The Edmonton Oilers have had a continuous path to the trainer’s room this season. Their top-five D-men have dressed in only 27 of their 55 games and Kris Russell, the #6, has only played in 20 of 55 games. The injuries have allowed William Lagesson (27 games) Markus Niemelainen (18) and Philip Broberg (17) to get some NHL action. It isn’t ideal, but for the first time in decades the Oilers have young players playing in the American Hockey League who can contribute in the NHL when recalled.
The pipeline from Bakersfield to Edmonton must continue to produced NHL-capable players in the coming years if the Oilers hope to have a realistic shot at contending for the Stanley Cup.
Keith Gretzky is the Oilers assistant general manager, but he is the GM of Bakersfield. He’s down there full time, with the odd trip back to Edmonton. Gretzky joined Jason Strudwick and me on our radio show on Wednesday to discuss the impact of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson’s promotion to the Edmonton Oilers had on Bakersfield, their coaching direction moving forward and on some of their top prospects.
Jason Strudwick: How did you approach finding the next coach and backfill those spaces opened up due to the coaching change in Edmonton?
Keith Gretzky: It was difficult because it happened so fast and really you’re not, I don’t want to say prepared, because you don’t always know what is going to happen and you don’t always look forward that you’re going to lose your coach. Also with Colin Chaulk, his sister is sick and he went home to visit her, so we were scrambling for a few days. We had Sly (Sylvain) Rodrigue, our goalie coach, and Noah Seagall were the last two there and I happened to be in Edmonton, so, I helped out for one game.
The thing is we have a really good thing going. We like how our players are developing and we like our system. I think you see that with the Oilers now and the way that Woody likes to play and I like that style where you play fast hockey. You know what, it was really hard to find a guy who was going to take a month to get to know him, and him to know our players and I didn’t think that it was the best fit. So I talked to Colin and he wanted the opportunity, and he was ready. I thought he was ready and then we talked with different guys, adding to the staff and the one thing that I wanted to make sure that we had was experience, because Colin hasn’t really coached in the America Hockey League before. He had been an assistant coach before in Belleville.
So guys with the experience and not working, and with good resumes, was hard to find, and the one guy that stood out was John Anderson. We were fortunate enough that he wanted to come for the four months (as an assistant coach in Bakersfield) and that’s what we guaranteed him, and then we said that we would all talk in the summertime.
Jason Gregor: Oilers fans are very curious how Dylan Holloway has played. Excluding the stats, how is he adapting to the pro game?
Gretzky: I think those first couple of games he played on adrenaline where he was just flying out there. I think that he hadn’t played hockey in a year. And it’s hard, the American Hockey League, you know, your nephew has been down there, it’s tough to play. And you’re playing against good hockey players and I think that our side (division) is really hard to play in. The last couple of weeks he’s starting to find his groove. He is more involved, he is skating better and driving to the net, protecting the puck, and you know the last handful of games, he’s really been noticeable.
And so for us, we’re excited because we see steps in the right direction and that’s the way that we look at it. As we’ve said before, it’s not just the points. If you look at Raphie [Raphael] Lavoie, he didn’t score until December 17th and for me it wasn’t just that he wasn’t scoring, it was a whole part of his game — winning 50/50 puck battles, backchecking, his pace, forechecking, being physical, using his size, driving to the net — and all of the sudden since the 17th he’s caught fire and he’s doing all of those little things and that’s probably why he’s scoring goals, is how I look at it. So, I think when you look at stats you can get fooled in a way, but with Dylan we’re really happy, he’s really taken another step in the last handful of games like I said, so we’re excited.
Strudwick: Maybe talk a little bit about [James] Hamblin. He’s maybe a lesser known prospect of the Oilers. He’s from the Edmonton area and what has been his impact on the group?
Gretzky: Yeah, you know what Hammer came from the Hat (Medicine Hat in WHL). He was their captain and I talked to his coach back a couple of years ago about him. I was supposed to go and watch him play the weekend that COVID hit. You know what, Hammer has been outstanding. He’s a leader, he can play on your first line, fourth line, he can play centre, left wing, right wing, kill penalties and he plays on the power play sometimes. He’s about determination, he’s about what we like in a hockey player. He’s not the biggest guy, but he seems to always be around the puck, always hounding the puck and his work ethic is phenomenal. He’s been, I want to say a pleasant surprise because he’s gotten better in the last two years and he’s been a guy you call upon to lead because we’ve had so many guys get called up and get injured during COVID. He’s been a guy that can go anywhere and he never complains, he just works his tail off.
Gregor: You mentioned Lavoie and the struggles he had early, but now he’s really caught fire. He’s a real big body. When you see his development curve moving forward, how much of it will be around him getting a little bit stronger so he can maximize the size he has?
Gretzky: It’s a lot of it. It really starts with you can’t have shortcuts. You know that, you watch a lot of hockey. You can’t take shortcuts. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not junior hockey where you just rely on your one talent of skating or shooting, whatever it is. You have to put it all together and you have to work hard. And for Raphie I thought that he was the one guy that did a ton of extra work.
You can ask Woody, he was doing extra video, he was staying on the ice, and he was out early. In the beginning, he was just shooting to shoot, he had no confidence. You know I think he has realized you’ve got to work hard, I’ve got to use my size. I love how he drives to the net, he’s been doing that in the last two months and he wasn’t doing it the first two months. He’s made big strides and he still has a ways to go. Everybody always wants him up in the NHL before they’re ready and the one thing I think we have done a really good job of is keeping guys down until they are ready unless it’s a real emergency. He’s taking great steps and he’s just got to build from that.
Strudwick: Dmitri Samorukov is a player people have been following very closely and we know his time in the NHL was not how he envisioned to have his first game. What is he doing to work his way through to where he wants to be, which is back up in the top league?
Gretzky: You know what, I think that Dmitri is a different case. He went back to Russia last year, so he wasn’t around the group. High expectations, maybe a little bit on his end too of reading the newspapers, Twitter and all of that kind of stuff. But I have to say since he came back down from his game in the NHL, he’s been very good. He’s taken huge strides. I think the biggest thing is that he is moving his feet. And when you move your feet, you’re not going to get yourself into trouble if you don’t box yourself in.
Since Niemelainen and Broberg went up, he’s been a player we’ve really counted on. I think he logs 23, 24 minutes a game. So with Dmitri I’m very happy because I think, not to knock him, he was struggling and he wasn’t what we thought he was going to be, or playing how we thought he should be playing is the best way to say it. But lately, the last two months, like I’ve said, he’s been phenomenal and a real big part of our shut down with Vinny Desharnais.
Gregor: I wanted to ask you about Vincent Desharnais. He’s a huge human. He’s 6’7”, physical, he’s really worked on his skating, he’s chipped in offensively with five goals and 18 points in 42 games for you, but he’s not really in an offensive role, but he’s chipping in offensively. Is he a prime example of a late developer?
Gretzky: Yeah, I think so, and he knows it. When we spoke to him a few years ago when his contract was up and we offered him a new AHL deal, I sat with him, Woody sat with him, Nat sat with him and we explained, just because — and we tell all of the players, Hammer and Bugsy, same thing — but that just because you’re on an American League deal doesn’t mean that you’re not a part of the Oilers organization. You’re a part of our group, we count them as a prospect, we want you to earn a contract, but we think of you as one of our own players.
And Vinny is a guy who last year really came into his own. He even went down to the East coast in the beginning when the AHL hadn’t started up. He’s taken big strides. Summertime, he had a little knee injury, so he missed camp and I think that hurt him for, I want to say the first six to eight weeks. Just his, what was expected, how we thought that he would play, but after that he’s really taken off. His reach is phenomenal and like you said, he’s sneaky with the puck. He jumps in and like you said, he’s got five goals and he’s scored some big goals for us too. But he’s hard to get around. You look at our team, especially on the back end. We like guys who are big and have the long reach, and have good gap control, so it’s hard to get around those big guys and Vinny is a big key to our defending.
***About 15 minutes after we spoke with Keith, the Oilers made the Hamblin and Desharnais contracts official. Those wondering if Edmonton would consider signing Desharnais to an NHL deal with Tyson Barrie being injured — unlikely. Desharnais doesn’t require waivers next season, but if he signed an NHL deal for the remainder of this season, then next year he would require waivers, so it doesn’t make sense to sign him for this season.***
Strudwick: You look at the young Russian goalie Ilya Konovalov. How would you chart his year so far and how he’s charting his way to North American professional hockey?
Gretzky: Yeah, I think it’s been a little different for him. I think he was used to players holding onto the puck more, the ice is bigger, it’s more skilled, the guys are not crashing the net. It took him a while to realize that. He started playing well, he got called up, and he was up for a while and then when he came back, he’s done pretty good. He had a really good game against Tucson a couple of weeks ago. The unfortunate thing for him is that we also have Stuart Skinner down, and Stu’s going to get the net most of the time.
Gregor: You are overseeing the entire team. Obviously, you’ve been involved in scouting for many years, but now you are more hands on as the overall manager really with the team. You’re there full time. How has that gone? What have you learned?
Gretzky: I love it. You’re dealing with players. Let’s use Raphie and Dmitri as examples. They’re going to have struggles, that’s the thing about pro hockey. When you’re young you’re going to have ups and downs, you’ve got to be there for them, and you can’t give up on them. You’re there to support them.
You watch guys like Brad Malone. It doesn’t matter if you’re an invite, or a first rounder or a seventh rounder, or AHL contract, if you play well, and you play hard and you play the way that we want, good things happen. Don’t worry about getting called up to Edmonton. If they are going to call, it’s like you said, I’m there every day, I know what’s going on and I watch practice. I watch the games and you look at Malone and Niemalainen, they’ve taken off and nobody would have expected either one probably in September thinking oh they’ll be called up, or they’ll be playing. But when you’re there every day you realize how good they are, their strengths, their weaknesses, and they can fill in and one day hopefully be ready for prime time.
Gregor: Anyone we haven’t asked about who you feel has had a really good season and taken strides in their overall game development?
Gretzky: I think you’ve hit all of the guys. I really like the way Samorukov has come around. He’s probably the one guy, him and Lavoie have really developed as players. The last two months, both of them, hats off because they worked hard and it’s not just coming to the rinks for an extra hour, or whatever, but they did a lot of video and they’ve listened and they’ve taken criticism from the coaches and good for them because you know what, that’s when we’re shorthanded in Edmonton and we have been, it’s good to see Niemalainen and Broberg and even Malone, all of these guys getting called up to help out and play well. And Stu is right there too.
They just have to bide their time and not drag their lip. That’s a big thing that when they come back down I tell them: “Your time will come. You have proved that you can play, it’s sometimes a numbers game and there is nothing that you can do about it. You can control your success and play with a consistent work ethic.” And you see your team up top worry about working hard and playing hard and we do that down in Bakersfield, and that’s where it starts.
When they get the call they know the expectations and they can do it.
Broberg will be recalled. Tyson Barrie was injured last night in Chicago and will miss at least the next three games. After those games the Oilers plays once, March 12th, in five days, so maybe he is ready for the 12th or they wait until the 15th v. Detroit.
Josh Archibald is scheduled to skate with the team tomorrow. He has been given a clean bill of health and is cleared to join the group. He will need time to get in game shape. He isn’t vaccinated so he can only play home games. He could play games in Calgary, but he can’t fly so he’d need to drive there and back. If he doesn’t get a groin pull or anything you might see him in the lineup the week of March 13th when the Oilers have home games on the 15th (Detroit), 17th (Buffalo) and 19th (New Jersey). He has been skating the past few days in Edmonton, and reports are he looked pretty good.
Archibald is an upgrade on Colton Sceviour, Kyle Turris, Tyler Benson, and Devin Shore. It isn’t ideal if he can only play home games, but if he is healthy and ready to go by March 15th he’d be eligible to play in 14 (would drive to Calgary) of the Oilers’ final 23 games.
Ken Holland is open to trading him, but considering he is better than many of the current fourth line players, would it make sense to trade him for a sixth or seventh, if he can help you make the playoffs and possibly get home ice advantage? Holland will have to consider it.
Archibald has scored 31 goals in his last 182 games. That is a 14-goal pace over an 82-game season, and all of those goals were even strength or shorthanded. He’s a good skater and he’s physical. He can be an effective bottom six winger, and right now he’s better than the fourth line wingers the Oilers have. If he can play a few games before the trade deadline it would improve Holland’s chances of trading him as other teams would see he’s healthy.
Would you rather have Archibald for half the games or a late round pick?
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