Oilers defensive duo of the future

By Guy Flaming

Friends since their days as Rebels then reunited as Roadrunners through the AHL and now firmly entrenched as pipeline prospects for the Oilers, Doug Lynch and Jeff Woywitka look to continue their parallel careers in 2004-05.

Woywitka and Lynch, it might sound like the name of a 70’s TV cop show, but in reality it’s a duo that is on the cusp of patrolling Edmonton’s blueline for many years to come. It’s a partnership that was forged five years ago during the 1999-2000 season when both rearguards began their tenures with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. Over the course of the next four campaigns the pair would combine for 263 regular season points and a whopping 794 penalty minutes on their way to being two of the most dominating blueliners in the WHL.

“They were both pretty important players for us and in their 19-year-old years, they were elite players in our league,” Red Deer Rebels coach Brent Sutter told Hockey’s Future recently. “Depending what night it was, one of them would be our No. 1 defenseman and the next night the other one would be. They were two big kids who could play the game, understood the game and were a big part of our success here; certainly a strong 1-2 punch.”

While the two were natural partners when together, often times they were not used as a tandem on the ice.

“I remember during the regular season Jeff would play with Bryce Thoma and I played with Derek Meech, but in the playoffs Brent (Sutter) would put Jeff and I together for the whole playoffs,” Lynch recalled. “We’d kill all the penalties and the power plays, that’s how it went for about a year and a half.”

“It depended on whom we played, for our match ups and stuff,” explained Sutter. “Sometimes we liked splitting them up; if the other team had two solid lines then we’d like to get one of those guys against each one of those lines.”

With Woywitka and Lynch in the line up, the Rebels were the top-rated team in Canada during the 2001 season and the club capped off a remarkable year with a Memorial Cup Championship. Both players appeared in the annual CHL Top Prospects game that same season prior to being drafted that summer.

At the 2001 Draft held in Miami, the Philadelphia Flyers grabbed Woywitka with the 27th overall pick while the Oilers jumped at the opportunity to steal Lynch in the second round 16 spots later. Both players returned to Junior and were teammates in Red Deer until the start of the 2002-03 schedule when Lynch was dealt to the Spokane Chiefs. However, as fate would have it, the two would be reunited a year later during their rookie professional years as members of the Toronto Roadrunners.

In December of 2003 the Oilers traded disgruntled diminutive center Mike Comrie to the Flyers in exchange for Woywitka, a first round pick (Robbie Schremp) and a third round selection in 2005. Although surprised by the unexpected transaction, Woywitka and Lynch both told Hockey’s Future at the time that they were excited to be playing together again.

Woywitka’s arrival to the team coincided with the major turnaround the Roadrunners enjoyed from Christmastime right through to the playoffs. The 6’2″, 210 lb blueliner finished off the year with an impressive 28 points while playing alongside veteran Dan Smith.

On the other hand, the 6’3″ 215 lb Lynch produced an AHL All-Star season and 36 points, outscoring his friend for the third time in the last four years of their histories together.

“Both players had tremendous years for us,” Roadrunner head coach Geoff Ward told Hockey’s Future in late July. “These are two guys that I think are really going to be pushing the guys on the big club for roster spots. They aren’t too far away from being there, if they aren’t ready already.”

As with the Rebels, Lynch and Woywitka did not play together during the regular season but that’s largely to be expected considering both were rookies.

“We hadn’t played together for about a year so we’d have had to find our groove again and that can be hard. Eventually we would have just fallen back into the old groove again but we didn’t really get that opportunity because, like you said, we were both young guys,” agreed Lynch. “I don’t think Geoff (Ward) wanted to change anything too much because it was working pretty well.”

“We had Doug playing with Rocky Thompson for most of the year and we felt that was a fantastic pairing for us,” Ward outlined. “Jeff played with Dan Smith until (Smith) got hurt and then he played with a variety of people like Bobby Allen.”

In time, an NHL pairing of Lynch and Woywitka just seems like a natural fit because of the styles of play both players have exhibited since their junior days.

“We both play a similar style of game and we like to cover for one another and I think that when we play together, once we get going I think we could be a good pair down the road,” said Woywitka.

“If he’s got the puck I can sit back and let him do his thing by taking it up the ice or make a great break outlet pass like he always does or if I have the puck he’ll hang back and cover for me,” Lynch described. “I think that’s where we work well, it’s not like having one offensive guy with a defensive guy; we’re pretty much similar in our all around game so it’s never on one guy’s shoulders. If he’s having a good night and the pucks are going in for him or he’s making all the plays, then I’m going to give him the puck all night.”

Both are exceptional passers and two-way skaters who can either be trusted to hang back or can lug the puck up the ice themselves. Physically the differences are minimal, an inch and a handful of pounds are all that separate them, but there are some differences in their playing styles as well.

“I think Douggy is a scrappier type of player than Jeff, but I think Jeff’s very responsible defensively while Doug probably has more offensive upside,” described Sutter, their former coach. “Both bring certain elements that you need but both are very good leaders, both are big strong kids and both skate fairly well. Jeff probably skates a little better than Doug but Doug always finds a way to beat you in ways that some players can’t; he’s a very tough kid.”

“He’s a big kid, really strong and he has a big shot from the point and he does a lot of smart things out there,” Woywitka compared. “I think for me, I’m a big guy too and I skate well and see the ice well too so while I think we both do different things better than one another, we both contribute too.”

Basically it is felt that of the two, Lynch is the aggressor and stronger while Woywitka is considered the better skater and is perhaps more creative. The fact is that both have proven at the junior and at the AHL level that they can produce offensively while still being reliable at their own end of the rink. The question now lies in whether they can translate that same success to the next level, the best league in the world.

“Just because a player was a great offensive player in junior, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be an offensive player right away at the pro level,” warned Sutter. “It takes time and patience, you have to let them develop and mature at that level and that’s when you’ll learn if they can put up the same numbers that they did in junior.”

Perhaps the forgotten factor in all of this that away from the rink, these are two guys who really have a strong friendship bond developed over time. One could make the argument that off-ice chemistry should naturally translate to on ice success as well.

“Jeff and I started playing together when we were 16 and have been defensive partners off and on since we were 18 so I’m very familiar and comfortable with him on and off the ice,” agreed Lynch. “I think you’re absolutely right in that it translates on the ice. I know where he is, and with his tendencies where he likes to play so it makes it a lot easier for me out there. It helps me get into the right position for him and we just try and feed off of each other.”

“We were roommates throughout our entire time in junior together and we’re both laid back and we like to relax on our off days and watch movies or go to dinner,” he continued and those habits followed them to the AHL as well. “We always got together to watch Oiler games and stuff last year in Toronto. He’s a familiar face, we grew up together, we were kids together at 16 so it helps a lot at the pro level to have a familiar face you’ve known for the last four or five years.”

Now that the Roadrunners have relocated to Edmonton and Woywitka has a brand new home just outside the city, will Lynch be calling up his good buddy for a cheap room?

“No, I don’t think so,” laughed Lynch. “I’ll look for a place wherever the guys seem to live but we need our space or else you’d get sick of seeing the same guys every day.”

One thing is for certain, both of these players are NHL bound and are on the track to make the big league sooner rather than later. With aging veterans like Cory Cross and Igor Ulanov currently holding down roster spots, it would appear the Oilers have time to make sure their future defensive leaders are ready for the next step. This year the AHL and the NHL clubs will be sharing the same city, the same fans and the same building, so you can be sure that the Roadrunner pair will be knocking on the door even louder than before. It will be only a matter of time before the duo bust the hinges off the doorframe and take action.

Move over Starsky and Hutch…Woywitka and Lynch are coming through.

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