Oilers: Youth fuels team in early going

By Guy Flaming

Teaser: The Oilers are enjoying success as their young players make<br />impacts in the early stages of the season

Rookies are like coins, they have two
sides.  On one side they offer
enthusiasm, energy and a fresh attitude while on the flip side exists
inexperience, impatience and intimidation. 
To some extent all rookies possess all of these characteristics early in
their careers but so far the Oilers have been fortunate to see much more of the
former than of the latter.


Marc-Andre Bergeron


The offensive-minded defenseman has
played in four of the first five Oiler games and has come out of them with an
assist and an impressive +3 rating. 
He’s won over some of the more skeptic fans that were guilty of only
seeing the 5’10” blueliner as a possible defensive liability rather than
recognizing the tremendous upside he brings to the team.  More importantly, Bergeron has won the
respect of his veteran teammates.


“Bergy’s been great for us,” complimented
Shawn Horcoff.  “When he’s going, we’re
a team that creates a lot more offense.”


The Oilers went 2-2 in the four games
that Bergeron has played in.  Playing
with Jason Smith has enabled the former Shawinigan standout to concentrate on
his offensive talents more.


“He makes that first pass and that’s
important in our offense,” Horcoff continued. 
“Some fans don’t really know about that, but the players who play the
game know just how important that is. 
If you can make that first pass quick, a lot of times that buys a lot
more time for our forwards and it gives us that extra second to try and create
some offense.”


Bergeron was a healthy scratch for Saturday night’s
tilt against powerhouse Colorado as Head Coach Craig MacTavish opted for the
size of Alexei Semenov to battle the Avalanche forwards.


“I knew we were going to spend a lot of
time in our own end and I wanted the big body,” MacTavish revealed
afterwards.  “(Semenov) is a big strong
guy on the back end and I thought that he really battled hard down low and he
was really into it.  They’re a tough
team to stop in the cycle and he’s big and strong enough to do it.”


Meanwhile, Bergeron took the press box
move with his chin up and a professional attitude.


“For sure it’s always tough to watch from
upstairs but I’m in the process right now,” Bergeron conceded.  “I’m a first year player and I understand my
role.  I have to improve on the ice
every time I can and I can’t take anything for granted.”


With the way Bergeron has played thus
far, it should not be a lengthy absence from the starting roster.


Raffi Torres


Torres has slightly too many games under
his belt to be considered a rookie by league standards, which is a shame
because his four points would have him on top of the freshman scoring at this
point of the season.


A two point game on opening night
followed by another such performance last Thursday against Buffalo put Torres
on top of team scoring heading into the Colorado game on the weekend.  However, because of an over abundance of
whistle-blowing by the referees, the contest was in large part played by
special teams and Torres’ ice time was very limited.


Torres began the year on the fourth line
but has seen a quick surge up the depth chart to play along side Ryan Smyth and
Ales Hemsky on the top line.  The quick
promotion doesn’t come as a surprise to some.


“(Torres) obviously brings a lot of
energy into our lineup and he’s come in and had success early and he’s got a
lot of confidence right now,” Horcoff described. “That’s definitely what we
need right now, guys that are feeling good, feeling confident and are putting
the puck in the net.”


Torres has done more than just create
points, he’s also made a physical impression too all the while averaging
slightly less than 10 minutes per game of ice time.


Ty Conklin


Conklin made his first start in relief of
Tommy Salo on Thursday night against the visiting Buffalo Sabres.  Some monstrous saves early in the game helped
shake away any butterflies or rust from the pads and Conklin went on to a first
star performance victory.


“We got great goaltending out of Conks,”
boasted MacTavish. “It’s a tough position and we wanted to get him in before he
got out of the loop and see what type of goaltender we had and I think if
that’s any indication, then we’ve got a good solid goaltender there.”


Conklin was obviously very pleased with
the outcome of his first game this season.


“We played a solid game and I was able to
see almost all of the shots and that makes a goalie’s job a lot easier,” said
Conklin.  “Getting in there and making a
couple of saves early was nice.  It kind
of gets rid of the nerves.”


Many people noticed that Conklin has a
terrific ability to handle the puck, one time even clearing the rubber himself
while the team was shorthanded. 
Surprisingly, Conklin was critical of his puck work after the game.


“In the first game, it’s tough to just
get in there and handle the puck well and I didn’t think I handled it that particularly
well tonight,” said Conklin.  “The guys
covered for me on the times I made mistakes but those are the kinds of things
that are going to take a while before I get really comfortable.”


Now with a perfect 3-0 record in Oiler
games dating back to his two-game stint in 2001-02, Conklin knows that
improving is a never-ending thing.


“Obviously (the NHL) is that next step
and things are faster, guys are bigger, shoot harder, more accurate and
everything happens just a little sharper,” said the goalie.  “There’s always learning to do.”


“Flaming” Hot:


Raffi Torres: Has been the best player for the Oilers over the first five
games.  Even when the team was shut out
two straight games, Torres was, as MacTavish put it, “the best of the worst”.


Ryan Smyth:  Three points against Colorado gives him the lead for team
scoring.  Terrific feed to Marty
Reasoner for the fifth goal.  New
position seems to be a good fit for the veteran Oiler.


Steve Staios:  Quite possibly his best game as an Oiler came against Colorado.  His first two-goal game of his career,
Staios was a dynamo.


Tommy Salo:  With exception of the one odd goal on opening night, Salo has
been very solid and has silenced his critics thus far.


Ty Conklin:  In his one start, Conklin was nothing short
of stellar.  He kept his team in the
game early on and then barred the door once the Oilers got the lead.


“Flaming” Not:


Brad Isbister – For the second straight
week Isbister makes this list. 
Pointless after five games, he is the only Oiler forward to have that
distinction.  Even Tommy Salo has more


Team Notes:


The only player still waiting to get
into a game is rookie Jarret Stoll. 
His first start could be as soon as Tuesday night when the Oilers host
St. Louis, but with the team putting together two solid games in a row,
MacTavish may not want to tinker with the roster.

Mike York, who leads the team in
shots, finally was rewarded and scored his first on the year Saturday night.

MacTavish told media after last
Thursday night’s game against Buffalo that Conklin would get into one of the
next three games so expect him to play against either St. Louis or in Colorado
this coming Thursday.

Colorado rookie Philippe Sauve took
the loss for the Avalanche in his first NHL game.  Edmonton struggled early last season losing games to San Jose,
St. Louis and Boston who all had goalies making their NHL debuts.

Edmonton now has three shorthanded
goals and two empty net goals on the year. 
Conversely, they’ve only managed to score twice with the man advantage.

Next up for the Oilers on Tuesday are
the St. Louis Blues who will have rookie of the year candidate Peter Sejna
in their line up.