The WHL season officially got underway on Thursday night as the Vancouver Giants outlasted the defending champion Kelowna Rockets 6-5 in overtime. The story of the night was the fact that Czech import Stepan Novotny contributed on every Kelowna goal finishing with 4 lamp lighters and an assist.
Novotny scored the first two goals of the WHL season and put the Rockets ahead by a pair by mid-point of period one. He also tallied the final marker in regulation time that got the Rockets into overtime and a single point in the standings. Despite six goals for the Giants, Novotny ended the contest with a +3 rating.
Oiler fans might recall that Novotny attended rookie camp but failed to extend his stay in Edmonton for main camp even though he impressed with his obvious skills during the week.
The fact that he was sent back to Kelowna and didn't stay on like Kurtis Mucha, Dalton Prout and Jesse Dudas likely means he's not in the mix for a contract. The Oilers have until September 30th to change their minds though and I'm going to go on record by saying I really think they should take advantage of thier exclusive window and do it.
He's far from a complete player but Novotny's clearly got skills that a lot of junior players do not have. He's shifty and tricky with the puck, has vision and creativity and has well above average speed. That said, he's also very raw and is lacking defensively, needs to be more aggressive one-on-one but that's why he went undrafted.
Last month I quoted Stu MacGregor in my rookie camp preview when he said this about Novotny:
"Really skilled player," MacGregor began, "This guy is an extremely skilled hockey player. He showed some inconsistency but when he's got the throttle on and he's got it going, he's a very very hard guy to keep up to. He can make reads or shoot the puck while on the move, great hockey sense and a quick release. He has to learn to use his size and compete more in the harder areas but that's what we're hoping to see."Novotny had 41 points in 65 games as a 18-year-old rookie last year.
In my opinion, the Oilers have a chance to basically draft a 18-year-old (turns 19 this Monday) without using a draft pick. Is he a sure thing? Absolutely not... neither is anyone you take in the 7th round which, in my mind, s pretty much what this would be like. The only difference is that this 7th rounder goes back to junior with a contract in his pocket.
The only downside to the idea is the fact that it would be a contract against the 50-limit and the Oilers are not wanting to mess around with that again. However, should a player or two happen to get plucked off of waivers as the team attempts to slip them through to the farm after being cut... then the door for Novotny opens slightly again.
Edmonton is looking ahead to next summer though and is conscious of how many players they'll have turning pro. They want to get Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Anton Lander and Teemu Hartikainen (see comments) over to North America. Chris Vande Velde will be done his four years of college and, assuming the team would want a big strong centerman who can win faceoffs, he will need to be signed by August 15th, 2010. Riley Nash and Jeff Petry... probably guys who are more likely to leave school than return for a senior year.
So is there room to sign Novotny now considering the players they hope to add to the pro mix next year? Debatable for sure and the answer today is probably "No"... but things can change drastically between now and June 30th.
At this point, is Slava Trukhno a better bet than Novotny? Is Ryan O'Marra? Both of those players are entering the final year of their entry level deal. Could Novotny take the place of one of them next season while either or both look to Europe? How about Liam Reddox. Or Bryan Lerg?
There might not be room today but there's room next year. My question is whether or not there will be room by September 30th. If there is... sign him. If not, Edmonton will have to take their chances at the 2010 draft as their exclusive opportunity to claim him will have long expired.
Skill and talent are worth the small risk.