The Rookie Tournament: Just What Have We Learned?

So, that rookie tournament is over and the Oilers leave with a perfectly respectable 2-1 record. If they'd played it to win it instead of swapping all three of their goaltenders over the three games, they probably would have gone 3-0 on Olivier Roy's back. But it's not about the results, it's about the lessons learned by the players (and the temporarily relief of our crippling hockey withdrawal symptoms - I passed a Canucks fan on my way home last night shaking and begging for me to give him a junior 'B' game). That's what we're told about this pre-preseason tournaments that might otherwise seem to be a complete waste of time.

Okay. Fine. It was a learning experience. What, exactly, could we have gotten out of it?

We don't exactly know, obviously, seeing as how none of us were playing in it. But that still allows plenty of room for informed cynicism and rampant speculation. After all, most of these kids have been playing around this level of hockey for an awfully long time. Some have experience at a higher level. Getting familiarity with each other is only so important when you remember that these guys are going to be scattered around Europe and North America in the coming season. Set against all this is the risk of injury, a risk that should be striking home right now for Jeff Petry and Alex Plante, two guys with no real chance at the NHL roster out of camp but who are highly touted all the same.

Is it all worth it?

The level of play in this tournament was obviously quite a bit lower than a standard NHL training camp. These teams were composed of prospects, both those within the system already and those attending on a tryout basis. Some, like the Edmonton Oilers, contained a higher-than-average number of 18, 19, and 20-year-olds rounded out with college players turning pro for the first time, AHL sophomores like Plante and Johan Motin, and a couple third-year ECHL pros like Jordan Bendfeld and Bryan Pitton to make up the numbers. The San Jose Sharks ran more AHLers than the Oilers but kept the basic formula the same.

In short, these games, even considering they were run at way less than full speed and broken up by idiotic hey-look-at-me! selfish fighting interludes, this was less than AHL level. So how much good could it have done Johan Motin, who's played 55 AHL games and 101 games in the Swedish Elitserien already in his career and should know this level of play like the back of his hand? Or even the less experienced Alex Plante, who's got in 49 AHL games, four more in the NHL, and a couple hundred in major junior against morons like Brandon Mashinter who tried to drill a hole in the ice with Alex's head? They're making a slight step down in competition and playing alongside guys like Jeremie Blain who aren't going to be in the AHL next year anyway. There's something to be said for just going out and having a skate in front of a crowd until you get concussed in the first of nineteen fights that evening.

It can't possibly be much good for evaluation, either. Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson looked terrific and dangerous for the Oilers last night. What did we learn? "Against junior and low-level professional opposition, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson looks good." There's a revelation. Did you know Taylor Hall can dominate lesser junior players? Of course you did, that's why we drafted him first overall. Did you know Cameron Abney is tough and fights well but is a rather ineffective hockey player? Almost certainly but if you watched him these three games you learned it again. Not only were there no surprises but it's hard to imagine there could have been any surprises.

A full NHL training camp does a lot of good. Watching Hall or Paajarvi (or Abney or Blain) take on the likes of Dustin Penner in a scrimmage then Jarome Iginla in a pre-season matchup can be educational to the fans, the players, and the coaches. But I can't see what you get out of watching these players either school or be schooled by the same opposition they've gotten used to in a half-hearted exhibition of truculence and individual showmanship by mediocre players trying to win a name for themselves. I just don't see the point of this whole injury-causing pre-preseason showcase for players who won't benefit from it.

The best excuse for these things is that it lets the assistant coaches get to know the rookies in a more intimate environment than the full training camp. It's probably a lot easier to get to know Olivier Roy when Jeff Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk, and Martin Gerber aren't also around complaining that Nikolai Khabibulin emptied the minibar again. I can see how that would be helpful for the coaches and, in the long run, the players as well. But is it nothing that couldn't be done with a prospects-only training camp rather than hazarding injuries against another team's scrubs? This team gets messed up enough without inviting further opportunities to do damage.

As much as I loved watching the Oilers back in action, next season I'd just say no to the prospects tournament.

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