When he played his first game as a member of the Edmonton Oilers’ organization back in 2004 with the AHL Roadrunners, Kyle Brodziak was an unproven 20-year-old longshot. When he takes the ice with the Oilers this season after signing up for an encore as a free agent, he’ll be the oldest player on the roster.
I liked Brodziak then, when he was a seventh-round draft choice from the Moose Jaw Warriors and pretty much an afterthought on a distinctly mediocre AHL team in 2004-05 in his pro debut, and I like him now as a fourth-line at centre on an Oilers team that was something less than mediocre last season.
Not because Brodziak, a native of St. Paul, Alberta, is the kind of top-end guy on whom the Oilers hopes will hinge — he has never been that player during his NHL career — but because he knows where he fits. He knows how to play the role required — win face-offs, kill penalties, be reliable defensively, chip in offensively.
The way I see it, the Oilers blew it when they let Brodziak go in the first place, trading him to the Minnesota Wild in June 2009 in a deal involving three draft picks because they didn’t know if he fit or where he’d fit. Now, with 847 NHL games in the record books — all of them should have been here if you ask me — I expect that he’ll make the most of his encore here. I wouldn’t bet against Brodziak. Never have.
THEN AND NOW
Nothing Brodziak does really jumps out at you. There’s not a lot of sizzle in his game. He’s not an offensive dynamo — his high water mark for points was 22-22-44 with Minnesota in 2011-12. He’s been a very solid, but not dominating, face-off guy. He’s not a big banger, but he’ll take the body and get in the way. Simply put, he’s good at everything, but not great at anything. Guys like him tend to fly under the radar.
That was certainly the case for me when my boss told me I’d be covering the Oilers’ AHL team during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. On that roster, Brodziak had at least six guys ahead of him on the marquee and on the development depth chart. There was Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres, both of whom already had NHL experience. First-rounder Jesse Niinimaki played on that team. So did Brad Winchester and D-men Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch.
The AHL can be a helluva tough league for a 20-year-old, especially a relatively unheralded one. It didn’t take long for Brodziak to show the kind of moxy, competitiveness and all-around game that convinced me he’d be an NHL player. Not a top-end guy, but a bottom-sixer who’d definitely play. He pushed back. He competed. He did a lot of little things well. I watched him play 56 games that season.
The story goes — it’s true — Bob Stauffer bet me that Brodziak wouldn’t have an NHL career, wouldn’t play a single game. Seeing what I’d seen, I took that bet at $5 per game. It was a gimme. Early in the 2007-08 season, my point proven, I let Stauffer off the hook with a $200 buy-out. That bet today would be worth $4,225. That’s beside the point, of course, but with 847 games Brodziak has spent more time in the NHL than anybody on that AHL team except Stoll (872 games), and he’ll pass him this season.
At 34, Brodziak’s life has changed considerably since we first saw him. He’s married and the father of three boys. He’s on the back end of a career many doubted he’d have. On the ice, he is very much the same player he was all those years ago. The difference is he’s a proven commodity, one the Oilers recognize they need, and he has a chance to contribute to a better team than the edition of the Oilers he was traded from.
For me, bringing back Brodziak for two years at a reasonable price is as good a free agent bet as the Oilers have made in a long time. It won’t make up for all the useful years they lost by trading him because they didn’t know what to do with him, but here and now he’s going to be a key cog in the bottom-six mix. Now, as then, don’t bet against him.