The weather is warming up and the snow is melting. Soon you’ll be golfing, firing up the BBQ, wearing shorts and enjoying the summer scenery, but before that, playoff hockey is all around you. Oilers fans will once again be watching from the outside, but if you want to experience playoff hockey firsthand you can watch some AJHL or WHL playoffs. The Sherwood Park Crusaders, Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Bonnyville Pontiacs, Spruce Grove Saints and Camrose Kodiaks are in the second round of the AJHL playoffs. The Edmonton Oil Kings open their WHL first round series at home this Saturday v. Medicine Hat, while the Red Deer Rebels face the stacked Prince Albert Raiders.
Playoffs in any sport are awesome. I love it. You can feel the heightened energy, and while you won’t get to experience it with the Oilers, I’d recommend taking in an AJHL game or WHL playoff game. You won’t be disappointed.
Here are some thoughts on the hockey things related and unrelated to the Oilers.
1. I wish the NHL would adopt the WHL tiebreaker rule. The Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers were tied for the final playoff spot in the BC division with 64 points. They will play a one-game playoff tomorrow in Kamloops. The winner moves on to face Victoria and the loser goes home. I’d love to see the NHL adopt this rule, instead of the current one where regulation wins or head-to-head matchups decide who moves on. Imagine the viewership for that game. You would play it on the Tuesday. It wouldn’t matter which two teams are playing diehard hockey, fans would tune in. Major League Baseball already has this, so you can’t tell me a professional league can’t do it. I think this would be an easy decision for the NHL. Everyone wins (except the team that loses).
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2. The Oilers AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors are on fire, going 21-2-1 over their past 24 games. They’ve outscored the opposition 100-44. Unlike previous seasons when the Condors or recent Oilers AHL affiliates were competitive, this year’s team has some legit offensive NHL prospects. Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody and Kailer Yamamoto have real offensive skills while blueliners Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear and William Lagesson, along with goalie Shane Starrett all have potential to be NHL players in the future. For how long and how productive they will be is still up in the air, but at least the players leading the team are young, and not AHL veterans.
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3. Benson and Marody are both top-four in rookie scoring in the AHL. Over the 24 game hot streak they have been the offensive catalysts for the Condors and have have become a very dangerous duo. Benson has 9-22-31 in 24 games with 57 shots on goal and is +22. Marody has scored 8-21-29 on 53 shots and is +26. On the weekend, due to a string of injuries, offensive defenceman Logan Day played on their wing. I’ve watched Benson since he was 14 playing Bantam AAA. His work ethic and consistency has always been there. He has enough skill and smarts to play wing with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl in the NHL. Maybe he will be ready next year, maybe not, but he is trending in the right direction. He will be 21 with a full season in the AHL and, hopefully for the Condors, a long playoff run under his belt, and should come to camp next year believing he will make the team.
4. I can’t remember the last time the Oilers had a young, offensive winger developing in the AHL. Benson’s success illustrates how badly Edmonton screwed up Jesse Puljujarvi. He should have played a full season in the AHL. They are the same age and it makes little sense to me how people want to write Puljujarvi off as a bust, because he hasn’t lit up the NHL yet. He wasn’t ready. He shouldn’t have been in Edmonton. Don’t blame the player.
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5. Kailer Yamamoto is injured again. He’s had a tough year battling injuries, playing 26 games in Bakersfield (10-7-17) and 17 in Edmonton (1-1-2). The fact Edmonton auditioned him last season and this year was another example of them not planning properly. He was never a valid option in my eyes, mainly because he wasn’t strong enough. Again, not a knock on the player, but more the organization’s handling of him. I wouldn’t expect a 19 or 20 year-old who weighs 150 pounds to be able to produce against NHL players. He needs time to add strength, and he should have started this season in the AHL rather than doing very little in the NHL.
6. Yamamoto should start next season in the AHL. Play him a lot on the first line. There is nothing wrong if he spends the entire season down there, but if he is at least a point-per-game player midway through the season then they could look at recalling him. Bob Nicholson said the organization will not be rushing players anymore. I sure hope they abide by it, and don’t look at where a player was drafted, but instead focus solely on whether he is NHL-ready or not.
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7. Marody looks like he could be the the third line centre the Oilers need in the future. He isn’t going to be a top-six centre in Edmonton with McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins here. He might need more seasoning in the AHL, but he has enough offensive acumen that he should be able to chip in offensively, and be reliable defensively at the NHL level. He wants to get a bit quicker, but Marody is confident he will play in the NHL, and having that internal belief is a must.
9. The Oilers should have a few more young players make the jump to Bakersfield next season. Evan Bouchard has 16-37-53 in 45 games for the first place London Knights in the OHL. I’d start him in the AHL and let him get used to playing against men. His offensive play and puck moving abilities are likely NHL ready, but his defensive game will need some work. The Oilers should plan to start him in the AHL, and the only way that changes is if he blows the doors off in preseason. Even then, I’d still lean towards being cautious and start him in Bakersfield.
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10. Dmitri Samorukov has really blossomed with more offensive opportunities in Guelph after they traded Ryan Merkley. Samorukov finished the season with 45 points in 59 games, but after Merkley was traded Samorukov produced 30 points in 30 games. He’s been good defensively, very physical, but has added some offensive flair. He will need a few years in the AHL, similar to Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, but at least the Oilers are getting some prospects with legit NHL potential when they enter the farm team.
11. The Oil Kings host Medicine Hat Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and then Sunday at 6 p.m. The Oil Kings head into the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak, while the Tigers are 4-10 in their last 14. The other central matchup has the Lethbridge Hurricanes facing the Calgary Hitmen. I think this will be the closest series off the four in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes have five forwards with 81+ points, including Dylan Cozens (34-50-84) who will likely be a top-ten pick in the NHL this June.
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The Rebels have to face the vaunted Raiders and without the best D-man in the WHL, Alexander Alexeyev. He was injured on March 8th and will miss the start of the series and maybe all of it. Prince Albert finished the season 54-10-4 and outscored the opposition 307-156. They are really deep up front, have a big, mobile blueline and an excellent goalie in Ian Scott. They have six forwards with 29+ goals: Noah Gregor (43), Brett Leason (36), Parker Kelly (35), Dante Hannoun, Cole Fonstad and Sean Montgomery (all 29). Two play on each of their top three lines. The Raiders will be a hard out.
The Saskatoon Blades host the Moose Jaw Warriors in the other series, and Moose Jaw lost top prospect Bradyen Tracey (36-45-81) with an injury last week. The Warriors really only had one line prior to his injury, and I expect a strong Blades team to win. I don’t see many upsets in the first round, but the second round series in the East should be great. I will take the Raiders in four, Oil Kings and Blades in five and Hurricanes in six.
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