Oilers: Training camp preview — left wing anything but lock

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers have a problem — a problem that most teams would love to have — but a problem nonetheless. They have more players than they have roster spots for, and no position is more overcrowded than that of left wing.

The Oilers will have 17 players listed as left-wingers at training camp in two weeks, that’s the most of any position including defense. Furthermore, 10 of them already have NHL experience or are on the cusp of making their breakthroughs.

When it comes to determining players for those positions the outcome is anything but a lock. With the exception of Ryan Smyth, no left-wing player can positively state where he will begin the year. Behind Smyth are returning Oilers Brad Isbister, Mike York, Jason Chimera and Ethan Moreau. Add to this grouping the players looking to crack the line up for the first time such as Jani Rita, Tony Salmelainen, Brad Winchester and Raffi Torres.

Some of these players are capable of playing the opposite wing, or even center in some cases. Versatility like that should not be understated. Because Chimera, York and Winchester can all play in the middle it opens up options for both the player and the team. Likewise with Rita and Salmelainen can jump to the right side if need be.

“That’s something Craig MacTavish will determine going through training camp but we know that they’re capable of moving around if necessary,” explained Edmonton’s VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast.

Prendergast went further to state that room will be made for the players who deserve to be on the team.

“If it means making the hockey club better by moving them to other positions to keep them here then certainly that’s what we’ll do.”

Jamie Wright brings a bit of experience to the table and may be more than simply a depth acquisition for the AHL Toronto Roadrunners. Prendergast is quite familiar with Wright who was recently signed to a two-way contract.

“I had him at the World Championships a couple years ago and was really impressed with his character. He’s one of those hard working kids who is never going to cheat you when he plays. We need players like that to play in Toronto.”

But don’t be surprised if Wright finds some playing time in Edmonton along the way too.

“If we run into injuries with the big team Jamie could have an opportunity to play here.”

There are a number of players who will be headed for either the AHL or the ECHL Columbus Cottonmouths, for example Mike Bishai, Nate DiCasmirro, J.F. Dufort, Dan Baum and Sean McAslan.

Others will be returning to their junior teams like Troy Bodie, Jean-Francois Jacques and Zack Stortini. There are also three new names for Oiler fans to watch. The first is a European named Tomas Micka.

“Micka is coming for sure because we’ve signed him and he’s going to play in Toronto,” declared Prendergast.

The other newcomers are Sebastien Courcelle and Jean-Francois Plourde who both played for Sherbrooke of the QMJHL in 2002-03.

“(Courcelle) is a hard-nosed kid,” Prendergast described, “He’s not a great skater but he works really hard, he’s good on faceoffs, we’ll probably play him on the wing in camp because of our situation at center. He’s got a lot of heart and I really liked what I saw of him last year. We tried to do something to draft him late in the draft but we just couldn’t get another pick to take him.”

“(Plourde) was traded from Rimouski to Sherbrooke early in the year and ended up with 53 goals. He was in our prospect camp in June and he played really well. He’s intelligent, a bit of a darter and he knows how to put the puck in the net. We need a couple of guys in Toronto who can score for us this year.”

Despite totalling 97 points last season, Plourde was undrafted and the Oilers consider themselves lucky to have the winger in camp.

“I think his size (6-1 200 lbs) worked against him a bit. But we felt that when you can score goals at that level, and then after we met him here, he’s a very intelligent young man and very dedicated to being a hockey player.”

Certainly the new one-way contract with Raffi Torres pushed the first round draft pick to the front of the line for rookie candidates.

“We gave a one-way contract to Torres because we honestly feel that he’s going to play here this year.”

But if there are going to be new faces on the left side this year, someone will have to go.

If there is a veteran who may be on the bubble it is likely Ethan Moreau. Faced with a similar situation last fall after a poor season, Moreau turned in a terrific camp and it was Mike Grier who was dealt. This year it’s Moreau’s contract and the development of Torres and Rita that may usher the veteran elsewhere. If $1.5M was too expensive for the Oilers to pay former third liners like Grier and Marchant, then the same is probably the case again for Moreau. Moreau’s new contract has yet to be completed.

When all is said and done, it will be the players who earned their jobs that will be kept on the team.

”The players who best fit into Craig MacTavish’s system are going to stay,” summarized Prendergast, “We’re not going to award players for not being ready to play.”

That system is certainly not a left-wing lock and neither are any of the names to fill the left side a lock.

“The best players are going to play here.”

Edmonton Oilers training camp opens on September 12th at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park, Alberta with a weekend of day sessions open to the public.

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