In 2005, the Edmonton Road Runners filled a void in the city during the NHL lockout but as soon as that dispute appeared ready to end, so too did the existence of the AHL team. For the next two years the prospects of the Oilers would be scattered across the minor leagues while the parent club sought the perfect business partner to help house the dormant farm franchise.
In the meantime, the Springfield Falcons limped onwards as the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the streak of playoff-less seasons extended to four years. Fans grew restless, ticket sales dropped and so did support for the second oldest franchise in the league. Springfield, the city which hosts the AHL league offices, had become a shadow of its former self.
The spring of 2007 brought together a NHL franchise badly needing a willing and cooperative partner and an AHL market with perfect logistics and the people in place to make it work.
“We’re absolutely excited and thrilled about going forward with the Edmonton Oilers and look forward to it being a long and productive, win-win situation for both the Oilers and the Springfield Falcons hockey club,” said Falcons president Bruce Landon on the day an agreement was made official.
The first bump in the journey came when Edmonton gave the Boston Bruins permission to speak with Springfield head coach Geoff Ward about a vacancy they had on their bench in Beantown. Ward took the job and as a result former Oiler captain Kelly Buchberger was eventually named his successor.
Buchberger enters the year with zero experience as a head coach but one season spent on the bench with the Road Runners and another as Edmonton’s development coach where he got to work individually with almost all the players he’ll now have playing for him. It’s also worth noting that although never known as a skilled player, no one ever questioned that Buchberger was a student of the game and worked extremely hard for everything he received as a player, certainly an example for any young player.
The two assistant coaches joining ‘Coach Bucky’ in Springfield both left solid jobs in the CHL. Jeff Truit was the head coach of the Kelowna Rockets who under him had been one of the WHL’s powerhouse clubs in the current decade appearing in three consecutive Memorial Cup tournaments. David Bell joined the organization after three years in Owen Sound as an assistant with the Attack of the OHL. Interestingly enough, Bell was once a player in Springfield having appeared in 48 Falcons games.
Five forwards who were sent to the ECHL last year because of the minor league scenario Edmonton had will be trying to prove their worth this year in the AHL. Tim Sestito has shown that he can be a solid two-way pro and is expected to anchor the Falcon’s checking line. His linemates should eventually be the Kelowna Kids, Troy Bodie and Tyler Spurgeon; teammates in the WHL under coach Jeff Truit. Bodie had a strong rookie debut in 2006-07 as did Spurgeon who is still in Edmonton nursing a sore shoulder.
Stephane Goulet had a very quiet camp in Edmonton but has drawn a plum assignment playing on the wing of playmaker Rob Schremp. The former Moncton Wildcat sniper potted 51 goals his last year in the QMJHL but only struck 17 times in Stockton.
Liam Reddox struggled to produce for most of his time in Stockton recording just 26 points in 70 games. However, according to Buchberger, the two-time scoring leader of the Peterborough Petes is not the same player he was last year.
“Liam’s played unbelievable,” said the bench boss. “He’s really had a good camp and we’re happy with him.”
Returning to the AHL this year are several players who skated with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last season as well as those who were on one of the other minor affiliates Edmonton scrounged up.
Jean-Francois Jacques dressed for the Oilers home opener on Thursday but was sent packing the next day. The hefty forward has been stellar at the AHL level but will hope to work his way back to Edmonton sooner rather than later. Last year, Jacques picked up 27 points in 29 contests with the baby Penguins.
Dynamic center Rob Schremp was also in WBS and begins the New Year back on the farm. Schremp’s offseason training regimen got off to a later start than normal thanks to the rehab from his season ending knee injury of last year. Frustrated with his performance at Oiler camp, the sophomore pro looks to rebound and find his game with the Falcons.
Norwegian Patrick Thoresen spent the vast majority of his days with the big club in 2006-07 but failed to stick this time around. After clearing waivers, the former QMJHL point collector said he was bound and determined to find his way back to the NHL.
“It was a tough camp for me,” Thoresen admitted. “Last year everything bounced my way this year has been rougher for me. I’ll have to battle through it, handle it as a man and fight back and do my best to get up again.”
Zack Stortini was among the last group of players to be reassigned from Edmonton but the former Sudbury Wolves captain knows that he’ll be bouncing back and forth to the NHL quite often this year. The 22-year-old has played for Milwaukee and Hamilton the last two years reaching the Calder Cup final each year.
A number of AHL rookies dot the forward lines for the Falcons including Ryan O’Marra who had his first taste of the league two seasons ago while a member of the New York Islanders. O’Marra earned five points in eight games at the end of the 2005-06 campaign with Bridgeport. Injuries plagued the 6’3 forward all last season including into the summer, so it’s quite possible that he’ll be brought along slowly at first despite his claims of complete health.
“He looks OK, he sure works hard,” said Bucky. “You can use him in certain situations but I think he’s finding out that being a pro is harder than he thought it would be. His conditioning has gotten better, there’s no question.”
Swedes Jonas Almtorp and Fredrik Johansson make their North American debuts this season and could be pleasant surprises. Almtorp, a center, has been playing against men for a couple years now so should be well prepared for the AHL. The slightly younger Johansson has a better skill set than most give him credit for and did catch the eye of coach Buchberger a summer ago during a prospect camp in Edmonton.
New England product Colin McDonald impressed during Edmonton’s camp and was disappointed that his play during the Oiler Rookies game against the Univ. of Alberta Golden Bears did not earn him a preseason start. Unfortunately, numbers seem to have worked against McDonald in Springfield early on as well.
“We have so many players that we can’t get everybody in,” admitted Buchberger. “We have Stortini after he was sent down and he’ll play with Sestito and Bodie. Right now we just have a lot of bodies and not a lot of room.”
Former Denver Pioneers center Geoff Paukovich also landed in Springfield. Not unlike a freight train, Paukovich is slow to start but impossible to stop once he gets a full head of steam. The lumbering shutdown forward left college early despite the logjam of forwards in the Oilers system already and there is a chance that he’ll see Stockton at times this season as well.
Slava Trukhno’s enigmatic training camp history continued this fall in Edmonton. Invisible during practices and most inner squad games, the Russian has a knack for turning it up a notch when it matters thus he was able to collect three points in three games. On the farm, Trukhno will be expected to hone his skills by adopting a solid work ethic but should see plenty of power play time where he can flaunt his offensive skills.
“We need some scoring and guys who can put the puck in the net and that’s what we’re depending on him to do,” stated the coach.
The most notable name on Springfield’s blue line, at least right now, is that of Ladislav Smid. He played a year in the league as a 19-year-old, then spent all of last season in Edmonton before losing his spot at camp this year. Now the Czech product works to get back what was once his and apparently has taken his reassignment in stride.
“He’s been absolutely great, no pout on whatsoever,” said the coach on how Smid had taken to his being cut. “He’s been a true professional.”
Bryan Young wore four different sweaters and played in three different leagues last year but should be a guy who sees a lot of minutes with just the Falcons this season. The Ontario farm boy is about as solid as they come and hits with a purpose. His 15-game stint in Edmonton last spring made a lasting impression on all of Edmonton’s management team, some of whom had little idea who he was before he was recalled.
“He’s been great,” Buchberger said of Young since his arrival in Springfield. “He’s showing more and more leadership every day and he’s a guy that we’ll look to in the last minute and to kill penalties.”
There are similarities between Sebastien Bisaillon and the last QMJHL free agent Edmonton signed — Marc-Andre Bergeron. Both are small yet stocky, offensive-minded defenders with a powerful slapshot. Both have work to do on their defensive game but Bisaillon is still at a level where he can do that safely. It should not come as a shock if Bisaillon spends time in California though as the roster in Springfield is bursting at the seams already.
Rookie Theo Peckham could actually still go back to Owen Sound but that is highly unlikely to happen according to one team source. The 19-year-old will probably be broken in slowly while he gets accustomed to the pro level but physically he is ready to go.
Former London Knights captain Danny Syvret has not been able to duplicate his junior success as a pro but will get plenty of opportunity to do so this season under Coach Bucky. Syvret has just four goals in 135 pro games leading into the new campaign.
“We named him as one of the assistant captains because he’s a true leader and there’s no question that he carries himself with a lot of confidence,” praised the coach. “He’s been really good at practice and off the ice with leading the young players."
This will be the most interesting positional battle to watch this year — two goaltenders with similar career achievements both wanting to establish themselves as the starter this year in Springfield. Either 23-year-old Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers or 21-year-old Devan Dubnyk could come away with the job outright, but when asked who he would lean to early on, Buchberger was noncommittal but said JDD had the seniority to at least begin the year with.
“He proved himself last year that he deserved the No. 1 job right now,” the coach said. “He’s been working hard in practice, no one works harder than JDD, he’s confident in his play and I thought that when he played last year for Wilkes-Barre that he should have been their No. 1.”
On the ice the both Dubnyk and Drouin-Deslauriers are ultra competitive and gossip of there being some tension between the pair were verified recently.
“You’re right, there is a little bit of a rivalry between the two of them there,” admitted VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast during an appearance on The Pipeline Show. “They both feel that they’re No. 1goaltenders and that competition has never hurt anybody.”
Asked directly about it, Dubnyk agreed that the situation where two people are vying for the same job can turn ugly but insisted that the pair are mature enough to rise above a potential problem.
“I think the two of us respect each other enough that we understand that we just need to go out there and work our hardest and that’s probably going to help each other out,” said Dubnyk. “As far as off the ice, we’re on the same team so I respect him and I hope he respects me enough that I really can’t see it being an issue.”
For his part, JDD also chose to take the high road and downplayed the rumors.
“We have a good relationship me and ‘Doobie’, there’s nothing harsh or bad,” said Drouin-Deslauriers. “He’s a great guy, I’m a great guy, so we get along.”
The feeling is that Buchberger will rotate often between the pair to allow them both equal opportunity to earn the job but that at the mid point of the season he will begin to ride the hot keeper.
Falcons fans have been patiently awaiting for a playoff team and the Oilers hope to give it to them. The club plays in a very competitive seven-team division so certainly reaching the postseason will not be easy. However, Buchberger sees enough talent in his squad to reach the promised land.
“Our goaltending and our defense I think will be the strength of our team,” he said. “You usually build your team from the back end out and we couldn’t be any happier with our goaltending or our defense pairings. We have young forwards but we’re happy with them and I’m sure we can get the job done with the guys we have, no question.”
“We’re a tough team, we have some grit and a lot of good energy players,” he added. “Guys like Schremp, Goulet, Trukhno, Reddox, Thoresen, guys like that we’ll depend on for scoring there’s no question.”
Asked how attendance and fan reaction has been so far through the preseason, Buchberger had to explain.
“It hasn’t been too good through the exhibition because they’ve been the same nights as the Red Sox games and the Patriots games.”
Buchberger and the Falcons hope to reestablish a winning tradition and resurrect a strong fan base in Springfield.
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