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If Ethan Bear’s rise to playing 20 minutes a night with the Edmonton Oilers shows anything, it’s this: getting to the NHL is often not very linear.
Bear didn’t play a game for the Oilers last season and he has saved them this year with the broken fibula Adam Larsson suffered in Game 1.
So, who knows when we’ll see their top prospect Evan Bouchard in a game in Edmonton. Or Caleb Jones, who has been the one AHL defenceman playing all situations. Or another D, William Lagesson, who got his call-up but only practised for a couple of weeks before being sent back.
There is no rush to see them in Edmonton — same with Tyler Benson or Kailer Yamamoto at forward— and not just because the Oilers went into Tuesday’s game in San Jose 12-5-2, which shows they don’t need any cavalry coming. That said, if you pay your dues, and do what you can in the AHL … the NHL team will notice.
“When you see Ethan Bear and Patrick Russell graduating up the food chain,” said Condors’ coach Jay Woodcroft, “it becomes easier to sell to the young players.”
The Condors haven’t had their No. 1 goalie, Shane Starrett, for a month because of a groin issue. They’ve been without their top-six winger Joe Gambardella for a couple of weeks and centre Cooper Marody was out this past Saturday.
But, they’re 6-6-1, 3-1 in their last four.
Benson just got a hat trick and has 13 points in 13 games. Yamamoto has cooled off from his early start but has drawn more penalties than any other Condors player because he’s around the net. Jones, playing the right side as a left shot, plays against all the other team’s best players. Bouchard is coming along nicely. Stuart Skinner has taken the challenge and is the No. 1 in net, for now.
“It’s been a learning curve with the young defencemen. It’s a man’s league and we’re finding out that balance of learning how to manage pucks, make a good first pass, understanding when to join a rush, making the play that’s there … our D corps has been a work in progress,” said Woodcroft.
“Bouchard is playing big minutes and there are learning moments for him but he’s got a fantastic attitude and he comes to the rink every day wanting to grow. His practice habits have improved. He’s using the learning moments to get better and he’s starting to shoot the puck. We’re quite happy with him,” said Woodcroft.
Jones, according to other team’s pro scouts, has been Bakersfield’s best D.
“He’s been our high-minute D man, playing in all situations. He’s done a good job of finding the right time to jump into the play, to add to the offence and he’s concentrating on managing the puck properly. I’ve really liked how he’s defended. He can play either side but he’s been on the right all year,” said Bouchard.
In the net, the No. 3 goalie in the organization, Starrett, has only played two games.
Oil Spills podcast: Oilers hit November’s heavy Western playlist
Hockey Hall of Fame writer Jim Matheson talks to host Craig Ellingson about the Oilers and their upcoming slate of Western games and about how they got to this point: with improved defensive play, the emergence of Ethan Bear, solid goaltending by the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, and the continued scoring prowess of Leon Draisaitl — the NHL’s leading scorer — and Connor McDavid.
“He’s back practising which is a good sign but he’s week-to-week,” said Woodcroft, who has played his 21-year-olds Skinner nine games and Dylan Wells three. Skinner’s stats could be better (3.03 avg and .889 save percentage) but he’s holding the fort.
“We’ve lost an AHL all-star (second team) in our third game of the year but we’re weathering the storm with his injury. Both goalies have given us decent minutes. We’ve challenged both to step up and seize the net and Stuart has done that this month. He’s finding a way to gain some personal momentum,” said Woodcroft.
Up front, Benson, who could be a third-line LW, second unit PP guy at the NHL level, is a point-a-game player in the AHL. He has five goals and eight assists in 13 games and 79 points in his 81 Bakersfield games over the last two seasons.
“A lot of our offence goes through Tyler five-on-five. The goals he’s scored haven’t been tic-tac-toe back-door tap-ins … they’ve been hard-charging ones where he’s gone to the blue paint. That’s a good sign for him, obviously,” said Woodcroft, acknowledging his terrific playmaking ability which is NHL calibre.
The book on him has long been he has to improve his foot speed just a touch, but he’s working on it.
“Tyler’s gift to me is his work ethic. When he’s at the top of his game he has something to prove to all the people who question his skating ability or his ability to stay healthy, or to go to hard areas,” he said. “His strength is trying to out-work opponents for his 40-second shift and as for his skating? Quickness is measured in different ways. I’ve coached players in the NHL who didn’t skate as well as Tyler. It’s how they process the game. I don’t see Tyler’s foot-speed being an impediment to him getting to the NHL.”
Yamamoto had wrist issues last season which derailed his first pro year. But he’s been healthy, and if he only has nine points, he keeps getting the Condors to the power play.
“His scoring production has slowed in the last seven or eight games but that’ll get sorted out. He’s creating with his speed and getting in on the forecheck … He’s demonstrated this year a willingness to get his nose dirty. If you’re not ready to do that you rarely draw a penalty. He’s been excellent on the cycle,” said Woodcroft.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019