Hockey’s Future posed several of the most key debate topics regarding Edmonton Oilers prospects to some key members of the local media corps. Each member of the round table panel were fixtures in the Edmonton Road Runners pressbox during the past AHL season.
Robin Brownlee is the senior hockey writer at The Edmonton Sun newspaper. Brownlee, one of the most respected sports journalists in the city, has been writing for the Sun for the past few years after previously spending 11 at the other local daily paper during his now over 20-year career.
Jason Gregor is the host of ‘Just A Game’ heard weeknights from 11pm-1am on the TEAM 1260 radio. Gregor also covers a myriad of sports including the NHL and the CFL for his column ‘Game On!’ in the monthly Edmonton Sports Scene newspaper.
Jim Matheson has set the standard in Edmonton covering the Oilers since their WHA inception in 1972, through their glory years of the 80’s and into the new century. ‘Matty’ was elected to the Media Wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000 and has been writing a NHL column for the Edmonton Journal for the past 10 years.
Jordi Weidman is the Edmonton correspondent for The Score sports channel and was part of the Cool 880 radio broadcast crew for the Road Runners this past season. Earlier in his career Jordi was the CKRD radio host for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels and also spent time as a sports anchor at A-Channel in Edmonton.
Guy Flaming covers both the Edmonton Oilers and Road Runners for the Edmonton Sports Scene and is also a writer for International Scouting Services (ISS), Hockey Alberta, the Oilers’ ZONE Magazine and of course, Hockey’s Future.
#1 – Which Oiler prospect’s stock went up the most as a result of the Road Runner’s 2004-05 season?
Brownlee: I’d say it’s a tie between Kyle Brodziak and Mathieu Roy. There weren’t great expectations of either when the season began. Both started with limited playing time and used the opportunities they got to earn more ice time. Roy, in particular, even with the stretches he missed because of injuries, upped his stock in a big way.
Gregor: Brad Winchester is the big power forward the Oilers drastically need. He improved his consistency on a nightly basis, led the team in goals and became a better fighter. He’ll have a realistic shot to make the Oilers when they return.
Matheson: Mathieu Roy. He looked like a spare part at the beginning of the year but by season’s end, he was their most consistent blueliner. He makes a good first pass out of his zone, he can hammer the puck, and he can fight. He’s suddenly in the mix as a possible NHLer, not bad for the 215th player taken in the 2003 draft.
Weidman: When I posed this question to both Kevin Lowe and Scott Howson at the conclusion of the season, the first name out of both their mouths was Brad Winchester. He’s turning into the power forward the Oilers have been looking for.
Flaming: Winchester made believers out of a lot of people and will get a legit shot next fall with the big club. Brodziak and Roy will have to prove that 2004-05 wasn’t a one-shot deal.
#2 – Conversely, which player’s stock dropped the most?
Brownlee: Doug Lynch, followed closely by Jeff Woywitka. Lynch went from being an all-star in 2003-04 to an accident waiting to happen (and often it did) this season. He needs a bounce-back year just to be considered a prospect again. Woywitka shook off a bad start and was better in the second half, but he didn’t help himself at all with a season that was mediocre, at best.
Gregor: Mike Bishai. Played with the big club in 2004, yet struggled for the majority of the season.
Matheson: Jeff Woywitka. Considering they got him for Mike Comrie and he was a first-round draft choice of the Flyers, he should have been the go-to guy on their blueline. He wasn’t. He seems unsure what kind of player to be. Should he rush the puck, put up offensive numbers or stay at home. As Kevin Lowe always says, players have to decide what kind of player they have to be to get to the NHL. Woywitka doesn’t assert himself enough.
Weidman: I think Jesse Niinimaki’s stock may have dropped the most. Expectations were high when he joined the team after a decent stint against a lot of older players in his home country. It didn’t help his cause that the Runners’ slide in the standings was slow and steady and the coaches figured they couldn’t experiment too much with the young guys.
Flaming: I’ll agree with Bishai because he fell the farthest — NHL ‘tweener’ one summer to probable free agent the next.
#3 – Biggest (positive) surprise performance from a young Road Runner this past season.
Brownlee: Brodziak, again.
Gregor: Mathieu Roy, named d-man of the year. Basically came out of nowhere, has toughness, a great shot and moves the puck well. Still a few years away, but he made great progress. Close second goes to Kyle Brodziak.
Matheson: Kyle Brodziak. He didn’t play much early in the season but in very limited time, he still put up numbers. He’s got offensive tools and while still a project, might actually see the NHL some day.
Weidman: The biggest surprise from a young Roadrunner would have to be Mathieu Roy. I had the pleasure of covering the 2001 Memorial Cup when he played for Val D’Or and to be quite honest, he didn’t jump out at me then. He certainly did this year after early bouts with injuries and showed his hard work ethic at practices when he was riding the pine.
Flaming: No one expected Mathieu Roy to be the offensive leader he was but Brodziak’s performance suggests a possible NHL future where one wasn’t necessarily pictured before.
#4 – Which Road Runner player (24 yrs. and younger) was the biggest disappointment?
Brownlee: Jesse Niinimaki. As the old saying goes, “He likes everything about being a pro hockey player except the games and the practices.” Didn’t work hard enough to make the transition or stay in the lineup when he was given the chance. His talent is obvious, but his indifference and lack of work ethic was alarming. And, please, no excuses about the shoulder. It’s his heart that’s in question now.
Gregor: Jesse Niinimaki. Needs to work harder plain and simple.
Matheson: Doug Lynch. He loves to play but he regressed after a solid 2003-2004 season when the team was based in Toronto. He tried too hard this year on the back-end, and didn’t move the puck as smartly as they would like. GM Kevin Lowe has always been a big fan, but he must have been wondering what was up with the former second-round draft pick. His foot speed has to get better.
Weidman: Jamie Wright. For a guy with that much NHL experience and for one of the better-conditioned athletes, I’m not sure why he didn’t light up this league this year.
Flaming: Because my hopes were so high for him, I’ll say Niinimaki too. He made it an easy decision for the coaches to keep him out of the lineup. Next year will either be a good one or his last one in North America.
#5 – Do the Oilers put too much emphasis on winning in the AHL as opposed to player development?
Gregor: I don’t think so. Part of developing is learning how to win. Should Ward have played Niinimaki 18 minutes a night for 20 games to see what he had? No, he would have lost the whole team. Players are used to competing for jobs all the way through junior or college so the AHL shouldn’t be any different.
Matheson: No. They’re into development more than winning and had a pretty young team. They found out that when the going got tough, some guys went missing the last six weeks or so, though. Not a good sign.
Weidman: There’s a fine balance between winning and player development. Remember, you also want to teach your prospects how to win. Why do you think juniors that have Memorial Cup experience are so sought after? You also need those wins to make the playoffs and how a player performs in the playoffs is what NHL coaches and General Mangers are most interested in.
Flaming: No. I certainly understand the argument from those that say ‘yes’ but development is better in a winning atmosphere so that must be a priority too.
#6 – Was Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers handled correctly this year?
Brownlee: Overall, yes. The injury (bone bruise) threw him for a loop and some bad performances hurt his confidence. Fans wanting to see more of Deslauriers should remember that organizations do what they can to protect high-round draft picks. Often, keeping a player, particularly a young goaltender, out of the lineup is an attempt to pick the right spots and give him the best chance to succeed. There were times this season when his confidence was extremely low and throwing him back in might have done more damage than good.
Gregor: For sure. It was his first year as a pro. Bring him along slowly and next year he can play 55-60 games. He didn’t lose any confidence, if anything he looked more confident at the end of the year compared to the start.
Matheson: Hard to say. In Lowell, Cam Ward played a ton as a rookie and was spectacular. Deslauriers was brought along slowly. Hurting his leg in a practice put him back a month or more, which didn’t help. He’s still only 20, and next year he’ll split duties, likely with Mike Morrison. Goalies take awhile. He’s still their best prospect.
Weidman: I’m no General Manager but I would’ve let Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers play at least half a season in the ECHL. He was used to playing a ton in the QMJHL and to cut his workload that much I think is taking a side step or going backwards in his development.
Flaming: Hindsight is 20/20 but I thought all along that JDD and Mike Morrison should have been the tandem in Edmonton and that the re-signing of Tyler Moss was unnecessary. That’ll be the plan next year.
#7 – Should Geoff Ward have played Jesse Niinimaki more?
Brownlee: No. He didn’t deserve to play more.
Gregor: I don’t think he worked hard enough to garner more ice time. It definitely hurt his confidence, but next year will be the make or break year for him. Give him a legitimate chance at the start of the year and see if he earns the right for more ice.
Matheson: No. In fact, he was a big disappointment. Maybe the shoulder injury he had in Finland set him back, but he didn’t work hard enough in practices to win over the coaches enough to play him more. If he doesn’t show more in 2005-06, the center could be a bust. He was good enough to play in the Finnish Elite League but we saw little of that talent in his first North American year.
Weidman: When Niinimaki was thrown into the lineup, he didn’t force the coaching staff to give him more playing time. He had a stretch of five or six games on the team’s ridiculously long road trip where he played well and I think it was because he had more time on the top two lines.
Flaming: You can’t give ice time to players who don’t deserve it, no matter how high they were drafted.
#8 – The late season debut of J.F. Jacques offered a preview for next year. What impression did he make on you and what do you think his potential is?
Brownlee: Jacques made a good impression. He’s raw but willing, and I’d rather see a kid who’s sometimes too gung-ho than one who doesn’t seem to care. He moves fairly well for a big banger and has decent touch around the net. He could be a fourth-liner in the NHL in two to three years.
Gregor: Big and strong forward who can skate and isn’t afraid to hit. Will play a significant role with the Runners next season.
Matheson: Jacques looks like your prototypical banger. Good skater, strong on the boards. He could be an NHL third liner down the road, something the Oilers have lots of.
Weidman: I was impressed with J.F. Jacques. I didn’t think a guy that big could be such a smooth skater. I’d compare him to a bigger, maybe a little bit faster version of Jeremy Roenick.
Flaming: His first game was fantastic but each game after that was gradually less impressive. I liked his size, his speed, and of course the hitting but I was hoping to see some of the offensive flair he displayed in Baie-Comeau. Next year could tell a lot.
#9 – How do you feel about Jordan Little and his potential with the Oilers?
Brownlee: Not sold on Little. Will need to see more of him.
Gregor: Didn’t show much. Not very flashy, will be a No. 6 at best next year with the Road Runners.
Matheson: Jordan Little was at a disadvantage coming in so late after the Manitoba Bisons were eliminated in the Canadian University finals. He’s big and can really shoot, but I suspect he’ll start next year in the [ECHL]. He’s a project more than a prospect.
Weidman: Jordan Little’s definitely got the size to fit into the pro game but the Oilers/Road Runners have a surplus of defensive defenseman. Who knows? Maybe he could turn into another Luke Richardson?
Flaming: I like his eagerness and his attitude off the ice, but during the two home games he played in he looked a bit lost at times. Chalk that up to inexperience and nervousness and we’ll see if he can crack the Road Runners lineup next year.
#10 – Should Geoff Ward return to coach the Road Runners again next year?
Gregor: Did a good job with Winchester and Brodziak. Players seem to like playing for him. He will be back, but there is no way Joe Paterson should return. He is a forward coaching d-men. They need a real defenseman to further the progress of Lynch and Woywitka. Both seemed stagnant in their development.
Matheson: Yes, Ward should return. He’s a good teacher, but he was stuck with a team that couldn’t score this past year, much like the Oilers. Long on try but not enough offensive wizardry.
Weidman: I think Geoff Ward is a great teacher of the game. You can tell he studies all facets of the game in depth. I’m not sure what happens to athletes when they turn pro but there’s a completely different way of dealing with them. Ward’s been used to coaching younger players for such a long time, some of those tactics probably don’t work on pros. He’ll develop something that does work and I think he should be back next year.
Flaming: I don’t blame the past year on Ward but I wonder if his three to four-year life expectancy is up. Unless Rob Daum is available then my answer on Ward is ‘yes’. Daum would be my first choice because he’s got a proven track record with working and winning with 20-25 year olds and for the next few years, the ‘Runners are going to be very young.
#11 – Do you believe that Alexei Mikhnov will ever play a game with the Oilers? What about Jani Rita?
Brownlee: Mikhnov? Let’s see, a Russian who just got married and is making a pretty good living back in his own country without having to leave home? Geez, that’s a tough one. Not! Rita? He’ll get another look or at least he should.
Gregor: Rita is done as an Oiler. Mikhnov is a long shot. Depends if he really wants to play in the NHL or just wants to play pro at home?
Matheson: Until Alexei Mikhnov gets his butt over to North America and forgets about the Russian Super League, he remains a huge question mark. His skating is still suspect, although it’s hard to overlook his size (6’5, 230 pounds). Will he ever play for the Oilers? No. Will Jani Rita? They’ll trade his rights. He’s got the tools and a hard body, but he’s not one of the coach’s favorites.
Weidman: I’d say the chances of seeing Alexei Mikhnov in an Oilers uniform is about the same as seeing Gene Principe on the Canadian Tour. As for Jani Rita, it all depends on the lockout situation – he might be ahead of some third or fourth line guys that didn’t play much in this past lockout year and his numbers with HPK Hämeenlinna were pretty good. I’d say he has a 50/50 shot at the Oilers.
Flaming: I’m the eternal optimist but even I have basically written Mikhnov off now. Rita I think will be on the Oilers’ 23-man roster on opening night.
#12 – Have we seen the last of Tony Salmelainen in North America?
Brownlee: Yes. Salmelainen is not in the plans.
Gregor: I’d say yes. Great speed no hands and too small.
Matheson: Yes. Tony Salmelainen has great wheels and he can shoot but he’s probably too small to handle the NHL traffic. He was very good at home for the Road Runners this year but didn’t score on the road. He wants to be an NHLer, but he may be more suited to playing back in Finland.
Weidman: I don’t know how homesick Salmelainen might be but I think he’ll play in North America again. Any club would love his speed, he can put AHL all-star on his resume now and he still finished tied for the Road Runners lead in scoring with almost 50 points (but he should have been around the 70-point mark). He’ll be back.
Flaming: They’ll retain his rights but I don’t think the Oilers will bring him over any time soon.
#13 – What are the chances of Matt Greene turning pro next year?
Brownlee: Zero. Greene has already indicated he’ll stay in school.
Gregor: If there is NHL, Greene will surely turn pro. If not, he returns to college due to the hassles of signing a contract when there is no existing CBA.
Matheson: Very good. Greene has outlived college hockey. He’s a snarly defenseman who’s a target of refs in the college game. Most people say he’s got a lot of Jason Smith in him. If so, he’ll play in the NHL. He may need a year in the minors first, though.
Weidman: I watched a bit of the Frozen Four hockey tournament on the NHL Network this winter. Matt Greene stood out and it wasn’t just because I was specifically watching for Oilers’ draft picks. However, he’s only got one year left to get a degree and the Fighting Sioux are perennial contenders for a national championship. I wouldn’t turn pro if I were him. He’s got lots of time to make money, he’s only got one more shot at a NCAA national title.
Flaming: After speaking with him at length, I get the impression that he’d be content at North Dakota for his fourth and final year but if the CBA gets done this summer, he’d be more than willing to listen to an Oiler offer.
#14 – Devan Dubnyk, Liam Reddox, Bryan Young, Stephane Goulet and Tyler Spurgeon are the Oiler prospects eligible for Canada’s WJC team next year. Who, if any, from that list do you think will play in Vancouver for Canada?
Brownlee: Dubnyk and Reddox have the best chance.
Gregor: Dubnyk is the only one with a realistic chance. I doubt any of the others are even invited to the 40-player summer camp.
Matheson: As much as I love Spurgeon’s heart and his ability to make things happen, he plays the wrong position. Canada is always very strong in the middle. Dubnyk is the only legit possibility but he didn’t do a good job at the Canadian camp last December and was a predictable cut. He was stuck on a very average junior team in Kamloops this past year which didn’t help him.
Weidman: Dubnyk will be for sure, we’ll see if he’s the staring goalie. I don’t think Spurgeon will make it even though he had a good Memorial Cup. I’ve never seen the other guys play but you can’t argue with Reddox’s numbers in Peterborough. Young doesn’t really fit the profile if you go by this year’s corps of defenseman Brent Sutter went with because most of them were point-getters, captains or played a lot of power play on their club teams. Stephane Goulet’s listed at 6’3 and 200 pounds. You have to be able to skate to play at the World Juniors. I’ve never seen him skate but he can’t be that fast at those dimensions.
Flaming: Dubnyk has the U-18 experience and was also at both camps last year. Reddox has to get at least an invite after two consecutive seasons as his OHL team’s top scorer. Spurgeon possibly but only because there are going to be so many new faces on the team next year that they’ll need to audition a lot of players. He could fill the Colin Fraser role in 2006.
#15 – Roman Tesliuk and Geoff Paukovich are eligible to represent their countries (Russia and U.S.) next year. What are their chances?
Brownlee: I like Paukovich’s chances as a role player.
Gregor: Paukovich’s size and grit should earn him a long look. Tesliuk could be a bit player.
Matheson: I actually thought Tesliuk should have been on the Russian team last year off his play in the Western League. He can skate and he’s got a tough exterior on the back-end. Paukovich had a very nice rookie year at U of Denver. He’s very strong, I’d say both guys chances are 60-40 that they make the Russian and U.S. teams.
Weidman: I’d say their chances are very good. Roman Tesliuk was one of the very few WHL’ers that the Russian select squad used in their tour of the CHL last winter while the rest of the guys were still playing in Russia. I’d say that’s a good sign. Paukovich has been groomed for the World Juniors since his days with the U.S. National Team development program. Have you seen a picture of this guy? He’s as thick as the haze at a Green Day concert.
Flaming: I don’t know how the U.S. could ignore Paukovich’s size and ability plus the fact that he has experience with the National Program and has played international several times before. He’s already earned a summer camp invite. Tesliuk was on the short list last year and should be again in 2006 but somehow I think he’ll be snubbed because he’s playing in North America.
#16 – Salmelainen, Rita, Niinimaki, Bishai, Henley, Winchester and Plourde are at the ends of their contracts. Who do you believe the Oilers will bring back and who will be allowed to leave as free agents?
Brownlee: Rita, Niinimaki and Winchester will be retained.
Gregor: Winchester is a guarantee. Bishai is local and that could help him, plus he at least ended the year strong. Niinimaki is a first round pick they won’t give up on him this early. Rita and Salmelainen aren’t big loses and Plourde and Henley are only brought back if they need to fill spots in the ECHL.
Matheson: The Oilers will resign Winchester, who’s close to replacing Brad Isbister as a big body on the wing. I think Salmelainen and Rita will sign in Finland. They have too much invested in Niinimaki not to bring him back but Bishai, after a nice late-season Oiler stint in 2004, went backwards last year with the Road Runners. I’m not sure they’ll sign him, again.
Weidman: I’m not sure where Jani Rita sits on the Oilers’ radar; he could be let go. Brent Henley will be in tough for a contract and Mike Bishai’s probably on the fence leaning toward the ‘staying’ side. The rest will stay.
Flaming: Bishai, Henley, Plourde and Salmelainen are done but the others will be back.
#17 – What type of player do you feel the Oilers need to draft the most, whenever the next event takes place?
Brownlee: Best player available, but the emphasis, if it comes down to a group of players who are neck-and-neck in the opinion of the scouting staff, should be on a defenseman with offensive upside. It looked likely a year ago either Lynch or Woywitka would address that need, but that’s in question now.
Gregor: They still need scoring. They lack punch up front so take a chance on a scorer. I don’t care if he isn’t a great skater; if he has great hands call his name.
Matheson: They badly need scorers. They’re top-heavy in role players, with big heart. They’ll probably go for a winger. They could use an offensive blueliner too, somebody to run a power play. They’re force-feeding Marc-Andre Bergeron for the time being.
Weidman: Just somebody who can score, I don’t care what position.
Flaming: They need a North American winger who can snipe them goals and they also need a blue-chip offensive blueliner.
#18 – Of the last five drafts, which weekend do you feel has been the best performance for the Oilers?
Brownlee: Right now it’s 2001 because of Ales Hemsky. Three years from now, it could be 2003 because of Marc-Antoine Pouliot, J.F. Jacques, Zach Stortini, Kyle Brodziak and Mathieu Roy.
Gregor: Tough question. Last year could turn out great with Schremp and Dubnyk but they are still question marks so I’d say that it’s either 2001 or 2002. In 2002 they took Niinimaki in the first round (highly questionable), but after that their next three picks were solid; Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene. I would have to go with 2001 because Hemsky, Markannen and Lynch (two games) have all played in the NHL, not to mention that late picks Ales Pisa and Kari Haakana also played briefly for the Oilers. For the short term it is 2001, but the long-term could be vastly different.
Matheson: The 2003 draft was a very good one. Marc-Antoine Pouliot in the first round, Providence College forward Colin MacDonald in the second round and Jacques with their No. 3 pick. Plus Roy, Brodziak, Kelowna winger Troy Bodie and Serb forward Dragan Umicevic, who played in the Swedish Elite League this past year, with picks after 180.
Weidman: It’s a toss up between 2001 and 2003. If Jussi Markkanen can repeat what he did this past winter in the NHL than I’d say the 2001 draft gets the nod. Hemsky’s a keeper and Doug Lynch has the potential of cracking an NHL roster within a couple of years that would be three regulars from that draft year. It’s too early to tell for 2003 but Pouliot and Jacques stock keep climbing and we know the organization is high on Brodziak, Roy and Stortini.
Flaming: I agree that 2001 and it’s five players with NHL games played has to be considered the best so far, but in the end I think 2003 and 2004 will both turn out as better years for the club.
#19 – In 2003 the Oilers traded their first round pick to New Jersey and moved down in the draft. As a result of the deal the Devils selected Zack Parise and Edmonton ended up with Pouliot and Jacques. At this point, who do you feel “won” the trade?
Brownlee: Too early to tell. Parise had a good rookie year in Albany and was good enough to be added to the U.S. Team at the World Championships. He’s made the jump to the next level. So has Jacques, in limited duty, but Pouliot still hasn’t played a pro game. Right now, it’s a wash.
Gregor: Oilers without a doubt. Pouliot will score more at the NHL level and Jacques could be a decent fourth or possibly third line guy.
Matheson: It’s too early to say who won after they traded down with Jersey in 2003 and gave up a shot at Parise. Parise was very good in his rookie AHL season in Albany, on a bad team. But, Pouliot looks like he could be a second-line NHL center in time and Jacques an Ethan Moreau type on a third line.
Weidman: At this point the Devils are “winning” the trade. Parise’s 58 points in 73 games with Albany is very impressive. Wait a couple years and I’m pretty confident the Oilers will say they made out with better deal. It depends on Jacques. Pouliot should be able to match Parise’s numbers in his first year pro.
Flaming: Knowing that there were three or four players of more interest than Parise was to the Oilers at the time they made that trade, getting two quality players for the price of one is a great deal. However, the proof is in the pudding and until Pouliot and Jacques play professionally you can’t say for certain. At this point though, if I’m the Oilers I’m pretty happy.
#20 – The London Knights went 31 games undefeated from the start of the season and the Rimouski Oceanic went 35 games undefeated to end the season and into the playoffs. Which feat is more impressive to you? (Note: this question was asked just prior to the Memorial Cup tournament).
Brownlee: Both streaks are remarkable, but any team that has Sidney Crosby on it will have a lot of teams looking to knock them off just to prove a point, so I’d give the edge to Rimouski.
Gregor: Because Rimouski did it into the playoffs I’d go with them. But with both being in the Memorial Cup, if either team wins that is what matters most. Neither streak will mean much if they don’t win the Cup.
Matheson: The Knights were under the microscope very early in the OHL season and kept their streak going to beat Brandon’s all-time record. I say their streak is better than Rimouski’s. I also think the OHL is better than the Quebec League.
Weidman: Rimouski’s streak is impressive because they accomplished it when the games really matter. London’s streak is equally impressive because the team didn’t have a feeling out process and the 16 and 17-year-olds on the team had to win while getting used to OHL hockey. London’s is officially in the record book so I’ll give them the nod. Besides I think they’re going to win the Memorial Cup. The streak will be even more impressive when the cap it off with the big prize.
Flaming: I think Rimouski’s feat is more impressive because it involved the postseason where the intensity is much higher than at the start of the year. Not to take anything away from London because that was truly unbelievable too and on average they probably faced stiffer competition than what is available in the Q.
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