67 Days Until The Season Begins
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By Cam Lewis1 month ago
Throughout the summer and into the fall, we’ll be counting down the days until the Edmonton Oilers begin their 2023-24 season with a daily trip down memory lane. Today, we have Gilbert Brule, a prospect who was once considered the Sidney Crosby of Western Canada.
In June of 2007, the Columbus Blue Jackets announced that Scott Howson would be the team’s new general manager, taking over for Doug MacLean, who had been fired a few months earlier.
Howson, who was Kevin Lowe’s assistant with the Edmonton Oilers between 2002 and 2007, linked up with his former club for a couple of trades during his tenure in Columbus. The most notable came on July 1, 2008, when struggling top draft pick Gilbert Brule was dealt to the Oilers in exchange for Raffi Torres.
Torres himself was also once a struggling top draft pick. He was selected No. 5 overall by the New York Islanders in the 2000 draft and had just six points through 31 NHL games when he was dealt to the Oilers for Janne Niinimaa in March of 2003.
In his first full season with the Oilers in 2003-04, Torres broke out with 20 goals and 34 points. After spending the lockout season with the Edmonton Roadrunners of the AHL, Torres took another step forward in 2005-06, scoring 27 goals during the regular season and 11 points during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
By this time, Torres had also established himself as one of the league’s most feared forecheckers, throwing bone-crushing and often dirty hits.
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The following season, Torres’ offence declined as he scored 15 goals over 82 games. In 2007-08, Torres’ season came to an end after just 32 games as he underwent surgery to repair an anterior cruciate ligament injury. He scored just five goals over those 32 games.
The hope for the Oilers was that they could again strike gold with a reclamation project and that Brule could become their next gritty, goal-scoring forward, which was his reputation when he was a top prospect in Major Junior.
In 2003-04, Brule broke into the WHL as a rookie and scored 25 goals and 60 points over 67 games while racking up 100 penalty minutes, earning him hype as the second-best prospect in his class behind Sidney Crosby. The next season, Brule put together another impressive showing, scoring 39 goals and 87 points along with a whopping 169 penalty minutes.
Columbus general manager Doug MacLean had Brule and Jack Johnson tied for his second-best players in the draft behind Crosby, while Blue Jackets scouting director Don Boyd saw Anze Kopitar as a future top-line centre. With Crosby and Johnson off the table when Columbus was up at No. 6 overall, MacLean ultimately decided to go with his guy.
“Don Boyd loved Kopitar, as we all did,” MacLean said in a media scrum after the draft. “But this (Brule) is the guy we wanted, the gritty, hard-nosed skilled guy that we’re thrilled about. I think he’s a perfect fit for our mix right now. This guy just fits in like a glove. I’m telling you, I’m thrilled.”
Years later, MacLean admitted that a major part of his decision to select Brule over Kopitar largely came down to the fact that he was Canadian.
“It was totally Brule or Kopitar,” MacLean told Sportsnet in 2016. “Walking to the draft (that morning) I said to Boydy, and I’ll never forget these words: ‘How do we go with the Slovenian ahead of the Canadian?’”
Brule cracked the Blue Jackets’ roster as a rookie but only played in seven games due to two different injuries. First, he suffered a fractured sternum just days into the season, and then he suffered a broken leg just over a week after returning to play. When he was healthy, the Blue Jackets returned him to the WHL, where he’d score 38 points in 27 regular-season games and 30 points in 18 playoff games.
The following season, Brule was able to stay healthy but he scored just 19 points over 78 games. He would then split the 2007-08 season between Columbus and their AHL affiliate, scoring 10 points in 16 games in the minors and nine points in 61 games in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets dealt him to Edmonton that following summer in exchange for Torres. After splitting the 2008-09 season between the Oilers and their AHL affiliate, Brule had what appeared to be a breakout season in 2009-10.
He made the team out of training camp as their fourth-line centre and moved up the depth chart with strong play and offensive production. Over 65 games, Brule scored 17 goals and 37 points, making him one of the lone bright spots on a team that finished dead last in the league standings.
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Unfortunately, injuries were again a problem for Brule the following season. He suffered an abdominal injury in January and missed 23 games and he then suffered a concussion shortly after his return in March.
In the off-season, Brule had reportedly been traded to the L.A. Kings along with a draft pick for former Oiler Ryan Smyth, but the trade was vetoed over concerns about his concussion. The Oilers instead wound up moving Colin Fraser and a seventh-round pick to the Kings for Smyth, while Brule was claimed off of waivers by the Phoenix Coyotes the following season.
Brule played 36 games for the Coyotes over two seasons before leaving the NHL to continue his career in Europe. He was named to Canada’s national hockey team at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 and scored two goals and three points over five games. Brule was kicked out of Canada’s semi-final loss to Germany and didn’t play in their bronze medal victory over the Czech Republic.
On the other side of the Brule trade, Torres scored 31 goals and 51 points for the Blue Jackets in 111 games over parts of two seasons. Ahead of the 2010 trade deadline, he was moved to the Buffalo Sabres for a second-round pick.
Torres joined the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent in the off-season and scored 14 goals and 29 points over 80 games. Late in the season, he was suspended for four games for throwing a hit to the head of Oilers forward Jordan Eberle. He returned for Game 3 of Vancouver’s first-round series with the Chicago Blackhawks and immediately raised controversy with a blindside hit on defenceman Brent Seabrook.
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Torres didn’t get suspended for the hit and he suited up for the rest of the Canucks’ games during their run to the Stanley Cup Final. In Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, Torres scored the game-winning goal with 18 seconds left to go in the third period. The Canucks wound up losing the series in seven games.
The following off-season, Torres joined Brule on the Coyotes, signing a two-year deal in free agency. In the first round of the playoffs, Torres threw a vicious hit on Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa and was issued a 21-game suspension. The Coyotes wound up winning the series in six games, with Brule chipping in two goals.
The Coyotes traded Torres to the San Jose Sharks ahead of the 2013 trade deadline and he again got suspended in the playoffs. This time, Torres threw a hit to the head of his former teammate, Jarret Stoll, in Game 1 of the second round. He was suspended for the rest of the series, which the Sharks lost in seven games.
Torres was suspended one final time in his career in 2015 when he threw a hit to the head of Anaheim Ducks forward Jakub Silfverberg in a pre-season game. He was issued a 41-game suspension and the Sharks didn’t bother to appeal, with general manager Doug Wilson saying the hit was “unacceptable and has no place in our game.”
Torres never returned to the NHL after that and announced his retirement in 2016.
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