Oilers 2007-08 rookie review

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers had a total of nine players that wore the copper drop for at least a game who also qualified as a rookie this year by NHL terms.  Eighteen-year-old Sam Gagner was the youngest in the entire NHL and the oldest of the group was forward Curtis Glencross, a 26-year-old mid-season trade acquisition.

At season’s end, three Oilers appeared on the NHL’s top 10 rookie scoring list with a fourth in the top 20.  All said, despite not making the playoffs for the second season in a row, the atmosphere in Edmonton at the conclusion of the 2007-08 regular season was excitement for next year as the franchise clearly took a leap forward with the development of key prospects this season.

On opening night way back on Oct. 4, Edmonton had just three rookies. Defenseman Tom Gilbert led the group in ice time with 14:40 and also notched the team’s first goal of the season (assisted by Cogliano and Gagner).  Before training camp, the former Wisconsin Badger was considered the most likely of Edmonton’s nine NHL-caliber blueliners to be sent to the AHL, but a very strong preseason made it clear that the minor leagues were in Gilbert’s rear view mirror.

It wasn’t long before Gilbert had played his way up the depth chart and was entrenched on either the top or second pairing depending on which veteran, or veterans, were out due to injury.  In 82 games Gilbert totaled 33 points, 10th among NHL rookies and second only to Tobias Enstrom’s (ATL) 38 points for rookie rearguards.  The Minneapolis native’s 13 goals were seventh overall by a defenseman in the NHL.  Gilbert was playing in excess of 22 minutes every night in the second half of the year and was voted as the Oilers top defenseman by the Edmonton sports media, then signed a six-year contract shortly after the end of the season.

Andrew Cogliano was the only other rookie to dress for all 82 games in 2007-08 and his 45 points were second most on the team behind Gagner and sixth among NHL rookies.  Early on in the year the former Michigan Wolverine was used as an offensive checker, playing often with captain Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani but providing offense in that role.  As the year went on and injuries mounted, head coach Craig MacTavish was all but forced to play the speedster on an all-youngster line between Gagner and Robert Nilsson.  The trio was an immediate success to the point where most expect them to be reunited next season even with a complete and healthy line-up.

The year was not without its slumps though and Cogliano admits that there was a short stretch when he was concerned he might get sent down to the farm.

“I thought if [the slump] kept going they might send me down for a couple games just for ice time but I stuck with it and [MacTavish] showed confidence in me all year,” said the former first-round selection. “Every time I didn’t get too much ice he came and talked to me and told me to stay with the program and not get sidetracked by thinking too much and that dialog helped a lot.”

Cogliano’s greatest accomplishment this year came when he set a new NHL record by scoring three game-winning overtime goals in three consecutive games.

“I think that’s obviously going to stand out in my mind for a long time and hopefully it’s a record that isn’t going to get broken,” Cogliano smiled. “The whole season and all the fun I had, especially with the young guys, it’s something I’m always going to remember.”

Gagner’s development curve this year just seemed to continuing going upward aside from a brief slump.  The London Knights continued to hold out hope that the Oilers would return their star player to them, but it was clear early on in the year that Gagner wasn’t going anywhere but up the depth chart.

“It’s pretty surreal for me,” Gagner said in April as he cleaned out his dressing room stall. “I remember coming into last season thinking I was going to be playing three years in the OHL and then hopefully get a shot after that and then I go first round and I’m still thinking I’m going to be back in [London] again.  I come into camp and I keep getting more opportunities and by the time the tenth game rolls around I’m told I’m going to stay here… it’s pretty surreal to me.”

The defining moment of Gagner’s young career would come with the injury to top line center Shawn Horcoff.  Thrust into action between Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner, Gagner proved that he was up to the test of playing big minutes in big moments.

“The last three months or so I’ve been given a bigger role but early in the year I just had to focus on getting better every day and coming to the rink with a positive attitude,” said Gagner.

Gagner established himself early on in the campaign as one of MacTavish’s three go-to players in the shootout as he embarrassed veteran NHL goalies with his incredible stickhandling moves.  The Ontario native was Edmonton’s rookie leader and finished fifth in NHL rookie scoring with 49 points. 

The next most prolific producer among Oiler rookies was Curtis Glencross who was added in the second half of the season via a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The former AJHL player totaled 25 points on the year including 9 goals and 13 points in 25 games with Edmonton.  More important than the unexpected point production was the attitude adjustment Glencross brought with him and injected into Edmonton’s fourth line.  Both Zack Stortini and Kyle Brodziak had played well at times during the year and would have considered the season a success as it was, but with Glencross added to the mix the adequate duo was transformed into a go-to line.

Defenseman Mathieu Roy continued his injury-riddled NHL career adding 13 games to his lifetime total bringing that number up to 29 contests in all.  Roy’s season began slowly after getting run from behind by Rick Rypien in an exhibition game against Vancouver on Sept. 29.  Roy was injured again in November against Nashville when clobbered by Jordin Tootoo.

Roy spent considerable time on the shelf or in the minors, when visa problems didn’t keep him barred from Springfield, and in the end he only dressed for 33 games between the NHL and AHL combined.  
Bryan Young played appeared in 15 NHL games in 2006-07 but saw NHL action only twice this past year and didn’t impress in the process.  He played just 3:38 in the first seeing only five shifts, but compared to the other game, those minuscule minutes seem like an eternity.  Young saw only 0:38 seconds and was a minus-1 when Colorado hosted Edmonton on Nov. 7.

It was a somewhat similar experience for fan-favorite Rob Schremp in his brief two-game recall in October.  Schremp played 10:42 against the Vancouver Canucks and was given only 3:12 the next game against Phoenix; he was a minus-1 and had three shots on net over that stretch.  The two appearances would be all that Schremp would see of the NHL in 2007-08.

Forward Liam Reddox and defenseman Theo Peckham made their NHL debuts in single-game recalls.  Reddox played in Edmonton against St. Louis and nearly scored on his first shift of the game but that was his only shot on the night.  Peckham had a memorable outing in Columbus, highlighted by a thunderous open-ice hit delivered on Columbus tough guy Jared Boll.

The Oilers failed to reach the postseason, but success of its young core, especially through the second half of the year has everyone believing that next season could see Edmonton take another big step forward.  While nine rookies made their mark this year, it is tough to find an opening for a fresh face in the line-up especially when the roster is not suffering from the injury bug.  The development of players like Brodziak, Nilsson, Cogliano, Stortini, Glencross and Gagner may lead to offseason trades where the team is able to recoup some draft picks or other assets.    

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