Oilers: Pre-Draft Q&A with Scott Howson

By Guy Flaming

New Page 1


Fresh off the plane and settled in Nashville,
Edmonton Oilers Assistant GM Scott Howson was kind enough to share some of his
thoughts.  The weather in the Mecca
of country music may have been damp and dreary but Howson’s outlook on the
Oilers heading into the entry draft weekend was anything but depressing.

Q:  Going
into the draft, is “Best Player Available” the strategy again this year or
are there specific needs you want to address with your earlier picks?

A:  Well
I think you still have to take the player that you think is going to be the best
NHL player.  With the exception of
probably a handful of players, you’re really drafting for three or four years
down the road so I think you really try and take the player who’s going to be
the best NHL player.  I don’t
think that will change for us. 

Q:  Which
player positions do you feel are more in need of long-term additions?

A:  Going
into the draft we’d like to get a little more depth on defense. 
That would be a priority for us. All things being equal we’ll probably
take a defenseman.

Q:  You
have eleven draft picks and four of those are in the first three rounds. 
Is there a cutoff point where “Best Player Available” becomes less
important and you start taking “riskier” choices?

A:  I
think as you get further on in the draft and if you think you can uncover a gem
in the later rounds that’s what you’re going to do.  There might be, obviously, more risk in that. 
Certainly in the past couple of years we’ve looked at some of the older
Europeans, I don’t know if we’ll do that this year, but those are the kinds
of players where you can take a risk maybe in the mid to later rounds.

Q:  Do
you do that later this year because the draft is apparently so deep?

A:  I
think that’s probably a fair statement.  I
think because the draft is so deep that you’re probably looking at the first
three or four rounds as players that everyone is really excited about. 
Our scouting staff and Kevin Prendergast are extremely excited about the
depth of this draft and we’re sure glad we have the four picks in the first
three rounds.

Q:  Last
year you made an attempt to move into the top five. 
Do you feel that is something you may look at again this year, maybe not
the top five, but moving up?

A:  We’d
love to move up, sure.  We’ll
certainly explore any avenue possible.  At
this point on Wednesday afternoon there’s nothing concrete on the table. 
Things generally don’t happen with people trading their picks or
switching picks until they’re sure they’re going to get the best possible
deal and that’s usually at the eleventh hour Friday night or Saturday morning. 
I’m sure we’ll have some of those conversations here in the next
couple of days.

Q:  With
Jiri Dopita not panning out is size up the middle, or for the forward positions
in general, a need more likely addressed by trade or through the draft?

A:  Well
it’s hard to say, like I said, you’re really drafting players that are three
or four years away.  I think that
any team would like a bigger player over a smaller player, all things being
equal.  We see where we are up the
middle with Mike Comrie and Todd Marchant, Brian Swanson and Jarret Stoll coming
up. These guys are not huge players and Mike York can play in the middle too so,
yeah, size up the middle is another area where we could improve on.

Q:  Whom
do you point to in the organization, that you have now, who can really help you
on your special teams?

A:  Jarret
Stoll, we think, is going to be a good two-way player and probably help on the
penalty kill, initially.  Marc-Andre
Bergeron showed flashes of helping our power play at the end of the season and
he was good on the power play in the AHL so we see him as a possibility. 
Jani Rita and Tony Salmelainen are players that have some offensive
skills, so, particularly Jani might be able to help out on the power play.   

The mini-camp that you’re having next week, have all the participants
been finalized?

A:  Not
completely, nope.  There’s still a
couple we’re waiting to hear on but most of them are finalized.

Q:  Going
by the message board on our website there’s a lot of interest in seeing three
guys in particular:  Brad
Winchester, (Jesse) Niinimaki and (Alexei) Mikhnov. 
Are all three going to be there?

A:  No
I don’t think all three are going to be there, I think two of them (will). 
I don’t know if we’ve released the names yet so I’m not at liberty
to say, but two of those players will be there for sure.

Q:  Will
any of the players that you draft this weekend be able to make it? 

A:  Highly
unlikely.  You never know. If we
draft a player who shows an interest in wanting to come and doesn’t have prior
commitments, or he’s from Alberta, we would gladly bring him in but we’re
not planning on bringing in any players from this draft at this point.

Q:  What
is the format for the camp?

A:  They
will fly in on Sunday, get fitness tested Monday, and then Tuesday to Saturday
there will be some on-ice sessions in the morning and then in the afternoons
there will be training education and off-ice training.

Q:  Will
it be similar to the fall camp that’s open to the public with the Joey Moss

A:  I
don’t think it will be similar to that at all. 
We’re only going to have 20-25 players there, there might be some
scrimmaging done but it will be more skill development. 
We’re not doing it to really evaluate players on the ice. 
We’re doing it to help our players and help the development process,
get them used to Edmonton, get them used to the type of shape that we want them
in and get them familiar with us.  Sure
we’ll be looking at them when they’re on the ice but it’s not that type of
training camp where it’s pure evaluation like it is in the fall.

Q:  There
are teams who have mini tournaments in the summer with their prospects, is that
something that the Oilers have considered doing before?

A:  Not
really.  They generally have them in
late August and so far we are not interested in doing that and I don’t think
that we will be in the near future.  We
don’t really see the benefit of it right now. 
We’re happy with the way we do it right now and we think that this week
here at the beginning of summer will be extremely beneficial to our prospects
and get them ready for our camp in the fall.

Q:  Tell
me a little about Dan Baum.

A:  Dan
was drafted in the seventh round two years ago and played in Prince George the
last three years.  He had a pretty
decent offensive year this year having 34 or 35 goals, the team wasn’t very
good this year so he played a role this year that will probably be a little
higher end than we project him as a pro.  We
think he’s got a chance to be a gritty, in your face, two-way center man that
can get under people’s skin.  (He)
plays the game with a lot of courage, has some skill… any time you get 35
goals in junior.  We see him next
year breaking into Toronto (Roadrunners), finding a role and starting his
development there.

Q:  That’s
a role that has maybe been missing from the Oilers the past few years is that of
a pest?

A:  Yeah,
an energy changer to get the emotion of our team up.  I think Raffi Torres will be able to do that, hopefully, as
soon as next year. He’s a real in-your-face kind of player too. 
That is something that has been missing, when your team’s
sleeping through the first period or whatever, the energy and emotion those
players can instill it with a big hit or getting in people’s faces.

Q:  And
how about Doug Lynch, where do you see him next year?

A:  Doug
was drafted in the second round two years ago and is coming off a pretty good
junior career.  We see him as having
an outside chance to make the hockey club and more than likely will need some
time in the AHL but you never know.  He’s
had two camps and he’s been good at two camps, it’s tough for a defenseman
to step in right away but we certainly see him as a solid pro. 

Q:  For
Ales Hemsky to go straight from Junior to the Oilers is that a pretty rare
occurrence for a player to make that big of a jump that quickly?

A:  Yeah,
particularly at 19.  He still had a
year of junior left but we really felt his skill level was there and we really
didn’t think he was going to learn anything in Junior last year. 
We thought he wouldn’t push himself, he needed to be pushed a little
bit at the pro level, and at it was time for his development to take the next
step.  I think we saw that it
worked, certainly by the end of the year he was a top-two line player for us and
he’s going to have his peaks and valleys for us but we don’t regret the
decision we made.  He was in and out
of the line up at the beginning of the season but we knew that and it was part
of the process of improving his conditioning and his off-ice work habits and we
think we made some inroads there.

Q:  Do
you think there is anyone else in the organization that could advance that
quickly or has that ability?

A:  Not
at this point.  If we get the right
player in this draft coming up you never know, there’s a few players in this
draft who would have an outside chance of playing in the league fairly soon.

Q:  It
was a bit of an unusual year for the Bulldogs in the sense that you shared the
team with Montreal.  In retrospect,
in what ways was sharing the team with the Canadiens a positive experience?

A:  The
success of the team.  You had two
organizations who were so into a development mode which I think the Canadiens
are now.  To put some of their
younger players together you have a chance to have a really good team and
that’s what happened.  A lot of
times what happens is the young players aren’t good enough and they get beat a
lot and it doesn’t become a good development tool but we were fortunate enough
that both teams had enough really good young players. 
Our players’ development was enhanced greatly by going to the seventh
game of the finals so in that way it was a smashing success.

Q:  I
would assume that having your best prospects play with Montreal’s best
prospects would just naturally be a good thing.

A:  Well
people assume that but what they don’t understand is that the AHL is a very
good league.  You can’t put twenty
20-year-olds out on the ice no matter how good they are and expect them to win. 
We had some good leadership and some good veterans (Gratton, Ward). 

Q:  So
down the road would the Oilers ever consider sharing a team again?

A:  No,
not at this point.  We really
believe in development and having our own coaches, our own system and our own
players. We get to dictate who plays and who doesn’t play too.  It’s not something that was ideal for either of the teams
but we made it work for a year and now we’ll move in our different directions.

Q:  In
comparison to the regular season, which Bulldogs had an even better playoff?

A:  The
guy that comes to mind is Ty Conklin.  He
had a good regular season but he was outstanding in the playoffs particularly in
the finals where he played all of the games.  He was outstanding in every game, even the game where we lost
6-4, I couldn’t fault him any of the five goals that were scored against him
(one was an empty netter).  He
really comes to mind as somebody who jumped out at us in the playoffs.

Q:  I
thought of Tony Salmelainen too or was he that good all year?

A:  Tony
had a rough beginning; the coaches really started talking highly of him in the
second half of the year.  You’re
right he had a very good playoff and when you look at his regular season stats
he sort of jumps out at you. 

Q:  On
the other end of the spectrum, did Jani Rita have a better season than he did a

A:  Jani
had an inconsistent season and playoff.  He
played really good hockey at times, he got called up two or three times, he was
in the unfortunate circumstance that when he came up and played well the team
was still losing.  So when Craig
MacTavish is looking for answers, he’ll generally go to the guys who have been
here, so (Jani) got shuffled down to the end of the line and he wasn’t playing
so we sent him down to Hamilton.  His
playoff was… not what we’d hoped.  He’d
had a great playoff last year, this year he got out of the loop a little bit,
played on the fourth line and by the end of the finals I thought he was playing
well but couldn’t bury the puck when he had the chances. 

Q:  Is
his development progressing as you expected or is he slowing down a bit?

A:  You
can’t predict development.  I
don’t think he’s slowing down, I think he’s gone through a time that he
probably wasn’t expecting and he’s got to fight through it but that can be
beneficial to any player.  It’s
the same thing with (Tony) Salmelainen.  At
the beginning of the year he wasn’t even in the line up some nights but he
fought through that and now he’s a better player because of it. 
We expect Jani can be a better player because of it too. 
He certainly didn’t give up, he worked hard and tried to fight through
it and like I said, by the end he was playing very well.

Q:  Bobby
Allen was injured about two thirds of the way through the season, how was his

A:  He
said he felt great and he played really well in the playoffs, probably was our
steadiest blueliner in the playoffs.  He
really provided us with a presence back there in terms of moving the puck and
making good smart decisions.  He’s
got to have a good camp next year, there’s going to be a spot or two on our
blueline and Bobby will have as good a chance as anybody win that spot.

Q:  Anybody
else from the Bulldogs that you expect to seriously push for a job with the
Oilers next year?

A:  I
think the players we’ve talked about here, three or four forwards a couple
defensemen and Ty Conklin.  There’s
probably six or seven that have a chance to make it but I can tell you right now
that not all of them are going to.  Somebody’s
going to come in and not perform well at camp and they have to make sure that
they’re not that guy.  They’ll
all be evaluated in exhibition games and get a realistic shot but to push
somebody out they have to perform at a high level for the whole camp and into
the regular season as well.

Q:  Has
a coaching staff been determined for the Roadrunners?

A:  It
has not, nope.  We’re still going
through that process right now and we have not made any decisions.

Q:  Initially
the Maple Leafs were outspokenly opposed to the Bulldogs moving to Toronto, have
they come around in their way of thinking?

A:  You
would have to ask them that.  I
can’t comment on what they are thinking right now, that’s their business and
we had to do what was right for us. 

Q:  Is
Kari Haakana returning to Europe for next year?

A:  He’s
gone home for the summer, we’ve talked to him and his agent about bringing him
back but I don’t know if that deal will be worked out or not. 
He has to think about what he wants to do as well, so we’ll certainly
talk in the summer

Q:  What
can you tell me about Mikko Luomo?

A:  He’s
an older European defenseman, has some skill and has played well over there. 
We drafted him last year and tried to sign him last year but it didn’t
work out.  We think he’ll have a
chance to make our blueline as well.  I
think he’s 26 or 27.

Q:  Lastly,
there are a lot of frequent visitors to our message boards who have lots of
questions about Alexei Mikhnov.  What
can you tell me about him for our readers?

A:  Frank
Musil (European scout) has gone in to see him two or three times a year and we
get to see him a little bit.  The
path hasn’t been what we had planned.  He
hasn’t really made a breakthrough in the Russian league yet; he’s gone
through a couple teams.  We’ve
certainly gotten positive reports on him this year of how he was playing. 
Hopefully that will continue, he’ll stay in Russia for another year and
hopefully become a regular player in the Russian elite league and we’ll go
from there and maybe talk about bringing him over. 

Edmonton’s mini camp for its rookies begins on
June 24th and runs until the 28th.  The on-ice sessions are open to the public at Sherwood
Park’s Millennium Place arena.  At
writing time, the names of the participating players had not yet been released
by the Oilers.