They won’t call it a rebuild or a revamp or even a facelift as training camp opens this week in Edmonton, so instead let’s just say the team is undergoing a major oil change.
Gone are veterans Joffrey Lupul, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Petr Sykora, Toby Petersen, Brad Winchester, Petr Nedved, Jan Hejda, Jussi Markkanen, Ryan Smyth and captain Jason Smith. Many of those holes are still vacant and the Oilers will look within to see if they have players ready to take the next step in their careers.
With the Oilers’ three-day rookie camp having wrapped up in Yellowknife, NWT on Sunday, the University of Alberta opened the doors to Clare Drake Arena on Monday for the annual friendly against their would-be NHL counterparts. For the sixth time in the last seven years, the Oilers came out on the short end of the score but battled hard in the 2-1 loss.
A number of prospects will be making their professional debuts this year including four former CHLers and five NCAA collegians.
Defensemen Theo Peckham and Sebastien Bisaillon> are graduating to the minor leagues after taking very different paths to the same place. Peckham was drafted by Edmonton in 2006 and signed uncharacteristically fast by the Oilers this past summer. Bisaillon on the other hand was never drafted but came to camp last fall as an invitee and left with a contract in hand. The former actually appeared in a pair of NHL games last year due to an emergency situation but this will be his real rookie season.
Former University of Denver goalie Glenn Fisher has returned home, but the Edmonton native is likely destined for Stockton, California this season despite a fantastic rookie camp and game against the Golden Bears.
Fisher’s Pioneer teammate Geoff Paukovich left the program as a junior and has looked ready to for a bigger challenge. Not to be outdone, Michigan sophomore Andrew Cogliano also jumped ship from the Wolverines and is now fighting for a roster spot. Fellow Michigan David Rohlfs saw his four-year NCAA career wind down and is now in camp with the Oilers as is one time Providence Friar Colin McDonald.
Ryan O’Marra’s days in the OHL are now behind him as he successfully recovered from offseason knee surgery in time for Oiler camp. Moscow product Slava Trukhno joined the rest of Edmonton’s prospects as rookie camp got underway in Yellowknife.
He might not be completely unfamiliar with the NHL, but Denis Grebeshkov is a new face to Oiler fans and to the organization that hopes the Russian can contribute at the NHL level this year.
Jonas Almtorp and Freddie Johansson attended camp last year but were both released to return to Sweden that time. This year both Swedes will stay in North America and begin their minor league careers.
Battle for the roster
This year there are several openings in the forward position, too much depth on the blue line and no openings between the pipes.
On the back end, Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, Steve Staios, Dick Tarnstrom, Matt Greene and Denis Grebeshkov will claim six of the seven NHL spots simply based on contracts. Mathieu Roy, Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid will square off for the No. 7-9 places on the depth chart. Gilbert, who is still on his entry-level contract, will almost certainly begin the year on the farm although he showed last year that he deserves a much better fate. Mathieu Roy does have a two-way contract this year but cannot play for Springfield without clearing waivers, which won’t happen, so that works in his favor. No one believes that Smid should ever see the AHL again but that is one short-term solution the Oilers could exercise in order to begin the year. Another scenario would see Edmonton breaking camp with eight blueliners and 13 forwards until such time as Kevin Lowe executes a trade involving one of the excess rearguards.
Up front, eight veteran players take up their roster spots including Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky on the top line. Line two is comprised of Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll while Marty Reasoner, Ethan Moreau and Geoff Sanderson round out the bottom six. There are a total of six openings including four starting positions and two press box seats waiting to be filled by Oiler prospects.
The lead candidate for the right wing hole on the Stoll line is Robert Nilsson. The 22-year-old will get every opportunity to lay permanent claim to the job during camp and likely the start of the year.
Marc Pouliot seems the most logical choice to take on one of the vacant center gigs, but the position won’t be handed to him. Last year the Quebec product lost his spot to Norwegian surprise Patrick Thoresen and the same could happen again this year should Pouliot start out slowly again.
The illness to Fernando Pisani has created a void on the checking line’s right side and the player getting early mentions to fill it is Kyle Brodziak. A natural center, Brodziak can also play the wing, plus he is defensively reliable so fits the prerequisites to be Pisani’s understudy fill-in.
J.F. Jacques may have become somewhat expendable after the acquisition of Dustin Penner, but the Oilers hope that he can get the monkey off his back and start producing at the NHL level. At the very least, a Jacques that is regaining his form will have more trade value than the one that has struggled mightily with the Oilers.
Thoresen certainly has an inside shot at keeping at least a 13th man role but he will be challenged by a number of up and coming players. Andrew Cogliano, Ryan O’Marra, Rob Schremp and Zack Stortini will all get extended looks in camp with the latter probably assured of seeing playing time this season against opponents that bring a lot of beef with them to Rexall Place.
This year’s wildcard has to be Super Series MVP Sam Gagner who set himself apart with his consistently exceptional performance against the Russians. In all likelihood, Gagner will return to London but should he show as well in camp as he has over the last two weeks, a nine-game NHL internship is a very real possibility.
The competition for NHL jobs should be better than it has in the last several years and it will be interesting to see how things in Edmonton unfold. Will the Oilers begin the year with eight defensemen and 13 forwards or will they try and sneak someone through waivers? Perhaps a trade before the start of the season will be their solution. Will Gagner or anyone else receive a short taste of the NHL? Much will be decided beginning this weekend.
Oilers preseason schedule
Sept. 17 vs Florida
Sept. 18 vs Toronto
Sept. 20 at Vancouver
Sept. 22 at Calgary
Sept. 25 at Phoenix
Sept. 26 vs Calgary
Sept. 29 vs Vancouver
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