Oilers: Training camp preview II: centers of attention

By Guy Flaming

There has been an acknowledged lack of size down the middle of the Edmonton Oilers in recent year. The team has had plenty of talented centers in the organization but none who could fill out an XL sweater, with the exception of last season with the failed Jiri Dopita experiment.

This is something that the Kevin Lowe-led Oilers have attempted to address in recent entry drafts. Zack Stortini, a 6’3″ 217 lb 17-year-old center from Sudbury was picked this year to go along with 6’2″ Kyle Brodziak and 6’2″ Jesse Niinimaki from previous years. Factor in that the final piece of the Roman Hamrlik deal, 6’4″ left wing Brad Winchester can also play the pivot position and it looks like the Oilers may have their big second line center already in stock.

Or at least in a year or two they may have.

For now, the list of contending centermen who have been invited to camp is a relatively small group, both in quantity and in size. Fortunately for Edmonton, its diminutive centers do provide an abundance of talent and ability in contrast to their skate sizes.

Mike Comrie is the top center, or at least he will be if his ongoing contract talks ever reach a happy conclusion.

Behind Comrie is where the line up becomes a lot more crowded. Last season began with Jiri Dopita as the no. 2 center and ended with Todd Marchant filling the hole, but both are now gone and it looks as though a replacement must come from within the organization.

The new number two center could in fact be a left-winger. Mike York will be starting his second full season in Edmonton this fall and has the ability to slip into the middle. But Comrie and York are the two smallest guys on the team. which wouldn’t solve the size issue.

The next leading candidate is Shawn Horcoff. The former Michigan State Spartan is coming off a terrific year capped by an outstanding appearance at the World Championships. Horcoff will be given the opportunity to earn the job on the second line.

The third line, nicknamed the RPM line, was a midseason success that stayed effective into the playoffs. Marty Reasoner could challenge Horcoff for the no. 2 spot but he found chemistry paired with Fernando Pisani and Ethan Moreau on the checking unit.

With both Todd Marchant and Brian Swanson moving on to other pastures, the time may be right for prospect Jarret Stoll to make his mark in the NHL. After a terrific rookie year with AHL affiliate Hamilton, Stoll could slide into the no. 4 spot quite comfortably. In limited NHL action last year, Stoll was impressive. The Saskatoon native notched an assist on his first shift with a heads up long bomb pass out of his own end to a streaking Jason Chimera on a breakaway.

“Jarret Stoll, we think, is going to be a good two-way player and probably help on the penalty kill,” commented assistant GM Scott Howson.

It isn’t certain yet if he will be in camp, but Jesse Niinimaki is on the list of invitees. It’s no secret that the Oilers are extremely high on the young Finn and would really like to see how he matches up with the players here in North America. Unfortunately, his team from Ilves Tampere is equally excited about Niinimaki and are planning on having him in their camp too. It’s unlikely that Niinimaki could make the Oilers this year, unless Comrie’s contract really drags on, but he definitely is in the team’s future plans.

“We certainly think he should play for us, probably, within the next two years,” Kevin Prendergast, VP of Hockey Operations proclaimed.

Jason Chimera is another winger who has the ability to move into the center and with his speed he could be an effective one on either the third or the fourth lines.

A real dark horse who might earn consideration is Brad Winchester. The extra large winger can also play center and has the size the Oilers have been searching for in the no. 2 spot. But could he fill the role adequately?

“We certainly need some size up the middle and he’s 6’5″ like you mention,” agreed Howson, “he’s got the potential to be a big center that we’re looking for but to project him as a no. 2 would be premature at this time.”

The list of players who will likely be returning to junior for the year is led by first round selection Marc-Antoine Pouliot. Pouliot sustained an injury while in Calgary at the Canadian World Junior evaluation camp in August but Prendergast believes it won’t be a lingering problem.

“It’s a hip-flexor and he’s back in Rimouski,” said Prendergast, “He’s had a couple days rest since he got back and he’s back skating again so we don’t anticipate it being a problem by the time he gets to training camp here.”

Zack Stortini may have a future with the Oilers but it isn’t likely to start for a few more years. Stortini will continue to develop in the OHL with the Sudbury Wolves. The big center needs to work on his skating if he wants to further his hockey career.

“Down the road we know (Zack’s) going to show up to play all the time,” Prendergast declared.

Alberta native Kyle Brodziak is also likely destined to return to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL.

There is another piece to the puzzle that the Oilers are still trying to work into the mix. Peter Sarno would be a welcomed addition to the camp but the Oilers are still trying to get the dotted line signed in order to make it happen.

“Peter is still in the plans,” Prendergast clarified, “We are in the process of trying to get him signed right now and that’s why he’s not on the list yet. We’ll be putting out an updated list probably on Tuesday and I’m hoping Peter’s going to be on that this at that time.”

Chad Hinz and Mike Bishai might have company in Toronto this season as role players. Joe Cullen’s days at Colorado College are now behind him and the American-born pivot will begin his first professional year.

Fresh from the WHL’s Prince George Cougars comes Dan Baum, a type of player the Oilers organization has been trying to find for some time now.

“We think he’s got a chance to be a gritty, in your face, two-way centerman that can get under people’s skin,” described Howson, “We see him next year breaking into Toronto (Roadrunners), finding a role and starting his development there.”

By the end of camp, if there is any new face down the middle for Edmonton it will likely only be Jarret Stoll’s. It would seem that there are more than enough returning centers, or wingers who can be centers, to give MacTavish what he needs without dipping too deeply into the depth pool. But the competition this fall will be tough as there will be a couple dozen hopefuls all striving to be a center of attention.

Edmonton’s 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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