Oilers 2006-07 rookie review

By Guy Flaming

One person’s misfortune can easily become someone else’s lucky break and that was definitely the case with the Edmonton Oilers this year who had 14 rookies play for them at some point over the course of the season.  Some made the team out of camp, but the majority of the players were pressed into action thanks to a plague of injuries that decimated the starting lineup of the NHL franchise.

Forwards

Patrick Thoresen

Not much was known about Thoresen by Edmonton’s mainstream media, so when he made the team out of camp it came as a surprise to most fans as well.  Although Norway’s newest hockey hero had previous QMJHL success in North America, few seemed to give him much of a second thought until the cuts at training camp began and Thoresen started outperforming those initially deemed ahead of him on the depth chart.

Early on in the season the 23-year-old was a breath of fresh air, energetic with a work ethic to match.  Thoresen recorded nine points in the first 18 games and found himself with a variety of linemates including Ales Hemsky and Petr Sykora.  However, as the season wore on, the likeable Scandinavian clearly began to tire and his production completely disappeared. 

“It’s fair to say that I definitely hit a wall there and I couldn’t produce anything and that’s why I got sent down,” Thoresen told Hockey’s Future at the end of the year referring to his short trips to the AHL

Thoresen scored four times and had 16 points having played a total of 68 games with the Oilers this year, enough to move him off the prospect list and onto the graduated list here at HF.

Attention from Norway was constant and often the pressure of carrying a nation’s expectations got the better of Thoresen.

“It’s been a lot of media coverage with me and Olle-Kristian Tollefsen in Columbus and of course most of the people [in Norway] don’t know how it works over here; they think that just because you were playing good in Sweden it means you’re going to dominate here,” Thoresen said. “I was glad that the TV crews came over so that I could have my chance to explain how tough this really is and how hard it is to make the team and play at this level.”

Perhaps the best stat Thoresen had is his minus-1 rating.  On a team that saw many of its offensive stars ravaged in that category, Thoresen was able to keep himself fairly even despite a lack of offensive numbers.

Marc Pouliot

Halfway through the season he dropped the hyphenated portion of his first name to separate himself from some of the other French players on the team, but by the end of the year it was clear that head coach Craig MacTavish was hoping that Marc Pouliot would have separated himself on the ice from the pack of prospects looking to steal a roster spot.

Pouliot was a frustrating player to watch this year because he was so inconsistent; for small stretches he looked as though he was about to turn the corner and establish himself as a bona fide NHL player but then he’d disappear for several games. 

He was expected to make the team out of training camp but being one of the players who was outplayed by Thoresen, Pouliot began the year on the farm.  Pouliot was recalled to Edmonton in late November and stuck with the team through the first week of the New Year before being sent back down to Wilkes-Barre Scranton in the AHL.  In that first 18-game stint Pouliot had just three points and saw his ice time drop from around 13 minutes to less than six on Jan. 5.

By season’s end, Pouliot had played in 46 games but still only managed four goals and 11 points.  One aspect of his game that has developed nicely is taking faceoffs, a talent that often earns youngsters a job as they try to carve out a role with the big club. 

Much more will be expected of Pouliot next year if he is still a part of the organization.  With an abundance of centers in the system, a prospect with Pouliot’s potential and young experience does have value on the trade market and Edmonton has made it abundantly clear that they will be busy this summer.

Brad Winchester

He went from being a hero against Detroit in the playoffs last year to a permanent resident in Craig MacTavish’s doghouse and is now possibly headed to unrestricted free agency.  Brad Winchester, the former second-round pick in 2000, was simply not on the same page as the coach.  He did not have a good training camp and perhaps that put MacTavish off right from the start of the year but in Winchester’s defense, there were stretches early on in the campaign where he was one of the better Oilers on the ice.

From the end of October to the middle of November, Winchester compiled six points in seven games and was doing everything that was asked of him including playing physical and dropping the mitts.  Then surprisingly his ice time began to diminish to the point where he was playing four or five minutes a night and even had one outing against Anaheim with just 2:40 of ice time.

It was obvious that Winchester was no longer in MacTavish’s plans when even through March when the line-up was riddled by injuries, the former Wisconsin Badger still couldn’t get more than 8 or 9 minutes of action.

After the season, Winchester told Hockey’s Future that because he had not yet played 80 NHL games he was now an unrestricted free agent.  Oilers Assistant general Manager Scott Howson recently confirmed for HF that in fact the team had the option to retain Winchester’s rights because playoff games count in regards to that clause but that Edmonton was unsure if they would exercise that right.  Reading between the lines it’s fairly clear that Winchester’s time as an Oiler has come to and end.

Head coach Craig MacTavish was blunt when asked if he was comfortable with potentially losing the asset as an unrestricted free agent without any return.

“Uh, yeah… comfortable,” MacTavish sighed. “Brad, we had reasonable hopes for during the season.  He’s a good kid and it was never a problem but the pace of his game and the intensity was an issue that we’d talked to him about at length and sometimes guys need a second opinion and that’s likely the case for Brad.  Hopefully that works out for him but he’s probably at that phase of his career.” 

Zack Stortini

Few players ran the gauntlet of the fans’ emotions this year quite like Zack Stortini.  Having watched a team without Georges Laraque on it for the first time in nearly a decade, the Oiler faithful were practically desperate to see a player who had a reputation for fireworks and fisticuffs and it didn’t take long for them to adopt Stortini once he donned the copper drop.

After his NHL debut at home against Calgary on Jan. 20, he could have been elected mayor of the city.  It had been so long since a player stepped into the lineup and played with the enthusiasm and physical overtones that the former Sudbury captain did and he quickly became a crowd favorite.

Seemingly he pleased the coaching staff as well although that eventually ended almost as abruptly as it had begun.  He ended the year with just over 100 penalty minutes in 29 games played but it wasn’t for his offensive production that he was brought to town.  Stortini was here simply to stir the pot, defend his teammates and instigate when he could but the problem was that he often wasn’t given the green light to follow through.

“The coaching staff was extremely demanding of what they wanted from me and I did my best to fulfill those expectations,” Stortini said at the end of the year. “I know I have to continue to get better if I want to stay in this league.  Getting quicker, getting stronger and getting bigger; those three things are always the things I need to work on but it’s also very important that I’m able to play the game so I can contribute in all aspects on the ice.”

As a fighter, Stortini was always game to go but knew he wasn’t ready to tango with the league’s big bruisers so more often than not his fights involved a lot of clutching and holding on.  To hear the player’s explanation, it may have been simply for self-preservation.

“I’m big but I’m not ‘man big’ yet; I don’t have the same strength that the older veteran tough guys in the league have,” Stortini admitted.  “That’ll come and that’s something I’ll work on in the offseason.”
 
This summer Stortini will return to Regina where he trains each year with power skating coach Liane Davis and also has plans to hook up with Chad Moreau, the Oilers fitness instructor.  He’ll be at the University of Alberta at the end of August as he rolls into town early with many other NHL players to take part in the pre-training camp sessions run by the Golden Bears head coach.

Kyle Brodziak

The former Moose Jaw Warrior is another player who had a disappointing training camp and needed to regain his place in the organization.  Brodziak began the year slowly in Wilkes-Barre but eventually became one of the club’s dominant players and just when it appeared he was ready to receive the recall to Edmonton, he broke his hand.

About eight weeks later, Brodziak was brought up to Edmonton where he played a total of six games, managing to score one goal and not look too out of place in the process.  Of note was the obvious improvement in his skating, a flaw that had most onlookers a year ago feeling Brodziak was headed for a minor-league career.

“It was a little frustrating not being able to produce,” Brodziak said after scoring against St. Louis, a home game with friends and family in attendance.

With an outstanding season on the farm most believe that the Vegreville, Alberta native has likely earned himself a second pro contract with Edmonton and that he could eventually be the player that replaces Marty Reasoner a season or two from now.

Jean-Francois Jacques

Perhaps the most disappointing player the Oilers had in their roster this year was J.F. Jacques; the rookie they felt might have been best suited for a smooth transition to the NHL this year heading into training camp.  Instead, after playing 37 games this season and his seven-game debut in 2005-06, Jacques is amazingly still without a single NHL point to his name.  As frustrated as the organization is, credit has to be given to Jacques who was well aware of the predicament he was in with failing to capitalize on his NHL chances.

"It’s getting frustrating; having over a point a game in the minors but I can’t get a point in 30 games up here,” Jacques told HF in March.

Jacques was fifth on the team in hits although he played less than half of the schedule so he was at least fulfilling that aspect of his job description.  However, his 33 minutes in penalties does not sound like the player who terrorized the QMJHL or was willing to drop the gloves at anytime in the AHL.  That was the player the Oilers needed to show up this year and he didn’t.  If he is still an Oiler in the fall, Jacques will have a lot of catching up to do to erase the bad impressions he left behind with his performance this year.  

Alexei Mikhnov

It’s tough to gauge the performance of a player after just two games and a grand total of 13:43 in ice time.  Alexei Mikhnov did not stand out in his brief two-game stint with the Oilers this year, but considering he watched the nearly a month of games from the press box before his first game (4:22 ice time) and then his second over a month later, what could realistically be expected?

It was an initiation by fire having never spent anytime in North America and not having a single countryman in the organization for him to converse with.  Not happy and feeling totally isolated, Mikhnov returned to Russia halfway through the year during a stretch of games with Wilkes-Barre.  It is possible and perhaps even likely that Mikhnov will return to Edmonton for training camp in the fall but will surely head back to the RSL should he fail to make in-roads with the NHL club early next season.

Rob Schremp

It was evident early on in training camp that the organization’s plans for the reigning OHL scoring champion was to have him spend the entire season in the AHL where he would be asked to focus on improving his defensive reliability.  Schremp did that and only squeaked into a single game with the Oilers at the end of the campaign when injuries had practically forced the club to call him up. 

The media hype following his first NHL appearance on the road against Minnesota was ridiculous, to the extent where the TV coverage spotlighted the beginning of Schremp’s first shift and then had an isolated camera on him to break down the rest of his game.  It was all simply overkill for a player who had struggled mightily on the farm at times for the previous six months.

“It was a bit of a struggle in the beginning but it came around a bit towards the end,” Schremp agreed at the end of the Oilers season.  “I needed to learn how to be consistent and make sure I was playing well all the time.”

Now having undergone surgery on his left knee to repair his MCL and a meniscus tear, offseason training will obviously be an issue.  How prepared Schremp will be for camp in the fall from a fitness perspective will be something to watch out for.  Any plans to concentrate on skating will have to be put on hold until much later in the summer.

Defensemen

Mathieu Roy

One of the small group of recalled players who looked like he knew what was expected of him and then went out and tried to make it happen, Mathieu Roy appeared in only 16 games this year because he sustained a concussion, but made the most of his opportunities when he was in the line-up.

Unlike Jacques or Winchester, Roy was an instigator when it came to fighting in order to generate some momentum for his team.  Although he’s of the Kelly Buchberger school of enforcement, meaning he’ll lose as many as he’ll win, no one can say that Roy doesn’t stand up for himself or his teammates.

Roy recorded a pair of goals and added 30 penalty minutes, almost as many as Jacques but in less than half as many contests.  It was the final year of Roy’s contract and it would be tough to argue that the 23-year-old doesn’t deserve another one, having taken advantage of the chances he was given.

Ladislav Smid

Edmonton’s top rookie performer this year was definitely 20-year-old rearguard Ladislav Smid who for the first two months of the season teamed up with veteran Steve Staios to form the Oilers’ best defensive pairing.  Eventually fatigue and inexperience caught up with him and Smid came back down to Earth but by that time the point had already been made: the Oilers have a very special player on the blueline for their future.

Smid didn’t contribute much offensively but he was more physical than most expected he would be.  The calm-as-a-cucumber Czech was unshakeable under pressure and revealed good decision-making to go along with his smooth skating and passing abilities.  Smid also gained a ton of experience the last month of the season when injuries to the veteran defensemen on the team meant he was playing an average of 25 minutes a night.

The defender ended his season with three goals and 10 points, third amongst Oilers freshmen, but led the rookies with 77 appearances. 

Tom Gilbert

Of all the rookies who were pressed into action this year because of the flood of Oiler injuries, Tom Gilbert was arguably the player who performed the best and he saw his stock rise as a result.  It’s just a 12-game sample to go from, but in those contests Gilbert showed maturity and poise and even more importantly, showed improvement as the games went on.

Gilbert played his first NHL game on his birthday, Jan. 10, on the road in San Jose.  That night he played just over 13 minutes but in his last eight games upon returning from an injury of his own, the former Wisconsin Badger was regularly playing over 22 minutes a night.

Like all rookies he made mistakes and against Columbus, Gilbert made the classic one of not keeping his head up.  He had his bell rung by tough guy Jody Shelly and sustained a concussion that kept him out of action for about five weeks.

On the sideline for an extended time, Gilbert was a fixture in the press box where he tried to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible while studying and learning from the games he was watching. 

In the end the 24-year-old accounted for five assists and just a single goal, although it was a biggie in Ottawa with less than 20 seconds left to create overtime.  Depending on what the club does over the summer to address an obvious weakness on their backend, Gilbert is either on the bubble to make the team out of camp in 2007-08 or, at worst, at the top of the pecking order for a recall from the minors. 

Danny Syvret

Mixed reviews seem to follow the former captain of the London Knights as he tries to develop as a member of the Edmonton Oilers.  Some like his skating and his passing skills while others find him to be a defensive reliability due largely to a lack of physical size and strength.  For the second straight year Syvret spent time in the NHL, but now after 26 games spread over those two campaigns, he has just a single point to show for it.  This coming from a player expected to bring offense to a team desperate for it from the blueline.

In Syvret’s defense, many of his appearances came at a time in the season when Edmonton’s blueline consisted of veteran Jason Smith and a smattering of minor leaguers like himself.  Unlike Gilbert who was almost an even player, Syvret ended the campaign with a minus-10 and found himself behind Bryan Young on the depth chart.

Syvret will be entering the final year of his entry-level contract in 2007-08 so it will be interesting to see if he can prove to the Oilers that he is deserving of a second one.  Having been a victim of Edmonton’s lack of an AHL team for two years now, it’s likely that he’ll get that opportunity but now that the Springfield Falcons are the exclusive affiliate, there are no longer any excuses available and Syvret is going to have to produce.   

Bryan Young

It was quite a year for Bryan Young who wore four different team jerseys in three different leagues beginning with the Milwaukee Admirals, then went down to the ECHL with Stockton, back up to the AHL but this time with Wilkes-Barre before finally hooking up with Edmonton in the NHL. 

Well down the depth chart, and therefore way off the radar for the media, no one gave Young much respect in terms of his potential to contribute but once he arrived he soon started getting attention.  Never one to produce offensively, Young drew rave reviews for his physical play especially after several major open-ice collisions like the one he delivered to Nashville tough guy Darcy Hordichuk at a game at Rexall Place. 

By no means was Young ready to step into the NHL this year and even he admitted to Hockey’s Future that on his flight out to meet the team in Anaheim for his first game, he wondered to himself just how badly he was getting in over his head.  However, for a player that no one dreamt would be asked to play for Edmonton this year, Young exceeded any expectations or limitations anyone placed on him.

Sebastien Bisaillon

If Bryan Young’s appearance in Oilers silks was a surprise, then it’s tough to properly describe seeing Val d’Or’s Sebastien Bisaillon make his NHL debut straight out of junior during the season.  With absolutely all Edmonton defensive players either out of commission or already recalled to the NHL, the Oilers were forced to pluck Bisaillon from the QMJHL playoff race for two games.

Surprisingly, the free-agent signee played a lot in his first outing and fared admirably.  The debut came against Vancouver and with almost 20 minutes of action under his belt, Bisaillon was happy to have ended the game with an even rating.  Unfortunately, in the only other game he would dress for this year, the Colorado Avalanche struck early and kept the Foreur rearguard limited to just under 10 minutes.

The brief experience at the NHL level should bode well for Bisaillon next season as he turns pro and likely skates for the Falcons in Springfield.  Having gotten his name on two game sheets with the Oilers will help get him noticed by the coach down the road should Edmonton need to look to the farm again for emergency help.

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