With the death of the Edmonton Road Runners after just a single AHL season, the Oilers head into 2005-06 with prospects spread out over three minor league teams in two leagues.
The business decision of scattering their prospects was made in June because “we believe that if the NHL does start up this year, the Road Runners present the opportunity for some confusion in the marketplace about what’s important for hockey fans,” explained Oilers president Patrick LaForge.
Make no mistake, this was a business decision and not a hockey one. Although the Road Runners were less than inspiring in the standings and on the ice most nights, during the lockout they were an oasis in the desert for fans of professional hockey in Edmonton.
“There’s no question that the hockey club met with tremendous success this last year in Edmonton,” said Road Runner president Stew MacDonald during the press conference announcing the end of the team which had been moved from Toronto the year before. “We had ticket sales in excess of 350,000 tickets and that contributed substantially to the bottom line of the Oiler organization.”
So while the organization believes it was a sound business decision, the long-term effect on player development is an open question. Of all the years for the Oilers not to have their own farm club, this is possibly the worst it could have happened in. Edmonton had seven new players turning pro in their organization this year after completing their tenures in junior, college or Europe. With the incoming crop of players several others were allowed to leave via free agency whereas in a normal year some of them, like Marty St. Pierre, would have been retained.
Jesse Niinimaki and Tony Salmelainen were left back in Finland, while others like local product Mike Bishai were simply let go.
The Oilers were able to secure agreements with both Montreal and Dallas to send a handful of players to the AHL affiliates of both teams, the Hamilton Bulldogs and Iowa Stars. The ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl remain a shared partner between Edmonton and Chicago as well.
“It just makes it more complicated for this year,” Assistant Oilers GM Scott Howson said in June. “It’s not ideal. It’s more complicated, but we’ll work with the coaches and the teams and we’ll come out of it fine.”
The obvious problem is that while the Oilers are hoping their players perform at a level where they will force their new coaches into playing them as often as possible, that’s far from a given when the parent clubs will want to see either Canadiens or Stars prospects getting the bulk of the development time.
One minor league roster spot was freed up when former New Hampshire forward Eddie Caron retired, but it still left the Oiler staff with the tough task of finding room for all of their players.
Edmonton sent nine players to Hamilton, but only six have stuck with the Bulldogs. Veteran defenseman Dan Smith joins fellow blueliners Mathieu Roy and Danny Syvret, goaltender Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and rookie forwards Marc-Antoine Pouliot and J.F. Jacques in Hamilton. Most are French-speaking, and the simple reason these players have been sent to Hamilton rather than Iowa is that they are Canadian-born and therefore the team avoids the work visa issues that they experienced last year.
“It’s going to be a lot different than last year when we were all on the same team, you know for team spirit and stuff,” Roy told Hockey’s Future in September. “That’s the way things work in hockey so there’s not much you can do about that one.”
Jacques, the biggest forward currently listed for the Bulldogs, should receive quality playing time up front as will Pouliot, the former Rimouski captain.
“My goal in the AHL is to play my best so that if there is an injury I’ll be the first guy to get called back,” said Pouliot on the day he was cut by the Oilers. “I want to be back (in Edmonton) as soon as possible. I have to work on my defensive play but a lot of junior guys have to work on that. I have to make an adjustment to the next level and that’s what I’m going to do in Hamilton. I feel I was pretty close to making the (NHL) line-up, but I have a couple things to work on and when I do that, I think I’ll be ready.”
For Roy, the reassignment to Hamilton was seen as a big opportunity to play an important role, more so than he’s had so far to date.
“It’s disappointing to get cut, I would have liked to stay here but I’m looking forward to hopefully having the opportunity to play in the top 2 down there,” he said.
Rookie Syvret is coming off victories at the Memorial Cup and World Junior Championship, but the youngster is focused on being a pro now.
“I have to respect the coach’s opinion in sending me down to develop a bit more,” a disappointed Syvret said after failing to stick with the Oilers. “I hope to be back soon; going this long in training camp I assume that if they do need someone on a call up that I’ll be up there on the list but hopefully the training camp that I’ve been through this far, has put me sort of on the map so that if they need to call someone up they’ll call me.”
Hamilton is definitely a good fit for Syvret who says his family homestead is just a hop, skip and a jump from Copps Coliseum.
“It’s like a seven-minute drive from my house to the rink so I used to go to all the games growing up when I was younger,” he added, before saying he doesn’t want to get too comfortable. “You’d like to be closer to your family and hopefully if I do stay in Hamilton I hope that’s temporary so I don’t have to grab a house or anything.”
“Danny won’t be hurt in any way by starting and playing in the AHL,” reassured Kevin Lowe. “It’s a quick call up if our plan to get the veterans playing better fails, I don’t anticipate that it will but he’ll be down there playing and waiting to get the call.”
The largest concern with the arrangement in Hamilton is with the goaltending situation. The best Edmonton can hope for is that Drouin-Deslauriers will get into half the games this year, likely 20 less than he would have played if Edmonton had their own AHL club.
“I know the situation can be difficult, but my job is to play with confidence and show that I can do the job,” the sophomore pro told HF when asked if he was concerned about his workload. “My game is to stop the puck, I have just one thing in mind and that’s to keep the puck in front of me and not behind me. That’s the goalie’s job.”
Although Drouin-Deslauriers wouldn’t admit to it, his playing time is a concern to the organization.
“We’d like to get him 60 games, but we told him that Montreal is going to handle it the way we did a couple years ago with them,” said Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe referring to the time when Ty Conklin and Mathieu Garon shared duties in Hamilton under Oiler rule. “They’ve got to win as well and so it’s going to be up to him to produce. He’s leaving here more mature than he was a year ago. If he plays well, he’ll get the opportunity and if he doesn’t play well it’s going to be hard on him, but it’s up to him and that would be the case if we had our own farm team.”
“We don’t want this situation again and we need to get our own farm team for next year, no question,” Lowe stated emphatically. “But at the end of the day, even if we had our own farm team maybe your prospect gets and extra game or two, but you’re still trying to win hockey games and if someone is outplaying that person… you have to show progress.”
Since September, the Oilers have ticketed eight players to the Iowa Stars, farm team of Edmonton’s playoff rivals. Of those eight, seven have stuck with the club as their AHL schedule began on Oct. 6. Oiler assets playing in Des Moines this year include Matt Greene, Yan Stastny, Kyle Brodziak, Zack Stortini, Dan Baum, Jason Platt and veteran Toby Petersen.
For Platt, the writing was on the wall after an admittedly disappointing camp in Edmonton, but landing in Iowa was a small silver lining.
“I’d absolutely love to end up in Des Moines, I have a lot of friends in the midwest, I went to high school in the area for two years,” Platt said while still in Edmonton. “There’s going to be a lot of good players from the Dallas organization so I think we could put together a really good team.”
American-born players like Platt, Petersen and Greene are easy to set up in the States compared to imports, so that is why they all went stateside. The same holds true for Canadian-born Stastny who holds dual citizenship.
“I played my junior hockey in Omaha and played in Des Moines as well,” said Stastny. “It’s a great city with great fans so I’m looking forward to it.”
“(The Oilers) told me to go down, have fun and enjoy the experience and that they’re looking forward to seeing me again pretty soon,” he continued, “You want to try and make it back here again as soon as you can.”
The Stars needed an influx of toughness for their farm team as it would have been mostly loaded up with European skill players in the inaugural year. Adding Greene, Stortini, Baum and Platt to the mix will serve the purpose well.
“I’m looking to go down there and help that team win and hopefully be back (in Edmonton) one day,” said Stortini on cut down day. “There was a lot of positive feedback, some compliments, but at the same time there are things that I still need to work on. Obviously if they’re sending me down there are things I have to work on and improve. I have to work on my skating, my overall skill in the game and just get a little more playing experience playing in a professional hockey league as opposed to the juniors.”
Stortini finds himself teammates with BJ Crombeen, a former rival tough guy from the OHL.
Greene knows that he’s been sent to the farm in order to learn what he needs to in order to one day play in the NHL and that’s exactly how he’s viewing it.
“I think I feel close but there are some things I need to work on,” said Greene. “It’s a different game than college, in college guys aren’t as strong and now you have to find your niche and figure out when you play guys, when to play the body, when to fish for the puck… it’s just a learning process.”
Alberta product Brodziak says he’s looking forward to his second season in the AHL because he knows it’s a pivotal one for him.
“I’m disappointed for sure but I’m also excited to get down there (Iowa) and get playing again,” he said. “I’m definitely a lot more confident this year than I was going into the AHL camp last year; I’m looking forward to this year.”
Greenville Grrrowl (ECHL)
There are five players in Greenville with unofficial ties to the Oilers. The only skaters in Greenville who are officially part of the Edmonton system are Brock Radunske and Kenny Smith.
“I hope to stick at the AHL camp and begin to play and develop at that level though to see how good of a player I can become,” said Smith who failed to do that out of Iowa’s camp. “I wouldn’t be disappointed in Greenville because it’s a good city and a good team and if I end up back there I’ll play as hard as I can to work my way back up.”
VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast explained that Smith is another example of a player who has been hurt by the AHL situation the Oilers have this year.
“If it was our own farm team he wouldn’t have a problem, but there’s so many defensemen in the Iowa and Hamilton that we’re stuck,” he said.
Radunske slipped to the ECHL after being sent down by Hamilton in September.
Joining that pair is Making the Cut winner Jordan Little whose back injury during training camp limited him to just a handful of appearances before being assigned to Hamilton and then on to Greenville. The defenseman will look to impress this season in the ECHL with hopes of playing in the AHL next year.
Collegian Jake Brenk was not signed by the Oilers after completing his four years at Minnesota State-Mankato but did come to camp as a free agent. After a less than stellar performance, the Oilers found a spot for him again in Greenville where the speedy forward had finished off the 2004-05 schedule.
Finally, free agent Tim Sestito impressed the Oilers during the rookie camp so much that he was one of the select few who continued on into the main camp. Because they cannot sign players to AHL contracts, the Oilers found Sestito a job in Greenville with the Grrrowl for this year but it is expected that the former Plymouth Whaler will be back in Edmonton next fall and signed to a formal agreement then.
“We were very happy with him, we sent him to Hamilton’s camp to try and win a job there but there’s just too many bodies and since we don’t have our own AHL team we’re not allowed to sign any players,” confirmed Prendergast. “Tim’s going to play in Greenville for us this year and hopefully we can get him back to camp next year.”
Edmonton has a third AHL agreement with the Grand Rapids Griffins where they placed veteran minor leaguer Nate DiCasmirro in order to play out his final year of his current contract.
Winger J.J. Hunter is expected to go to Hamilton once he is healthy, but that won’t be for a few months as he is about to undergo shoulder surgery in Edmonton.
It remains to be seen where goaltender Mike Morrison will end up. As of last weekend all that was determined was that the Boston native would be returning home on Monday to wait for a phone call from the Oilers letting him know where he would be reassigned. A recent injury to Chicago goalie Mike Brodeur might open the door for Morrison to rejoin the Grrrowl. There is also the opinion amongst some in the organization that Morrison should report to Hamilton bumping Drouin-Deslauriers down to the ECHL.
The Oilers will shortly begin their search for a new AHL city to house their farm team in 2006-07, but so far no announcements have been made. One source confirmed to Hockey’s Future that although a Canadian location was their preference, it looked apparent that the new affiliate would be found south of the border.
Re-activating the Road Runners in Edmonton is a very small possibility, but apparently is highly unlikely despite the financial success the organization had last year.
All that is certain is that with the scheduled graduations of Liam Reddox, Bryan Young, Rob Schremp, Roman Tesliuk, Devan Dubnyk and Stephane Goulet from Canadian Major Junior, as well as collegians Tommy Gilbert and Patrick Murphy, there is an even bigger need for a team next season.
Add in the very real possibilities of Europeans Dragan Umicevic, Mikael Svensk, Jonas Almtorp and Josef Hrabal coming to North America or an early college defector like Colin McDonald and the importance becomes that much clearer.
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