Season 5 of the Edmonton Oil Kings has arrived. Rookie camp participants are all in town and will undergo fitness testing tomorrow with the first on-ice sessions scheduled for Friday in Fort Saskatchewan.
This is definitely the strongest Oil Kings team WHL fans have seen in the Alberta capital which only stands to reason; only 3 members of the 2011-12 squad played even a single game in the expansion year - you can find the answer to that trivia question and a rundown of my projected Oil Kings roster after the jump.
The Oil Kings haven't yet released a rookie camp roster yet, I was told to expect that on their website "tonight"... no luck. But in all honesty there are only a handful of guys with a chance to crack the regular season roster.
Obviously the pair of 2010 first round Bantam draft selections are to be considered locks to make it. The only question about Curtis Lazar, the guy who rewrote the Canada Games record books (erasing names like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos in the process), is whether he'll keep #27 from his 10-game stint last year.
Similarly, 6'3 defenceman Mason Geertsen (above) will be a regular for Edmonton this year despite the blueline corps being stronger than it has ever been. Import addition Martin Gernat, drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in June, is older than Geertsen and will play higher up the depth chart too but is also a rookie.
The other guys who stand the best chance at a WHL spot this year include forwards Tristan Sieben, Cole Benson, Mitch Moroz and rearguard Ashton Sautner.
Sieben, listed by the WHL as 5'8 and 183 lbs, is "built like a brick shithouse" according to one Oil Kings source. He was a 5th round pick back in 2009 and collected 18 goals and 39 points playing Midget AAA last year. He also appeared in two AJHL games with Drayton Valley and a single game late in the season with the Oil Kings. Fans should be envisioning a hard working checking forward, someone who may eventually kill penalties for the Oil Kings, as opposed to a scorer. Certainly, no one is expected Sieben to be playing top 6 minutes this year but that doesn't mean that he won't be a valuable player down the road.
Cole Benson is an interesting player. I'd heard a lot of rumors about him potentially going the NCAA route but Edmonton was able to sign him and I'm told that they expect big things one day from the smallish forward. Benson was named Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts in that aspect of the game with Edmonton's South Side Athletic Club. At the same time, he piled up 32 points in 29 games, helped SSAC win the Mac's Midget tournament and then played well at the Canada Games too. He's been described to me as "not very big but extremely smart. A good skater, crafty with the puck, but he thinks the game at a really high level." The only down side is his size, 5'7 and 150 lbs., on a team with a plethora of small guys up front.
Edmonton's 2nd pick in 2009 was power forward Mitch Moroz (above) and expectations were that he'd play with the team last year. He didn't. Now the question has to be asked whether the Calgary product is going to take that step this year or if he slips into 'suspect' territory. I'm told that the winger has worked his butt off to put himself in a much better position once camp opens and that's what he needed to do. The door is wide open for a guy his size to step right into the line up, he's just got to prove that he deserves to be given the opportunity.
Main camp is also slated to take place entirely in Fort Saskatchewan, for which I blame equipment manager Rogan Dean by the way. Apparently the fact that it's practically a tank of gas for me to get out there from Devon, that seems not to matter much to Mr. Skate Sharpener.
Nevertheless, looking into my crystal ball for the final roster that will begin the 2011-12 season...
To me the concept of a top line with this group might be a bit of a misnomer. It might make more sense to consider there to be a top 7 group of forwards. If it's me, I'm looking at the trio of Michael St. Croix (NYR) between T.J. Foster and Kristians Pelss (EDM) who really clicked well together for stretches last year before an injury to Josh Lazowski messed up all of the line combinations. It's quite possible that St. Croix and Dylan Wruck could line up together as well, they did at times last year but I thought they were better on different lines.
Speaking of Lazowski, I thought that he along with Wruck and Jordan Hickmott were a terrific combination. Obviously with Hickmott out of the league there needs to be a replacement and that comes down to two guys; Travis Ewanyk (EDM) and Curtis Lazar. I get the sense that Lazar will be given time to adapt to the league before he is thrust into a top-6 role and in the meantime Ewanyk stands to be the second line center until the rookie is ready. I'm willing to bet that it's a shorter transition for Lazar and that by Christmas, he's holding down that spot.
The bottom six could be a mixture of players including veterans like Rhett Rachinski, Klarc Wilson, Colton Stephenson, Mark Reners and younger guys like Stephane Leagault, David Stephens and the aforementioned rookies Benson, Moroz and Sieben.
On the back end, Canadian WJC candidate Mark Pysyk (BUF) leads a top 4 that would have to rank as one of the best groups in the WHL. He'll likely partner with Keegan Lowe (CAR) but may help to groom Martin Gernat (EDM) early on. Griffin Reinhart is a must-see for scouts in advance of the 2012 NHL Draft and expectations for the second year defender are pretty high. That foursome has everything a team could possibly want; puck movers, excellent skating, size, toughness, defensive reliability, character and leadership.
Geertsen will likely play more the 5th most minutes on the team with Ryan Dech, Ashton Sautner and Braeden Laroque in some sort of rotation. Laroque is coming off a down year but showed potential in the past and if he can regain that form, the 19-year-old would provide more experience than the other options available.
Not to put too much emphasis on one position, or too much pressure on one guy, but the direction of the season for the Oil Kings can largely hinge on the performance of goalie Laurent Brossoit (CGY). The 6th round pick of the Flames has never been a starter in his junior career so no one knows for certain how he will function with the greater workload. Certainly the potential is there for him to flourish this year but until he proves that he can handle the start job, expect that 20-year-old Jon Groenheyde will be around.
The third goalie at this point is Tristan Jarry, a 3rd rounder from 2010 who is expected to be a starter in the league one day.
Right now there are only four guys who could technically return to the team for an over-age year: Josh Lazowski, Jon Groenheyde, Rhett Rachinski and Cameron Abney (EDM). I didn't mention Abney above and that wasn't by mistake; I fully expect the Oilers prospect to be skating in the ECHL with the Stockton Thunder this season. Personally, I thought it was a disappointing WHL career for the reputed tough guy because he was often injured and I rarely got to see him drop the gloves.
Lazowski is an easy pick for a returning player as long as he's healthy which I have been told he is. The forward had 28 points in 32 games last year before a shoulder injury knocked him out for the season. If he's good to go then, as I said above, he's in my top 6.
Rachinski works hard and can be a valuable player when it comes to killing penalties and checking the opposition's big guns. He might have some trade value but unless you can get a younger version of him, I don't know what the point of dealing him would be really.
Groenheyde is the safety net between the pipes. If Brossoit struggles then he stays, if not then I can see the team shipping him off to a club to address a need elsewhere in the line up. I don't know how many teams in the WHL would be looking for a goalie at this point in the calendar but the Vancouver Giants come to mind after failing to convince their import from Finland to come over. What about Moose Jaw? Spokane?
Out from 2010-11: D Adrian Van de Mosselaer (age), F Jordan Hickmott (age), F Mike Piluso (age), F Cam Abney (pro), D Marek Hrbas (traded to Kamloops), D Jesse Pearson (retired due to injury).
In for 2011-12: F Curtis Lazar, D Mason Geertsen, D Martin Gernat, F Cole Benson, F Tristan Sieben, F Mitch Moroz, D Ashton Sautner.
Kristians Pelss - Michael St. Croix - T.J. Foster
Dylan Wruck - Curtis Lazar (Travis Ewanyk) - Josh Lazowski
Rhett Rachinski - Travis Ewanyk - Klarc Wilson
Stephane Leagault - David Stephens - Mark Reners
Mitch Moroz - Colton Stephenson - Tristan Sieben
Keegan Lowe - Mark Pysyk
Griffin Reinhart - Martin Gernat
Mason Geertsen - Ryan Dech
Braeden Laroque - Ashton Sautner
It's too early to make predictions, especially because several teams could look much different post-NHL training camps (does Moose Jaw lose Quinton Howden to Florida? Will Tyler Pitlick be back in Medicine Hat? Nugent-Hopkins in Red Deer or the NHL?) but I think it's fair to argue that Edmonton could host a playoff series next spring.
At this very early stage I think that Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, Red Deer and the Oil Kings could battle it out in the Eastern Conference. But we'll take a much closer look at those types of predictions once the NHL picture gets clearer.
The Oil Kings host their annual pre-season tournament in St. Albert on September 5th and 6th. They will play Swift Current and Medicine Hat but also in town taking part will be Prince George, Red Deer and Calgary.
Lastly, it's good to hear that Jesse Pearson will be around this year. The blueliner had to retire after suffering concussions in a very physical and fight filled WHL career. After 101 PIMs and 53 games in the WHL over two years, Pearson will aid the Oil Kings in an off-ice capacity. "He was very well liked in the room, respected by the guys so it's great that for us that he'll continue to be around the team," head coach Derek Laxdal told me during the TEAM 1260 golf tournament.
I completely agree.
By the way, the answer to the trivia question: Mark Pysyk played 14 games while Rhett Rachinski appeared in 2 and Colton Stephenson dressed for one game in Edmonton's inaugural year back in 2007-08.