I have not been ‘covering’ hockey for very long, but my short time doing so, I haven’t been around a team that has gone from one extreme to another the way the 2018-19 Edmonton Oil Kings have.
They started the season 5-0-0, a franchise record, but saw it quickly evaporate with an eight-game losing skid. Flash forward to today and the sits atop the WHL’s Central Division with a record of 13-7-2. They haven’t lost in regulation in their last nine games.
There is a cycle in junior hockey, especially at the major junior level. You’re good for a stretch of time and then eventually your star players graduate to the pro level and you descend to mediocrity, or worse, for a few seasons before eventually returning to relevance.
Take a look at the Swift Current Broncos. Just a few months ago they were the crown jewel of the WHL. They won 48 games in the regular season before going on an incredible run through the playoffs, that saw two game seven victories, won the WHL championship and represented the west at the Memorial Cup.
Then, as expected, they lost almost their entire team. Through no fault of their own, I might add. Alexei Heponiemi, Tyler Steenbergen, Glenn Gawdin, Stuart Skinner, and many other impact players moved to the pro level. Head Coach Manny Viveiros took a job with the Oilers. Suddenly they were a shell of their former selves
Math is not my strong point but by my count…the Swift Current Broncos scored 284 goals last year, 244 of those goals are no longer on the roster. That’s 86% of their offence from last year…gone. #WHL #EDMvsSC
— Guy Flaming (@TPS_Guy) September 29, 2018
This year, they’re the worst team in the league with just three wins in 22 games. Just months removed from their title win.
I’m getting a little off track here, but my point is that the Oil Kings have spent a few seasons in the down portion of “the cycle” and this year, while they were expected to take a step forward, very few saw this big of a leap coming. What changed?
AGE AND EXPERIENCE
Head Coach Brad Lauer, who wasn’t with the organization last season, has told me multiple times that things change quickly in the junior hockey and when kids are this young, their progress can be almost unpredictable. We’ve seen that with plenty of players this year.
Last season, Brett Kemp was producing at just over a half a point a game. This year, he has 15 goals and 10 assists in 22 games. He’s found his stride and turned into a legitimate offensive threat. He can keep up on their top line, but also play a strong supporting role.
Vince Loschiavo had a down year last year, the Oil Kings scooped him up and now he’s producing more than a point per game. Carter Souch has sprouted up and now looks like a completely different player. Their two import forwards, Andrei Pavlenko and Vlad Alistrov are both adapting to life in North America, both on and off the ice, but they’ve made positive impacts as well.
Then there is Jake Neighbours. He started the year a little slow, but I need to give credit to how Brad Lauer handled him. The Head Coach didn’t just throw him in the top six, he made him earn every opportunity he’s gotten and it’s worked wonderfully. He’s going to be a star in this league.
Last year, the team was plagued with injuries between the pipes. The plan was for veteran Travis Child to handle a large portion of the workload and Boston Bilous would be allowed to comfortably develop behind him.
It didn’t work out. Child got hurt, only appeared in 23 games and posted a GAA over 4.00 and had a sub .900 sv%. Bilous wasn’t ready for the workload he got and it showed on the ice. The team bled chances and didn’t make life easy for the netminders, so I don’t want this to sound like I’m just piling on them, but goaltending wasn’t a strength. It has been this year.
After Todd Scott went down in training camp with an injury, the team acquired Dylan Myskiw from the Brandon Wheat Kings and he’s come in and taken over the starting job. There have been rough nights, but he’s been fantastic more often than not.
That’s also allowed the team to lessen the workload on Boston Bilous, who has looked much more confident between the pipes. The numbers still aren’t pretty, but this duo is giving them a chance almost every game.
There have been plenty of nights where the Oil Kings have gotten contributions from every part of their lineup. In their last three wins, they’ve gotten goals from eight different scorers.
On a lot of nights, it’s been Trey Fix-Wolansky who has taken over the game and brought the Oil Kings to victory. I’m at every home game and often I’m tasked with naming the three stars of the game, it’s getting to the point where I look for reasons to not include Fix-Wolansky because he is consistently their best player. He could be a star every single night.
He currently sits first in the WHL’s scoring race with 45 points in 22 games and is impressing people outside the organization as well.
He got a chance to suit up with Team WHL a few weeks ago when they took on Team Russia as part of the World Junior try-out process. Fix-Wolansky made a good impression and now we’re starting to hear whispers of the Oil Kings forward getting a good look at Team Canada’s main camp next month.
During my pregame interview with Hurricanes HC Brent Kisio (who will be an assistant for Team Canada at the WJC) he went out of his way to say how impressed he was with TFW at the Canada/Russia series…
— Andrew Peard (@AndrewPeard) November 13, 2018
Last year, Broncos forward Tyler Steenbergen turned a red-hot start to the season into a spot on the World Junior team as the 13th forward. He went on to score the most important goal of the tournament.
I could see Fix-Wolansky getting a shot to fill the same role that Steenbergen did. He can score goals, he’s confident with the puck on his stick, and he can make an impact on both the penalty kill and powerplay. It’s something to keep an eye on.
The Oil Kings schedule really ramps this week with five games between now and next Saturday. Tonight, they’re in Lethbridge to take on projected top-five pick Dylan Cozens and the Hurricanes.
They’ll return home for a Saturday night matchup with the Adam Foote led Kelowna Rockets. Then, it’s another road trip as the team heads to Manitoba for three games in four nights starting in Brandon on Wednesday before heading to Moose Jaw on Friday and then Swift Current on Saturday.
At this point, every game should be considered winnable for the Oil Kings. They’re playing some fantastic hockey right now and I don’t remember the last time I saw this much confidence in the room. I fully expect that confidence to continue translating into on-ice results.