I had a chance on Monday evening to watch the first day of main camp for the Edmonton Oil Kings. The club played a trio of inter-squad games and a number of players made an impression on me which made the lengthy trek out to Fort Saskatchewan a worthwhile one.
I finally had an opportunity to meet new head coach Derek Laxdal who we previously tried to book as a guest on The Pipeline Show but were unable to thanks to a Northern Saskatchewan fishing trip.
More on my first impression of the new coaching staff and several of the players...
I'd met Steve Hamilton before because of his stellar work as the head coach of the Spruce Grove Saints. I've enjoyed my conversations with him in the past and found him to be an easy guy to get along with.
I wondered how the dynamic would be between he and Laxdal (above), two guys who were head coaches last year at two different levels. Would they but heads? Would Hamilton have a hard time not being the head coach and would Laxdal have difficulty using an assistant (he had none in Idaho).
Assistant GM Randy Hansch invited me into the team room between games tonight for some coffee and to meet Laxdal. He seemed familiar with The Pipeline Show and welcomed an invite "any time" despite Millard's impending Wheat Kings fueled man-crush.
Any concerns about went out the window when Hamilton had a verbal jab at Laxdal and everyone in the room laughed at the goodhearted barb.
As for the players, it never ceases to amaze me (although by now it shouldn't surprise me at all) how much bigger players get over the summer. Keeping in mind that these are teenagers we're talking about, I found myself doing double takes seeing Braeden Laroque looking 3 or 4 inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. Travis Ewanyk hardly resembles the player he was last year as he's grown vertically and has filled out as well.
Ewanyk was a standout for me. It's day one of camp so all of this should be taken within context but boy, this kid had my full attention every time he was on the ice. Big, strong, fast and I think there is a lot more offensive ability that we saw in his 5 points in 42 rookie games last season. (Photo: Andy Devlin)
Speaking of second year players, Keegan Lowe was outstanding on Monday. Last year I thought he looked very tentative and reserved until late February. Tonight he was rushing the puck, playing the body hard and even went to the net a few times. He looked very confident, even more so than he did at the end of the season - I think his experience with the US Ivan Hlinka team two weeks ago was a huge positive for Lowe.
Oiler fans will like the Kristians Pelss (pronounced Pelsh) that I saw on Monday. He's shifty, creative and has plenty of speed. If he can make a quick transition to the WHL then he could be a really nice addition to the Oil Kings.
Curtis Lazar won't be able to play more than 5 WHL games this year until his club team is done but I'm sure Edmonton is hoping his team sucks. Lazar, their 1st pick in 2010, has dynamite hands; he scored a real dandy goal tonight with a lighting fast release of a shot a split second after receiving the pass. He's not tall but he looked solid in his build.
Another newly drafted player who caught my eye was Luc Bertolucci. Another guy who isn't big but he's tenacious and played with a lot of fire. The BCHL forward battled in front of the net against much bigger defencemen and had several scoring chances. A nice looking later round pick for sure.
When I got to the rink I tracked down new play-by-play voice Corey Graham, who had been at the rookie portion of the camp. I asked him about which unknown guy had looked god so far. He told me to watch for Minnesota product E.J. Faust and I'm glad he did - It's only one day but I liked him a lot. The center has better size than I'd expected having seen some brief write ups on him. He's tough in front of the net and was stellar at taking draws - he won every faceoff I noticed him take. This is definitely a player I hope to see with the team when the exhibition schedule starts this weekend.
As expected, Griffin Reinhart looked like one of the best players on the ice. It's hard to believe he's going to be a rookie this year because he's already got the size and presence of a kid in his third or fourth season. Big but mobile, Reinhart has a knack for getting his shot through traffic and to the net, and it doesn't always have to be a slap shot with him.
Mark Pysyk looks to have filled out some more as well. I chatted with him at the Oil Kings alumni gold tournament last week and he said how much he enjoyed and took away from the Buffalo Sabres prospect camp. He could have a big year if he can stay healthy.
- Mike St. Croix is practicing but not taking part in the scrimmages due to a sore shoulder. He says it happened early in August at Hockey Canada's U18 camp that was preparing for the Ivan Hlinka tournament. He tells me that he's just over 180 lbs now, up about 10 lbs from last season. You can see the added weight in his no-longer-pencil-neck and torso. (Photo: Andy Devlin)
- T.J. Foster had plans to attend the fall training camp of the Minnesota Wild but that has fallen through. I'm told that both Calgary and Phoenix have expressed some level of interest in the forward.
- Two members of the Spruce Grove Saints are trying out for the Oil Kings with their former head coach keeping close eyes on them. Forwards Josh Lazowski, 78 points in the AJHL last year, and Josh Koper who was with the Oil Kings for a while last season. Koper looked pretty good yesterday, as he should as a 20-year-old.
- Speaking of 20-year-olds... Edmonton has 4 in camp. They traded for Tyler Hickmott so you know he's on the team. Mike Piluso is a no-brainer to stick. That leaves Koper battling with defenceman Adrian Van De Mosselaer who has been with the team since midway through their expansion season. The apparent depth the team has on the blueline might make the vet rearguard available, especially if Koper can add some offence for a team that still needs to get score more. Van De Mosselaer would bring back more in a trade too, another reason it would make more sense to move him than to simply cut Koper. This one might solve itself as camp and pre-season continues but it definitely bears watching.
- In case you were wondering, Tyler Hlookoff, who would be a 20-year-old this season, is no longer with the team. Edmonton put him on waivers but he went unclaimed. Forward Logan Proulx has returned to the BCHL.
- Jordan Kochan, who played 50 games with Prince Albert last year, is in camp as a 19-year-old. He had 10 assists with the Raiders in 2009-10.
- One player who I was told appears to be "going through the motions" in the early stages of camp is Mitch Moroz, the 2nd pick (30th overall) in the 2009 Bantam Draft. That will be addressed quickly by the new bench staff.
Camp continues all week in Fort Saskatchewan and then the Oil Kings host Prince George, Medicine Hat and Swift Current on Saturday and Sunday in St.Albert for their annual pre-season tournament.