This is an interesting time of year for those player passed over in the NHL Entry Draft or those who were drafted but not signed to an ELC within the required timeframe. The 2014 NHL Entry Draft class are now free agents if they haven't been signed to an NHL team, which puts the Edmonton Oil Kings in an interesting position. The Oil Kings have welcomed four players from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft class to their training camp, and they can only keep three.
Two of these players - Alec Dillion and Aaron Irving were drafted in the 2014 draft—and two more - Lane Bauer and Tyler Robertson - were not drafted during their years of eligibility. However, with all four players counting as overage players by the WHL rules, the Oil Kings will need to decide which three to keep before the season opens on September 24, 2016. Of the four players, Irving and Bauer had the largest impact on the 2015-2016 Oil Kings, and because of that, would be expected to be included in the coming year's team. Dillion was injured early in the season last year, playing only 7 games and posting a disappointing 0.871 save percentage. With the Oil Kings relying heavily on the now 19-year-old Patrick Dea, Dillion's position in the final roster isn't a sure thing. Tyler Robertson played every game for the Oil Kings in the 2015-2016 season and recorded only 27 points. Beyond the obvious lack of point production, Robertson also looked out of his depth multiple times during the season, unable to settle into his 2013-2015 form.
The Oil Kings face a difficult decision in trying to shift an overage player. Due to CHL restrictions, trades can be limited, and often are more of an exchange of overage players. With the Oil Kings already losing veteran forward Andrew Koep, who is moving on to the University of Saskatchewan, the amount of experience they have in their offensive players is limited. Many second year players - such as Kehler, Klatt, Gable, and Mohr - will be expected to produce far more than they did in their rookie campaign. The few third-year forwards - Gruninger, Koch, and Roach - will need to both elevate their play and take on mentoring roles for a new group of rookies. In this respect, Robertson may be able to contribute more to the Oil Kings organization than Dillion.
Robertson played for the Oil Kings in the 2013-2014 season, where they won both the Ed Chynoweth and Memorial Cups. For a team short on experience, that could be a powerful lure. The other issue around Dillion staying with the Oil Kings is the team's depth at goal. The Oil Kings recently traded 18-year-old goalie Carter Phair to Kamloops because of the "numbers we have in the goaltender position and ... Carter's positive development." While trading Phair may signal a desire to keep Dillion, it seems more logical to bring another younger goaltender up this year to begin to gain experience. Dea is a 19-year-old and would be available to shoulder a large part of the goaltending duties as the Oil Kings future number one goaltender gains experience. It would be a similar situation to what the Oil Kings created with Brossoit and Jarry.
The two player who seem most likely to retain their roster spots are Lane Bauer and Aaron Irving. Bauer and Irving sat a respectable second and fourth on the Oil Kings depth chart in scoring last season. And with Pollock, Mayo, Baddock, and Carroll --the players who were first, third, fifth, and sixth -- moving on to the next stages of their careers, the Oil Kings need offense. At seventh, Robertson is the next highest possibility for a return. Beyond the simple need for someone who can put the puck in the back of the net, Bauer and Irving are somewhat obvious choices for leaders for the forwards and defensemen.
Bauer spent most of the previous season playing first-line centre with Brett Pollock. While Bauer's most consistent point production came with Pollock, he also centred a variety of other wingers - including Koch, Baddock, Kehler, Koep, and Robertson. Bauer managed 65 points in the regular season and two points in four WHL playoff games. Despite Bauer's less than impressive post-season, he is still the Oil King expected to return to the team with the most points in the post-season. Bauer becomes a must have when the depth chart at centre is examined: Bauer is the only centre with WHL experience on the Oil Kings preseason roster. The Oil Kings will need at least one centre not adjusting to joining the WHL if they hope to start their season with positive momentum.
Bauer also has experience with the Oil Kings last successful playoff run, which ended up with the team bringing the Memorial Cup back to Edmonton in 2014. The Oil Kings have lost in the first round of the WHL payoffs for the last two years and are looking to mix talented young players with more experienced veterans in a winning combination this coming season. As the top returning scorer, the only returning centre, and last season's first-line centre, Bauer seems to be a natural choice for veteran and offensive presence for the Oil Kings.
Likewise, Irving produced 40 points last season and is a steady, returning defensive presence. Irving is the only defenseman left from the Oil Kings Memorial Cup campaign, the only defenseman in the Oil Kings organization currently who has experience with an NHL club (despite not being signed Irving has been to multiple development camps with Nashville), and has already performed in a mentor role with one of the Oil Kings most impressive young defensemen, Brayden Gorda. The loss of three veteran defensemen means the Oil Kings organization will be expecting both points and leadership from Irving during the 2016-2017 season. Irving is the only Oil Kings defenseman with more than one season in the WHL and was one of the Oil Kings most physical players last season. It would not be unexpected to see him reprise his role as a protector for the smaller and younger players on the roster. The Oil Kings physical game was unimpressive for much of last season, where the team struggled against larger and stronger teams.
The Oil Kings are a good fit for both Bauer and Irving as they have had three overage players sign NHL entry level contracts over the last four years. Trevor Cheek, Cody Corbett, and Ashton Sautner all played their overage year as Oil Kings. The Oil Kings organization has a history of developing desirable players both as free agents and as drafted players. As with Saunter's overage year, this Oil Kings season is not expected to be one where the team contends for a championship. However, it is an opportunity for players to shine. Last season, Pollock scored a considerable more points than he did in the 2013-2014 season. He did so on a team that did not achieve the same things as the 2013-2014 team, but the weight of expectation and the increased opportunities that come with being the go-to player have a strange magic to them. It would not be too unexpected to see Irving or Bauer or Robertson have their best seasons as 20-year-old players.
Sometimes that's enough to earn a chance to play at the next level. Only time will tell. The Oil Kings open their season at home on September 24, 2016 in Rogers Place.