Friday, August 22, 2008

The Roster Battle: The Underdog

It's rare that someone pretty well off the radar will come to camp and make the team but it has happened and as recently as 2 years ago with a player very few people had even heard of.

In my training camp preview for HF back in the fall of 2006 (see here) I called the player "a dark horse" and suggested he was someone "that could surprise". Although I said the guy might impress and turn some heads I didn't go so far as to predict he would actually make the team. Let's face it, only a complete moron would predict a 5'10 forward from a non-hockey nation would crack a NHL roster right?

Well Patrick Thoresen proved that no matter how predicatable training camps usually are, the possibility of someone coming out of nowhere does exist.

I've been asked on the air by Bob Stauffer and Corey Graham to offer up my darkhorse player, the guy I think could surprise. Up to now I've said Ryan Potulny and although I think he ultimately has a better shot at the roster this year, you know he's not the underdog in this blog series because he was detailed earlier (see here).

With that said... it's time for me to look at who I think is a legit longshot. Not that I expect him to make the team, but he's at least got a Norwegian midget's chance at it.

To be my darkhorse pick you have to be able to fill the job description of a NHL 4th-liner which is to say: someone who brings energy, grit, speed, physicality and is not a defensive liability. I've profiled 4 Oiler prospects in this series and most of them fulfill those requirements, some more than others.

Here is my darkhorse:

Ryan O'Marra could be the perfect fit for Edmonton's 4th line. Those 5 must-have traits I bolded above? There are check marks next to all of them on O'Marra's score card.

At Team Canada's training camp head coach Brent Sutter had narrowed down his last roster spot to two players; O'Marra and Calgary Flames 1st round pick Kris Chukco. Sutter told us (March 2007) that O'Marra was at his best when he was playing physical and that in fact, for him to make the national team his job was to make sure he hit someone every shift.

His 4-year OHL career was spent mostly with the Erie Otters where he was always a key player but never the team's leading scorer. In his fourth season the Otters sent him to Saginaw, a team that could contend for the league title. He missed much of that campaign with ailments including a season ending knee injury that hampered his summer training before he made his Edmonton camp debut.

He was originally drafted by the New York Islanders, 15th overall in 2005. Reportedly he made a very positive impression on the Islanders at training camp and enjoyed AHL success at the end of the 2005-06 schedule where he had 5 points n 8 games including 4 goals. Some NHL people have told me that O'Marra nearly cracked the Islanders' roster in the fall of 2006 but a camp injury precluded his chances and he was returned to Erie.

At the 2007 trade deadline the Oilers shipped off franchise player Ryan Smyth to Long Island. With their Kyle Okposo request denied by the Isles, Lowe and the Edmonton brain trust instead came away with Robert Nilsson, O'Marra and a 1st round pick (Alex Plante).

Knowing that reaction to dealing Smyth was bound to upset a large percentage of their fanbase, the Oilers arguably went too far in pumping up the value of the return package. In O'Marra's case, Edmonton trumpeted his 2 gold medals from the World Junior Championships, his strong performance in the AHL as an 18-year-old and the fact that he was predicted to be a top 10 pick in his draft year. That praise, coupled with the fact that a player of Smyth's magnitude was involved in the trade, reportedly went to O'Marra's head.

The Tokyo-born forward joined us in studio with Theo Peckham during prospect camp in June of 2007 (listen here) and came off as mature, well-spoken and confident.

When he came to camp in 2007, O'Marra was coming off the knee injury and, although he insisted he was 100%, did not perform up to expectations - which were arguably too high based upon all the hype that the Oilers themselves partialy generated after the Smyth trade.

Suffice to say that when he was a fairly early cut in camp it didn't go unnoticed. Some blamed the injury, others said O'Marra came in expecting a spot to be handed to him because he was told by the Islanders that he nearly made the NHL the year before. Whatever the case, it was off to Springfield. Temporarily.

O'Marra lasted 3 games in the AHL before he was demoted to Stockton of the ECHL, almost unheard of for a 1st round pick in his rookie pro year (aside from goalie Devan Dubnyk the year before because Edmonton lacked an AHL affiliate of their own).

Remembering the hype and praise the Oilers bestowed on O'Marra after the trade it was puzzling to see that 6 months later they'd stuck such a promising prospect in "The Jules Vern League"... 20,000 Leagues Under the NHL.

We asked Kevin Lowe whether or not the organization was sending O'Marra a message, breaking him down so that they could remold him into the player they wanted him to become. The Oilers GM didn't like that theory very much. (listen here at the 10:00 mark)

To make a long and unpleasant story shorter, O'Marra and the organization had their differences in 2007-08 but eventually the player earned an ECHL All-Star nomination, worked his way back to the AHL, had a hot streak, missed time due to injury then played well in Stockton's playoff series against Las Vegas to close out the year.

Why O'Marra will make the team: If motivation was money, Ryan O'Marra could buy the Oilers from Daryl Katz and make himself the captain.

After last year, I can't think of a player with more to prove than O'Marra. That he didn't belong in the ECHL, that he should have played more for Springfield down the stretch, that he has the work ethic and character to compete at training camp as expected now that he's healthy and that he's still deserving of that aura that clings to 1st round picks.

I've spoken with O'Marra several times over the current off-season including on the air (listen here) and when I do I hear a different person than I did a year ago. More mature, no longer disgruntled or feeling bitter, O'Marra is now just focused on what he needs to do to be successful.

At close to 6'3 and 220 lbs, O'Marra is only slightly smaller than J.F. Jacques who is routinely regarded as a beast of a young man. Like Jacques, O'Marra can be extremely effective on the forecheck by playing the body. He did it for Brent Sutter, he did it in Stockton and he knows that's what he needs to do for the Oilers too.

O'Marra can play on the wing or at center but is one of the best faceoff men in the organization, including the NHL roster where Marty Reasoner and Jarret Stoll are no longer to be found. A rookie needs to carve out a niche for himself to stick and being a guy that can take key draws has always been a strong point for O'Marra.

Why O'Marra will not make the team: Simply put, for O'Marra to grab a NHL job would take a combination of an outstanding, lights out camp performance from him coupled with disastrous efforts from the 4 players profiled already in this series.

When was the last time a player went from the ECHL to playing in the NHL? OK, Liam Reddox's 1-game appearance last year doesn't count. Seriously, it's unrealistic to expect that a player can make that big of a jump so quickly unless you subscribe to the theory that Edmonton was sending him a message and that he actually was deserving to stay in the AHL all year.

That said if it's Edmonton's objective to tear him down and build him back up, (some would suggest they've done that with Rob Schremp), wouldn't that process require a second year - the rebuild year? The one where O'Marra is given top-6 forward minutes in Springfield so that his real shot comes in 2009-10?

It may be a conspiracy theory or just the time needed for player development but the sense I'm getting is that this year O'Marra is indeed expected to be an important figure on a much improved Falcons line up.

Although he's not projected to be a scorer in the NHL, it is reasonable for the Oilers to expect more offensive production from O'Marra than he provided last season. It's true that during most games he played he was used sparingly but 2 goals and 9 points in 31 AHL games isn't enough.

The last reason is one that is shared by most of the 'bubble boys' and that's the fact that Edmonton can reassign him without having to worry about waivers.

O'Marra is only 21-years-old, there is no need to rush him before he has proven that the AHL is no longer beneficial and at this point, no one can say that.

In the end Edmonton will do what is best for the team and if a Norwegian can come out of nowhere to steal a job away from Marc Pouliot 2 years ago then why can't an upstart from Japan do it again in 2008?


oilerdago said...

Not who I expected you to pick for this position Guy. Great series. Can't wait to see what unfolds @ camp next month.

Showerhead said...

Great post and I understand your reasoning on both sides of the coin. This is the first time I've read about an Okposo demand though - up until now it's just been that Nolan(?) quote about tossing up the same package to several teams and being pleasantly surprised that they somehow got Smyth.

fakedarylkatz said...

Best series on the Oilers this off season Guy.

It always amazes me how guys get written off so early by some just because their career path doesn't follow a straight line of progression. Injuries have obviously been a problem but like Jacques a big body that can skate and hit will always get second and third chances and if there is another skill then he will get even more.

Guy Flaming said...

Showerhead: My understanding is that the first player Edmonton asked about was Okposo, quickly found that wasn't going to happen and so moved on down the list.

It's not unlike Ryan Getzlaf in the Pronger trade to Anaheim. He wasn't part of the deal but obviously the Oilers asked about him first.

The difference is that I don't think there is anybody wondering if Edmonton won the trade with the Islanders - that's crazy obvious. You'd get an argument with the Ducks deal.

oilerdiehard said...

This series has been fantastic Guy. I personally still have a lot of faith in O'Marra. This year is likely not his year for the NHL. But I think all the same he is going to have a really strong year and surprise many of those that have written him off already (there are plenty).

Count me in as not believing that this past year was not a message sent and break down to build back up move.

I guess they did not go from the ECHL to NHL over night. But when you said that Alex Burrows and Michael Ryder popped into mind.

I have really enjoyed the heck out of this series. Thanks Guy. It makes the Summer hockey down time more enjoyable.