May 16, 2014 (ISN) – Three Edmonton Oil Kings teams, three straight WHL finals, two WHL titles and a second MasterCard Memorial Cup appearance.
Three’s company, right? Of course there are similarities — 50 wins and first place in each season — but this is junior hockey and turnover means it’s three distinct chapters, beyond just keeping the ol’ gang together.
As players change, the trick is keeping intangibles intact.
“The other two teams were pretty special hockey teams,” said head coach Derek Laxdal, one of the tangibles.
“It’s refreshing to see the change of personnel but to still see the similar results.”
Before we look at this year’s model, let’s touch on the first two:
From stumbling pony to racehorse, from an expansion team that grew tight out of the darkness of a 16-win season to competitive (Laxdal’s first year behind the bench) to WHL champions.
Their first bantam draft pick, Mark Pysyk, was the essential Captain Cool, the easygoing glue of the largely homegrown core on and off the ice. The roster was bolstered halfway through with Henrik Samuelsson up front and Minnesota import Cody Corbett on the back end.
Flashing their speed and skill, the Oil Kings pedalled to the Eastern Conference medal before coming out ahead in a seven-game epic — Round One, as it turned out — with the Portland Winterhawks.
They hit a wall at the MasterCard Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, but the success resounded.
Many original Oil Kings remained despite the graduation of Pysyk along with 20-year-olds Rhett Rachinski (another original OK) and Jordan Peddle, the team and league’s best penalty-kill duo and two-thirds of the league’s best third line.
The rematch finals —Hawks in six —turned on two factors.
One was obvious: Portland had Seth Jones on the ice; Edmonton had Griffin Reinhart in a cast.
The other, less obvious: a slight, but crucial edge in speed. The ice dancer Rachinski and the late Kristians Pelss, pure Latvian lightning with a turbo 0-to-60 that was world class. On the other side, after being fourth-liners the year before for the Winterhawks, the quick, slick Nic Petan and Pelss-like Brendan Leipsic had become the main men, league-scoring co-leaders with the appropriate ice time.
(The Oil Kings were also unique in major junior hockey by having sons of five former NHLers — Keegan Lowe, David Musil, Michael St. Croix, Samuelsson and Reinhart.)
Welcome to 2013–14
Still a contingent of originals, but this was clearly a transition year. Reinhart, a.k.a. The Big Cat, was in his second year as captain, second year on the World Juniors and second experience at camp with the New York Islanders and had his best of three excellent years as a junior.
The biggest question going in was on the blueline.
In the 2012 playoffs, it was a Guy Lapointe-Serge Savard-Larry Robinson effort from Pysyk, Reinhart and Lowe that saved it. Solid from mid-season arrival, Corbett hit a physical wall transitioning from high school hockey to the WHL grind. Ashton Sautner was a talented but nervous 17-year-old.
“With what they lost on the back end, that was the biggest question mark,” said Oil Kings play-by-play man Corey Graham, who’s called every minute of the three seasons.
“Pysyk two years ago, then Keegan Lowe, David Musil, Martin Gernat — you looked at it like ‘We’ll see what happens here.’
“Griffin Reinhart has obviously been the anchor the whole time, but elevated his game. And Cody Corbett has really been fantastic. Ashton Sautner was the kind of guy where, well, there was a question where he’d be at and he’s really stepped up this year.”
Corbett took his stealth ’12–13 season to being one of the league’s top offensive back-line forces. Sautner unassumingly put together a plus-59 — yes, 59! — campaign. Youngsters Aaron Irving and Dysin Mayo became regulars — with toughness and Pysyk-like offence, respectively — and, like Musil the season before, Blake Orban was brought in from the Vancouver Giants as a veteran presence.
“We had some turnover,” said associate coach Steve Hamilton, primarily in charge of the defence. “With that comes change, but we’ve had some great growth within, which is critical in junior hockey.
“I’ve been pretty proud of our back end this year. They’ve capitalized on the opportunity they’ve been given and earned everything that’s come their way.”
Curtis Lazar was moving from hard-working, willing-to-do anything hotshot kid to first-line-minute man, while remaining incapable of working anything less than full on. The team transition became a transformation.
“Looking back, that team was more skilled. We had the firepower, especially on the power play, we’d go tic-tac-toe,” said the Senators draft pick. “[This year] we get the feeling we can grind out those one-goal games and that’s a good thing to be a part of.”
Mitch Moroz (the highest-picked Oil King-to-Oiler prospect) always had power-forward potential and was used as a banger, spotted anywhere from first to fourth lines. This season he became a leading point-producer, alongside Samuelsson and 20-year-old Reid Petryk as the WHL’s largest scoring line.
“The difference this year [is that] we’re a little more defensive,” said Samuelsson. “We have a lot of D that are good skaters, which helps us getting the offence going even though we might not have as much [skill].
“I feel we’re a little . . . bigger and stronger this year, which helps us wear down other team’s D.”
And every successful junior team has that kid who seemingly comes out of nowhere, from roster fringe to pencilled-in front-liner. As a result, draft-year winger Brett Pollock — zero games in last year’s playoffs, now Lazar’s left-hand man — went from NHL late-round coin toss to bulleting up to No. 34 on the nhl central scouting charts.
Spotted into the lineup, the massive Brandon Baddock and solid Brandon Ralph chipped in offensively as well as adding size. Luke Bertolucci is the little guy with big smarts.
In his second season, import Edgars Kulda became a force. Bigger than his fellow Latvian, Pelss, he shares the same tenacity. Dane Mads Eller — younger brother of Montreal’s Lars — took half a season to adjust, but brought back some of that uber-speed to the team.
“One of the biggest things for us this year is we don’t have the same amount of super high-end skill,” said Hamilton. “But we’re probably . . . more rugged and durable, play more of a 200-foot game than waiting to out-chance a team with pure talent.”
What was expected was the smooth change from the athletic starter Laurent Brossoit to his understudy, the ice-cool Tristan Jarry, a Pittsburgh pick.
Unexpected, timing-wise, was when general manager Bob Green — the reigning WHL executive of the year — got moved into the Oilers organization, but handing the torch to his assistant and chief scout Randy Hansch was also smooth.
Petryk and Riley Kieser again proved Green and Hansch’s shared knack for bringing in — in both cases, bringing back to their hometowns — leadership-quality 20-year-olds.
“I think this year we’re a more well-rounded club,” said Laxdal. “We can play that 2–1 game, a 5–4 game when it comes to that, but I think we have similar team structure, similar team chemistry. And that’s a testament to our coaching staff, our management, our scouting staff.”
Bryan Heim/Portland Winterhawks