The Subway Super Series provided Derek Laxdal with a glimpse into Morgan Rielly’s potential, and now the Edmonton Oil Kings head coach will try to devise a game-plan to neutralize the skilled defenceman on Friday Night Hockey.
Laxdal, an assistant coach for Team WHL last week, came away impressed with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first round pick, but also figures to have found a way to neutralize the Moose Jaw Warriors star defenceman.
“What we have to do is get on the forecheck early and don’t let him skate the puck and get a physical presence on him,” Laxdal notes. “The biggest thing I found with Morgan is when the game gets tight, he likes to hang onto the puck a little bit so we really have to make sure we go at him and take away his options because he can make those high-risk plays.”
Rielly is enjoying a renaissance season after missing most of last season after tearing his ACL in early November. The injury limited him to just 18 regular season games, but he rehabbed his right knee well enough to return for the Eastern Conference final against the Oil Kings.
Edmonton won the series in five games en route to their first league championship in modern history. Although the Warriors endured big changes due to graduation, there will be an element of payback for those who saw their MasterCard Memorial Cup dreams dashed at the hands of the Oil Kings.
“They were the team that eliminated us in the playoffs so I think that is a score to settle,” Warriors head coach Mike Stothers said. “They’re arguably one of the best teams in the league, if not the best — been to the Memorial Cup last year — so it’s a huge challenge for us, but we’re anxious for it and we’re looking forward to it.”
Rielly is just seven points shy of the 28 he posted as a rookie two years ago, but his impact on his team extends far beyond the score sheet.
“He’s certainly a guy that I love having around,” Stothers said. “He’s a special kid. He’s a player that doesn’t come along all that often and when he does, you cherish the moments you have with him.
“He’s a terrific talent, he skates fluidly, he has great vision, he’s a great passer, but more importantly, he’s a great kid. He’s one of the more popular kids that’s ever put on a Warrior uniform and I think the thing that’s best about Morgan is he’s very well grounded. He was raised well and he’s very humble about his abilities and he treats everybody the same. He’s just a genuine good person.”
The Oil Kings made one of the biggest trades of the young season when they acquired Edmonton Oilers draft pick David Musil on Oct. 31 from the Vancouver Giants. The Oil Kings felt comfortable bringing him in due to their familiarity with him as an Oilers prospect and due to the familiarity he has with their team.
“He knows a lot of our kids — they work out together in the summer time so it was a good fit for us,” Laxdal explained. “(His role will be to) take on a leadership role on our hockey club and obviously being that big, steady eddy defenceman and shutdown guy with Keegan Lowe.”
Stephane Legault’s return from injury this week may just be the best thing for Curtis Lazar. The veteran and the sophomore forward enjoy good chemistry together, which should ignite Lazar’s offensive game.
“Curtis is getting a lot of chances, he just hasn’t connected on them,” Laxdal said. “That’s the ol’ cliché for a forward if you’re not getting the chances, then you worry a little bit, but Curtis has been getting the chances and it’s just a matter of time that he buries them.”
The potential top 15 pick brings much more than just offence to the Oil Kings.
“If Curtis isn’t scoring, he does a lot of the little things right,” his coach noted. “He’s a penalty killer, he goes in front of the net on the power-play, plays the half-wall. I think a lot of these (draft) rankings right now are based on stats, not based on play and so we’re pretty confident he’ll be fine.”
Brayden Point may not be eligible for the NHL draft another year, but he’s making his impact felt as a rookie. Point got an audition late last season as a 15-year-old, and soon became an integral part of the team in the playoffs.
“He really did seize the opportunity and make the most of it and played so well for us that we couldn’t even think about taking him out of the lineup,” Stothers said. “He sees the ice very well. He’s not a very big guy, but he plays big, he plays hard and he’s so good and does so many things so well that you actually treat him like a third- or fourth-year veteran when in fact he’s just a kid. He does things that you would expect a 19-year-old to do.”
Like Point, Justin Paulic shone when given the opportunity late last season. The Warriors entrusted him with an elimination game start in Game 4 against Edmonton, and the unknown goalie stopped 28-of-29 shots in Edmonton’s first playoff loss. Paulic is proving a quick study.
“He’s very thorough in his preparations, he’s very mature for his age, he’s technically-sound, but he’s big,” Stothers said. “He plays the game the way it’s supposed to be. He’s not a flashy type of goaltender. He makes the save without jam or the extra flash and dash you see on some goalies, but I think he’s very tough mentally and his preparation and attention to detail is way beyond his years.”
Edmonton goaltender Laurent Brossoit is one of the best puck stoppers in the country and a candidate for Canada’s world junior squad. Since emerging last season, there’s been a lot of pressure placed on him this season, something his coach doesn’t find is an issue with the goaltender himself.
“I don’t think he worries about it,” Laxdal said. “It’s a conversation we don’t have. If you talk to him, he doesn’t even think about it so it’s really not a factor.”
The Oil Kings could be the most well-represented team at the world juniors in Russia. In addition to Brossoit, Lowe and Griffin Reinhart could wear the maple leaf. Henrik Samuelsson could play for the Americans while Musil should suit up for the Czech Repulic. Martin Gernat, who’s recovering from surgery, would have played for Slovakia but won’t return until January or February.
Canada’s depth on the blue line is deep, but Reinhart will be in the mix for a spot.
“He’s kind of developed into a real nice shutdown defenceman,” Laxdal said. “Griff’s got more to offer offensively.”
Rielly is a strong candidate for Canada’s roster, while teammate Sam Fioretti could earn consideration as a bottom six forward after playing in the Subway Super Series last week.
“It was good to see Sam get rewarded,” Stothers said. “Here’s a kid that never got drafted (by an NHL team) and he’s always had to do things the hard way. He’s never been the main focus or the highest point producing person. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the fastest guy, but I’ll tell you what, he’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever had. He’s fearless and all around — plays power-plays, kills penalties, five-on-five, four-on-four and he’s just an unselfish teammate.”
Friday’s game marks the beginning of a long, seven-game road trip through Alberta and B.C. for the Warriors, who are in a dogfight in the East Division this season. Four points separate the second and sixth-place teams in the division and Stothers knows his young team needs to get as many in the first half of the season as possible.
“It’s always good to get (points) early. It’s tough to get them in the second half of the season with the intensity and the level of play rising a notch or two,” he said.
The Oil Kings are second in the Central Division and third in the Eastern Conference standings behind Calgary and Prince Albert. Although there is a gap between the top teams and the next grouping which includes the Warriors, the Oil Kings won’t be taking their opponent lightly as they try to keep pace with the Hitmen and Raiders.
“It doesn’t matter who you play in the Western Hockey League any given night,” Laxdal said. “You look at Regina going in and beating Kamloops (Wednesday) night. The Western Hockey League is a very good league. If you get caught in that trap (of looking at the standings), you’re usually going to get burned.”