Talking about the farm system of the Edmonton Oilers has started to sound a bit like a broken record; a continuous and irritating repetition that makes a person want to cover their ears and say “Enough already!”
For the second consecutive season, the Oilers are not only without their own American Hockey League franchise, but don’t even have a 50/50 arrangement with another NHL club to ensure a true partnership. Instead, like seeds in the wind, Oiler prospects will once again be scattered across North America.
The Oilers invited 53 players to training camp, kept 23 for the NHL, cut loose seven free agent invites, signed one free agent then returned him and four other players to their CHL clubs, dispatched a pair of Swedes back to the SEL and have reassigned the remaining 17 players to one of six minor league affiliates in either the AHL or to Stockton of the ECHL.
Here is a recap of who has ended up where thus far and how they might fare in their new surroundings.
American Hockey League
Edmonton announced in late August that they had come to agreements with five NHL clubs that would see an unspecified but small number of Oiler properties suiting up with their AHL teams. The Wilkes-Barre Penguins (PIT) have become the most popular destination for Oiler prospects having taken in a total of eight players but choosing to only keep six of them so far. Three Oiler kids will play for the Grand Rapids Griffins (DET), two for Hamilton (MTL), Milwaukee (NSH) takes a single player, as does Iowa (DAL) with veteran Toby Petersen. The Stockton Thunder have just four Oiler players on the roster to start the season.
2005-06 was a great year for the minor league Penguins as they had the third-best record in the AHL. A major reason for that success was based on the play of netminder Dany Sabourin who earned honors as the league’s top netminder. The Vancouver Canucks recently snatched Sabourin off waivers from the Penguins. Wilkes-Barre’s loss is Edmonton’s gain as it ensures much more playing time for goaltender Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers.
JDD only managed to see action in 13 AHL games last year so it is absolutely critical that the 2003 second round pick faces a lot of rubber this season. He’ll be battling for time with newly-signed Andrew Penner, but the Oilers are confident that their stopper will receive an acceptable amount of starts.
Edmonton assigned only one blueliner to Wilkes-Barre, but he’s an important one on the organization’s depth chart. Tom Gilbert had a strong training camp with the Oilers and the majority opinion is that the former Wisconsin Badger could be ready for the NHL later this season. Although the Oilers will want Gilbert to play as much as possible, the Penguins do have a full stable of defensemen already so he’ll likely be expected to rotate in, at least to start with. Gilbert did not play in Wilkes-Barre’s season opener.
Kyle Brodziak and Marc-Antoine Pouliot also sat out of Game 1 of the AHL season. Pouliot, reassigned by Edmonton on Tuesday, was obviously not going to play on Wednesday night but it is a bit surprising that Brodziak is already sitting out considering he is an established player at the AHL level.
The only two Oiler players who did play on Wednesday’s opener were highly-touted Rob Schremp and coach favorite Tim Sestito. Sestito was a hit in Edmonton’s camp because of his work ethic and conditioning and when asked if it would be tough finding a spot for the unheralded Rome, New York product, Oilers VP of Hockey Operations shook his head.
“What’s going to happen is we’ll send him to an AHL camp and the coaches will absolutely take to this guy,” Prendergast said. “He’s the kind of guy every coach wants to have on their team.”
Finding Schremp a home in the AHL was not going to be a problem and neither should ice time be for the defending OHL scoring champion. Neither Schremp not Sestito contributed offensively in Wilkes-Barre’s 3-2 overtime win on opening night.
Grand Rapids Griffins
After a 51-goal season with the Moncton Wildcats, winger Stephane Goulet was looking ahead to making his professional debut in 2006-07. Goulet, who has adopted #7 this year, is one of six players listed as a right-winger by the Griffins so already it appears there is stiff competition at his natural position. However, there is only a pair of left wingers listed, so ice time may be earned if Goulet can adapt to the opposite wing. Goulet appears to be the only QMJHL alumni on the squad and the only French-speaking player in the room and is the second youngest player on the team according to the Griffins’ roster listing.
One of the left wingers on the roster is fellow Oiler prospect Brock Radunske. The former Michigan State forward is now entering his third professional year and hopes to spend all of it in the AHL as opposed to the ECHL where he played in 2005-06. Michigan will be comfortable surroundings for Radunske who played three years in the NCAA with the Spartans before bolting during the NHL lockout.
The third and final Oiler player to be found in Grand Rapids is defenseman Dan Syvret. Syvret went fairly quietly through Oiler camp and was dispatched to the AHL with little attention. The former London Knights captain will receive more ice time with the Griffins than he did as a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs last year; Grand Rapids lists only seven blueliners on the roster. Veteran Dan Smith, a part of the Oiler organization for the past several years, is one of the other defenders on the team and also played with Syvret last year in Hamilton so there should be some chemistry and a pre-established comfort level there.
Only two Oiler prospects are skating with the Bulldogs this year: defenseman Mathieu Roy and power forward Zack Stortini. Roy has developed into a dependable minor league player but was bitter over his reassignment to Hamilton earlier this week after what he felt was a camp performance worthy of a NHL position.
“[Being cut] is even worse when you think that you’ve made it, that you deserve a spot [in Edmonton],” Roy told Hockey’s Future recently.
Roy says that he expects to play a lot in Hamilton this year for the Bulldogs, unlike the way some Oiler players were on the outside looking in at times last season.
“I think they like me down there and with the way I ended off last season and the way I am off the ice too,” suggested Roy. “If they like me as a player and as a person that’s a good thing for me and I think I’m going to be able to help the team down there.”
Stortini spent last season split between Iowa and Milwaukee so this move to Hamilton will give the former Sudbury captain his third sweater in two years. Earlier during training camp Stortini commented on his experience in Iowa where the split affiliation really hurt him.
“It was a tough situation there but that’s part of the game and you have to battle through those situations,” he said, “Sometimes the mental part of the game can be very difficult and trying but once I moved to Milwaukee there was a great opportunity for me there.”
Stortini will step into a tough guy role with the ‘Dogs but also try and show the Oilers that he’s not as one dimensional as many have pegged him to be.
The lone Oiler headed to Wisconsin is hard-hitting rookie Bryan Young. Young does not head to Milwaukee with much fanfare or statistical accolades so it could take a while before the former Peterborough Pete takes possession of a regular starting job.
With his combination of off-ice work ethic and on-ice dependability, Young should eventually make his mark at the AHL level this year, but it may be in the second half like most rookies tend to do.
Four players have so far been shuffled down to the ECHL since Oiler camp last month and none were really a surprise. The Thunder will be a terrific place for Edmonton’s project prospects to begin their professional careers as they’ll get to play in front of better than average AHL-sized crowds in an almost brand new arena located in a beautiful part of California.
Tyler Spurgeon had an extended stay in Oilerville as Edmonton tried desperately to find an AHL team that had room for the hard-working center but to no avail. Although drafted by the Chilliwack Bruins of the WHL in their expansion draft, the new club’s brass were informed midway through September that Spurgeon would not be returning to major junior.
Spurgeon will join Kelowna teammate Troy Bodie in California and it will be interesting to see if the junior linemates will be paired up again in the ECHL. Bodie had a strong Oiler camp and again displayed great development since the previous year, something that has become an annual tradition for the 6’5 winger.
The player most in need of a rebound year is Liam Reddox. 2005-06 was a step back for Reddox who struggled with off-ice pressures in his final OHL year. The Oilers are hoping that a change in scenery will not only help him refocus but also mature as a person as well. Reddox has the skill and talent to succeed but will need to rediscover it after his scoring touch abandoned him last year.
Despite efforts to convince the Manitoba Moose to free up a position for him, Devan Dubnyk will join the Thunder and is expected to start the vast majority of games this season. GM Kevin Lowe confirmed to Hockey’s Future that casual discussions with the Moose did take place but didn’t develop because the Canucks were unsure of what direction they were going with their own netminders; their recent waiver pickup of Sabourin quickly eliminated the possibility of Dubnyk playing in Winnipeg.
Dubnyk is already being mentioned as a possible league leader in the goaltending department and considering the training camp performance and expectations of a 14th overall draft selection, the Oilers should not anticipate any less.
The Oilers have not been able to yet establish their own AHL team since originally suspending the Edmonton Road Runners 15 months ago. With 17 players in the minors this year, Jonas Almtorp who desperately wanted to play in North America, Colin McDonald who would have left Providence College to turn pro and players like Nate DiCasmirro and J.J. Hunter who performed well in the league last year, Edmonton could easily have iced a very competitive team of their own.
The positive spin? Despite the mess last year, several players developed well enough to play and contribute at the NHL level over the course of the season so an argument could be made that the cream will rise to the top no matter what the situation. Furthermore, having “just” six minor pro affiliates is actually fewer than last year when at one point the Oilers had players on eight teams including Hartford (Ty Conklin), Peoria (Blake Evans), Portland (Kenny Smith) and the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl.
Top of the list for potential recalls to Edmonton this year would include Pouliot, Gilbert and Roy. The most interesting scenario would be to see which goalie Edmonton would recall should the need arise; the older Drouin-Deslauriers or Dubnyk who’s stock has risen considerably since training camp. And what about Schremp; will he see any time in an Oiler uniform this year or will he spend the entire year on the farm like Patrick O’Sullivan (LA) did last year?
Recently it was reported that the AHL Board of Governors has granted conditional approval of the sale and relocation of the inactive franchise owned by Gardens Hockey Inc. of Cincinnati, Ohio, to Ice Track Corporation of Windsor, Ont. Hockey’s Future was able to get confirmation from the Oilers that they have already been contacted about a possible future affiliation. Although publicly the Windsor group is targeting building completion in time for the start of the 2008-09 season, sources tell HF that the new facility could be ready to go as early as midway through next season.
The Toronto Roadrunners spent the first month of their season on the road during the 2003-04 campaign while they awaited completion of the Ricoh Coliseum. All along the Oilers have stated their preference to have their AHL franchise in Canada so this is a situation that definitely warrants further consideration.
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