Linus Omark demonstrates his doggedness on the puck in this file photo from the bronze medal game at last year's World Championships.
For some reason I had never seen the Joey Moss Cup before tonight. Most years (17 of 22) I took in the used-to-be-annual Oiler Wannabes - U of A Golden Bears game, but in light of that tradition's cancellation - this year only, I fervently hope - I decided to scratch the September itch for a little live hockey by attending the JMC. It was a night game this year for the first time, very reasonably priced at $10 a ticket, and for a charitable cause at that. What's not to like?
The food, that's what. Rather than eat on the way, my pal and I headed down to Rexall early to take in the ambience of the occasion, to watch the stands slowly fill up, and eventually the players take the ice for the pregame skate. Going to different concessions we both had separate but parallel tales about the product, which was barely fit to eat in both cases. (I called it "the culinary equivalent of the 30th-place Edmonton Oilers".) Dress rehearsal food at regular season prices. My bud got a simple burger, fries and pop that set him back $14. Seemed overpriced, but it made up for that by being undercooked. The high prices for a captive audience I can understand, but dammit, for those prices the food should be excellent, and it's not. My own pulled pork sandwich was a small pile of warmed-over meat product thrown on a bare bun - $7.75. (The overhead sign said $7.50 but the cash register recorded the newly-raised priced, so that's what I was charged, false advertising be damned.) As usual the prices of the products were various, almost random seeming amounts - $6.25 for a German sausage but $6.75 for an Italian sausage. Are the exchange rates between those two countries different? Rather than having standard prices of even dollars which surely would still include plenty of room for profit margin, this policy of having everything priced slightly differently always leaves the staff figuring out the correct change rather than, you know, serving the next customer. Bloody inefficient - drives me nuts! It was hard to find a counterpoint when my friend said that it's no wonder Daryl Katz wants nothing to do with Northlands. But I digress ...
We took advantage of the festival seating to return to a familiar location - my old seat on Row 14 in the former Section E (now 106) where I sat for 15 years (1977-92). I must have seen 600 games from that seat, although never before was it the Oilers vs. the Oilers! What a pleasure to enjoy such a familiar viewing angle on the action.
Promptly at 7 p.m. the warm-up ended and the commissioner, Joey Moss himself, came out for the ceremonial faceoff and bellowed a heartfelt rendition of O Canada which I found quite moving for some reason. It was double duty which Joey appeared to be attempting both at once at one point. I guess he was as anxious for the puck to drop on the new season as the rest of us. By then the lower bowl was mostly full with a smattering of folks upstairs, most of which was curtained off. Probably 7,000 or so in attendance altogether, including lots of families with small kids taking advantage of accessible prices to see the pros. There were no fewer than 40 of them on display, as the Oilers who survived yesterday's first cuts were (mostly) divided into Team Blue and Team White, with a full 20-man roster on each. With so many Oilers out there, many of them bearing unfamilar numbers, it was difficult to keep track of who was who at times.
The game consisted of three 15-minute periods with abbreviated intermissions and no TV timeouts, so was over at the very family-friendly time of 8:30. It was just right, there was no reason to go the full 60. The two teams put in a solid effort for the most part, playing "real hockey" with plenty of hard skating and a modicum of hitting. There were no scrums and very little rough stuff, but this wasn't the laugh-a-minute skills competition, it was players seriously competing for jobs.
The game was scoreless after two periods before Team Blue finally broke through in the third with three goals, all engineered by the 3H line of Hall-Horcoff-Hemsky. All three ended the night with two points as Team Blue walked off with a well-earned 3-0 victory.
I'll get into a few individual impressions after the jump, but first of all some observations on the team level. After last year's unacceptably dreadful performance, the 2010-11 Oilers will see the injection of at least three badly-needed elements - way more team speed, significantly increased skill, and improved attitude. All were on full display tonight. The team is still going to have a lot of tough nights, but it will surely be more fun to watch, and to support.
#4 Taylor Hall: After a slow start he started to make an impact in the second half of the game. The turning point may have been when Hall was poaching at the far blueline for a long breakout pass which was delivered a good ten feet off target, behind him. Hall showed outstanding athleticism to whirl and get a piece of the puck, changing an icing into a legal, if long, shoot-in. What followed was a solid minute of offensive zone pressure as Taylor and his linemates outhustled their counterparts while cycling the puck effectively. That set the stage for the third period in which the line contributed all three goals, with Hall getting a second assist on the first before scoring the final goal himself. I was more impressed by a play in between times when the Kingston Cannonball came in off the left wing, pulled the puck sharply to the inside to beat the defenceman and in one motion wired a wrist shot from the more favourable shooting angle that resulted. I think we're going to see that one quite a bit, cuz it's going to be real tough to stop. His skating style reminded me quite a bit of Mark Messier.
#10 Shawn Horcoff: The best player on the ice. Had a strong game in all three zones. With the score 1-0 midway in the third and his team a man down, Horcoff made an aggressive play to steal the puck from Sam Gagner at the point, raced away on a breakaway, and deposited the puck behind Roy on a nifty backhand deke. Minutes later he burst in again but this time saw Hall accompanying him to his left, and made a perfect pass which the rookie finished off to the pleasure of the crowd. I shook my head to hear even scattered boos when his name was announced in the scoring play.
#16 Colin Fraser: Looked alright but didn't really have any memorable moments.
#25 Ben Ondrus: In the second intermission I mentioned to my bud that I hadn't noticed him at all. Made a point of looking for #25 blue in the third, spotted it on a line with Vande Velde and Hartikainen, but there was nothing in the actual flow of play which stood out at all.
#26 Kurtis Foster: Somehow I felt his goal coming. Team Blue was on a powerplay at the far end early in the third, score still 0-0, when I noticed the gigantic #26 on the blue with Hall and Hemsky dangling on the perimeter. I was going "Foster, Foster, get it to Foster, I wanna see him shoot, Foster" and sure enough Ales dangled a little more while Foster floated right into the middle, in perfect position to boom a one-timer off of Hemsky's sweet feed. I got more of an impression of accuracy than all-out speed on that particular shot, but I can confirm it's a weapon. Even in the pregame skate I was noticing how the puck just snaps off his stick on any kind of shot.
#38/40 JDDDD: Combined for a shutout ... of course, they were only playing the Oilers. Both looked solid, even competent, but they didn't have to sing a whole lot for their supper; Team White was fairly impotent on this night. Dubnyk got the start and looked composed from the outset. Deslauriers made one excellent pad stop, I think off of Jones after Omark's fine pass set him up. (Jones shoulda gone high glove.)
#49 Theo Peckham: Rattled the boards a couple of times with missed checks for the most part. Will never be accused of a lack of enthusiasm.
#53 Cameron Abney: Convincingly won his first puck battle with an NHL defenceman, taking the body, winning the puck, and walking off the end boards in full control. It would have been perfect, except ... said "NHL defenceman" was Taylor Chorney. Still, Cam impressed at times. As I said to my seatmate, Abney does good things with his body, but his stick lets him down. The guy's a complete plumber at this point, but has some surprisingly good hockey instincts when he doesn't have the puck. Which is to say, 99% of the time.
#54 Chris Vande Velde: Looked alright without the puck, not so good with it. Had a couple of real good "short 2-on-1" opportunities in rapid succession but was unable to deliver the puck to his wide open winger in either instance. No matter what your role on the team, you have to be able to take advantage of opportunities like those.
#56 Teemu Hartikainen: I'd like to say he was really noticeable, Derek, but I'd be lying.
#67 Gilbert Brule: Played a strong game on the left wing, not his usual position(s). Looked dangerous in isolated moments but linemates Fraser and Colin McDonald couldn't get him the puck.
#77 Tom Gilbert: A beauty player. He makes things look so simple, turning pressure into separation and an easy play countless times again tonight, as he does most every night.
#83 Ales Hemsky: It was good to see Ales back on skates. Not often have I seen him play from the lower bowl, but that vantage point allowed me to more fully appreciate his speed. Took a petulant slashing penalty in the second, but then got a pair of assists in the third, both on nifty set-ups.
#85 Liam Reddox: Played a pretty darn good game, kind of like Linus Omark's minus the talent. Quick, though, and definitely tenacious. A nice depth player in the organization.
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#2 James Vandermeer: Looked solid, and better with the puck than I was expecting, albeit in a very limited sample size.
#6 Ryan Whitney: The big guy's got all kinds of game, but his decision-making was curious at times.
#13 Andrew Cogliano: Clicked nicely with Paajarvi on a few high-speed passing plays, including one beauty ten-foot saucer pass that fell perfectly to the bursting Swede with a clear path to the net. Aggressive on the forecheck. Looked excellent to my eye, especially early.
#14 Jordan Eberle: As usual, caught my eye with his low panic point and his ability to hold the puck while choosing the right play. What was different this time was that the two best examples of this occurred on the boards just inside his own blueline. Under pressure that would have a lot of NHL players content to simply dump it out - if they even could - Eberle kept his cool and on each occasion hit a breaking teammate (I believe Gagner in both cases) with a soft pass that enabled full possession with speed through the neutral zone, the perfect transition. A lot of wingers far older than Eberle still struggle with this play, but for tonight at least it looked like second nature to him.
#23 Linus Omark: Played an eye-catching game in all three periods. Has a real nice combination of speed and tenacity, meaning he's on the puck fast and he stays on it. I had been impressed with his forechecking at the Worlds last spring (pictured above) and was again tonight. He also has fine puck skills. Made a great cross-ice pass in the third which nearly resulted in a goal, then followed up by winning a puck battle in the corner and drawing a penalty. He also made a couple of high-risk plays including one clanger at his own blueline in the dying seconds of the first which might have cost him dearly, but didn't. Appeared prone to overcommitting which may require a little AHL time to file away, but off of a first live view I am excited about Omark's prospects for a career on this side of the pond.
#27 Dustin Penner: "Rounding" into form.
#28 Ryan Jones: Looks like a player. Hard skater.
#29 Martin Gerber: His squat build, nondescript style, and ghetto helmet-mask had me reminiscing of an old favourite, Arturs Irbe. Kept the puck out in his half of the game.
#30 Olivier Roy: The only goalie to allow a goal on the night, Roy was beaten in rapid succession by Foster's laser, Horcoff's deke, and Hall's conversion of a 2-on-0 break-in. M.a.y.b.e. he could have had Foster's. Likely just drew the short straw on quality of opportunity, but it was a tough night for the promising young netminder.
#41 Taylor Chorney: In the second had two consecutive opportunities to clear the puck from his own zone and failed to deliver on both occasions, resulting in extended pressure in his own end which as I recall ended with a penalty. If you want to make the NHL as a puck-moving defenceman, it's kind of a prerequisite to be able to move the damn puck.
#46 Zack Stortini: Fell down twice on his first shift, but in between times made an outstanding rush on the Blue net that resulted in a decent shot. That was the first of several fine moments for Stortini, who won numerous board battles and bulled his way to the net on a couple of other occasions. It's fun to watch this guy gradually improve: this summer he did his usual power skating thing but with a twist, as a puck was frequently added to his drills. One result was on display tonight when Zack did a sharp reverse with the puck in full control which left his check in his wake.
#58 Jeff Petry: Didn't really stand out ... or if you prefer the glass-half-full interpretation, didn't look out of place. The Whites were coming towards me for two periods and it was hard to get a fix on their defenders at times. In the second Petry was in the corner right in front of me and the lanky kid looked comfortable enough. Was victimized a little bit on Hall's clinching goal.
#68 Tyler Pitlick: He looked like an 18-year-old kid a couple of times, and like an NHL talent at other times. Kind of figures, cuz he's both.
#89 Sam Gagner: Had little impact on this one.
#91 Magnus Paajarvi: A very impressive Rexall debut. Had a number of fans in the stands, including a pair of fellows in the next section wearing the yellow-and-blue of Tre Kronor and the name Paajarvi on their shoulders, one #21, one #91 (Magnus has worn both for Sweden in his various international experiences). I don't think we ever saw his sixth gear tonight, but as Derek mentioned the other day the guy "coasts fast", one or two explosive strides and into open ice he goes, with speed. He made a number of dangerous passes tonight, with my favourite being a play where he burst over the line on the right side, head on a swivel, looked off both his centre and his winger who were driving to the net, covered, and fed it back to the weak-side defenceman who had jumped into the hole for an uncontested shot from the high slot. I really liked both the process and the result of that sequence. An elite play from what clearly appears to be an elite player.
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There were more, but geez, 40 players is a lot to follow. The guys who made the least impression on me were the incoming AHL pros like Ondrus, Alexandre Giroux, Gregory Stewart, Richard Petiot, Brad Moran and Shawn Belle. Not sure why, I guess they just looked like filler - not as good as the proven NHLers, and not as talented as the kids. Which is, I suppose, how organizational depth is supposed to look.
The night ended with the commissioner presenting his Cup to Team Blue captain Shawn Horcoff. On the whole, a most enjoyable night, a terrific chance to take a snapshot of the organization at the season's outset. I will be making the Joey Moss Cup a staple on my annual sked from here on.