Monday, August 11, 2008

The Roster Battle: The Wild Card

There are two players on my list who I could have described as The Wild Card but because this guy is coming to his first Edmonton Oiler camp this fall, and few really know what to expect to see from him when he gets here, I'm going with Ryan Potulny.

We had Potulny on the show in July (listen here) and asked him a variety of questions ranging from his college days spent at the University of Minnesota, his time with the Philadelphia Flyers organization and of course the recent trade.

First a little background on the player that not many Oiler fans know much about yet.

As a member of the Golden Gophers Potulny racked up a total of 118 points in 99 career NCAA games played over 3 seasons. His freshman campaign was limited to only 15 games thanks to a serious knee injury. Still, in that shortened season the North Dakota native made an impact potting 14 points.

His sophomore year proved that his rookie production was no fluke and he went on to score 24 goals and 41 points in 44 games. The Flyers reportedly enquired about his interest in turning pro after that year but Potulny chose to return for a final season with the Gophers.

And what a year it was. He'd been pretty much a point per game player during his first two seasons at Minnesota but as a junior he surpassed both of those two previous years combined. In 41 games Potulny scored 38 goals and recorded 63 points. He was 20 years old at the time and had clearly reached a point in his development where he was ready for the next step and so at the end of the college year he turned pro with Philly. He played in a pair of NHL games and hit the scoresheet with an assist in one of them.

In 2006-07 Potulny was shared by the Flyers and their AHL affiliate across the street, the Philadelphia Phantoms. The Flyers were horrible that season and finished dead last in the NHL. Potulny appeared in 35 games with the big club that year and earned 12 points in cluding 7 goals.

Last summer the Flyers hit the free agency market in a major way and players like Stefan Ruzicka, Jussi Timonen and Potulny all lost their NHL jobs and spent most of 2007-08 in the minors with the Phantoms. The highlight of their year may have been the marathon playoff meeting with the Albany River Rats in which 5 overtime periods were needed to decide a winner:

Having never met or seen Potulny play in person I've done a bunch of asking around to try and get a sense of the kind of player he was in college and now as a pro. One former player who squared off against Potulny and the Gophers on a regular basis told me that "He's a really good player, a big time scorer. We played them a lot and he was by far their best player." That was in Potulny's 3rd and final year at Minnesota when he led the Gophers in scoring by 12 points over a freshman Phil Kessel and had a whopping 40 more points that 5th overall NHL draftee Blake Wheeler who was in his sophomore year.

In college Potulny was a scorer. As a pro he's had to alter his game a bit in order to thrive but he's evidently done that scoring 47 points in 58 games last year with the Phantoms.

Having purchased a bunch of free agent forwards last year and discovering a desperate shortage of offensive minded blueliners, the Flyers and the Oilers hooked up for a fairly obvious swap of asets that both teams had excess of. Edmonton gave up Danny Syvret who never seemed to get on track as a pro after being drafted 81st overall (3rd round) by Edmonton in 2005.

Syvret fills a big hole in Philly, at least at the minor league level, and Potulny is coming to Edmonton much like Gilbert Brule, hoping the change in scenery leads to a bigger opportunity.

"It's kind of a new chance for me to start over and hopefully I'll get a better chance there," Potulny said on the show, "When I was in Philly and up with the Flyers I was put on the 4th line role, which is fine with me, but when you're put on that line you change your [style of play] a bit."

And by that he means, concentrate more on being defensively responsible, less on scoring which is what he's always been counted on to do.

"You kind of adapt to what line you're on and what the team needs from you," he said, "I think what I'm trying to do now is be a good 2-way player that can play well in the defensive zone but chip in offensively."

In his total of 44 NHL games Potulny has 14 points, an even split between goals and helpers, but it's worth noting that he is a plus-player boasting a +2 over those games and on that last place team in 2006-07, Potulny was one of only 5 Flyers with a rating above even (He was +1 and Lasse Kukkonen's +4 was a team high).

Why Potulny will make the team: Potulny is coming to camp and knows that the only roster spots that are open are perhaps on the 4th line at best, more likely a pressbox seat. Having spoken with him it's clear to me that not only does he understand that but he accepts that if he makes the team, it will be as an energy player. Unlike Brule who to me seemed much more focused on playing a larger role than he did in Columbus (who were not as deep as Edmonton last year let alone this year), Potulny appears ready to accept a llimited role as a utility player and has the experience in that role already.

He's not big but at 6' and 192 lbs, Potulny isn't exactly small either. Of the players I am considering for this series, Potulny is probably the player I see being the least affected by being a healthy scratch for stretches of games.

The Grand Forks North Dakota product says that he's played all three forward positions while growing up through the USHL, NCAA and pro so he's definitely got versatility to play on either wing or down the middle.

As my friend Allan Mitchell pointed out recently at his blog (Lowetide) Potulny is a shooter.

Finally, and I don't think it's something that can just be glossed over, is that Potulny has the waiver scenario on his side. According to new Assistant GM of Legal stuff Rick Olczyk, Potulny would have to clear waivers before he could be sent down to Springfield in the AHL. Schremp and Brule do not. As I've said before, the likelihood of a player passing through waivers safely is generally higher the earlier in the year it is because if plucked from the wire, the new team would have to keep Potulny on the NHL roster. (Again I use the Patrick Thoresen in 2007-08 comparison for Potulny in this regard).

I find it hard to imagine that any team would risk losing a player for nothing unless they knew he couldn't really help the team in the long run. Can the Oilers say that about Potulny at this point? Keeping in mind that he was a star in college and is only celebrating his 23rd birthday this September 5th... I think not.

Why Potulny will not make the team: As I said with Schremp and Brule, the competition for the spot will be fierce and so if anyone starts out slowly, it could be costly. Potulny will be just getting familiar with his surroundings, new teammates, coaches, facilities and on-ice systems... an adjustment period should almost be expected yet this year it might not be overlooked.

Head coach Craig MacTavish could be called a creature of habit in that he normally sticks to what and those he knows (until last year's influx of new faces that is). The head coach's unfamiliarity with Potulny could start him behind in the fight but Patrick Thoresen again provides a recent example of a player who came out of nowhere to make an impression on the coach.

If you compared Potulny to the rest of the 'bubble boys' I'm covering in this series, you could make the argument that he is the player who doesn't stand out in any way. He's not the best scorer, not the best playmaker, not the fastest, the toughest, etc. How will he seperate himself from the field?

It's tough to try and predict how Potulny fits into the pecking order of the organization. The team's depth chart on their website shows Potulny, Schremp and Brule all as the "5th line". If that can be taken as an honest ranking by the team then it's safe to say Potulny is on even gorund with those two higher profile players. Will Potulny be the surprise of camp or just another also-ran?

The Oilers are hoping their Wild Card turns out to be an Ace in the hole.


fakedarylkatz said...

Excellent series so far, Guy. Can you remember a time when making this team was this difficult?

Guy Flaming said...

I don't but I bet Jani Rita does.


Jonathan Willis said...

About Potulny's plus-minus: He was put in a gorgeous postion to succeed. has his opposition ranked as 15th among Flyers forwards in 2006-07 and his linemates at 6th among the same. I did a full work-up here; his scoring clip per 60 minutes was really nice, but the simple fact is that he was sheltered more than any other Flyers forward.

oilerdago said...

Great stuff Guy. Barring a trade, it seems that the onus will be on the guys who have to clear waivers to perform such that the Oilers can't send 'em down.

Guy Flaming said...

Jonathan, nice work on the stats... I'm not wired as a stats guy, they quickly go over my head.

Nice write up too, glad to see we agree on a lot of the points. We appear to be in the minority thinking that Potulny is not just in the mix but a leading contender to stick.

Jonathan Willis said...

We appear to be in the minority thinking that Potulny is not just in the mix but a leading contender to stick.

Probably because he's less familiar to everyone and less heralded than Schremp and Brule.

fakedarylkatz said...

Probably because he's less familiar to everyone and less heralded than Schremp and Brule.

And because of who we traded to get him, I would think. Most didn't think Syvret was ever going to do much at the NHL level and assume that Potulny would be the same.

Anonymous said...

... he's less familiar to everyone...
I am one of those, but because of the developed trust I have in you (Guy) and also Jonathan, learning something about these fellas have given me another reason to look forward to in the Fall.
And like Oildago pointed out (and also mentioned elsewhere I believe), there does appear to be added motivation to perform for those who have to clear waivers, doesn't it?