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The Boys on the Bubble

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I love training camp. Love love love training camp. Established NHLers skating in circles like Jason Arnott on cold medication, turning on the gas long enough to bag their limit so they can get to the bar by happy hour. AHL jobbers trying to smash each others' faces in and look like the gritty, talentless player that bored hacks fall in love with. Veterans and European pros come out for one last, always unsuccessful shot at the big time. And of course, there are the kids. "Joey Junior might make the team!" stories are the staples of any September - cruise the message board for any NHL team and you'll find threads gushing about how some teenager has really taken a step forward and might sneak onto the team.

Well, to all the pluggers and juniors out there, this is your hour. The Oilers have even less depth than usual this season and that means the entire population of Springfield, Ohio has been penciled onto the Oilers' fourth line at one point or another this September. Four preseason games are behind us, final cuts are drawing nearer, and area scribes are already issuing their confident predictions for who'll make this team. Who am I to eschew tradition?

Marc Pouliot gets listed first, because he ought to be on the first four lines in pen. Then again, I've been saying that for a couple of seasons now but the coaching staff hasn't been listening. For some reason, this kid gets less traction than a Gran Torino with bad tires in an oil slick. He's the only bubble boy with the NHL record to back up his ambitions. He can keep his head above water and play both ends of the ice, he has a nice contract, and almost uniquely on this team he can win faceoffs. The idea that Pouliot should be left off this roster for any reason other than "the Penguins have a stroke and offer us Jordan Staal to try and reunite the 2005 Rimouski Oceanic" is laughable.

But Pouliot has always been slow in the preseason, and once again he's getting bad buzz because of it. Jim Matheson and Robin Brownlee have both written articles saying that he's in jeopardy, and Jason Gregor has skewered his chances. I put him with the bubble boys as a nod to Edmonton's traditionally connected scribes, not because I think he deserves the designation.

Call me crazy, but I happen to think that 141 NHL games is a better indicator of talent than a half-dozen glorified practices. He could go -100 for the rest of preseason and lose draws to goaltenders, but he'd damned well better be the third-line centre when the puck drops for real.

All the buzz that Pouliot isn't getting is landing squarely on 24-year-old Ryan Stone, the 6'2" centre who's being praised for grit and hustle and to a lesser extent ability to play hockey. The kid was named after his hands and he's never made a move with the puck that Pouliot couldn't do twice, but he and Mike Comrie have had the most improbable chemistry since chocolate and peanut butter and besides, everybody loves gritty guys who throw themselves into bodychecks and look like they'd kill themselves rather than allow a scoring chance.

You want a textbook fourth liner? Stone's your man. Youngish, cheap, tries hard, plays passable defense and can kill the occasional penalty. His preseason has drawn all sorts of notice but his one breakout performance was against the Florida Panthers' C squad, on a line with a Mike Comrie playing his heart out to try and win back his jilted hometown and picking apart inferior players with Stone mostly along for the ride. Apart from that, he's looked fair at best, and against Calgary he melted into the scenery.

I'm not trying to judge Stone too harshly, but there's more smoke than fire. The kid's not Dustin Penner and he's probably not even Ethan Moreau, but he's a 24-year-old with eight NHL games under his belt and a chance to add a bunch more this year playing tolerable hockey on the fourth line and not quite sawing off mediocre opposition. Anybody who has him on the second line should take a good, long look at themselves.

A guy who should be a lot more than a fourth-liner is Jean-Francois Jacques, the Patron Saint of Lost Hockey Causes, a 6'4" Greek god on skates who moves faster than anybody with his frame should be able to. A second-round pick from the same draft as Stone and Pouliot, Jacques has already made it into sixty NHL games and, for his trouble, has a sterling record of -17 and one point. They'd have done better playing the Zamboni for eight minutes a night.

Forget certain former London Knights, Jean-Francois Jacques is the thinking man's choice for the most disappointing Oiler prospect. In junior, his point totals were never gaudy but he was a remarkable goalscorer at even strength with guts and a mean streak. His last year of junior saw Jacques score 27 of 36 goals at even strength, which sounds like I'm making it up. Yet a combination of injuries and simple developmental lethargy have meant that Jacques has looked occasionally dominant in the AHL but never been a success at a higher level.

He can't make it in the NHL. He's had each opportunity and come up short each time. He's twenty-four and it's not like he needs to grow into anything. I'm not sure how much more evidence you could want. He's big and he can skate, but that doesn't mean he can play.

Liam Reddox might end up sneaking onto this team by default again. The very poor man's Fernando Pisani, Reddox can play both wings, can play with anybody, and is an unexciting, defense-first forward for a team short on them. Like Pisani, he's also had a weird development curve - he was a good enough scorer in his first two years in the OHL with Peterborough to get World Junior consideration, and delivered both at even strength and on the power play. But in his last junior season his touch deserted him and, aside from one solid AHL campaign, has not returned.

When he was with the Stockton Thunder, Reddox was a cover-your-eyes-awful eight goal scorer and, when I saw him, looked as likely to have an NHL career as I was. But full credit to the kid: he's made good and he's made it as a tweener between the NHL and the AHL. I like him, but not for next season.

Last year, his results weren't great. What he did achieve was padded by some lucky percentages, and if you think a guy with his limp-noodle wrister is shooting 12% again you're out of your mind. His defense is his selling point but he's not yet to the point where he can handle skill players or moderately tough minutes, and his preseason could charitably be called "uninspired". There are better options for his ice time and he could do with some more time in the AHL. He's a great story but hockey is about outscoring the other guy, and Reddox can't do that.

Diving back into the hype, we have Gilbert Brule. Brule's a year younger than Reddox and yet is already written off as a mistake by Oiler fans longing for Raffi Torres's fifteen good games per season. He's had a poor preseason but is getting a featured audition from Pat Quinn, whether the purpose is auditioning him for a spot on the team or getting a long look to see if he's worth holding onto. Brule is eligible for waivers and looked good in his callups last year; the skill and effort are both there he's certainly worth hanging onto even if he'll never be a star. He's too young and he has too much substance to let go for nothing.

But I certainly don't want him taking Pouliot's spot! Brule has potential but Pouliot can play now, yet men like Matheson are lining Pouliot and Brule against each other in a fight to be the fourth-line centre. Brule as a fourth-liner and injury plug-in works, but expecting him to play an important role is insane. Pat Quinn has a good record of not forcing kids into the deep water before they're ready, and let's hope he keeps his discipline around Brule.

There are the obligatory gigantic Tough Guys in every training camp. For the Oilers, they're Kip Brennan and Steve Macintyre. They're two sides of the same coin: Macintyre is the better fighter but Brennan has been in 61 NHL games and can at least skate. They both belong to that mercifully declining breed whose only skill is punching other guys in the face, and while Brennan is a bad NHL hockey player he's a stride ahead of Macintyre, who has all the on-ice skill of half a brick in a sock.

Neither has done much of note in the preseason, but they both have track records long enough that we can figure out what they are. Pat Quinn likes his goons but he much prefers them if they can play: Nathan Perrott could beat Tie Domi senseless but it was Domi who Quinn kept playing, because Domi could skate in a straight line without falling over. The huggy-bear style of Zack Stortini is a lot more attractive when you remember that Stortini also knows what the puck looks like. Neither of these guys should make the team, and if one does it should be Brennan.

Finally, there's the opposite sort of player, the sort of player who still isn't ready for the NHL but is a silky-smooth offense-first young prospect rather than a useless bruiser. Jordan Eberle is 19, a first-rounder, a Canadian World Junior hero, and he plays in Saskatchewan. It's the perfect storm for cloying articles saying how he might just make the team, and even though he hasn't a single point in preseason that's just what we've been seeing.

I think Eberle is a great prospect. In high-level competition he has excelled, both at the U-18s and at the World Juniors last year. His brief AHL opportunity at the end of last year was unexpectedly successful, and though his regular season in Regina was a disappointment the Pats stunk and Eberle had next-to-no support. But it's a long way from being a prospect to being a player, as Sam Gagner is proving, and burning a valuable year of Eberle's service time and moving him that much closer to unrestricted free agency seems a poor return for maybe ten goals, twenty-five points, and not much achieved.

It's alarming that Eberle is getting so much notice. My first thought when Fernando Pisani's injury was announced was that this might be the Oilers clearing room to give Eberle an audition, and if it lasts any more than ten games something is amiss.

Last but not least is the Great One himself. Captain America. Belgium. The greatest prospect since Beliveau. Rob Schremp.

He's not going to make the team, of course. Schremp is suffering from massive hype backlash. In the Panthers game Schremp played it safe and concentrated on his defense - allegedly what everybody's wanted from him all these years - and he was chewed out in the comment threads of the world for not scoring. His skating is significantly improved from his first AHL season. He may have an attitude but it's not like the kid ain't working at it. It's not the will that's letting Schremp down, it's the skill.

Schremp just doesn't seem to be all that good at even strength hockey. He's produced on the power play throughout his career but he's never gotten it done five on five, even in junior. It's time we called a spade a spade, and acknowledged that if Schremp makes this team, even playing soft minutes, he won't be able to tread water at even strength.

And yet...

Rob Schremp is far from the only bad even-strength player on this list. If anybody here other than Pouliot broke even, it would be a shock. But unlike Reddox or Eberle or the goons, Schremp can help on special teams. Accept an awful fourth line as a certainty (which it appears to be), and having some powerplay help starts to look pretty attractive. If Kip Brennan goes -20 and Rob Schremp goes -20 but Rob Schremp scores four on the power play, that's a win for Rob Schremp.

It won't happen. But it could work.

My picks: Pouliot, Brule, Schremp, Jacques

My guess: Pouliot, Brule, Brennan, Jacques, Eberle (10 games)