Wed Jan 25 11:31am EST
While their NHL corporate brethren seems to be eternally focusing on next year, this seems to be the year for the Edmonton Oil Kings.
One game on the WHL fixture list doesn't matter for much more than two points in the standings, as Oil Kings coach Derek Laxdal noted today. However, for the upstart Eastern Conference leaders, a big inter-conference matchup vs. the Tri-City Americans is a huge measuring stick. There's some added intensity since several members of the Ams have deep Edmonton ties, plus it could be a potential preview of the league championship. So it's a good time to focus on how the hot team was made. To hear Edmonton GM Bob Green tell it, it all started two seasons ago when scoring leader Michael St. Croix — the guy who was not invited to last season's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game and is now third in WHL scoring — along with Team Canada defenceman Mark Pysyk and key contribs such as Keegan Lowe, Dylan Wruck, T.J. Foster and Rhett Rachinski took their lumps. Star defender Griffin Reinhart and goalie Laurent Brossoit were also waiting in the wings that winter.
From Cam Tait:
The Oil Kings had a rough third year, winning only 16 hockey games. But it did pay dividends.
"It gave the young guys we had a lot of ice time," said [general manager Bob] Green.
The Oil Kings also got the second-overall pick in the 2010 bantam draft and chose forward Curtis Lazar, who has 13 goals and 10 assists in his rookie season.
The 45-point season cost head coach Steve Pleau and assistant coach Rocky Thompson their jobs. Yet, there was a strong sense of optimism to begin the fourth year based on the core group of players.
Green brought Derek Laxdal in as head coach and Steve Hamilton as an assistant for the 2010-11 season and they steered the Oil Kings to a playoff berth, where they lost in the first round.
Now, Green has his team exactly where he thought they would be. (Edmonton Journal)
Understandably, there is a difference between building with a grand design and just accumulating one high draft pick after another. Edmonton evidently has pretty enviable talent, based on the minor fact they are the sole WHL team on pace to score 300 goals and lead the league in power play. They haven't been built solely around their stars (Laxdal, to the hometown broadsheet: "We're able to run 4-1/2, five lines right now with seven defencemen and the depth in the goaltending position"). The one big question is how well they're built for the playoffs, since the contrast between a team whose game is built around speed and, say, the rough-and-tumble Moose Jaw Warriors with St. Croix's fellow Rangers prospect Dylan McIlrath is manifestly evident.
Speaking of St. Croix, those who thought he was underrated during his draft season must feel validated by the success he's enjoyed this season. It goes without saying the Winnipegger has a long way to go before he's playing on Broadway. He would not have lasted until the fourth round in June if there had not been nits to pick in his game. However, that might be the point. Edmonton gave him a lot of rope in his first two seasons; in that '09-10 season when they were looking up at everyone but Prince George in the standings, he managed to lead the team in scoring (with only 46 points, but a fact's a fact). Edmonton wisely waited to help fine-tune his all-around game.
Perhaps the clearest example of the Oil Kings' growth is Michael St. Croix ... While his offensive skills have never been questioned, St. Croix's development in the defensive zone has been his biggest transformation during three full seasons with the Oil Kings.
"Mike's obviously matured as a player and a person, and both ends of his game are really starting to flourish here. He's playing well defensively and tracking back on pucks and understands that to be successful at not only this level but the next level, he's got to play both sides of the puck," Laxdal said. (Edmonton Journal)
Point being, Edmonton's right-on-schedule arrival as an elite team shows there is a blueprint to follow for any new team, or any major junior team trying to reinvent itself as a contender. As the list below indicates, there is ample precedent for an expansion CHL team reaching the penthouse in a very a short span of time.
2000s: Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL — This is obviously fresh in collective memory, since the Jonathan Huberdeau-led Sea Dogs won the Memorial Cup last season. The Sea Dogs franchise went from expansion start-up to winning the Q's regular-season title in 2009-10, their fifth season of existence, but lost the President's Cup final to rival Moncton. They actually finished behind their expansion brethren, the St. John's Fog Devils, in their first two seasons before finishing just above .500 in years 3-4. Gerard Gallant and Mike Kelly replaced Jacques Beaulieu in the coach and general manager roles after after the fourth season. The rest was major junior hockey history.
1990s: Kootenay Ice, WHL — Has a city's junior hockey fortunes ever commenced so high on the hog? The Ice took just four seasons to win the Western league, but their 1999-2000 championship also came in just their second season after moving to Cranbrook, B.C., from (irony alert) Edmonton.
The Edmonton-Kootenay club wallowed below .500 in its first three seasons. In Year 4, under coach Ryan McGill and with future NHL first-rounder Dan Blackburn in goal, they had a 102-point season and went 16-5 in the post-season, ousting defending champion Calgary (see below) in a five-game final. Blackburn, whose promising NHL career was later cut short by nerve damage in his left shoulder, was the Dub's rookie of the year and playoff MVP, a unique dual feat.
1990s: Calgary Hitmen, WHL — The Hitmen needed just four seasons to go from expansion in '95-96 to coming within a goal of the 1999 Memorial Cup, as they lost an overtime final to host Ottawa. Under present-day Prince George Cougars coach Dean Clark, the Hitmen let the kids mature. They broke out with an 84-point season in Year 3, then added Pavel Brendl via the import draft for '98-99 (yes, he never panned out in the NHL, but still) and became a juggernaut. Much of the core of that '99 team — Brad Moran, Kris Beech, Matt Kinch, Kenton Smith, et al., — had been added during the team's first two years.
1990s: Barrie Colts, OHL — Other events have eclipsed the fact the Colts were a model expansion team that won the Ontario league's J. Ross Robertson Cup in 1999-2000, their fifth year of existence. The Colts' path differed, though. They were competitive right out of the box, making the playoffs under the late, great Bert Templeton in '95-96, starting a streak of 15 consecutive post-season trips. There was an entirely new cast in place by the time they won under Bill Stewart in 2000, but those early years under Templeton had helped set a standard.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).