Oilers 2006 WJC preview

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers will be well represented at the 2006 World Junior Championships with a total of six prospects on three national teams. Only the Chicago Blackhawks have more players appearing in the annual classic tournament with nine. St. Louis, Ottawa and Buffalo also have six.

Sweden

The lone European prospect that the Oilers have active in the tournament is crowd pleaser Fredrik Pettersson. The diminutive winger turned heads in Edmonton during the fall training camp thanks to his tireless work ethic and inspiring style of play. By all reports the 18-year-old has continued to wow fans of the Calgary Hitmen during the opening months of the WHL season having accumulated 24 points in 31 contests.

The pint-sized pepper pot should have somewhat of an advantage over some of his Swedish teammates in that there won’t be any North American adjustment period for him having been playing in Canada for the past several months.

As one of the more offensively-minded Swedes on the roster, it is reasonable to expect Pettersson to get some opportunity in man-advantage situations as well as possibly playing as high as the second line. His tenacious checking skills would also make him an adept penalty killer.

Canada

“He’s got to play on the first or second line and they have to utilize his speed somehow and if they do that on the wing or at center, I don’t know,” said Edmonton VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast when asked what he foresaw to be Andrew Cogliano’s role with Canada.

Cogliano picked up at the December camp right where he left off in August and was able to show head coach Brent Sutter that he will be one of Canada’s key scoring forwards in Vancouver. The Michigan freshman could play with an array of linemates after having success in the summer alongside Benoit Pouliot (MIN) and Guillaume Latendresse (MTL) but more recently with London’s David Bolland (CHI). Through the first exhibition game against the Czech Republic, Cogliano centred a line with Bolland and team captain Kyle Chipchura (MTL).

The Toronto-area native is easily the fastest player on Canada’s roster and will challenge defensemen wide while using his gift to win races for loose pucks or simply to pull away and create offensive opportunities.

Look for Cogliano to be a large factor on the power play as either the setup man or trigger because the offensively dynamic forward has shown in the NCAA that he can do it all, as his 19 points in 17 games would attest to.

In a decision that some would call a shock, Devan Dubnyk was named to the team after a less than stellar December tryout. While most considered Dubnyk to be the best of a lackluster foursome in August, his WHL season clearly helped his cause in making the team as well as the fact that Carey Price (MTL) and Julien Ellis (VAN) also performed poorly at camp.

Most expect that Justin Pogge (TOR) will be Canada’s starter after his terrific start in the WHL with Calgary, but Dubnyk will likely draw into at least one contest, probably against an overmatched country like Norway. In Canada’s first exhibition game against the Czechs, Dubnyk allowed just a single goal and produced a highlight reel save when he dove across the crease to rob an opposing forward of a sure goal.

From an Oiler perspective, it’s great that Dubnyk actually made the team in light of recent failures by fellow goalie Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers to do so. However, it is alarming to note Dubnyk’s habit of making enormous saves only to routinely allow a soft one past him. Some have criticized Dubnyk’s performance in high-pressure situations despite his résumé including 2003 when he led Alberta to gold at the Canadian Winter Games and then the national team to victory at the U18 World Cup.

“People are going to question things, but they don’t see the ins and outs that we do as a staff,” coach Brent Sutter told the Canadian Press. “(Dubnyk) is a 19-year-old player that’s been part of this program. He’s a great team guy.”

United States

The Americans will bring a trio of Oiler players north with them and all are expected to have a major impact.

Obviously Rob Schremp will be counted on for his offense, and the current leading scorer of the OHL wouldn’t have it any other way. An expanded role would be a nice change compared to the status he held on the 2005 USA squad that finished off the podium in North Dakota.

Head coach Walt Kyle insists that Schremp was one of a few players who played their way onto the WJC team since the summer camp in Lake Placid. Obviously 78 points in 27 games would be a little too incredible to ignore.

“He’s having an outstanding season, a year I’m sure he’s going to remember his entire life. He’s doing some excellent things in the OHL and putting up a ton of points,” said Kyle via conference call. “He was a role player on this team a year ago, but his year has done nothing but blow me away with how consistent he’s been and that made that a very simple and easy decision.”

Kyle had experimented with Schremp in the summer by playing him out of position on the wing but when asked by Hockey’s Future, the coach said he intends on using the Oiler center in his natural spot to start with.

“I’m initially going to try Rob at center, that’s based on some of my discussion with Dale Hunter in London who feels that’s his best position,” Kyle said. “If he doesn’t fit well there or doesn’t mesh well with the guys around him then we’ll try to move him around. And that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t mesh well, maybe they don’t mesh with him; we’re going to try to bump people around and find the best position for them and with the best people.”

One OHL scout agrees whole-heartedly with Kyle’s decision on where to slot Schremp.

“Robbie has to play center,” he said emphatically. “I talked to (Kyle) about that at Lake Placid during the summer because he was quite disappointed in (Schremp’s) play one of the first days. He said ‘his talent level is far and above everyone else’s but he doesn’t seem to know how to operate from the wing’ and I said ‘he’s not a winger!’ He has no idea how to play the wing, but when you watch him defensively down low as a centerman, he puts himself into good spots.”

Kyle kept true to his word and played Schremp between Bobby Ryan (ANH) and Kevin Porter (PHX) in USA’s first exhibition game against Sweden, then watched as he scored once and added an assist in the 3-2 victory.

“When you play with Robbie you have to be willing to not have the puck and play smart in order to have chances because Robbie will make sure that he hits your tape,” the OHL scout said. “I think Bobby Ryan would be a good fit because he’s big and strong and can go to the net. You don’t have to be a great skater to play with Robbie, you have to be crafty and go to the right spot because he’ll find you and if you’re not there, he’ll find the net.”

Schremp likes the idea of playing alongside another OHL player.

“Obviously you’d think Bobby Ryan because we’re similar players in the OHL and we have the same thought on how we play the game,” said the Fulton NY product. “Jack Skille (CHI) is a great player but I don’t think it will really matter because there are so many great players that I think it will be easier to gel with a couple linemates this year.”

“When you’re coaching a whole year together, you have that year to institute systems and concepts, but when it’s a short tournament like this you have to be very simple with what you’re doing,” said coach Kyle. “So any chemistry that has been previously developed is always a benefit to you and if you can use that you take advantage of that.”

With that in mind, defensive partners Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee (OTT) from North Dakota will likely find themselves together again in Vancouver. Chorney, Edmonton’s second round choice in 2005, was impressive in the summer and is someone Kyle is very comfortable having on his team.

“He has represented the country in several events,” said Kyle. “He’s a guy that has good puck skills; he’s a solid defenseman.”

“They offset each other really well,” agreed Prendergast. “They both think the game differently; (Chorney) is a great skater and great puck handler and (Lee) is really steady and shoots the puck well but he’s stronger in front of the net than Taylor is.”

To many, the surprise selection for the Americans was hulking Denver center Geoff Paukovich. Statistically speaking, Paukovich is having a very forgettable year, but according to those that have watched him play, the numbers don’t do him justice.

“The first thing that comes to mind with him is his size and his strength and he brings that physical dimension to the team,” Kyle described. “Although he hasn’t been scoring a lot in Denver this year he’s a guy that has filled that role for the Pioneers.”

While the selection may have thrown some, Prendergast believes part of the reasoning behind Paukovich’s inclusion stems back a couple years ago.

“I think it was in the back of their mind that a couple of years ago Paukovich went up against Evgeny Malkin (PGH) at the U18 and really shut him down, beat him up for 60 minutes,” said Edmonton’s chief scout. “They’re going to need that type of player in the smaller rinks against some of the teams to shut down the big guys, that’s why he’s there.”

“I will feel very comfortable matching him up if our opponents have a big strong offensive guy that you need to match his strength and check him,” echoed Kyle. “It gives us some versatility and a different look in what we may or may not be able to do. If you ask people that watch a lot of college hockey and you ask them to name some of the more physical guys in college hockey, Paukovich’s name would come up. He’s a guy we are very happy to have on the team. He’s nothing but a class guy who has a real passion for the game and he’s a guy that wants to be a part of any success that we’re capable of having.”

Outlook

Team USA is the favorite heading into the tournament because there is a lot of firepower on the team and when compared to the Canadians, more experience as well. In Canada’s favor is the fact that they will be in front of the home crowd. Kyle, who has coached in the WHL, knows exactly what his team will be walking into once they cross the border.

“Canada is such a phenomenal hockey nation; the game is just such an important part of the culture there that this promises to be a really exceptional event,” he said. “I can tell you that Canada is going to be playing in their own country and they are defending gold medalists, they’ve won medals forever in this tournament. So in terms of us being favorites, I’d challenge anyone to go into Canada and take this away from them. That’s going to be a very, very difficult task and in my opinion they are the favorites.”

Exactly what you would expect a good coach to say in order to deflect some of the pressure of his troops right? Probably but Schremp feels many are overlooking the host team as well.

“No one is giving Canada the respect they deserve,” said Schremp. “They won gold last year and they do have a lot of good young players, only one returning guy in (Cam) Barker (CHI), but it’s going to be tough to go into Canada and Vancouver with that fan support.”

“The last time they had it was in Halifax and Patrick O’Sullivan (MIN), who is a good buddy of mine, told me that it was absolutely unbelievable the way the fans get behind them,” Schremp added. “They will have a lot of pressure on them but you ask if we’re a favorite and we do have a lot of skilled guys and everything but it will depend on how we gel together and come around at tournament time.”

Certainly the match up between Canada and the U.S. will be the most anticipated game of the opening round and an experience that all of these young players won’t soon forget.

“To make that junior team is something that is a huge stepping stone in their development, just the learning experience to play there,” said Prendergast. “The U.S. plays Canada on New Year’s Eve… that place is going to be wild and these guys will learn how to win under pressure and that’s something that right now we can’t teach them.”

Edmonton has to feel pretty fortunate to have Schremp and Cogliano both in this tournament. Either one could realistically lead their team in scoring and to a gold medal and it would be very rare for a person to accomplish both of those things without also being the highest scorer in the event.

WJC Quotes

“Unfortunately it wasn’t vintage Dubnyk.”
–Prendergast’s summary of goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s performance after Canada’s first inter-squad game in Vancouver.

“That’s good news, I find it harder playing on the wing.”
–Schremp’s understatement when told of Walt Kyle’s statement of playing him at center to begin the tournament.

“Yeah I didn’t have a really confident feeling coming out of camp because I didn’t play that great there because, like you said, I played a lot on the wing. It’s tough to be in really good shape there too because you haven’t played a game or anything for two or three months so it’s tough to just jump into a game situation. I didn’t have a great camp, I put on a bit of performance and scored some nice goals but I didn’t think I had played up to my potential at the camp.”
–Schremp’s reflection on the summer camp in Lake Placid.

“I don’t want to say that I knew it or anything but I think I made a pretty good statement with the way that I’ve been playing through the first half of the year and that’s really how you have to make the team. It goes by how you perform at the camp in the summer and also how you play during the year so I thought I would have a good chance but until you finally hear that you’re on the team for sure… it’s good news.”
–Schremp when asked by HF if he felt confident that he would be named to the team.

“It’s probably going to be the best attended WJC ever and that’s going to make it a very difficult environment for all the teams with the exception of Canada, but we’re very much looking forward to the challenge.”
–US Head Coach Walt Kyle on heading to Vancouver.

“Robbie is having one of those special years right now and he deserves a lot of credit for it and we’re going to give him the opportunity to continue to have the success he’s having in this tournament that he’s having in the OHL right now.”
–Kyle on Schremp.

“When you add a guy that size with as physical as he is, that is a talent in itself and often times people look at the numbers players put up and that’s great if you’re in an offensive role. But if you’re a defensive player it’s tough to be quantitative in statistics with those guys.”
–Kyle on Paukovich.

“I like playing for USA Hockey, I like the organization so it’s a lot of fun going out and playing with some of the older guys that I haven’t played with before.”
–Chorney talking about his past experiences with the US national program.

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