and played out the remainder of the ECHL season in Greenville with the Grrrowl.

All the other collegian prospects the Oilers own the rights to would have to make the decision to leave school early to become pro following the footsteps of both Brock Radunske and Eddie Caron from a year ago. Matt Greene would be the leading candidate to do so but unless the NHL is back to work, there would appear little incentive for him to forego his final year and so the Oilers aren’t expecting to see him unless there is a change in the labor situation.

Caron himself will be trying to stick with the Road Runners having failed to make the team out of camp and then dealing with a broken leg after a terrific start in the ECHL that would normally have earned him an AHL ticket.

On the European front things are less certain as along with Salmelainen, prospects there are taking a wait and see attitude towards the NHL and North America in general. Dragan Umicevic might top the interest list from an Oiler standpoint but if there is no NHL carrot to dangle in front of him, the dynamic Serb has expressed his contentment with staying in Sweden. Blueliner Mikael Svensk might be in the mix for consideration.

Both Alexei Mikhnov and Misha Joukov were lost in Russia due to the NHL migration there and so one would think that if the scenario were the same, convincing them to come to North America would be a much easier task this summer. For Mikhnov in particular, it would be surprising if the big winger opted not to play in Russia again over a fair opportunity to do so in the AHL.

Of course there is always the possibility for free agent signings as well and surely there are some of those to be made between now and the time the 2005-06 season draws near. Last summer the Oilers added Rick Mrozik and Toby Petersen to the AHL team and signed St. Pierre and Ferguson as CHL grads.

Sources tell HF that there are a handful of 20-year-olds that the organization is interested in, suggesting that former Vancouver draft pick Ty Morris and Halifax Mooseheads star Daniel Sparre are two players that might be on the radar.

Morris has wrapped up his WHL eligibility after a year split between the Vancouver Giants and the Red Deer Rebels whom he led in regular season scoring. The Edmonton area product has family ties to the Oiler organization, as he is the nephew of a team therapist.

Sparre would have attended last year’s training camp if the Oilers had extra money around to invite 19-year-old free agents. In his final year in the QMJHL, Sparre was the leading scorer for Halifax posting his second consecutive 68-point season. Like St. Pierre, Sparre is a 5’10 180 lb forward with the ability to create offense and that’s exactly what the Road Runners were lacking this past season.

End of the Season Quotes

“He seems to be smiling more and having more fun and I think that’s a sign that he’s probably settling in more. We talked about that cultural change players go through coming here and that’s a pretty good sign to us that he’s through that and the way he’s playing signals that as well. We’re pleased with where he is. Obviously we don’t want to say that we’re satisfied with it because we think there’s more there, but he’s made some real positive steps.”
–Geoff Ward on Jesse Niinimaki’s situation nearing the end of the year.

“Classic case of a guy who has an opportunity when a guy goes out of the line-up and he makes good on it.”
–Ward on Kyle Brodziak slipping into the line-up when Stoll and Torres were both hurt and then never sitting out another game.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve given up a goal in the first minute of play or in the last minute of a period. That’s just a mental mindset. We’re giving the other teams lots of opportunity to gain back momentum or we have to fight to get it back because we’ve given the momentum to the other team early. There’s nothing like some time on the road to help us do that.”
–Ward trying to put a positive spin on the team’s lackluster play before the road trip that proved to be their undoing, making the coach’s last statement sound more like famous last words.

“Every time we get this referee, the power plays seem to be 2-1 and if you want to take a look at the game sheets that’s what it will prove out and it was no different (this weekend): 7-4 last night, 8-4 tonight and the last two times he was in here it was the same thing. It’s too bad that in a game that has proportions this big that power plays are so one-sided the other way. Some of the stuff I’ve seen this year has been unbelievable.”
–Ward ranting on what was consistently shoddy officiating in the AHL this year.

“On the latter parts of our long road trip he was our best player on a lot of nights. He showed great patience on that third goal and waiting until he went down and we need him to come up big and certainly he did tonight.”
–Ward on March 30 after the Road Runners beat Chicago 4-1 commenting on the effort of Mike Bishai.

“A lot of shots tonight and sometimes you get more shots than in other games. Yesterday they didn’t have as many shots but they had great shots. It doesn’t matter the number of shots it is how they come to you. Sometimes you can have 40 shots but only 10 scoring chances so in both kinds of games you need to be focused and prepared for it.”
–Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers after splitting the series with Chicago stopping 13 shots one night and facing 39 the next.

“Not nervous but anxious. I was very anxious to jump on the ice and go out there and show what I can do and have a first feeling of the pro game.”
–J.F. Jacques after his debut with the Road Runners on April 8th against St. John’s.

“Well the loss sucks; that’s not how I wanted to start it off here.”
–Jordan Little after his first professional game on April 12th, a 3-2 loss to Manitoba.

“No, because I plan on playing here next year and I don’t plan on going to school in Manitoba. My goal is to be here and I don’t need eligibility for that.”
–Little when asked if it was a tough decision to eliminate his CIS eligibility by playing a handful of games with the Road Runners.

“Edmonton’s been a great city for us to be in and hopefully we can be back. The fans have been tremendous from day one and it’s nice to be playing in a hockey city where the fans are excited about it and I know our guys really enjoyed playing here.”
–Ward reflecting on the season compared to last year spent in Toronto.

“It’s great to see big bodies that have some chemistry out there and they were really important for us and what can you say about Brodziak who gets us going right off the hop and Winchester was gunning too. Those guys were good and I thought Jacques played well there.”
–Ward’s comments after playing Winchester, Brodziak and Jacques together as a possible look at a combination for next season.

“He’s one of our leaders in terms of setting plays up and I think he wanted to send a message to the other guys tonight saying ‘I’m here tonight, let’s go’. That’s a great play from a young player and it shows that he’s got a lot of jam.”
–Ward describing Brodziak who instigated a fight just eight seconds into a game with Manitoba.

“We just looked at each other and decided that we were going to go. Hopefully that picked the other guys up and set the tempo for the rest of the game.”
–Brodziak’s take on the fight. Edmonton won the game 3-2.

“It was good to see. I thought he did a great job, I was just cheering him on; it was a pretty long fight too.”
–Brad Winchester who followed the action from one side of the rink to the other, audibly coaching his teammate along the way.

“We believed, and still do, that we had the guys in the dressing room to not only make the playoffs but to make a run. We have a new opportunity next year and it takes situations like this to learn from and grow. The expression is that in order for a team to learn how to win they first have to lose and know how it feels to lose. When you hate losing so much you’ll get to a point where you won’t let it happen.”
–J.J. Hunter summing up the disappointing year with a bright outlook towards 2005-06.

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