Oilers offseason news and notes

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers have been one of the busier organizations during the offseason months, seemingly making headlines with every decision they make.  Interestingly enough, there have been and still are ongoing activities below the NHL level of the league’s most northern franchise that have largely gone under reported or unnoticed.

Player signings and ongoing negotiations, a plethora of free-agent invitations for training camp, minor league coaching changes and some key injury updates headline the offseason activity list of the Oilers.

Springfield Falcons update

Not only was Scott Howson the former Assistant General Manager of the NHL club, but he was also the General Manager and Governor of Edmonton’s AHL affiliate.  Howson’s departure for the Columbus Blue Jackets shortly before the NHL Entry Draft resulted in the shuffling of duties amongst the remaining members of the upper management.  VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast has taken on much of the minor league duties that Howson had, including attending the AHL’s annual meetings in last June.  Stew MacDonald, who is presently the Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations, accompanied Prendergast to the meetings using his experience as a General Manager of the AHL’s Saint John Flames in a consultant role.

More recently, Falcons President Bruce Landon described his club’s fan base as ‘cautiously optimistic’.  Season ticket sales had not drastically changed from this time last year despite the ground swell of support the Falcons received after the announcement that they’d severed all ties with the Tampa Bay Lightning in favor of an association with Edmonton.

“Our pure hockey fans checked into who Edmonton had in their organization spread around the [AHL] last year, mostly in Wilkes-Barre and saw the success that they had and the types of players they had,” Landon said. “I think to be honest with you, the fans are very excited about the prospects that are with Edmonton but also, just the fact that there was a change in the air and certainly one for the positive.

“Our season tickets sales are not one of our strong suits,” Landon admitted in late July. “The casual fan, the walk-up crowd is certainly there.  There is interest here, we know that, with a competitive team on the ice they’ll be knocking down the door to get in.  There are a lot of people sitting on the fence who are saying ‘we heard this with Tampa’ so they’re taking a wait and see attitude, but that said, at this point we’re up about 100 season tickets from last year.”

Change continues to happen in Springfield as the Falcons are now under their second new coach since the partnership began with Edmonton.  Geoff Ward’s tenure as bench boss ended almost before it could begin after he accepted an opportunity to join the Boston Bruins in a NHL capacity.  Filling Ward’s shoes is a well-known former Oiler captain who has just a single year of coaching experience and zero as a head coach.

Kelly Buchberger will patrol the Falcons bench in 2007-08 after a year spent traveling all around North America as Edmonton’s development coach, a position he was set to reprise again.  However, with Ward’s departure the Oilers felt that Buchberger was not only qualified but the next in line having been on the coaching staff the last time they operated their own AHL club during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.  

Former Kelowna Rockets head coach Jeff Truit was named an assistant coach back in mid June and the successful WHL coach will be invaluable help should Buchberger need it.  Edmonton is expected to add a second assistant coach before the opening of training camp in September.

When asked why Buchberger was considered the right man for the job, despite what some would consider a lack of credentials, Prendergast called it a near no-brainer.

“I think Kelly’s resume speaks for itself,” he stated. “He worked very closely with all of our kids in the system last year so he’s going into a comfortable situation with them and we know he’s going to do a great job. [Buchberger] was the first pick for Kevin [Lowe] and he was the first pick for me too,” Prendergast said.

The job shuffle continued as Buchberger assumed Ward’s chair then newly re-hired scout Bob Mancini was named the heir to Buchberger’s vacant position as Player Development Coach.  Mancini had just returned to the franchise after three years with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit where he was both the head coach and General Manager.  Mancini’s vast experience with USA Hockey, the CHL and NCAA programs make him a solid choice for the job.

NCAA player signings

The Oilers had a relatively short list of restricted free agents to deal with this summer and for the most part, still have to address that area.  The club did have two NCAA graduates to deal with though, players they needed signatures from prior to August 15th if they hoped to retain the exclusive rights to them. 

David Rohlfs and the Oilers quietly came to terms on a contract in July.  The former Michigan Wolverine will report to his first ever pro camp this September but it will interesting to see where the Oilers decide to play him.  Having played defense growing up but then moving to the right wing for most of his college career, Rohlfs has the versatility to play wherever Edmonton has a hole for a 6’4, 235 lb body to fill. 

With a logjam of blueliners in the minors already, it’s likely that Rohlfs will start on the right wing but whether that will be in AHL Springfield or ECHL Stockton won’t be determined until training camp begins.

Also getting his first pro contract under wraps was 2003 second-round selection Colin McDonald.  The Providence Friar has been eagerly awaiting the day when he can move to the pro ranks and is just counting the days until training camp to show what he can do.  When asked by a listener or The Pipeline Show if he would be satisfied being a fourth line role player, McDonald was quick to dispel the notion.

“I absolutely expect to be an impact [NHL] player,” McDonald stated. “People haven’t had the chance to see me play a lot because I’m on the east coast so they’ll look at my numbers and make their assumptions about my style of play.  I don’t expect to be a fourth line player.”

McDonald believes that once he gets to camp, assuming he gets the chance to play alongside some other offensively capable players, he’ll be able to show fans why Edmonton saw fit to use such an early draft pick on him. 

“I think that’s what I’m most looking forward to is playing with a different group of guys and we’ll see what happens,” he admitted. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to get out there and get my pro career started.”

And as if his plans heading into training camp weren’t clear enough, McDonald went on to make it obvious that he isn’t even considering life on the farm just yet.

“[The AHL] might be more realistic but my goal is to make Edmonton and that’s my only mindset right now,” said the 23-year-old. “I’m not worrying about where I’m going to be in Springfield. I’ve played a lot of hockey in Springfield growing up so I know what it’s like!  My goal is to get to Edmonton and that’s my only focus.”

In a somewhat surprising move, the Oilers also inked Denver forward Geoff Paukovich to a new three-year entry-level contract.  The Colorado native just completed his junior season with the Pioneers in which he struggled early before finding his form in the second half.  At 6’4 and 215 lbs, Paukovich will be able to handle the physical play as a pro but with an already full to capacity minor league system it will be interesting to see where he ends up.  Clearly the Oilers felt that Paukovich’s college career was not providing the level of development they feel he will receive even if the center ends up in Stockton with the Thunder.

“I think anytime you can get into that 82-game pro schedule it’s going to be tough,” admitted Paukovich to HF recently. “I’m looking forward to starting my pro career.”

Paukovich added that he at times felt frustrated in Denver with being stuck in an defensive-first role.  After producing well offensively before his college days, the imposing center felt he could contribute to the Pioneers in that fashion but didn’t receive much opportunity in that regard.  The former second-round pick plans to come to camp early if he can convince a former Pioneer to put him up.

“I’ll talk to ‘Fish’ to see if I can stay with him,” he said referring to fellow Oiler prospect Glenn Fisher.

Thus far Paukovich has only made one appearance in Edmonton, last year during prospect camp.  The student was still taking exams when this year’s edition of the camp was scheduled, a frustrating thing for Paukovich.

“Yeah it was frustrating because I remember from last year how good it was for me in terms of my offseason training,” he said.  

Farmhands added

GM Kevin Lowe has always been vocal about his belief that his AHL team needs to be a winner in order to be a successful environment for player development.  Just icing a team full of prospects in their early 20s would be detrimental because that team would struggle to have regular season success and thus never experience the pressure of a stretch drive to the playoffs let alone a post-season tournament.

To that end, the club announced a smattering of veteran AHL signings, players who have reputations as good teachers and leaders for true prospects to learn from.  On the negative side of that coin is the fact that competition between true prospects and veteran minor league fillers is going to result in some young players being demoted to Stockton in the ECHL.  

It began when the Oilers made what at first appeared to be an outlandish trade with the New York Islanders which cost Edmonton a 2008 second-round pick (Anaheim’s).  In exchange, Edmonton downgraded by reacquiring their own third-round pick back from the Islanders as well as little known Allan Rourke.  Of course now the reasoning behind that trade is clear as it was necessary for Edmonton to re-collect their own 2008 draft picks to make possible the offer sheet that eventually landed them restricted free agent Dustin Penner.

In Rourke, the Oilers get a player who has played games at the NHL level in each of the last three seasons, excluding the lock out year.  The veteran is a steady two-way rearguard that will add some stability to what would have otherwise been a very young and inexperienced blueline.  However, it would be accurate to say that Rourke was the added cost the Islanders charged Edmonton in order to make their transaction happen.

Edmonton then went on a bit of a minor league shopping spree, inking a trio of serviceable players in rapid succession.

2006-07 AHL All-Star T.J. Kemp was added to the fold and should provide the club with some offense from the back end.  Kemp notched 38 points in 68 games last season as a member of the powerful Manchester Monarchs.

T.J. Reynolds might share initials with Kemp but there is little chance they’ll get mistaken for one another.  Reynolds is a rough and ready defender who knows his job will be to protect the future Oilers.  The former OHL tough guy has continued in his pugilistic ways as a pro and has a noted reputation in both the AHL and the ECHL.

Ryan Flinn has tangled with Reynolds in the past, but now the two will be teammates.  Flinn joins Springfield after setting new career highs for games played and penalty minutes as a member of the San Antonio Rampage.  With 31 NHL games under his belt, Flinn may also be a guy who receives call-up duty to Edmonton at times during the year.

Falcons fans will recognize the name of Jacob Micflikier, a player who played nine games in Springfield last year after his four-year NCAA career in New Hampshire wound down.  The former Wildcat is short in stature but big on excitement and can contribute offensively as he proved by scoring three goals and an assist in his short pro debut last spring.  According to Prendergast, getting the 5’8 forward under contract brought rave reviews from outside sources.

“It’s an AHL/ECHL deal,” explained Prendergast. “Right after we signed him I got calls from four different guys saying ‘Holy crap, you know how good this guy is’ because he’s just wild and full of energy.”

The Winnipeg product scored more than a point per game in each of his last three NCAA campaigns.  Described as quick, shifty and smart, Micflikier adds an offensive twist to some of the more recent and far beefier additions to the farm team.     

When Edmonton added veteran Ben Simon near the end of July, Prendergast said they knew exactly the type of player they were getting. 

“Everyone we talked to about him raved about how well he can work with the younger guys and we’re going to have a pretty young team,” said Prendergast.

Simon has appeared in 81 NHL games over his seven-year pro career but spent all of 2006-07 in the AHL between Syracuse and Grand Rapids. 

The Falcons’ defensive core became even more experienced when Edmonton announced the signing of Rick Berry, a former third-round selection of the Colorado Avalanche.  Berry has bounced around from Colorado to Pittsburgh, on to Washington and eventually settling into a minor league career.  The 6’2 215 lbs blueliner will be another physical deterrent capable of protecting the key players in Springfield.

Finally, Pat Bateman was also signed to a minor league contract after concluding his collegiate career at Northern Michigan.  The Wildcats captain only managed 15 points last year after back-to-back 29-point seasons.  The Calgary native is likely ticketed for Stockton in the ECHL.

RFA signings

Center Kyle Brodziak put together his most complete effort as a pro not surprisingly it has earned him a brand new two-year contract.  During a 56-point performance in 2006-07, Brodziak displayed growth in his offensive game, which did not prevent him from further developing his defensive side at all.  The well-rounded and ever-improving forward will have his best chance at finally cracking the Edmonton line-up this fall. 

Also recently signed to a two-year deal is defenseman Mathieu Roy.  So far in his career it would be fair to say that the 24-year-old has done everything that has been asked of him and that unlike some players before him, he truly deserves a one-way contract.  There is no reason to think that Roy could not be a serviceable seventh defenseman for most of the clubs in the NHL but right now, it could be argued that he is somewhere between seventh and ninth on Edmonton’s depth chart.  For Roy to see NHL time this year it may be via an injury call-up or after a trade involving either someone ahead of him on the depth chart or himself heading to a new franchise.

Both Brodziak and Roy have two-way contracts for the first year but one-way deals in the second year.  It’s not hard to imagine Brodziak smoothly transitioning into the role that current Oiler Marty Reasoner holds or much like Rem Murray had played for the club in the past.         

Ongoing negotiations

The Oilers continue talks with their four remaining restricted free agents.  Sources tell Hockey’s Future that a tentative agreement has been reached with goaltender Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers who is expected to be no less than option 1A for  Buchberger in Springfield this year.  JDD is coming off a decent year in Wilkes-Barre and will need to build on that in order to keep his position on the depth chart ahead of the younger Devan Dubnyk.

Expect the signing of Drouin-Deslauriers to be announced in the very near future.

Alexei Mikhnov and Brock Radunske are both restricted free agents this summer but both will be playing the 2007-08 schedule in Europe.  Mikhnov is still with Yaroslavl while Radunske’s move to Germany will see him playing for his fourth team in two seasons.
Contrary to published reports, winger Zack Stortini is not a restricted free agent having played the first year of his entry-level contract in 2005-06. Stortini spent time in California this summer working out with several Oiler players and prospects under the watch and guidance of Chad Moreau, Edmonton’s fitness guru and brother of Ethan Moreau.  The former Sudbury captain will head to Regina for a week of power skating with Liane Davis before returning to Edmonton in late August where he will begin on ice training at the University of Alberta. 

Injury and rehab updates

Three key Oil prospects are coming off serious injuries as they prepare for the coming season.  Providence Friars rearguard Cody Wild attended prospect camp in Edmonton during early June but was limited to off-ice workouts.  Reports indicate that he will be 100 percent for the start of the college schedule and ready to continue in his pivotal role for the offensively-starved Friars.

Ryan O’Marra also appeared at the June prospect camp but like Wild, he too had to be content with riding the bike and working in the gym.  In recent discussion with Hockey’s Future, O’Marra indicated that his summer rehab has gone extremely well.

“I’m at 100 percent, I’ve been 100 percent for about the last month,” he said.

O’Marra was back on skates just a week after prospect camp ended and has been playing non-contact hockey for the last month or so.

“I feel great, I feel like I’m not timid on the ice even going into corners and stuff so I’m happy with that and I’m happy with my strength,” O’Marra added. 

O’Marra has not needed to wear a brace since the surgically repaired meniscus and cartilage healed which is something the 20-year-old is thankful for fearing the effect the cumbersome apparatus might have had on his mobility. The injury has forced O’Marra to take a new approach to his off-season training once he was cleared to resume regular workouts.

“I basically had to go full tilt right away,” he explained. “I had some ground to make up so I couldn’t take as much rest time and so I increased the volume.  I’ve been skating on an average of three times a week but sometime five or six.  I’m going at a higher pace than most guys right now because I had that extended rest time after my surgery so I feel good right now and I’m not worried about how hard I push myself because of how much rest I’ve had.”

For the past few years, the forward has included mixed martial arts workouts in his routine in order to get as much cross training as possible.  O’Marra plans on being in Edmonton at the end of August in time to begin workouts at the University of Alberta.  Currently tipping the scales at a respectable 212 lbs, the 6’2 pivot hopes to add a couple more pounds of muscle still before camp begins so that he can keep his playing weight in that same range.

“I feel very good at this weight,” he said, “It’s heavy enough that I can withstand the stuff in the corners and the pro style game and yet I’m not losing any of my speed or quickness.”

The other prospect who has had to deal with rehab on a wonky knee is Rob Schremp.  Unlike O’Marra, Schremp says he’s close but not yet 100 percent. 

“I will be in a week or two, definitely in time for camp,” he told Hockey’s Future from Chicago.  Schremp is in the Windy City working out with other players who are represented by Scott Norton as well as a large quantity of Chicago Blackhawks

Also different from O’Marra’s scenario, Schremp is forced to wear a brace and will be required to keep it on for the next 12 months. 

Much of Schremp’s summer has been spent in Edmonton where he began rehab under the care of the Oilers.  Although he did not participate, he was a spectator for part of the prospect camp, clearly longing for the chance to get back on the ice.  In July he was in California where many Oilers players and prospects took part in a month-long camp.  Unfortunately for Schremp, he was a spectator there as well until the final week when he was finally given clearance to train.  When asked where his training focus is these days, the 21-year-old was pretty concise.

“My quads,” he stated. “I hadn’t been able to really do much so I’ve been getting them back in shape.”

Training Camp Invite List

The Oilers had a very profitable season despite not reaching the playoffs and one of the benefits from having monetary success comes at training camp.  Not only is the club taking their rookie camp on the road to Yellowknife (1508 kilometers or 981 miles North) but they’ll be taking a plethora of unsigned invitees with them.

Here is a list of some of the players that Hockey’s Future has learned will be included in the training camp plans.

Nick Holden, a 20-year-old free agent defenseman that played last year for the WHL expansion Chilliwack Bruins after two seasons in the AJHL with Camrose and Sherwood Park.  The St. Albert product had 31 points in 67 games with the Bruins last year.

Oshawa Generals property Ryan McGinnis was a sleeper pick on Edmonton’s draft list in 2005, but the club was scooped by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round that year.  Last season, McGinnis helped the Plymouth Whalers reach the Memorial Cup but he has since been dealt to Oshawa where he will provide leadership on the blueline in an overage role.

Mike Berube is another defenseman coming to camp.  After two years in Prince George he played two more in Red Deer with the Rebels but is now property of the Vancouver Giants.  Berube had 20 points in 66 games with the Rebels last year.

Winnipeg born Ryan DePape notched 56 points with the Prince Albert Raiders in 2006-07 including 25 goals leaving the 6’2 right winger second on his team in scoring.

Undrafted blueliner Matt Pepe of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers is also getting an opportunity from Edmonton to show what he can do.  The 5’11 200 lb Pepe recorded just 15 points last year but had 95 penalty minutes in a total of 51 games.

Goaltender Jonathan Larose has backstopped for the AJHL’s Drumheller Dragons for the past two seasons.  The netminder comes highly recommended from the Oilers goalie scout consultant but listed at 5’8 and 155 lbs, the Boyle Alberta product will have to have unreal reflexes to overcome his lack of size.     

Charlie Kronschnabel is a Minnesota native who has played NCAA hockey with Alaska Anchorage but was discovered by Chad Moreau in California.

“He’s 6’4 and 210 lbs and Chad said he can hold his own with any of the guys,” Prendergast said in reference to the off-ice workouts Moreau is putting many Oilers through. “He performed better than some of our roster players so we’re bringing him to camp.”

The one invitee to watch for is someone the Oilers had high on their 2007 Draft list but was told had no interest in playing in North America.  Russian forward Vitali Karamnov was the captain of the Russian entry at the U18 World Championships and was considered one of the top Russians available in the draft.  Karamnov was passed over by every NHL team because he had made overtures that he was staying back home.  Even when Everett drafted him in the CHL Import Draft many thought that it was just wishful thinking on the part of the Silvertips.

However, upon discovering that Karamnov was surprisingly already in North America, the Oilers were quick to extend the 18-year-old a camp invite.  Rated 52nd overall by ISS and as the 19th European skater by Central Scouting, Karamnov should be someone to take note of among the invites at camp.  Because of his age, Edmonton cannot sign Karamnov but they definitely can get a better look at him by having him in camp.  The Russian will be eligible again for the 2008 Entry Draft.

Quick Hits

Included among the Oiler prospects who were training in California was center Marc Pouliot… Edmonton will only have one representative at the Canada-Russia Super Series and that is Sam Gagner… Former Kelowna Rockets teammates Tyler Spurgeon and Troy Bodie will be joined in Springfield by their former coach Jeff Truitt who is one of Buchberger’s assistants… Also slated to make an appearance at training camp will be 2007 fifth and sixth round selections Milan Kytnar and William Quist… Team sources tell HF that although eligible to return to the CHL as an overager, defenseman Theo Peckham’s days in major junior are over.

D.J. Powers contributed to this article. Comment on this story at the Oilers section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards. Copyright  2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.