Oilers August news and notes

By Guy Flaming

August has been a ridiculously busy month for those involved in NHL as everything from the draft, free agency, salary arbitration and a frenzy of trading has been pressed into a shortened period.

The arrival of September is the traditional beginning of professional hockey in North America and in two weeks the 30 NHL teams will open camps. Canadian major juniors are underway and national junior teams also conducted training sessions in August, in which several Oiler prospects took part, to varying degrees of success.

With a flurry of activity for Edmonton Oilers prospects over the past 30 days, Hockey’s Future recounts the month and looks ahead to the final days leading up to training camp.

Trades

Once the green flag was dropped and teams were allowed to make trades, the first order of business for Edmonton was to separate themselves from career underachiever Brad Isbister. They found a willing taker in the Boston Bruins who offered up a fourth round selection in 2006 for Isbister. Clearing the 28-year-old winger out of the organization, as well as the 2004 draft day trading of Jason Chimera to Phoenix, has opened a door for prospect Brad Winchester and Jani Rita to skate onto the NHL roster.

The Oilers have been right in the thick of the fray having made a collection of trades that have changed the look of not only their NHL roster but also their pool of prospects. Late in the evening of August 2nd Edmonton completed a trade for Chris Pronger, the cost being a trio of defensemen including Olympian Eric Brewer and prospects Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch.


Although both Lynch and Woywitka are coming off disappointing AHL seasons with the Edmonton Road Runners, the Oilers did still consider them to be legitimate NHL prospects and in St. Louis both players may have an earlier opportunity to reach that goal. However, as with any player not yet in the NHL, there is the possibility that they will never play in the league and so from the organization’s point of view, landing Pronger only cost them two assets and a lesser player in Brewer.

One day later, GM Kevin Lowe latched onto veteran center Mike Peca in exchange for Mike York, a winger who had been posing as a middleman for the Oilers. While on the surface this transaction did not affect a prospect directly, it does clog up the center position slightly more by inserting a natural pivot into the place previously held by York. Had a prospect like Rob Schremp or Marc-Antoine Pouliot come to camp and impressed the staff, they could theoretically have bumped York back to the wing and secured a roster spot, but that will be far less likely with Peca in town.

The fourth trade of the month for the Oilers also involved the Bruins. With the same draft pick they had previously acquired from Beantown for Isbister, Edmonton traded for 22-year-old Yan Stastny. Stastny, who turns 23 at the end of September, has spent the last two years playing for the Nürnberg Ice Tigers of the German Elite League.

Stastny was originally drafted by the Bruins in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft after his rookie year at Notre Dame. After his sophomore campaign with the Fighting Irish, the 5’11 center wanted to leave school but hadn’t shown the Bruins enough reason to offer him a professional contract. As a result, the son of NHL Hall of Famer Peter Stastny ventured overseas and has benefited greatly from the experience.

During the NHL lockout many players took to Europe to find places to play, but many were surprised to find that they could not dominate the leagues quite the way they felt NHL players would. Stastny, in his second year with Nürnberg, led his team with 54 points which was also good enough for fourth overall in the entire league. The only NHL player Stastny trailed behind was Mike York who notched 62 points, but he placed ahead of notable German NHL players Marco Sturm (38) and Jochen Hecht (50).

The Oilers will have Stastny at their prospect camp which serves as a prelude to the main training sessions that begin a week later. Kevin Prendergast, the club’s VP of Hockey Operations, says the Oilers expect their newest prospect to challenge for a roster spot right away.

“He’s in the battle with Winchester and Rita to make the team. I don’t think he’s far away from playing in the NHL,” he said. “Yan brings a lot with him; he’s strong on the puck, he’s a good skater, has excellent hockey sense, he has good finish and he has good size and strength. I think he’s a player that’s going to be around for a long time whether it’s the start of this year I don’t know yet, but we’ll see at training camp.”

The Bruins sent out a fax last Friday testing the waters to see if any clubs were interested in their center and the deal then took a relatively short time to complete. After his performance for Team USA at the 2005 World Championships, the Oilers were definitely intrigued.

“I was really impressed with the way he played for the Americans, the way he stepped in and the poise he showed,” said Prendergast. “He’s very deceptive with the puck, he’s like his dad in a way in that he doesn’t have breakaway speed but if he’s ahead of you, you’re not going to catch him. He has good hands and knows what to do with the puck.”

At the World Championships Stastny registered two points in seven games, both being shorthanded goals, and that was more than NHL regulars like York, David Legwand, Jordan Leopold, John-Michael Liles, and Jeff Halpern accomplished.

“It’s a learning process, it’s a big step for him from Germany to here but I think he’s got all the tools to be a good NHL player,” Prendergast summed up.

Friends with Dallas?

The long-rumored AHL partnership with the Iowa Stars, farm club of Dallas, was finally announced on August 10th. The deal will see the Oilers sending up to seven players to the new franchise based in Des Moines. It is expected that for the ease of paperwork during potential recalls, the likeliest players that Edmonton will send to Iowa will be Americans like Kenny Smith and Jason Platt and more veteran players such as J.J. Hunter and Toby Petersen.

The Oilers continue to search for AHL spots for players outside of their two official agreements with Iowa and the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Greenville Grrrowl of the ECHL remains as the affiliate of the Oilers in that league and according to Edmonton Assistant GM Scott Howson, the farm club will gladly take on as many players as the NHL team sends their way. Greenville remains affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks as well.

Signings

The Oilers came to terms with both Brad Winchester on August 10th. Winchester, the club’s second choice in the 2000 draft is coming off a breakout year in the AHL and will skate into camp armed with a new two-year, one-way deal.

Perhaps the most applauded signing of the summer was that of former North Dakota rearguard and captain Matt Greene. The player the Oilers have hoped would turn pro for a couple summers finally did on August 15th.

“He’s going to get every opportunity to challenge for a spot at camp,” said one team source before listing those players he would be battling with. “Mathieu Roy played really well last year with the Road Runners, Danny Smith is coming in so there’ll be competition for that last job… and of course we still have Cory Cross here too.”

Coming from the college ranks, the biggest hurdle for Greene to overcome will likely be the workload of having to play twice as many games as well as the major increase in travel. However, as Prendergast points out, Greene will be put to the test early as the preseason schedule is compacted this year so it won’t take the team long to see how the blueliner reacts.

“We play eight exhibition games and with four of them against Calgary, Matt’s going to get right into the physical end of it really quickly,” he said.

When asked if breaking Greene in slowly at the NHL level by only dressing him for the odd game was a possibility, Prendergast said he didn’t feel that would be the right course of action.

“If he’s going to sit in the press box, absolutely not; he needs to play,” he said. “I told him last week that it might mean spending a month in the minors, but you don’t get better if you sit.”

If Greene does not make the Oilers out of camp, expect to see him assigned to Des Moines.

When the Oilers drafted 20-year-old defenseman Danny Syvret in the third round of the 2005 Draft, the immediate question was where the team would put him. At the time the Oilers still had Woywitka and Lynch in the system and knew that AHL spots were going to be in short supply without their own team to control.

With Greene leaving college a year early and the somewhat confusing decision by Edmonton to re-sign aging minor leaguer Dan Smith, the two vacancies created by the Pronger deal quickly disappeared again. Still, the Oilers wanted to sign Syvret rather than sending him back to London of the OHL for another junior season.

“After winning the Memorial Cup and a gold at the World Junior Championship, it’s time for him to step up to a new challenge by playing against older opponents,” Prendergast told Hockey’s Future.

That seemed to be a non-issue when at the draft the Stars quickly made it known to the Oilers that they would love to have Syvret playing in Des Moines. However, after Dallas signed Rimouski rearguard Mario Scalzo Jr. to a contract in mid-month, they called Edmonton and rescinded their original offer thus recreating the problem of placing Syvret.

While the hunt is still on for AHL partners to take on Syvret and veteran winger Nate DiCasmirro, the end result might mean the former could begin the year in the ECHL.

Edmonton’s final prospect player signing of the month was Yan Stastny shortly after he was acquired from Boston.

…and Non-Signings

The Oilers chose not to re-sign several prospects, thus allowing them to become unrestricted free agents. While the vast majority of them are considered minor leaguers at best, there were also some notable releases as well.

The Oilers put Marty St. Pierre on the backburner as they tried to negotiate roster spots for their current AHL players while not having their own affiliation this year. It was their intention to sign the offensively gifted center to an AHL agreement, but they were beaten to the punch by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tomas Micka was not offered a new deal and has returned to Europe to play. The Oilers have opted to retain his rights until next summer and will revisit the possibility of bringing the forward back once they reestablish their own AHL affiliate.

Although not signed after completing his tenure with Mankato State and a brief run with the Greenville Grrrowl, speedster Jake Brenk will attend prospect camp with the Oilers and try to earn himself a new contract. Currently the center is an unrestricted free agent coming off his best NCAA year but with only a total of 48 points after four complete seasons, his best opportunity is likely with the team that once saw something in him worth using a draft pick on him.

Brent Henley and J.F. Plourde were completely released.

When Jesse Niinimaki joined the Road Runners last November he did so at just around the 180-pound mark. Although clearly gifted with the puck during practices with the team, come game time there was just something missing and it appeared as though the 2002 first round pick was either lacking in internal drive or physical ability due to the shoulder injury the year before.

Niinimaki came back to Edmonton to workout with Oiler fitness guru Darryl Duke for the summer and now currently tips the scales at over 200 lbs, a credit to his off-ice commitment. However, when the Oilers were not willing to offer the contract he was seeking, Niinimaki looked back towards Finland and found a situation with Jokerit that should fit him well.

Edmonton’s trouble with Europeans continues into Russia where Alexei Mikhnov is again going to stay for the coming season.

“He wants to come, but we’re not prepared to give him a one-way deal at this point, it’s the same scenario as with Niinimaki,” explained Prendergast. “He’s playing on another good team this year (Yaroslavl) and we’ll be able to see him a lot easier than where he was before (Novosibirsk).”

Every year the Oilers say they believe the towering Russian will agree to come to North America the following summer and once again, the same comment is being made.

“I think he’ll be here next year,” said the chief scout, “If we don’t do it for next year then it’s a write off.”

Misha Joukov is another European selection that has so far been driving the Oilers batty with some of the decisions he has made. After expressing clearly his intention during his draft year to play in North America, Joukov has made a complete 180-degree turn on the subject, much to the chagrin of the Oilers.

“He wanted to come over but why he left Sweden to go back into Russia when he told us he didn’t want any part of Russia…” sighed an exasperated Prendergast. “He’s one of the guys that have to be signed by next year. He hasn’t done anything to warrant coming over and the injury obviously took away from him but from what I understand he’s healthy and ready to go so we’ll see what happens this year.”

Joukov is set to play the year with AK Bars Kazan in the Russian Super League.

World Junior Summer Camps

The Oilers had a total of seven players trying out for three different national teams in August and most of them made the positive lasting impressions the Oilers had hoped for.

In Whistler B.C. the Brent Sutter-led Canadian squad began workouts to select a team that would defend their 2005 gold medal. With Chicago’s Cam Barker the only returning player, the camp is completely wide open at most positions which is good news for the three Oiler hopefuls.

Devan Dubnyk was the only goalie invited to Whistler who was also a participant in the national team’s sessions a year ago. With his previous international experience he was one of the favorites to landing the starter’s job for the 2006 team. Although he only played in one of the inter-squad scrimmages, it was a noteworthy performance as the 6’6 keeper made 35 saves in a 3-2 loss. No other goalie faced nearly the same amount of rubber.

After speaking with Stu MacGregor and Bob Brown, the two Oiler scouts who were on hand to watch the proceedings, Prendergast said he thought Dubnyk was in a good position to make the club.

“Dubnyk didn’t play much but they were very happy with the way he played,” he said. “Coming out of that camp he’s hopefully the leading guy.”

There is no question that the brightest star the Oilers had in Whistler was Andrew Cogliano, their first choice from the 2005 draft. Cogliano had a goal and a pair of assists through he first two games of the camp, but really impressed with his blazing speed and ability to dangle at full flight. Although Hockey Canada has been criticized for leaving NCAA players off of the national team in the past, they may have a tough time doing so this year after the performance that Cogliano delivered in August. A return invite to the December camp is a virtual guarantee.

Although he wasn’t noticeably bad, Liam Reddox wasn’t exactly noticeably good either.

“Reddox was a little bit of a disappointment although he played well in the last game,” said Prendergast with a glass-half-full point of view. “He’s one of those kids who needs to find his comfort zone, we’ll have a talk with him when he comes out here but by the time that December camp comes around he might be in pretty good shape.”

The United States, Sweden and Finland held their annual festivities in Lake Placid and it was another banner year for Edmonton’s prospects in attendance.

The lone Swede at the tournament belonging to the Oilers was newly drafted Fredrik Pettersson and with his hustle and spirit the smallish winger caught the attention of many onlookers. One source tells Hockey’s Future that a former NHL GM turned scout was so impressed that he feverishly searched through his information packet hoping to learn Pettersson was an unclaimed player only to discover that Edmonton held his rights.

The 5’10 left winger will be in attendance for the Oilers prospect camp and is one of the players that the scouting staff is really looking forward to seeing as few of them were able to during last year’s NHL lockout.

Geoff Paukovich made his debut appearance at the US camp and while he’s likely a dark horse to make the team, Prendergast feels he has a legitimate shot at a roster spot because the tournament will be held in North America.

“He brings something to the table that they need,” he explained. “They’re going to play on a smaller ice surface, he’s a physical player, he’s good on faceoffs, he kills penalties, he’s got size and they’ll need all of that to play against the Canadians and the Finns because of the way they are going to play.”

Rated as the top Oiler prospect at Hockey’s Future, Rob Schremp was one of the returning players to the American camp. Schremp struggled early in Lake Placid largely because he was lining up on the wing but by the end of the session was back at center and playing extremely well.

Just like for the Canadians, one of the 2005 draftees of the Oilers was one of the pleasant surprises for the Americans too.

“I thought Taylor Chorney was one of their top two defensemen in the camp, he played really, really well,” one scout said. “He’s coming through the experience of the U18’s and the Four Nations tournaments so it’s not as though he’s never been in that type of atmosphere, but he skates so well and moves the puck so quickly that on the smaller ice surface that’s the type of player they are going to need.”

Prospect Camp Update

The Oilers have announced the dates for their prospect camp that will lead directly into the main camp beginning in the middle of the month. The prospects will play at various sites in and around Edmonton in an effort by the organization to reach out to its fans. The sessions will begin on September 6th in St. Albert and will continue on to Fort Saskatchewan and Spruce Grove with a few days at the Agricom in Edmonton in between.

The Oilers and the University of Alberta will continue their annual tradition and play a ‘not-so-friendly’ exhibition game on the 11th at Clare Drake Arena. The Golden Bears have shelled the Oilers prospects in the last four meetings having held a 21-4 edge in scoring including two shutouts and last year’s 8-2 drubbing.

Edmonton has released its list of camp invitees of which many are free agents looking to either find a contract in the Oilers system or are still draft eligible and hope to impress the scouting staff enough to convince them for the 2006 draft.

Some of the more notable names of invitees include 5’8 Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Colton Yellow Horn who went undrafted in 2005 despite his fifth overall finish in league scoring. Kitchener Rangers center Mike Duco is a high priority for the Oilers and he’ll get an intense look before returning to the OHL.

“The two guys I’m really interested in seeing at camp are Duco and Yellow Horn, not big players but Yellow Horn sure is fun to watch and Duco is a really aggressive kid,” said Prendergast. “(Kitchener) coach Peter Deboer couldn’t say enough good things about him, he was shocked that he didn’t get drafted. After I had talked to him on the phone I guess they had six calls with invites for him to come to camps. I really like his attitude, I really wanted to draft him but Glasser was in the spot where we were going to draft him and we were really high on him because of the Denver connection. The first call we made after the draft was for Duco.”

All of Edmonton’s CHL-based prospects will be in attendance at camp but one will not be participating due to injury. Tyler Spurgeon of the Kelowna Rockets underwent dual shoulder surgery in late July and will not be ready to play again until Christmastime.

“One shoulder was just a scraping but the other was a major,” confirmed Prendergast. “Dr. Reid seems to think everything went well and now it’s just a rehab thing. The choice was either getting it done now and sacrificing half the year, or, playing the start of the year and potentially injuring it and sitting out the rest of the year.”

With Spurgeon out but all the other CHL players coming to town, that means fans will get their first glimpses of Syvret, Slava Trukhno and Pettersson from the 2005 draft as well as Glasser who will be able to partake in the camp for just a pair of days before rejoining the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the AJHL.

Jordan Little will be in Edmonton as part of the payoff from being selected during the TV show Making the Cut. After spending the last month of the AHL season with the Road Runners and getting into four games, the Manitoba native is hoping to secure a full AHL contract this year. However, with the minor league situation being what it is, a ticket to Greenville is likely ahead for Little, should he earn a contract at all.

Center Eric Hunter, 6’1, was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in eighth round of the 2004 draft but was not tendered an offer and so comes to camp as a free agent. Tim Sestito is a 21-year-old center looking to earn a paycheck after spending the last four seasons with Plymouth of the OHL. After two consecutive 52-point seasons with the Kootenay Ice, 6’1 winger Adam Taylor is in search of a pro deal as well. Defenseman Darren Deschamps has played the last three seasons with the Kelowna Rockets and brings two straight Memorial Cup appearances with him to prospect camp.

Former Los Angeles Kings draft pick Joel Andresen played last year for the University of Alberta and captured a national title. This year the Edmonton area product will play for the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL after leaving the Oilers mini camp.

The other UofA connection this year will be new Bears goalie Aaron Sorochan. The Edmonton native was an underrated performer during his WHL career with Prince Albert, Vancouver and Lethbridge. Last season Sorochan played 65 games for the Hurricanes and finished the year with an impressive 2.19 GAA and .917 save percentage.

It is expected that the Oilers may add a couple more defensemen and possibly a goaltender before camp begins. The intention is for the players to scrimmage at each out of town stop so when added to the UofA game, that would equate to four games in just six days so more bodies might make for practical sense.

Coming or Not?

After some confusion over the summer stemming from an erroneous report of out of Russia, defensemen Roman Tesliuk is indeed staying in Kamloops for the coming season. Not only will Tesliuk dress for the Blazers, but he will also be attending the Oiler camps this September.

Although signed to an entry-level contract, unless Troy Bodie’s development has undergone a monumental leap forward, expect the overage player to return to Kelowna this season.

“Unless he blows our socks off (at camp),” Prendergast explained, “we don’t have anywhere to put him so we would like to see him go back and play another year in junior.”

One European did almost get confirmed for a brief appearance at prospect camp, but in the end, Czech rearguard Josef Hrabal will not be coming to Edmonton this fall. While entertaining an offer from a German team and also one from a Czech club, Hrabal appeared to have room in his schedule to appear at the mini camp but now citing visa problems the 20-year-old will be unavailable.

“It would have given us an opportunity to have a good look at him,” sighed Prendergast. “He’s really worked hard in the last couple of years, he’s made their national team in a couple different tournaments and I think being around the guys here would have given him the opportunity to see what it takes to get to the next level.”

Getting to the next level is apparently the last thing on forward Eddie Caron’s mind these days. In a stunning turn of events, the former second round pick, who enjoyed an offensive rejuvenation last year in Greenville before breaking his leg, has informed the Oilers that he will not be attending training camp and will instead return to school for the year. Caron could not be immediately reached for comment but needless to say the Oilers are not at all thrilled with the decisions Caron has made in the past, nor this new one.

“We’ll give him some time off to see what he wants to do and if he wants to come back next year, we’ll still hold his rights and we’ll go from there with it,” said the head scout.

During his NCAA days Caron, opted to leave New Hampshire to pursue what he perceived to be greener pastures at Yale before turning around and transferring back to UNH. The entire process cost him valuable playing time at the college level. Caron then decided to leave school early to turn pro and began scoring at a feverish clip upon his arrival in Greenville. There was hope that after a dismal NCAA career Caron had regained his offensive touch and was ready for an AHL opportunity this year. Now the 2001 decision to take the extremely personable winger in the second round is a stark blemish on the team’s record.

“A mistake,” admitted Prendergast. “He created a lot of his own problems through bad judgment but there’s nothing we can do about it. He certainly has potential and last year he started to show that, but you have to live with the decisions you make and this is the one he’s made for this year.”

New Scouts on Board

The Oilers have found a replacement for one of the amateur scouting vacancies created over the past couple of years by the departures of Gord “Puff” Pell and Bob Mancini. Edmonton has hired 37-year-old Kent Hawley, a former second round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers back in 1986, to help cover the OHL, QMJHL and northern NCAA conferences.

Edmonton has also added Mike Abbamont to the scouting staff as a pro scout. Abbamont has previous experience with both the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators as well as having worked with Kevin Prendergast back in the days when both were associated with the NHL’s Central Scouting.

Abbamont joins Dave Semenko and Morey Gare as Edmonton’s pro scouts.

Summer Quotes

“I think the only player it’s going to worry us with is Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers. The rest of the players are really high quality players and they’ll get lots of opportunity to play wherever it might be.”
–Prendergast back in June in regards to his concerns over not having their own AHL team.

“It’s good news bad news; he stays in the East so competitively it’s good news but our fans won’t get to see him as much now. It would have been nice to have him come in here three or four times a year too so, it’s good news and bad news.”
–Assistant GM Scott Howson’s reaction to Pittsburgh winning the Sidney Crosby lottery.

“No problems with it all, the league gave everybody the opportunity to win and that’s all you can ask for. I never really thought we’d have the opportunity to ever pick No. 1 as an organization and hopefully we won’t ever again, but this was an opportunity to pick No. 1 but we didn’t get it and that’s just one of those things.”
–Prendergast when asked if he felt the lottery system was the best way to determine the 2005 draft order.

“I wouldn’t say they have a shot at this year’s team but we’re always open to the possibility of young players coming in.”
–GM Kevin Lowe when asked in a media scrum whether he felt Matt Greene and Danny Syvret had an opportunity to make the NHL roster this fall.

“It’s what I’ve been working for and I’ve been looking forward to doing it. All I can do is work hard. I have grown and have gotten comfortable in my own body, I’ve gotten stronger over the last couple of summers and working on the power aspects and quickness stuff is something I’ve been working on this summer here in Vancouver.”
–Winger Brad Winchester when asked if he’s ready for the NHL.

“The Americans are going to have a hell of a team; they’re just loaded. They’re probably going to cut about 15 players who could likely play on just about any other team in the tournament. Kind of like the Canadians were last year; there are no weaknesses. Goaltending is very strong, defense is outstanding, they have everything up front with size, speed, and skill. Going into the tournament I would have to say that they’re the favorites.”
–Prendergast’s early line on the 2006 WJC.


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