Oilers: Training camp heads for higher ground

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers believe that spending time in the Rocky Mountains is good for the spirit and good for the soul. With a little luck the mountains will also be good for the skating and good for goal-scoring.

Fresh off an impressive 2-0 shutout victory over their division rivals from Vancouver, the Oilers have packed their bags and headed for Jasper to continue training at the feet of the glorious Rocky Mountains.

The four-day stint will include an assortment of organized team activities directed at building team morale and male bonding. Events on the agenda include golfing, horseback riding, tennis and mountain biking. Of course there is also a intra-squad scrimmage planned that is already a sellout.

It’s a trip that the players are looking forward to as the battles for roster spots heats up.

“I’m excited about this trip to Jasper,” said prospect goaltender Steve Valiquette.

Valiquette is stuck behind Ty Conklin for the job of relieving Tommy Salo this season and thinks the trip could be beneficial for him down the road.

“If the worse case scenario happens and I’m the third guy, there’s still an opportunity that I’ll be up (in the NHL) at some point and I’d like to get to know everybody a bit better and that’s what this trip’s all about.”

It seems to be a consensus amongst the players that the excursion will only serve to tighten an already cohesive group into an even better unit.

“It’s going to be great to get away for a bit and have some fun with the guys,” offered up rugged winger Raffi Torres. “These guys have been great since day one. I couldn’t have imagined how friendly the guys in this room have been to me, as a new guy coming in, and it means a lot.”

The three-hour drive west to Jasper comes on the heels of a three game in five day schedule that began with two games in Calgary last Thursday. That game ended in a 3-3 tie and was followed up with a disappointing 4-1 loss to the Flames on Saturday night at the Saddledome.

Monday’s game against the Canucks was a much better game for Edmonton, quite possibly because the number of players remaining in camp has been trimmed significantly in the past seven days. Now, rather than icing a team with numerous unproven players, the Oilers really only have players capable of playing in the NHL left in camp.

Where once there were 65 players, now only 29 remain. Three goalies, nine blueliners and 17 forwards still skate for the Oilers. That means six players are still to be cut but that won’t begin until Sunday after the Oilers have returned to Edmonton and played the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.

One goalie will be given his ticket, but probably not before October. Valiquette knows that right now he’s the No. 3 guy in Edmonton but also recognized early on that this organization holds promise for him.

“I was an UFA when I spoke to my agent at the start of the summer and I told him that I thought there might be a good opportunity in Edmonton,” the 6’5″ netminder explained. “Last year I was a back up in the AHL for a good part of the season behind Rick DiPietro and (the Islanders) had been developing him for the last couple of years so my minutes had suffered.”

“If I do go to Toronto [AHL], it’s not that bad, either way I’m still excited about being here.”

The battle on the blueline has become a tough one to call. At this point there are four players jockeying for two roster spots.

Scott Ferguson has become a bit of a mainstay on Edmonton’s back end and because coach Craig MacTavish has shown a lot of loyalty to his veteran players, the Camrose native probably holds the inside track on one of those two spots.

Marc-Andre Bergeron provides the offensive spark that the Oilers have been looking for but has also made some defensive errors as well. However, his performance against Vancouver earned the Quebec-born rearguard the second star nomination as well as a power play assist.

“The power play is going very good right now,” described Bergeron. “We’re in their end all of the time, it’s just a matter of putting the puck in and I don’t think that’s a problem with all the skill and the talent we have in this room.”

Bergeron moves the puck so well and is a very talented passer. His skating is above average and his aggressive style will win over fans rapidly. Right now the hardest thing for “Bergy” to do is deal with the mental stress that the elimination process of training camp produces.

“It’s hard mentally right now, I know there’s not many players left to go down and I might be one of them, but I try not to think about that too much and just play.”

The stiffest competition for Bergeron comes from Finnish product Mikko Luoma. The 27-year-old Luoma has impressed with his steady, if not flashy, style of play. Known as a good puck handler who is able to move the puck out of his own end, Luoma is attractive to the Oilers for his puck moving ability.

The 6’3″ 207 lbs Luoma is not a great skater nor does he play an overly physical game but he does have patience and poise with puck and does not seem to get flustered under pressure very often. Luoma is still getting adjusted to the North American game but is pleased with his performance at camp thus far.

“It’s my first time here and everything has been new,” confirmed Luoma. “There are different rules in the game comparing it to Europe, and there are lots of things to learn but I am happy and I am confident.”

“There’s a little bit more contact and there are bigger guys who play physical in front of the net. It’s the rules that are the most important thing for me of what’s different in the game.”

Bobby Allen left Saturday’s game in Calgary with symptoms that may indicate a concussion but so far, no official word has come out on the defender’s condition. Allen did not play against Vancouver on Monday. Of the remaining defensemen in camp, Allen is the most likely to be sent to the AHL and will be one of the players in the top defensive pairing for Toronto.

Up front the battle for NHL jerseys is coming down to five players for two jobs. Peter Sarno and Jarret Stoll are competing for the one vacant centerman’s job. Both have played well and neither will be an easy cut to make for Craig MacTavish. Sarno has seen plenty of action on the power play while Stoll has been seen playing quite a bit on the penalty-killing units. Stoll might have a slight edge on Sarno at this point but this decision could come right down to the wire.

However, an argument can be made for keeping Sarno while allowing Stoll to play first line minutes in the AHL. The more experienced Sarno might be a better fit in Edmonton, short term, while Stoll benefits from top line responsibilities and grows into a more rounded player. The rest of the preseason will determine which player is sent down.

On the wings, there are three players vying for a single opening. Jani Rita, Tony Salmelainen and Jamie Wright are not making the choice any easier for MacTavish and the rest of the coaches. All have played well and all play a somewhat similar type of game in that shooting, speed and hitting are elements present in the styles of all three. Rita is the better scorer of the bunch but Salmelainen is the best skater and Wright has a surprising physical side. The time is probably right to give Rita the opportunity to play at the top level but the rest of the preseason will have a lot to do in determining the outcome of this competition.

The rookie winger with the one-way contract is nearly a lock to grab a winger job ahead of the three players listed above. Raffi Torres is backed by the new deal he signed over the summer but doesn’t believe his work is done yet.

“Since Day 1 I’ve come in here like I’m trying out because I know nothing is going to be handed to me, you have to earn your spot on the team.”

“I’m feeling better and better every day and feeling stronger.” Described Torres. “As long as I keep doing what I’ve got to do out there and don’t do anything stupid and become a liability for the team, I don’t see why I can’t have a good future here.”

The trio of Stoll, Torres and Wright were effective against the Canucks and could play together again before the preseason is over.

“Our line played pretty well tonight,” Stoll commented afterwards. “We were in their zone and created a lot of chances by just buzzing around and trying to do our thing.”

“I thought our line was pretty solid all game,” agreed Torres. “We cycled the puck down low really well and I thought we were the first on the puck all night.”

Torres was sporting a gash high on his right cheekbone thanks to a retaliatory swing from one of Vancouver’s star players.

“That’s from just after I bumped into (Markus) Naslund there and I don’t think he liked it so he just… I’m sure it was accidental or whatever because no one wants to do something like that,” concluded Torres.

“Flaming” Hot:

  • This was the second camp for future goaltender star Jeff Deslauriers and if he continues to develop at the rate he has, the Quebec-born back stopper has a great chance of making the National Junior team this year.
  • Ales Hemsky continues to dazzle everyone with his play. The sophomore Czech scored the game winner on Dan Cloutier on Monday night by picking the top corner from in tight. Hemsky also saw a lot of action playing the point on the power play and except for a couple fumbles, didn’t look out of place there.
  • So far so good for Brad Isbister. The big winger has found some good chemistry with Ryan Smyth and the pair continue to play well together. “Izzy” has shown better speed than many knew he possessed and he has been driving to the net as the organization hoped he would.

“Flaming” Not:

  • He didn’t have a bad camp, but Brad Winchester didn’t get into a preseason game despite surviving the first round of player cuts. Winchester was sent down to the AHL on Saturday.
  • Corey Cross has not looked good. He had a poor Joey Moss Cup tournament and didn’t play well against the Canucks on Monday.
  • Brent Henley was tossed from the second Calgary game because he was involved in a secondary skirmish with Mike Commodore. The ill-timed ejection left the Oilers with just four blueliners because Bobby Allen had left the game with a head injury. The Flames went on to dominate Edmonton with a 4-1 win.

Quick Hits

– Oiler prospect Alexei Mikhnov is off to a good start in the Russian Elite League. The big Russian has three points in the first three games of the season including two goals. The 6’5″, 217 lbs winger still figures prominently in the future plans of the organization and if all goes as both player and team are hoping, Mikhnov will be in North America next season.

– Contrary to rampant rumors, Mikko Luoma will be playing in North America this year whether or not he wins a spot with the Oilers. Edmonton’s VP of Hockey Operations, Kevin Prendergast confirmed that Luoma would not return to Finland if the defender doesn’t make the NHL club. Luoma’s one-year contract is a two-way deal that opens the door for the Finn to play in the AHL if a conditioning stint is deemed necessary. The same thing was done for Jussi Markkanen two seasons ago where the goalie played in Hamilton for a number of weeks before being recalled for the remainder of the season.

– Mike Comrie may be out of sight but he’s not out of everyone’s mind. Close friend Jarret Stoll has recently spoken to the banished Comrie.

“I’ve talked to him a little bit while he’s there skating in Michigan,” confirmed Stoll. “Obviously it’s a tough time for him but I know he’s getting ready for whenever he gets the word that’s for sure.”

– Steve Valiquette’s 30 minutes against Vancouver was the first NHL action the goalie had seen in quite some time. The Canucks only managed four shots against him over a period and a half.

“I didn’t get a lot of shots but it was definitely fun being out there,” said the 6’5″ goalie. “It’s been going on three years now since I’ve played in an NHL game so I was really happy just to be out there.”

– If he’s going to play in the NHL anytime soon, Jesse Niinimaki needs to grow up, and out. The 6’2″ center is tipping the scales at a mere 180 lbs when the Oilers would prefer him to be near the 200 lb mark. One source inside the Oiler organization also believes Niinimaki may need to mature emotionally as well. Apparently the young Finn prospect is not accepting his third line role smoothly after expecting to play on the first line with Ilves Tampere. Niinimaki has two goals early in the Finnish season.

– Word from the Oilers is that Swedish prospect Mikael Svensk is one to watch for in the near future. The defenseman could be brought over to North America as early as next year should he have the season that Kevin Prendergast expects him to have.

– Edmonton will return from Jasper on Saturday and will host the Minnesota Wild that night. The preseason schedule ends for the Oilers with two home dates with the Calgary Flames on October 2nd and 4th.


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