How long ago does 1999 seem to you? Oiler fans will remember the year as
something of a new beginning. It was
Kevin Lowe’s year behind the bench as head coach, Frank Musil was still
patrolling the blueline instead of scouting through Eastern Europe, and the
roster included names like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Pat Falloon, Christian
Laflamme, Josef Beranek and Boyd Devereaux.
The organization, like the century, was turning a new
page in its history and looking to make a difference.
In June the Oilers selected nine recruits with hopes
that one of them could help make that difference as soon as possible. One of the players selected certainly did
so, three others still figure greatly in the plans of the team while the other
five have basically faded away into different levels of non-existence. The nine picks have gone on to play a total
of 361 NHL games, for an average of 40 games per pick.
Jani Rita, LW, 1st
Round, 13th Overall (Jokerit Helsiniki, Finland)
NHL Games: 15
In 1999 the Oilers were beginning their quest to get
bigger, especially in the forward positions where they needed also to get more
dangerous. Edmonton surprised by taking
Rita ahead of European sniper Martin Havlat but insisted it was because of the
added grit the Finn possessed in his game.
“When I was coaching the U.S. National under-18 team,
he played for the Finnish team and he was so much more physically stronger and
dominant than anybody,” Oiler scout Bob Mancini told Hockey’s future in
November. “He was a man at 17 and I
think as he’s grown up everybody else has caught up to him.”
Whether it is because the left side for the Oilers is
overloaded or because the player hasn’t impressed the coaching staff, Jani Rita
has so far be unable to make an impact at the NHL level. After three consecutive forty point seasons
in the AHL, the now restricted free agent will likely be expecting a one-way
contract offer or could choose to return to Europe for 2004-05. Rita was recalled twice by the Oilers last
season but during one of those stints, did not dress for a single game. The opportunity may not be available in
Edmonton the way things currently are, but Rita is still considered a high
quality prospect by the organization, just an unlucky one.
Alexei Semenov, D, 2nd
Round, 36th Overall (OHL – Sudbury)
NHL Games: 92
Because size was front and center on Barry Fraser’s
wish list in 1999, Alexei Semenov was definitely someone who stood head and
shoulders above many other eligible candidates. The 6’6” rearguard had more then just size in his arsenal, as he
would display in the coming years.
Regarded as one of the main components of the
blueline corps of the future in Edmonton, Semenov has already shown major
strides in his game since joining the NHL roster midway through the 2002-03
schedule. He’s playing a much more
defensive role in Edmonton thus far than he did with Sudbury (OHL) where he
once totalled 63 points in 65 games during 2000-01. It was at the end of that season when Semenov was named the top
defenseman in the league.
At the Oilers’ inter-squad skills competition in
February of 2003, Semenov recorded a slap shot over 103 MPH, one of the fastest
on record. The tallest Oiler is still
making adjustments to his game but should take on a more prominent assignment
next season in Edmonton.
Tony Salmelainen, W, 2nd
Round, 41st Overall (HIFK Helsinki, Finland)
NHL Games: 13
Contrary to the quest for size at that time, Tony
Salmelainen was a master of the other trait that the Oilers have always held in
higher regard then perhaps any other: speed.
The newest Finnish flash has established himself in
the AHL for Edmonton’s two affiliates over the past couple of seasons and is on
the bubble in regards to an NHL roster spot.
Most notably in his minor career was an outstanding playoff performance
for the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2002-03 where the fleet footed Salmelainen
collected 14 points in 17 games.
His 44 points in 58 games for the Toronto Roadrunners
last year was second highest on the team.
Salmelainen dressed in 13 games for the Oilers last season and impressed
with his determination, his speed and his heart. In all likelihood, the 5’9” speedster currently sits fifth on the
depth chart for the Oilers at the right wing position.
Adam Hauser, G, 3rd Round, 81st Overall (WCHA – Minnesota)
NHL Games: 0
In 1999 the
Oilers were dependent upon Tommy Salo for their goaltending. At the time, the minor system consisted of
Steve Passmore and Mike Minard and so a post-season emphasis on improving that
position seemed logical. Edmonton
signed Eric Heffler out of college and then turned to the draft for another
option, Minnesota keeper Adam Hauser.
“I think the reason we took him was that
we just got attracted to an old style goalie that was also a wonderful kid.”
recalled scout Brad Davis “It was a
time when the style of goaltending had already changed and he was an old style,
stand up goaltender. He was a goalie
that just stopped pucks, for the most part he had really good angles and this
is before any of us, as scouts, were really educated on how the position had
played a game for the Oilers or any of their minor league affiliates. After graduating from college, the Minnesota
native played 34 games for Jackson (ECHL) in 2002-03. The reason Hauser was let go had more to do with depth at the
position than disappointment in his play.
“What it came
down to for us was a decision between two goalies who were graduating that same
year, Hauser and Mike Morrison,” recounted scout Chris McCarthy. “The staff decided that Mike Morrison had
proved more in his college career, had better numbers and we felt had more
Ironically, after separating from the Oiler organization,
Hauser consulted a goalie coach and actually changed his style in order to keep
up with the times, something Edmonton had wanted him to do for them. In 2003-04 Hauser was tending twine for the
Manchester Monarchs (AHL) in 43 contests.
It was a year of redemption for the 24-year-old who had a winning record
of 20-15-7, a goals against average of 1.94 (fifth in the league) and a save
percentage of .924 (eighth overall).
Mike Comrie, C, 3rd
Round, 91st Overall (CCHA – Michigan)
Mike Comrie joined the Oilers midway through the
2000-01 season after beginning the year with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice. The Edmonton native took advantage of a CBA
loophole that would have granted him free agent status had the Oilers not signed
him to an extremely lucrative contract at that time.
Comrie excelled in his first full season in the NHL
and totalled 60 points in 82 games. The
2002-03 campaign was less fulfilling for the local favourite and the season
ended with talk of differing philosophical beliefs between player, coach and
management. Comrie had barely begun a
terrific NHL career when a contract negotiation with the Oilers went sour and
resulted in a trade to Philadelphia in December of 2003. The new Flyer barely got unpacked before he
was subsequently dealt a couple of months later to the Phoenix Coyotes.
Jonathan Fauteux, D, 5th
Round, 139th Overall (QMJHL – Val D’Or)
NHL Games: 0
watching (Fauteux) in the QMJHL and he could really do some great things,”
Davis said. “He was big and strong
although he wasn’t a physical force.”
The hefty 6’2”
232 lb defenseman was clearly sought after for his intimidating size. Unfortunately for the Quebec native, his
size soon became the problem.
Jonathan Fat-O?” laughed McCarthy. “He
had a lot of skill and a lot of potential but had no drive to improve his
conditioning and to get better. He
skated really well, beautiful smooth skater with smart passing and then he’d
come to camp thirty pounds overweight.
This kid was just a fat lazy (fellow) and didn’t want to play!”
“Fauteux had about as much talent as most of the
first rounders and he just ended up having either lifestyle issues or just a
weight problem,” stated Davis. “There
were a ton of skills there for a great big guy but he came in with a weight
problem and then he came in badly out of shape the next year.”
Surprisingly, Fauteux played in a pair of games for
the Oiler organization back in 1999-00 but was not signed after that. A 32-game stint in the ECHL with Peoria
during the 2001-02 campaign is the last noteworthy hockey season for the
Chris Legg, C, 6th
Round, 171st Overall (OHA – London Junior ‘B)
NHL Games: 0
“Do you remember the first day of camp this past
year?” asked Davis excitedly when Legg’s name comes up. “He played on the white (inter squad) team,
which was my team, and he was the best player on the ice! I think he had three goals and an assist.”
Legg came to Oiler camp last September as a free
agent although it was Edmonton who had originally drafted him straight out of
“Chris Legg was my baby because I was the only one
who had seen him play Junior B in London,” Davis continued. “I hadn’t seen anyone skate like him, he’s a
pure beautiful skater, and he could get off the mark and absolutely fly!”
The Oilers had high hopes that they stole someone
before any other team realized what they had missed out on.
“He was either going to go to the University of
Michigan or to Brown and if he had of gone to Michigan he probably would have
received more attention and he probably would have developed better,” added the
scout. “Every time a scout from another
organization would see him they’d come up to me and say ‘that’s about the best
skating kid that I have ever seen’ but in the end, it was his hockey smarts.”
“When we drafted
him I think he was the best skater in our entire organization, the kid could
flat out fly,” McCarthy added. “The
coaches in Brown once told me ‘he looks like a million dollars going down the
ice and then when he gets to the money spots to score or make plays he goes
absolutely brain dead’.”
Legg failed to impress after the opening
weekend of training camp and was soon sent down to the AHL and eventually the
ECHL. After just seven games with
Columbus, Legg found himself playing for two different teams in the CHL. He played a single game for Wichita but
played 37 with Austin where he recorded just 5 points. Legg is currently a free agent.
Christian Chartier, D, 7th
Round, 199th Overall (WHL – Saskatoon)
NHL Games: 0
As was the case
with Fauteux, Chartier’s size was simply too enticing to pass up and factoring
in that the Manitoban also had his share of talent; the Oilers drafted the
blueliner in the seventh round.
“This was a kid
that had tons of skills, he went to Saskatoon and as an underage he was
unbelievable,” described Davis. “Then
in his draft year he did absolutely nothing because he had gotten up to like
230 lbs but after awhile dropped about 40 because the coach shook him out and
told him to get with the program.”
up going to Prince George and was lighting up the WHL after the Oilers took a
flyer on him and drafted him late.
“It was a real
weighty decision as to what we were going to do with Christian,” explained
Davis. “He had such a good year that
the price tag was right out of whack and that’s why we didn’t sign him. But considering where we drafted him, it was
an absolute steal.”
“It came down to
budget and we had guys similar to him in the organization already so it was a
numbers game,” said McCarthy making reference to the plethora of promising
blueliners the team had at the time.
Signed as a free agent by Toronto that
June, Chartier has been a regular for the baby Leafs in Saint John’s for the
past three seasons.
“He’s going to
be a good AHL defenseman with a chance to get called up if injuries happen but
I don’t think he’s going to be anything more then a depth guy,” McCarthy summed
up. “But he’s still a solid minor pro
which is what we thought he was when we saw him in junior.”
Tomas Groschl, W, 9th
Round, 256th Overall (Hungary)
NHL Games: 0
There is very
little information available on Groschl, the first Hungarian to ever be drafted
by an NHL team.
“Kent and Barry Fraser saw him play at the World B
championships and said that he was just outstanding, they talked about him a
lot,” Davis admitted. “But I’ve never even seen him play.”
“Barry liked to have guys during the draft just go
‘Huh!? Who the hell was that?
From Where?’” laughed McCarthy.
“Hey, it was a ninth round pick so you take a flyer! That essentially was Barry’s thought
process; ‘If I get a kid that nobody else has seen and he turns out to be a
player I look like a freaking genius!’
He tried to do that a couple times and some guys played, look at Kelly
Buchburger, we drafted him in the eighth round.”
After being drafted, Groschl played two games in the
Swedish Elite League in 1999-00 followed by a season in Germany and finally one
year in the ECHL with Augusta. After
that the winger seemingly dropped of the hockey landscape only to return this
past April to score a goal for Hungary against Canada in a pre-World
Championship exhibition game in Budapest during a 9-2 loss.
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