Training Camp: The Forwards

By Jim Harnock

    Training camp for this season’s edition of the Edmonton
Oilers has finally begun and with it comes an odd feeling, a feeling Oiler
fans have not experienced for several years – a feeling that the team may
actually have more than enough NHL-ready players to fill its roster, especially
at forward.  This is indeed a rare treat for the team, which has often
had to rely on borderline talent to fill its ranks in years past.
    As in all seasons, players can be categorized as being
locks (already have a roster spot and they’re not going to lose it), on the
bubble (have their names on the roster, but it’s in pencil so the coach can
erase them easily), on the rise (rookies who have a good shot) and the farm
fodder (guys who are all but guaranteed to be on the farm team).

The Locks

    When you look at the Oilers of last
season, one of the biggest surprises was the play of the first line. 
Mike Comrie, centring Ryan Smyth and Anson Carter carried the team on more
nights than most would care to admit.  Though Carter had a horrendous
slump and was accused of coasting through games, he still managed to score
28 goals, while Comrie silenced many of his doubters by popping 33. 
Smyth was on pace for a 30-goal season before his ankle injury.  Certainly
all three have something to prove this season – Comrie that last season wasn’t
a fluke, Carter that he can be a consistent first-line player with the numbers
to prove it and Smyth that he has fully recovered from his injuries – but
none of their jobs are in jeopardy.
    Last year’s second line is all but gone.  In its
place, we find Jiri Dopita, who was for years billed as the most skilled
player outside the NHL, and Michael York – no, not the guy from Logan’s Run. 
Dopita’s time in the NHL thus far has been decidedly average, but in his
defence, he was playing on the Flyers’ third line.  And while York only
had four points as an Oiler last season, both he and Dopita will see plenty
of ice-time, if only due to their large (by Edmonton standards) contracts.
    Rounding out the list of players unlikely to lose their
spots in the line-up are Mike Grier and Todd Marchant, though Marchant may
very well end up in another team’s line-up very shortly.

On the Bubble

    There are many players on this team
from whom more is expected.  At the top of the list is the oft-maligned
Ethan Moreau who would be in the “lock” list were he making
$650,000 less – in Moreau, the Oilers have a fantastic penalty-killer who
could make the loss of Marchant more bearable, but his salary puts him in
danger of losing his roster spot to younger and cheaper pests.  Daniel
Cleary is keeping Moreau company here.  It seems that Craig MacTavish
really likes Cleary, despite his wildly uneven play, but recent remarks by
the coach seem to indicate that he won’t be playing favorites anymore.  I think
if Cleary uses his size a little more effectively, he could be the missing piece
of the Dopita-York line, but if he continues as he did last season, not
    Marty Reasoner is another guy who has a big question mark
beside his name.  Could he take over for Marchant?  Yes, but so
could Shawn Horcoff, a fellow “bubble-boy.”  In terms of
pure skill, Reasoner would easily rank ahead of Horcoff, but both players
have a long way to go before they can be considered locks for this roster. 
Both spent plenty of games in the press box last season and with the number
of players coming out of the farm system these days, they may find themselves
there again.
    Georges Laraque belongs in this category because he doesn’t skate particularly well, he doesn’t score goals particularly
well and his defensive game is just okay.  He badly needs to improve his game in many aspects, as his main
contribution to this team is his toughness.  He could be a decent power-forward
if he could skate well enough to drive the net on the power play, but as
it stands, he’s very similar to Ethan Moreau – and overpaid heart and soul
guy who just doesn’t score enough to justify his pay-cheque.
    Josh Green could also be slotted in here, but given his
limited ice-time due to injuries, that really wouldn’t be fair to him.

On the Rise

         At the very top of this list is Jani Rita, the Finnish
left-winger whom some had written off as a bust before he ever came to North
America.  Rita’s strengths are his speed and his tenacious fore-checking
as well as his willingness to play defensively, a trait not all goal-scorers
possess.  The only prospect above Rita in terms of NHL-readiness would be Jason Chimera.  Another
left-winger, Chimera is the type of player who would fit easily into the
kind of physical role played by Moreau on the third line and has shown more
offensive flair than number 18 has.
These are the two rookies you’ll see taking regular shifts
with the team this season.  Some say that Ales Hemsky, the right-winger
who played for Hull of the QMJHL last season, is a sure bet to make the NHL
this year, but I’m not convinced that an eighteen year old can make much
on an impact on this team.  Hemsky really needs to spend a year in the AHL where he can
learn to play against men as opposed to the boys he played against in junior. 
If Hemsky can play well enough consistently enough to win a roster spot on the Oilers, great, but the jump straight
from junior to the NHL is a little too much.
Tony Salmelainnen may also be in the running for a roster spot, but expect
him to be in Hamilton for at least one season to adjust to the North American

Farm Fodder

are plenty of players to fill this category, some because they need to develop,
some because there just isn’t a roster spot for them, and some because they’ve
already developed and just aren’t good enough to make the team.
    Those needing to develop their game include guys like
Michael Henrich, recent second-rounder Jarrett Stoll and former college stand-outs
Mike Bishai and Nate DiCasmirro.  Henrich made great strides in Hamilton
last season and if he continues his improvement through this campaign he will move up from farm fodder to “on the rise” next year. 
Though neither Bishai nor DiCasmirro played many regular-season games for
the Bulldogs, both showed considerable promise, especially DiCasmirro, marking
five points in ten playoff games.
    Poor Peter Sarno leads the pack for the guys who just
can’t crack the roster, along with hard-working right-winger Fernando Pisani
and former leading scorer of the Bulldogs, Brian Swanson.  In the case
of both Sarno and Swanson, a trade would be the best thing not just for them,
but for the farm system as well.  Neither will likely be part
of the Oilers roster anytime soon (though Swanson may stick around as new-model
Dom Pittis) and they’d just be taking roster spots away from younger players
who need to develop – and with the split-affiliation of Hamilton this season,
the Oilers need to be careful with their fifteen roster spots.