Oil Kings trying to make good first impression

By Guy Flaming

It’s tough being an expansion team in the WHL, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.  Yes the Edmonton Oil Kings have a team mostly consisting of players the rest of the league left by the curb, but it’s not a lack of talent that is challenging the league’s newest franchise.  The hardest thing about being a new team in the WHL is living up to the example of the last few expansion clubs and making the playoffs in their first year.

The Everett Silvertips set the bar in their inaugural campaign by not only reaching the post-season but also getting to the league finals only to lose to the mighty Medicine Hat Tigers.  Everett’s oppressive defense brought head coach Kevin Constantine and his troops success that year but it was far from entertaining hockey.  That season the ‘Tips only scored 157 goals in the 72-game schedule, but amazingly only surrendered 153 thanks to a trap that was worked to near perfection.

The Chilliwack Bruins saw post-season action in 2006-07, largely due to the fall of the Kelowna Rockets but they also executed an offensive game plan that kept things interesting for fans even on nights when their club was on the losing end.  By contrast, Chilliwack scored 169 times but their much more freewheeling nature cost them as they were scored on 260 times. 

“>Dave Sheldon is the play-by-play voice of the Bruins this year but was also with the Silvertips in their infancy so he knows full well what expansion teams go through.  According to Sheldon, the differing styles of play between Everett and Chilliwack stemmed from different reasons.

“The Chilliwack Chiefs were a very good BCHL team and the Bruins kind of usurped their fan base to move into the area,” Sheldon explained recently on The Pipeline Show. “The Chiefs were all about run and gun hockey and you could not bring in the defensive-minded system that was in place in Everett.  These fans would have gotten turned off right away.  [The WHL] is supposed to be a higher brand of hockey so this team made the decision very early on to run and gun and that they would try to win games 4-3 or 5-3.

“What Everett needed to do right away in an American market is win and win now,” said Sheldon. “I’m not saying that they gave up the farm because they didn’t.  Everett had to make sure that they won, it didn’t matter if they won 2-1 because as long as they won, the people would show up.  Now they have a very solid franchise and fan base there.”

Yet the situation facing the Edmonton Oil Kings is different from both of those examples as the new junior franchise is sharing a building and a market with other professional sports organizations, not to mention a university with popular athletics programs.  The City of Champions has been a tough place for new organizations to break into over the past several years.  Pro soccer, both indoors and out, have failed as has pro basketball and the local minor pro baseball team struggles for attendance.

With the Edmonton Oilers owning the WHL team, the Oil Kings are not in a position where they have to worry as much as Everett did about response from the fans.  If that were the case, the Oil Kings would not have come out of the gate with the most expensive ticket prices in the entire three-league CHL.  To that end, there isn’t nearly the amount of pressure to win immediately here as there was in Everett.

Oil Kings General Manager Bob Green stated early on that he wanted a hard-working club that was not going to get pushed around by other teams, would battle and compete every night but would not be defensively stifling.  That plan was further developed through the expansion draft where it was clear that Green was building his team from the back end out, concentrating on getting a strong and dependable blueline so that his forwards could play a more open style of game.

Goaltending

When training camp opened most people felt that Tommy Tartaglione was a near shoo-in for one of the two roster spots on the club.  However, shortly into camp he was released by the team “for disciplinary reasons” which one team source confirmed to be alcohol related.  Not long afterwards, Tartaglione resurfaced with the Prince George Cougars.

WHL expansion teams are allowed to carry five 20-year-olds on their roster compared to the three-player limit imposed on the rest of the league.  Edmonton netminder Alex Archibald is in his final year of WHL eligibility and occupies one of those limited spots.  Coincidentally, Archibald was Chilliwack’s netminder last season so is very familiar with the trials and tribulations of a first-year team.

“I guess the biggest difference so far has been that this year we’ve lost six in a row and last year we lost 11!” joked Archibald. “As soon as we got out of our drought last year that was when we came together and we became one of the best teams in the league.”

Asked if he was disappointed with being left unprotected (again) and thus selected by his second expansion team in back to back years, Archibald shook his head.

“They had a good young goalie in Chilliwack and I thought I was either going to be traded or left exposed,” he said. “I was really glad to get the opportunity to come here because Edmonton’s a great city and they’ve proven that so far with the fan support.  If good things happen afterwards then they happen, but if not then I have a great [WHL-funded] scholarship to fall back on.  It’s my last year so I’ll give it all I’ve got and have no regrets.”

Seventeen-year-old Dalyn Flette (1990) is the backup to Archibald and after a sub-par start to the year the former Kamloops Blazer has recently put together solid wins over the Calgary Hitmen and the Everett Silvertips. 

Defense

Edmonton’s defensive corps is laden with veterans.  Twenty-year-old Bretton Stamler was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 2005, went unsigned, and is now looking to earn a pro contract after his final WHL year.  Stamler, who was left exposed by Seattle, said he thinks playing in Edmonton will be a bonus for that reason because it will be a hub for scouts to come and watch a lot of games.

“I’ve got to figure out a way to get signed and get on with my career because that’s what I want to do, I want to play in the NHL,” said the very level-headed rearguard. “Going to the ECHL and kicking around the lower leagues in pro isn’t really what you want to do so I’d like to hopefully earn a [AHL] contract by the end of the year.”

Stamler began the season after attending Oilers training camp and was named captain of the Oil Kings just prior to opening night. 

The other 20-year-old on the back end is Matt Swaby who played for the Tri-City Americans last year.  Swaby is a two-way defenseman but has never put up more than 20 points and struggles against larger physical opponents of which there are plenty of in the WHL.  Recently an Oil Kings promotion centering on the Canadian Finals Rodeo prompted the defenseman to express his potential desire to become a cowboy once his playing days are done.

Cameron Cepek was chosen by Montreal in the seventh round back in 2005 but after a strong training camp his Oil Kings season has been fairly vanilla — six points, a minus-7 rating and some displays of below-average fighting.

Drew Nichol (1989), Tyler Hlookoff (1990) and newly-acquired Adrian Van de Mosselaer (1990) round out the blueliners and while none have stood out, all have played decently and should only get better as the year goes on.

Overall the defense has not, until very recently, lived up to its billing.  The team has struggled to score 5-on-5 so the stat is surely inflated because of it, but at the end of October, the top four blueliners combined for a horrendous minus-28 rating.  However, during recent weeks the team has fared much thanks in large part to the improved play of the defensemen.

Forwards

The biggest name on the roster is undoubtedly that of New York Islanders third-round pick Robin Figren.  The Swede didn’t get into action until October because of an off-season sports hernia but since suiting up he has definitely been the most entertaining and effective Oil King.  Plucked from the Calgary Hitmen, Figren has been a point-per-game player and the go-to guy for Edmonton.

Brent Raedeke was acquired from Regina as a ‘player to be named later’ from a deal during the Bantam draft.  Thus far the 17-year-old has been one of the bigger surprises of the year.  He’s one of the few players who has a plus rating and is currently trailing only Figren in terms of scoring.  Not available for the NHL Entry Draft until 2009, Raedeke is probably gaining some recognition with the way he’s performed for Edmonton this year.

Former Rocket Brett Breitkreuz had 14 points in 58 games with Kelowna last year but already has 11 in 17 games with the Oil Kings.  Breitkreuz is 6’1 and 200 lbs so the 18-year-old is capable of playing with some edge and that’s when he’s been at his best this year.  At this point scouts don’t seem to be all that high on him, but those that Hockey’s Future have spoken with say he might be a draft-worthy player, but likely one for the later rounds.

Hard-working Brenden Dowd joined the Oil Kings from Kamloops where he played sparingly last season.  Dowd will turn 19 on New Year’s Eve and centers a line with 20-year-old Karey Pieper (pronounced ‘Peeper’) and Lethbridge castoff Craig McCallum.  McCallum is an interesting player to watch; he led the Midget AAA league in Saskatchewan last year and is expected to bring that offense to Edmonton, and has done so in spurts.

Edmonton-born J.P. Szaszkiewicz provides a lot of emotion and energy for the expansion team.  After not playing much for Spokane the last couple of years, he asked to be traded or left exposed in the draft and got his wish.  It was Szaszkiewicz that provided the opening night dramatics with a last-second game-winning goal to give Edmonton an exciting 4-3 win at Rexall Place.

The player most scouts are evaluating is nearly 17-year-old import Thomas Vincour (pronounced Vin-soor).  Edmonton chose the Czech with the first overall pick in the 2007 CHL Import Draft and although he so far hasn’t produced a ton of statistical highlights, Vincour has played as well as anyone should have expected.  At 6’2 and nearly 200 lbs, he has displayed the ability to play in traffic and battle for pucks.  The smooth skating forward has very good puck skills and most expect that Vincour will really start to blossom after Christmas and down the stretch.  Vincour is not eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until 2009. 

Coaching staff 

After several months of speculation, General Manager Bob Green and the Oil Kings announced the hiring of Steve Pleau as the club’s first head coach.  The decision was not without criticism.  Pleau had spent just a single year in the WHL, the previous one as an assistant coach with the Spokane Chiefs.  Prior to that Pleau was with the farm club of the St. Louis Blues where his father Larry Pleau has been the general manager for quite some time.  The younger Pleau had held the position of assistant coach for seven years before partially taking over the reins as co-head coach in 2005-06.

What has quickly become apparent is that not only has Pleau gotten the respect of people outside of the organization, but he’s earned it from his players as well.  His energy is addictive, the players feed off his emotional state on the bench, which at times this season has been volatile.  In that sense, Pleau is a bit of a throwback to older days when coaches like John Brophy, Michel Bergeron or Pat Burns would erupt in protest over a blown call.

Before the season began Pleau was asked if he would accept not winning as part of the package of being a new franchise but he quickly dismissed the idea.

“No, I’d never accept that,” he stated. “Losing is something you have to learn to handle but the day you accept losing, the people around you will and that’s not going to happen here.”

Pleau also said that he would not follow Everett’s blueprint to success.

“The game has changed so much since then, you can’t employ the trap the way they did back then,” he said. “You have to allow your players some freedom in the new game but will we be a disciplined team that plays a structure?  Yes we will.”  
       
Sharing the bench with Pleau is Rocky Thompson, the near legendary enforcer of the Medicine Hat Tigers who went on to have a storied minor pro career in the same role.  Thompson ended his playing career in Peoria and has first-hand experience of having Pleau as his coach.

“He’s passionate, he loves hockey more than anybody that I know,” Thompson said. “He’s very smart, he reads people very well and he works the bench.  He utilizes the talent that he has and he’s a good teacher and motivator.  If you talked to him for five minutes you’ll want to start playing hockey again!”

Just as there was with Pleau, there was criticism of Thompson’s selection for the assistant job, however the former player explained just why he was the right fit for this team.

“I was a utility player; I played both forward and defense in the NHL and the AHL for 10 years,” he began. “I didn’t have that natural skill so I had to learn the hockey game and if I was no good I never would have played for 10 years but I had to make the most of what I had.

“We’re [got] the guys that other teams left unprotected so they thought that they were expendable but we’re grateful to have them because those are the types of guys that will go to war for you every night,” Thompson added. “As a player I was a mentor to younger players and I taught them how to be a pro, to adapt them to the lifestyle and the best thing for these players is to learn how to be a pro now.”

Outlook

Can the Oil Kings follow in the footsteps of what both Chilliwack and Everett were able to accomplish in their first year?  Are the playoffs a realistic goal this season?  Everett was able to get there on the strength of their smothering defensive game in a rather dreadful division.  Chilliwack had the luxury of playing in a division with the second worst team in the league last year so got there almost by default because the Kelowna Rockets were so awful.

This year, the WHL has changed the playoff format so that the top eight teams in the conference reach the playoffs. Now Edmonton is not only competing with the six-team Central division but also the six-team Eastern division.  It is definitely going to be a long and tough season but considering that right now they are fourth in their division, eighth in the conference and have several games in hand over all but two of the other 11 teams, things look good.     
        
Sheldon offers these words of advice to Oil Kings fans who will likely be riding that roller coaster of emotions this year.

“You will have to expect those ups and downs,” he began. “There was a time last year when we wondered if the [Bruins] would win 10 games and they ended up winning 25.  You have to be real patient, you have to trust that the people who are in place know what they are doing and the Oil Kings have a tremendous set-up of management there so they’ll be fine.  It’s imperative that the fan base stays patient because as you can see with different teams in the WHL, it doesn’t take long to go from start to finish to become a contender.  The Vancouver Giants have proven that by winning the Memorial Cup last year in just their sixth season.”  

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