Oilers June offseason update

By Guy Flaming

In many ways it’s odd to think that the offseason has once again fallen on the hockey world, after all, with the NHL on hiatus for the past nine months, the 2004 summer stretched unnaturally right through last winter. But that obviously isn’t the case as every other league in the world was fully functional and with the recent completion of the AHL Calder Cup tournament and the Memorial Cup, the 2005 offseason is well underway.

Road Runners now Road Kill

The first order of business for the Edmonton Oilers this offseason was to apply to the AHL for permission to suspend operations of the Road Runners for the coming season. After Edmonton Sun scribe Robin Brownlee broke the story a day earlier, the Oiler brass held a news conference detailing their decision.

“Today’s decision, much like last summer’s decision to bring the club here (from Toronto), is based on what’s in the best interest for the Oiler organization overall,” said Road Runners president Stew MacDonald. “Part of that as we move ahead is ensuring that the Oilers have all the resources required as they are in the planning stages for the much hoped for return of the NHL.”

According to the Oilers, the temporary suspension of their AHL affiliate is far from a groundbreaking move for the minor league as several other NHL organizations have done likewise in years past. The move did come as a surprise to many fans who were told all year long that, although it was not a long term plan to keep the ‘Runners in town, the team would be here for more than just a single year. When asked to explain what changed since April when the organization again stated the franchise would be in Edmonton for 2005-06, Oilers President and CEO Patrick LaForge said “Time has marched on.”

From the organization’s standpoint, suspending the AHL team will enable every Oiler employee and every pro hockey fan in Edmonton to focus solely on the NHL product.

“This is about the Oilers; it’s about our Oilers sponsors, our customers and season ticket holders in the city and Northern Alberta,” explained LaForge. “It’s about focusing and being ready fully and 100 percent to kick start this business if and when we’re asked, and our heart tells us that we are going to be asked.”

The Road Runners were perceived to either be potential rivals for ticket sales thus cannibalizing the Oilers fan base or that the AHL club would sustain huge losses as interest dwindled with the return of the NHL.

“We do believe that if the NHL does start up this year, the Road Runners present the opportunity for some confusion in the market place about what’s important for hockey fans. It represents potentially some distraction for our organization, our staff and sales and marketing people having to cover a dual brand strategy,” added LaForge. “We think the cleanest and most logical thing for us to do is to lock onto our Oiler re-launch plan.”

Ramifications to Prospects

The result of the Oilers’ announcement is that the organization will enter into at least two partnerships with other NHL teams in order to find new places for their players to develop next year. One source has confirmed that the Hamilton Bulldogs (MTL) and the Iowa Stars (DAL) are close to being announced but that as many as two smaller deals are also still possible, likely with the Norfolk Admirals (CHI) and the Toronto Marlies (TOR). With between 15 and 20 players to find AHL homes for, the Oilers have been aggressively competing with both the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes to reach agreements.

“We’ve always believed in having our own team and our own coaches,” said Scott Howson who is both the Oilers Assistant GM and the Governor/GM of the Road Runners. “We did have a successful run with Hamilton two years ago but our preference is to have our own team with all of our players with signing some veteran depth players to help our younger players. That’s what we’ll continue to focus on although we won’t be able to do that for the upcoming season.”

Now the concern is with figuring out which players will go where and which free agents to re-sign. The biggest concern is in regards to their goaltending prospects, both Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and restricted free agent Mike Morrison.

“The concern about Jeff is at the top of our list and we think we’re going to resolve that satisfactorily,” advised Howson. “Nobody is just going to be given ice time wherever they go, and they wouldn’t have just been given ice time in our organization either, so it will be up to Jeff wherever he lands to earn his ice time. For us to think he’s going to go into someplace and be the No. 1 guy in this situation is just wrong. At best he’s going to go into a situation where he shares time.”

Kevin Prendergast, Edmonton VP of Hockey Operations and chief scout, agrees that the split affiliation could potentially impact JDD the hardest, but points to previous success the organization had in Hamilton as reason for optimism.

“Every team has a high-end goaltender that they’re trying to develop and for us to throw him in and try to say that we want at least 40 games, I don’t know if we’ll get that. From a mental standpoint that’s something Jeff will have to work on and if they get into the playoffs he might be the guy they use,” he said. “That’s how it happened for Ty (Conklin) once we got into the playoffs. If it gets to the point where we’re really unhappy with the playing time Jeff’s getting we’ll just send him to the ECHL and make sure he plays every game while he’s there.”

And Morrison?

“We’re stuck,” Prendergast sighed. “I’ll have to talk to Mike and see. It might mean another year in the ECHL because we don’t have a place to play, which is unfair because he doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s playing though and that’s the most important thing, but it might be an AHL team too if we can find someone that will give him the opportunity.”

Although the rest of the forwards and defensemen will be scattered between two to four teams, they are expected to get ample playing time in whichever city they end up in. Although Phoenix and Florida are also looking to place players, the Oilers feel confident that their package of prospects will be more attractive to other AHL teams to add to their own.

“We feel we have high-end kids when you look at J.F. Jacques and Zack Stortini, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Brad Winchester and Jeff Woywitka, these are kids that can play in the league right away and everybody wants to win,” said Prendergast. “If we can mix them into a team like we had in Hamilton before we’ll be fine. The goaltending is the only position I’m worried about at this point.”

If in fact the Oilers do reach agreements with Montreal and Dallas as speculated, expect to see the bulk of the higher end prospects being sent to Hamilton as it would be a much easier city for the players to be recalled from and also for the Edmonton brass to travel to in order to follow them.

At the same time, most of Edmonton’s American-born prospects are likely headed to a team south of the border for immigration reasons. So while most of the before mentioned players would be placed in Hamilton, others like Winchester, Jason Platt, Kenny Smith, Nate DiCasmirro, Toby Petersen and Eddie Caron are likely headed for an affiliate in the States.

This development also makes it highly unlikely that some free agents will be re-signed such as Mike Bishai, Brent Henley, Tomas Micka and newly turned pro Jake Brenk.

European players will probably head back overseas should they fail to crack the Oilers roster with the exception of Jesse Niinimaki whom the club would prefer to keep a lot closer.

“I think we would prefer to have Jesse over here, I think it’s more likely to impact a guy like Tony Salmelainen than Jesse,” said Howson. “It may end up impacting Jesse or Alexei Mikhnov, if he was going to come over, so we have to decide if we have places for those two guys to play if we bring them over.

Prospects like Marty St. Pierre, Brock Radunske and Simon Ferguson who spent the year in the ECHL last year are probably the ones who will be hurt the most by this decision and they might be headed right back to Greenville again.

“We like Marty and the intention was to bring him back to play with our team but that will have to be reviewed,” said Howson.

Is the option there to buy out veteran players, like Toby Petersen or Rocky Thompson, who might be occupying AHL spots that would be better used for player development?

“You can do anything with money I’m sure, but it’s not our intention to buy anybody out,” said Howson. “All the players with years left on their contracts, we will find places for them. Once we get our deals done, those are players that teams will be happy to have, they’re all good AHL players.”

Player Reaction

Hockey’s Future spoke with some of the Road Runners after the announcement was made and their first reaction to the news was as one would expect.

“Obviously my initial reaction is disappointment,” said center J.J. Hunter.

“I’m just completely bummed out about it,” echoed rearguard Jason Platt.

Both players greatly appreciated playing in the storied building that once housed legends named Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Fuhr. but they also had an appreciation for playing in a hockey market like Edmonton.

“I loved playing in a city that had the history and heritage background that Edmonton has; it was a joy to play there,” said Hunter. “The people were amazing, the city was great, and I just don’t have enough good things to say about Edmonton.”

“It just doesn’t get any better than playing in front of an Edmonton crowd because let’s face it, they’re the best hockey fans there are,” declared Platt.

Although both players are under contract for next season, the pair also envisions that this news could mean temporarily playing in the ECHL, a definite step back.

“That’s pretty much my first reaction,” confirmed Platt. “I’m not one of those top players that are really rare, I’m more of a dime-a-dozen. The way I play hockey and the job that I have, you can find pretty much any place so this could really affect me pretty badly come the fall.”

Although only one of four defensemen to play for the ‘Runners who is under contract, because AHL spots could be limited, the native Californian is concerned that he’ll lose precious development time in the AHL. The idea of a split affiliation doesn’t really worry Platt though as he knows from experience that even being in the AHL just for practices can be better than dropping down a level.

“What I learned from this year is that you don’t necessarily need games to get better; I only played 44 games this year and it was the most development that I’ve ever had,” he said. “Day in and day out I was practicing with some of the best players around and that improved me tremendously and whether it’s in games or practice, if I’m at the highest level possible that’s where I feel I’m going to improve.”

The down side to split affiliations is that the players would be working under another franchise’s rules and coaches and therefore likely won’t benefit from politics when they arise.

“If politics come involved then so be it, there’s not much I can do about that,” Platt said. “All I can do is go out and use the time to get better and hopefully I’ll get good enough that politics won’t matter and they’ll have to play me.”

For those who have been with the Oiler farm system for more than a couple years, moving has become a thing of habit but still the news is unsettling, especially because a new home has not been announced yet.

“I was talking with Nate DiCasmirro and he was saying that we’ll have played four years for the organization but in four different cities,” laughed Hunter. “It’s always nice to know where you’re going but at the same time, as much as you’d like to know where you’ll end up you just have to roll with the punches and go where you are sent.”

After stops in Hamilton, Toronto, Edmonton and most of a year in Columbus of the ECHL, next season will be the fifth straight for Hunter in a new locale. Platt on the other hand, was just getting used to being a pro and the thought of splitting from many of his teammates and eventually playing against them is not a pleasant one.

“It’s incredibly discouraging because out of any team I have ever played on this was my favorite,” declared Platt. “Just the way all the guys got along, how they treated each other, no one thought they were better than anyone else, we were just a team. We obviously struggled at the end, but guys still respected each other and on top of that, having Geoff Ward as a coach did wonders for me. I was really hoping to play for him again next year so this is just discouraging all the way around.”

Hunter sees a silver lining to this particular cloud though.

“With the prospect of being on a split affiliation you know that it’s going to be the top players from both organizations and with that comes an opportunity to be a very successful and winning hockey club and anytime you have that opportunity as a player you’d better be excited,” the Saskatchewan product said. “As much as I would love to be in Edmonton again, I’m still looking forward to the new season.”

“No matter where you’re going next year you have an opportunity to play hockey so you’d better be thankful,” Hunter added. “A lot of players over the past few years have had trouble finding jobs and work and I just feel fortunate to still be able to play within the organization that has given me the opportunity and one that has as much class as the Edmonton Oilers have.”

AHL in 2006-07

The suspension of the Road Runners is only to be a one-year arrangement and then the Oilers intend on placing a new AHL affiliate in an as yet unknown location.

“We haven’t explored too much yet but I have a list of 10-12 new potential sites that we’ll look at over the next few months to make sure that we do our homework and find the right place,” said Howson, “We would prefer it’s in Canada but that’s something we’ll delve into.”

“If you don’t do it right, you can lose a lot of money,” LaForge cautioned. “You need the right city, the right market place and the right partners and these things need a lot of diligence to be put together. We want to retain our driving capability on the ice and in the locker room and find local partners in a market place that has a hockey penchant.”

What the Oilers are looking for is a similar scenario to what the enjoyed in Toronto where they supplied the players to a local owner who took care of the business aspects of operating the team.

“I think that the business model was really good,” confirmed LaForge. “I don’t think you can go into somebody else’s market and tell them how to sell tickets or market a team, you need local partnership. Leave us the hockey side, we’ll leave you the business side and let’s find a partnership that makes sense.”

The Return of the Kings?

The WHL recently awarded an expansion franchise to the former owners of the Tri-City Americans to begin playing in Chilliwack B.C. in 2006-07, much to the dismay of some league executives and owners. The resulting 21-team league would create scheduling difficulties and unbalanced conferences and as a result, talks of the league further expanding to 22 teams began heating up once again.

In mid June the league’s board of governors met and agreed to vote on Edmonton’s request for a franchise on October 12th. All indications seem to point towards a league commissioner who wants a new team in Edmonton for 2006-07, but that he might have to convince some of the various owners who are opposed to expansion at the cost of perceived watering down of talent pool.

“Edmonton fits the vision we’ve put forward as far as potentially adding a 22nd team,” Commissioner Ron Robison told the Edmonton Sun. “It’s a question of if the governors agree. My view of it is we should consider it in October and probably find a way for Edmonton to join the league.”

If the Oilers get their WHL franchise, it would mean the return of the Edmonton Oil Kings name to the local hockey market, one which the Road Runners proved exists for the lower income sports fan.

“There’s a market for a $20 and lower value, fun and entertainment ticket in elite hockey,” said LaForge during the Road Runners press conference. “We think that market is there and would like to develop it further.”

However, when asked directly about the WHL, LaForge opted to step back from the topic.

“I don’t see us taking our eye off the Oiler ball for at least another 12 months and full dedication to that and our customers,” said the Oilers President. “I’m leaving the WHL to the WHL, I don’t have a lot of expectations for this year.”

“Oiler fans didn’t come to Road Runner games,” insisted LaForge, “We know the market is there and it needs to be serviced but not by an NHL product. In this situation there is all the reason for Diet Coke. You need Coke Classic and Diet Coke; you’re not going to fully service the range of the market place in such a hockey city with only one brand.”

That second brand appears destined to be the Edmonton Oil Kings the name of the old WCHL franchise that existed in the city from 1968-76.

Looking to the Draft

June is normally the biggest month of the year for those who focus heavily on prospects, but without a NHL Entry Draft, everyone in the game is feeling the void of not having that annual highlight event.

Edmonton’s scouting staff and management brass gathered in the Alberta capital in mid June in order to hash out their draft list. With purse strings pulled tight due to the lockout, travel was a big challenge for the scouts this year as was creating a list without knowing exactly where they would be picking.

“In a normal year the scouts will see anywhere from 2000-2500 games but this year with the restrictions on travel they saw probably around 1500 games,” said Prendergast. “I think going into our meetings we still crossed over enough to get a good read on all the high-end guys. What makes it the most difficult is not knowing in what order we’re going to be picking in. When it’s all said and done, I think we’re going to be as ready as any team in the league heading into the draft.”

“We have to prepare for a lot bigger listing than we normally do. We were able to crossover and see all the high-end guys in the playoffs, which is really good,” he added. “We’re really well prepared, I’m actually a little surprised at how well-prepared we are.”

The staff was temporarily scaled back this year so some scouts had much larger areas to cover than in a normal year. Toronto-based Gord “Puff” Pell left the organization a couple years ago and was never replaced, and then last summer Bob Mancini accepted a position as GM of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit leaving another void in Edmonton’s OHL, NCAA and USHL coverage.

“Brad (Davis) had to travel a lot because he was covering for Mancini, not long travel but a lot of travel because he had so many teams to cover,” outlined Prendergast. “We were able to move Bill Dandy into Ontario a bit and Bob Brown was able to travel through the West while I sent Stu (MacGregor) and Lorne (Davis) and Chris (McCarthy) into Minnesota to see the high schools. We’ve had at least three guys see the high-end guys so the votes are always 2-1 or 3-0, so we’ve been lucky.”

Prendergast has already spoken with someone he believes he will add to the scouting staff in the coming season but acknowledges the loss of Mancini as a major one.

“It’s huge, not only by not having someone in that same area, but Bob had so many connections with USA Hockey and college coaches and it’s such a big area to cover now because there’s so many US kids now playing hockey,” he explained. “The USHL is growing into a big league, in Minnesota high school there are like 500 teams to cover in that one little area, and Bob had the insight to be able to talk to a lot of these guys. That was the hardest part of losing Bob and it’s something we need to address.”

In Europe the Oilers have just the duo of Kent Nilsson and Frank Musil on the scouting circuit but when asked if the organization was under-represented, Prendergast countered by explaining “The thing is that over there, the tournaments are so top-end that all the best players are in those tournaments.”

“I think it might change as time goes on because there are more and more countries playing the game so we might have to hire more people,” Prendergast conceded. “In a normal year we make sure that all of our scouts go over there for at least two tournaments which means they see these guys play anywhere from five to eight times in a tournament so their reading on them is good. Some kids slip through like Anze Kopitar in Slovenia and Morton Madsen from Denmark but right now I think we’re fine.”

There has been a small philosophical change within the organization this time around as well in regards to smaller players. For the last four years the Oilers have drafted with the plan of getting much larger and now that they have done that, added to the anticipation that the game will open up to allow skilled players more room, the possibility of a talented small player being chosen now exists.

“It’s never really hindered us from taking small guys, maybe in the first round if one guy is 5’9 and another is 6’4 we’d go that way but we think the game is going to open up as they look to let the skilled players play,” the Oiler executive said. “In this meeting we’ve had a bit more of a priority that if a guy is 5’10, we put him where we think he should go rather than putting the 6’3 guy ahead of him.”

“If the NHL goes to a zero tolerance on obstruction and opens the game up for the offensive guys, does that mean we should draft more skilled, smaller defensemen than previously?” asked GM Kevin Lowe. “Our emphasis right now is to draft the skilled players and guys with hockey sense.”

Rookie Camp

With many teams bending the rules and instituting “minor pro” camps in order to evaluate their prospects, the Oilers are also looking to follow suit.

“We have a plan in place for rookie camp and if for some reason the CBA thing goes right up into September I think we’re looking at possibly having a minor league rookie camp, which is what a lot of teams are doing,” confirmed Prendergast. “That would include guys like Pouliot and Rob Schremp.”

Time is of the essence though as the Oilers would want to include their Europeans and NCAA prospects as well so a prospect camp would have to be held in July. One source indicates that the Oilers are considering a couple different times in July beginning in the middle of the month and lasting about 10 days.

The participants would be limited to minor league players and amateurs including Europeans, but so far none have been contacted about the possibility of a camp.

Player Tidbits

Alexei Mikhnov and Misha Joukov spent the 2004-05 season in Russia and are likely both going to be back there again this year, to the dismay of the Oilers.

“I think (Mikhnov) wants to come over but it’s a situation where he needs to sign a contract again over there really soon and we don’t know what our leverage is going to be for first rounders,” said Prendergast. “I think he’ll probably fall through the cracks again this year, but we’ll talk to the agent and hopefully put him on hold. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

Joukov on the other hand is apparently eager to see North America but is being temporarily rebuffed by the Oilers partly because of the split affiliation coming next year but also due to the player’s ineffectiveness in 2004-05.

“He was hurt and he bounced around a bit, we’ll have a better handle on him this year in where we want to go with him,” said Prendergast. “He’s expressed a number of times that he wants to come over to North America to play, but we’ve told him that he’s got to show us something over there before we make that decision. I think at the end of next year we’ll have a much better idea of what we want to do with him.”

One player who, by all accounts had a terrific year and yet has flown under the radar is Peterborough defenseman Bryan Young.

“This guy is the best open-ice hitter in the OHL,” said an area scout. “He’s a mistake free, boring type of defenseman who puts himself in front of everybody and he’s the immovable object. He’s not a fighter but he makes you pay around the net. If you have to go down his side I suggest dumping it down the other so that he’s not turning on the same boards that you’re going in on.”

Young recorded 12 points in 60 games for the Petes this past season and added 44 minutes in penalties. Young was also tied for third on the team with a +15 rating, only trailing leading scorers Daniel Ryder (2005 eligible) and fellow Oiler prospect Liam Reddox.

“His hands are pretty good, he makes a good outlet pass by finding the first guy and it’s gone,” said the scout. “That’s why he doesn’t get a lot of points because there are two or three passes after he sends it up. As soon as he gets it, he finds the guy and hits the tape with it.”

David Rohlfs of the Michigan Wolverines saw a position switch during the course of the 2004-05 schedule and it might be a permanent move.

“Michigan showed a lot of class by calling us and telling us that that’s what they had in mind for him and that they were running it by the young man to see what he thought,” recalled Prendergast. “We’ll wait until next year to see what happens but he’s big enough and he can skate well enough and if they think that’s what he’s best suited for and if he is a defenseman down the road then it’s a bonus for us. They feel he’s going to be a defenseman and the way college hockey is now, there’s a lot of small forwards with speed. I think they felt that with David playing on the second or third line he wasn’t getting enough ice time so by putting him on defense, he can get 16 or 18 minutes a night and be a better player in the long run.”

Both Canada and the United States have announced their World Junior summer camp invitees and the Oilers have players attending in both countries.

The Americans will hole up in Lake Placid from August 5th-14th while 43 players try to impress the coaching staff. Rob Schremp will undoubtedly be a major component of the 2006 edition of Team USA but 6’4 center Geoff Paukovich could be lower in consideration although his size, toughness and two-way ability may earn him an extra look.

Whistler B.C. will be the site for Canada’s camp from August 10th-15th where 44 players have been asked to show their wares for coach Brent Sutter and his staff. Devan Dubnyk is the only returning goalie from last year’s camps but isn’t considered a lock for the starting job just yet. Joining Dubnyk from the Oiler prospect pool is Peterborough forward Liam Reddox who has led his OHL club in scoring for two consecutive years.

Quotes

“We talked to Marc afterwards and it was a tough situation but they had enough talent where they had to go with the best players available. They cut a lot of good players besides Marc without him even getting a December invitation. He understood that in the summertime when he wasn’t able to contribute that his chances were in trouble. Fair’s fair. If you look at that team, Brent Sutter made no mistakes with that club so, no.”
- Kevin Prendergast when asked if he felt Marc-Antoine Pouliot was overlooked by Team Canada’s WJC selection committee.

“I think so because of the way he can shoot the puck, we think he’s going to be a sniper down the road.”
- Prendergast speaking of Colin McDonald who played center for Providence late in the year and the playoffs, but is still considered a winger by the Oilers.

“We drafted Pouliot because he was on a bad team and was the only one who would show up every night. Jacques had to do the same in order for Baie-Comeau to compete because they were such a young team. Schremp had to learn how to be part of a team and not just be the guy, he’s got to battle every night for his ice time. I think it’s impressive both ways.”
- Prendergast’s answer when asked if it’s more impressive to standout on a bad team or be amongst the leaders on a great team.

“My overall goal is not to play a ton of games in the AHL, it’s to get to the NHL.”
- Jason Platt on how disappointed he would be to be bounced from the AHL in 2005-06.

“Last year in Europe he went up against the Russians’ top lines and he just beat up on them and that’s the way he played for Denver in the playoffs again.”
- Prendergast describing Geoff Paukovich’s play over the last two years.

“He has Bucky’s leadership qualities.”
- Anonymous scout comparing Zack Stortini to former Oiler captain Kelly Buchberger.

“Talking to the coaching staff and the Oilers a bit, everyone said to just focus on the little things and if I was to hit double digits that would a good season. But our team was so well balanced this year that it was almost easy for me in a way to get more points.”
- Paukovich in regards to his better than expected point production during his rookie year in Denver.

“They were calling things like pinning someone along the boards and that’s something you learn to do in minor hockey growing up so you’ve been doing it for 15 years and then all of a sudden you have to stop. In the corners, as a defenseman that’s a go-to move and then they take that away from you, it’s a tough adjustment.”
- Matt Greene describing the effect the NCAA’s crackdown had on him.

“I think I’ve developed more here at North Dakota than I could in major junior and as far as toughness goes I think that’s always there for a player whether he’s playing in a no-fight league or not. There comes a time when you will be able to drop the gloves and there also comes a time for developing skills and who’s to say that if I went to major junior that I would have developed those skills? I don’t have any regrets of the path I took.”
- Greene’s answer when asked if he regrets not taking a CHL route to pro hockey considering at 22 years of age, he’d have two pro years under his belt already.

“To put things in context, it was a good year with the Road Runners here when it could have been an awful year for hockey fans in Edmonton and Northern Alberta. The staff did an excellent job of getting the business up and running, it was profitable, and it serviced our clients and gave more meaningful work for our staff.”
- Oilers President Patrick LaForge listing the positives of having the Road Runners in the city last year during the NHL lockout.

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