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Game on!

Puck drop on a new season
Puck drop on a new season

No better way to mark the new season than to attend the annual Oilers Rookies-U of A Golden Bears exhibition game. In 2009 Oilers have done the format one better, inviting the Vancouver Canucks rookies to join the fun and make it a three-game round robin. In the interests of a happy marriage I missed Wednesday night's lidlifter between the Canucks and Bears, but have tickets for both games involving the group of prospects I affectionately call the Oiler Wannabes. On Thursday night they play the Canucks rooks in Leduc Recreation Centre, then line up against the Bears in the 22nd annual at Clare Drake on Friday. Watch this space for reports of both games including brief scouting reports of Oiler (and even Canuck) prospects who catch my eye.

I've watched more than 15 of these Golden Bears/Oiler Wannabe affairs over the years, and have done similar reports in the past including this one which marked my first contribution to the Oilogosphere one year ago. It's an interesting exercise to review some of my comments of past years capturing my first impressions of players who have since become familiar to Oiler fans. Among other things it speaks to the reliability (or otherwise) of the eye-witness, not to mention the inevitable "seen him good" outcomes of a one-game viewing. A few players of interest were sighted, and cited, in the years 2000-05; after the jump I'll post some excerpts from the first three of those games.

2000: Oiler Wannabes 5, Golden Bears 2

Went down to Clare Drake Arena tonight to watch the annual tilt between the Bears and the Oiler "rookies". Very large crowd was in attendance, probably 3,000+ as the arena was basically full including standees. They ran out of f***ing programs, a critical blunder for this of all games, but we were able to scoff a copy from an acquaintance.  

Last year's [Bears'] captain, defenceman Ryan Marsh, lined up as the captain for the "Oilers" (hereinafter referred to as the Bulldogs, as they were wearing the silks of the Hamilton Bulldogs and coached by Claude Julien). ... Although the game was fairly even, the Bulldogs clearly had the better pure shooters, and this showed up on the scoreboard at night's end.

Bulldog player thumbnails:

#5 Alexei Semenov: "Lanky" is an understatement for this guy, who looked about 6'6, 175. A long-term project to be sure, this guy's got lots of potential. He's a pretty good skater both forward and backward, and showed pretty good instincts in taking the man, finishing the check, turning his body to protect the puck, and making the good outlet pass. He seemed to have a very quick stick, although he made some questionable decisions with the puck. Lots of rough edges to iron out, but lots of time to do it; he's only 19.

#21 Shawn Horcoff: The CCHA's answer to [Bears' superstar] Russ Hewson, the fourth-year Michigan State stalwart held off Michigan's Mike Comrie to win the conference scoring crown by one point last year. Almost exactly two years older than Comrie (he turns 22 next week), Horcoff is also considerably bigger at 6'1, 194. He loves to carry the puck at high speed through the neutral zone, and his better than average moves at top speed allowed him easy access to the offensive zone where he would set up. I liked the way he turned a missed opportunity into repossession and another opportunity, although on this night at least his passes weren't that sharp. I bet he is a force on the powerplay, but tonight we didn't get a chance to find out as the Bears took zero penalties. Did notch the empty-netter.

#28 Mike Comrie: I've been saying positive things about this guy since before Oilers drafted him, and was thrilled when they stole him in the third round. Tonight got a taste of what the hype was about. Playing with [first-round draft Michael] Henrich and a Fernando Pisani the little guy (5'9, 176) had the puck on a string for much of the night. Scored the 1-1 goal on a beautiful play in close; although [my seatmate] didn't think that move would work on an NHL goalie, he really showed good hands and imagination on that play. He demonstrated good vision on the ice, setting up most if not all of Henrich's blasts, and eventually was credited with the lone assist on each of the last two goals. Like Horcoff, had the advantage of having already excelled against university opposition -- let's face it, the juniors have absolutely no idea how high the calibre of college hockey is -- so one would expect him to do well in a game such as this. Mind you, I said the same thing about Tom Poti two years ago, he did excel in the game, and went on to make the All-Rookie Team.

Bottom line: Oilers better sign Comrie and hope that one of him or Horcoff develops into the next Doug Weight over the next year or two before D.W. heads off to southern pastures.  Both will need experience at the AHL level and will have to show they can survive the heavy pounding, a particular question mark with Comrie given his stature.

That comment about "a Fernando Pisani" is a tad embarrassing, but goes to show how the guy came out of nowhere in the eyes of this Oiler fan. I spent so much time concentrating on his linemates Comrie and Henrich that I didn't even generate a thumbnail on Fernando, but I do remember being very pleasantly surprised by his showing. On the other hand, my attention to Comrie and Horcoff was well-founded, as both made the (real) Oilers by the middle of that 2000-01 season.


2001: Golden Bears 7, Oiler Wannabes 2

With 12:02 to go in the first period I remarked that the game to this point was a total shitkicking. The Bears had the goal, all the scoring chances, all the hits, and all the turnovers. My eyes weren't deceiving me. Unlike many of the curious in attendance, I am a full-fledged Bears fan, so I started focusing on them a bit more and was totally impressed. You want to see hockey played the way it's supposed to be, you should go watch these guys once in a while. Their ultra-aggressive forecheck had the Wannabes floundering, and penned in their own end for minutes at a time. No trap here, they just went for the puck, wherever it happened to be. If they could stop the opposition at their own blueline, great; at the hash marks, even better; behind their own net, better still. It was basically Fred Shero hockey: skating with purpose, lifting the stick, finishing the check, and alert stick- and skate-handling of the puck at close quarters. Once in possession, the Bears would set up their classic cycle in one corner with a series of crisp passes to the breaking player until finally somebody curled in front. ... It could be some of their intensity was courtesy of Rob Daum making a statement, specifically "I'm a good coach! I want a pro job!"

The contrast with the Wannabes couldn't have been more stark. While there was no doubt the Bears made them look bad, the bottom line was, they looked bad. Their passing was nonexistent, as one might expect from such a non-team, and as frustration grew the guys predictably started to try to make plays all by themselves. What did surprise me was how bad their shooting was; all the best chances seemed to go high and wide. There wasn't the usual display of one-on-one skills which typically give the Hot Shots the edge in this series. Ales Hemsky wasn't in the line-up due to a minor injury, and celebrated prospects Jani Rita and Alexei Semenov were merely the best of a poor lot.

During the intermission I eavesdropped on quite a bit of grumbling from Oiler fans who were less than impressed with the depth of the organization, but my feeling was what they lacked this year that they had in previous years was a Tom Poti, Mike Comrie or Shawn Horcoff who had already excelled against university competition. It almost always takes guys coming out of junior a full year to really make the Bears, and a large part of that is simply a change of attitude about how high the level of hockey is. That much, at least, catches some of the Wannabes by surprise every year.

This year I have resolved to take a more holistic approach, so there will be no thumbnails., None of the Wannabes really impressed me all that much anyways, and this was a classic example of a team game prevailing over individual skills. The final scoreline, Men 7 Boys 2, was actually less than it might have been. I normally eschew clichés, but the Bears simply opened a can of whup-ass. I for one found it fun to watch.

Sorry Oiler fans, not much detail in there, although my remarks on Rob Daum seem to have been on the mark.


2002: Golden Bears 4, Oiler Wannabes 0

I was able to eavesdrop a little as the likes of Kevin Lowe, Kevin Prendergast, Lorne Davis, Dave Semenko and Frank Musil exchanged inside tidbits a few feet away. (Sammy's list of general player ratings, in this order:competitiveness, hockey sense, skating, puck skills, toughness.) Unfortunately another guy showed up who is setting up the computer system, so immediately all the talk changed from hockey to computers. (It's a virus, I tell you.) And hearing Kevin Lowe asking about an ethernet card is not much different from hearing anybody else ask about an ethernet card.

I did get to speak with Frank Musil, a large man with an easy smile who shook my hand with a huge paw and a firm grip that suggests his nerve problems are a thing of the past. (Mine on the other hand ...) I asked Frank after Jaroslav Pouzar, and he replied that he's now out of hockey and a successful businessman back in the Czech. He seemed surprised and pleased when I said Pouzar is one of my all-time favourites.

I also shook hands with Kevin Lowe, wishing him success and congratulating him on making two great picks with the Hecht trade. The Wannabes didn't show much last night, but the two best by far were Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and Jarret Stoll. Deslauriers is a tall (6'3) left-handed goalie who was born on May 15, 1984, the day of Game Three of the Islanders' series when the aforementioned Jaroslav Pouzar clobbered Billy Smith and Mark Messier scored his famous goal.  Was that really 18 years ago?  Deslauriers plays the classic Quebecois butterfly style, an extremely sound technical goaltender who fills a lot of the net. He made quite a few saves on longer shots with his crest, which is always a good sign IMO, and when the puck hit him anywhere above the waist it never seemed to reappear. He also made a circus stop on a play when a forward crashed the net and took Deslauriers in with him, and he somehow stuck out a glove to snare the follow-up "sure goal".  The two that beat him were a rebound and a deflected one-timer, both up top. I also got an eyeful of this guy Monday when I dropped by Skyreach to see the finals of the Joey Moss Cup, and in a half-shutout he made a number of outstanding stops, notably a breakaway save on the reasonably talented Mike Bishai who made a very nice backhand deke at full speed only to be foiled by Deslauriers doing the V and sliding his pad right back against the post a la Hasek or Richter. Another play that grabbed my eye was when Deslauriers got a piece of a shot on one side of the net. He didn't know where the puck was exactly but he knew it was on the far side, so he took two quick steps from the butterfly on one post to the other. In so doing, he did not raise his lower legs from horizontal to the ice, he merely pushed off at a near-180° angle and got over there in a flash. This is no minor skill, especially considering how many goals are scored on rebounds, low while the goalie is moving his feet. All in all, on two early impressions I would say Deslauriers is the best goalie Oilers have drafted since another left-handed butterfly specialist, Grant Fuhr. Which may not be saying much, but it does say this: about f***ing time.  

The other gem last night was the guy the Oilers Stoll with the 36th overall pick, namely Jarret. As he has every time I've seen him, he was wearing the C and was by far the Wannabes' best skater. Good on the faceoff, strong on the puck, responsible in his own zone, solid on the PK, and intense with and without the puck. Stoll looked good in the offensive zone, launching a couple of high rockets and snapping off a couple of quick shots which at least tested the Bears' goalies. 

Unfortunately Ales Hemsky didn't play.  He had his first practice Weds. after a couple days off courtesy a Jason Chimera induced concussion, only to be clobbered by a Jason Smith hip check. Jim Matheson kidded Kevin Lowe about leaving the kid alone long enough so that the rest of us could see him play a game. The lack of top-end talent (no Alexei Mikhnov, no Jesse Niinimaki, no Alexei Semenov) was apparent, and the Bears' team play carried the day.  It seems to me that in the past the Wannabes have done well when they've had some talented stud hoss -- Comrie, Horcoff, Poti -- to carry the mail, and when they have a decent number of college level players that aren't taken off-guard by the calibre of play.

There were no defencemen that really caught my eye, and the "depth" players didn't do that much either.  All hands were frustrated by some excellent goaltending by Clayton Pool (cut by the Oilers Tuesday) and particularly Dustin Schwartz, who made a number of surprising emergency saves with an assortment of crease callisthenics that left the would-be scorers muttering in the corner.

Some of the night's more amusing moments were provided by the fourth line of Dallas Anderson and Shawn (Let's Go) Legault, who had 378 and 365 PiM in the CHL and UHL respectively last season. Legault won the battle on this night, picking up 11 penalty minutes while Anderson only got 4.  A huge, righthanded shot wearing #32 with the turning circle of an aircraft carrier, Anderson actually evoked generally pleasant memories of Dave Brown, and he did like to head for the front of the net. Legault was just a goofball; two of his minors (I didn't see the third) occurred after the whistle, one when he slashed Bears' captain and two-goal scorer Blair St. Martin trying to instigate a fight late in the third.  St. Martin was pleased to accommodate him, and a brief flurry wound up with Legault on his back and St. Martin resisting the temptation to throw that one last haymaker. St. Martin might be a college boy but he's no choirboy; he once led the WHL with 43 fights in one season. Kinda like Hal Christenson, the Bear who one-punched Wannabe Brad Symes in one of the more memorable short fights I've ever seen at any level of hockey. 

But give the Bears credit, they played well and their team play once again seemed to discombobulate the prospects. The Bears play fundamentally the same game under Rob Daum that they did under Clare Drake and Billy Moores, not really a pro style, more a high pressure forecheck game with two in deep all the time. On one typical play a Wannabe finally emerged from such pressure only to be attacked just inside the blueline by the third Bear forward, who won the puck and cycled it back in the corner. In the NHL they're trained to back off in this situation and not allow the 3-on-2, but when a team has the jump and intensity the Bears showed last night (as usual), it can be real fun to watch. Unless you're cheering for the other guys, as a rather significant number of fans were last night. Me? It's the one game a year I actively cheer for both teams, and will applaud anybody who shows me a little hockey talent. 

Ironic (in retrospect) comment about Oilers prospects lacking top-end talent and immediately invoking the names of Mikhnov and Niinimaki. I decided to not edit the rather extended take on Deslauriers since he is definitely a player of interest for the coming season, seven long years later.


For those who have hung in there this long, thanks for reading. That's enough for one go; I'll post a similar piece about the 2003-05 Bear-'Be games a little later. First there's the matter of the 2009 game(s) to attend to. :)