Don't look now but the Edmonton Oil Kings are tied for first place in the WHL. Yes it's extremely early in the season and yes, they've played more games than any other team in the league but for a club that has never seen the top of the standings before, you take your victories when and where you can.
Like the franchise, a player enjoying unprecedented early season success is veteran forward T.J. Foster. The Slave Lake product is second in team scoring with 4 goals and 9 points in as many games thanks to a new level of confidence and a big chip on his shoulder.
Foster was the team's 2nd round pick back in 2007 but despite being an early round selection, he's always been overshadowed; Mark Pysyk was the 1st pick that year. Although Foster has played more WHL games than any other player on the roster, He's not often viewed by outsiders as a key veteran presence. He scored 25 goals last year and you'd think that would get him more recognition but three guys on the team notched more so the accomplishment goes largely unnoticed.
Make no mistake, this year Foster is ready to take some time in the spotlight for himself.
After getting invited to summer prospect camp by the New York Rangers, Foster felt rejuvenated and was eager to go back for another camp with the NHL club in the Fall. However, like last year's expected invitation from the Minnesota Wild, the call didn't come putting Foster in a precarious situation.
It's often a turning point in a player's career; how they deal with adversity. For Foster, he's taking the non-invite as a personal challenge and one that he's bound to win.
This time next year, Foster could be back with the Oil Kings as an overage player but in a very real sense, he's also playing this season with an eye on earning a professional contract.
"You know I want to get another tryout somewhere, it doesn't matter where, but that's what my goal this season and hopefully I can play good enough to get that." Foster said while acknowledging his disappointment with the snubbing from the Rangers, "Definitely but like you said, that's just extra motivation for this season."
Whether it's a new attitude or just simply getting the bounces, the start to 2011-12 has been better than any year in Foster's career. Two years ago he didn't manage to score his second goal of the season until January. Last season his first lamplighter came in game 12 and it wasn't until the 24th of November that he had scored 4 like he has now after Tuesday's 5-1 win in Lethbridge. I asked the winger after that came what he thinks the difference for him is this year.
"I think that I just came into camp more confident; I worked hard all summer and knowing the coaching staff this time around made it a lot easier," Foster said in regards to head coach Derek Laxdal and assistant coach Steve Hamilton, "Last year we didn't know what they expected from us and all that. I've just felt good right from the start coming in, felt stronger and things have been going good."
Like I said, it's very early in the season but to see Edmonton listed at the top of the division and tied for the conference lead, it's something the team has to be feeling excited and proud of.
Should anyone be surprised that the Oil Kings are where they are in the standings right now? Many pundits across the league have pegged the team to finish in the top end of the conference and considering the make up of the team, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise either. It's finally time for this franchise to start taking steps forward and winning more games that they lose.
"I think so because we're 5 years old now so our first draft picks are getting older and we're taking the load, a lot of it," Foster agreed, "We're a close knit group this year, I think closer than last year, and that definitely helps on the ice. We're all buying into the systems, we all have the common goal of winning."
Much has been made of the defensive group in Edmonton and rightfully so. To me the big difference this year has been that the secondary scoring has stepped up while the expected offensive leaders have struggled early on to produce.
Rhett Rachinski and Stephane Legault are 3rd and 4th in team scoring and both hold impressive plus/minus ratings of +5 and +6 respectively. Rookies Ashton Sautner, Mitch Moroz and leading scorer Martin Gernat have pitched in offensively, far more than expected in the case of both defenders, while last year's leading scorers Dylan Wruck, Kristians Pelss and Michael St. Croix have been slow out of the gate. Foster agreed that the secondary scoring has been key but was quick to point out that the big guns are starting to warm up now.
"I think those guys are turning it around now, they had a good game tonight and had a lot of chances," Foster said of his teammates, "Mike had a couple of points so I think his confidence is coming up and I think Dylan's is too."
Perhaps the noticeable difference that fans coming to rink will, or should, see from the Oil Kings this year compared to last is that they will be the team dictating the play on most nights. This is a club that can go into most rinks in the league and feel legitimately confident about coming away with two points. Medicine Hat and Wednesday's destination of Cranbrook are perhaps the two towns that the Oil Kings still have to prove themselves in. But generally speaking, the team has every right to expect that they can compete against anyone in the league this year as, on paper, they have the team to do it.
Foster was quick to point out though that the games are played on the ice where even championship caliber teams have to show up to win.
"[On paper] absolutely but that still doesn't mean anything, we still have to go in and battle because the points don't just come to you," Foster said, "That's what our coaches have been harping on us; we're a solid team but that doesn't win you points, you still have to go out, play a full 60 minutes and work your [butt] off."
The proof is in the pudding but with just 2 regulation time losses thought the first 9 games, Foster and the Oil Kings are proving they will be a team to reckon with.
- Edmonton's power play finished last year ranked 19th in the WHL. It's currently clicking at a rate of 21.6, good for 13th in the league.
- The penalty kill has also had positive early season results. Edmonton's PK is tied for 3rd (84.6%) after finishing the 2010-11 year in 12th (79.3%).
- Discipline has been an issue for the coaching staff; the Oil Kings are the second most penalized team in the WHL and are only a hair out of top spot having amassed an average of 22.3 minutes per game.
- Netminder Laurent Brossoit is showing why the Oil Kings made him the first goaltender selected in the 2008 Bantam draft. He finished 2010-11 with a .887 SV% and 3.32 GAA but is currently sporting a .918 SV% and 2.33 GAA. He was drafted by Calgary in the 6th round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
- Martin Gernat's 13 points rank him 6th in overall league scoring but he's 1st among defencemen and also 1st among rookies.
- Only two skaters have yet to record their first point of the season, and of their WHL career at the same time; defenceman Mason Geertsen and center Cole Benson. Geertsen has compiled a team high 24 PIMs though.
- Defenceman Griffin Reinhart has served 4 of his 5 game suspension for a kneeing incident on October 5th. That was in a game against Kootenay which is also the opponent on Wednesday, the final game Reinhart has to sit out.
- Edmonton's 5-game road trip ends Wednesday in Kootenay. The Oil Kings have gone 3-1 thus far with wins in Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Lethbridge with the only loss coming in Saskatoon.
- The Oil Kings 4 play straight and 5 of the next seven at Rexall Place including dates with U.S. Division opponents Portland (Oct 21st), Everett (Oct 26th) and Seattle (Nov 5th). Those clubs only come to town once every second year so fans should catch them while they can.
(Photos: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL.ca)