The Edmonton Oil Kings are victims of their own success.
When you win at least 50 of 72 in back-to-back seasons, claim the league championship one of those years and are league finalists the following year, the pros take notice.
Consequently, the Oil Kings team that's here this weekend to play the Prince George Cougars is missing a few stars -- 11 to be precise. That list includes Curtis Lazar (Ottawa), Henrik Samuelsson (Phoenix) Griffin Reinhart (New York Islanders), Tristan Jarry (Pitsburgh), Keegan Lowe (Carolina), Laurent Boissoit (Calgary), Trevor Cheek (Colorado) and Michael St. Croix (New York Rangers) are away at NHL camps, while Martin Gerhat, David Musil, and Travis Ewanyk are auditioning to play in the AHL for the Oklahoma City Oil Barons.
For head coach Derek Laxdal and his assistant Steve Hamilton the two weekend games at CN Centre offer a chance to see the younger Oil Kings play, with three 1998-born players along for the ride.
Laxdal, who just signed a two-year contract extension, says with his team in rebuilding mode, the Oil Kings they can only afford to look ahead, not think about past triumphs. This season they won't likely get much help from the older crew, with Lazar, Samuelsson, Reinhart and Jarry the only players expected to return from pro camps.
"We're going to focus on what we have this year," said Laxdal. "If you look at a team like Kootenay, who went to the Memorial Cup a couple years ago, it took them half a season to get up and running last year with a younger team.
"We're in that rebuilding mode where we have to bring younger players into the lineup and with the traditions and culture we have in place we hope it will be an easy transition for them."
Seventeen-year-olds defencemen Dysin Mayo, Ben Caroll, and Aaron Irving will be getting lots of icetime this weekend, while up front the Oil Kings are leaning on Alaska product Lane Bauer, Andrew Koep, Brandon Ralph, Mitch Walter and explosive skating Danish import Mads Eller. He's the brother of Lars Eller, a St. Louis Blues first rounder who has since been traded to Montreal.
"Its a good opportunity for these kids to get their feet wet and play in a tough environment," said Laxdal.
Patrick Dea, 16, drew the start in goal Friday for Edmonton. Former Cougar Tyler Santos, 19, will get the call tin tonight's rematch. They're fighting for the position as backup to the 18-year-old Jarry.
The Cougars have five players of their own away on NHL tryouts, including Colin Jacobs (Buffalo), Troy Bourke (Colorado), Klarc Wilson (Rangers), Zach Pochiro (St. Louis) and Marc McNulty (Detroit).
Like the Oil Kings, the Cougars have been experimenting with line combinations and throwing new players into unlikely roles. That produced winning results last weekend with preseason wins over Red Deer (8-4) and Medicine Hat (4-1).
After missing the playoffs the past two seasons, it's up to the Cougars to convince themselves they are good enough as individuals to make the team a winner on par with the Oil Kings of the past two seasons and head coach Mark Holick is seeing signs the Cougars are on that track. They've taken their lumps over the years but that's led to several years of selecting high in the bantam draft order. Those picks are starting to bear fruit, like they did for Edmonton.
"There's a process involved and we're trying to get our guys believing in themselves and trying to get them to understand what it takes to become a successful team and there's obviously a commitment to fitness," said Holick. "Our guys came to camp in great shape and are committed to maintaining that all year. Your practice habits translate into game habits and our practices have been very good, especially the last two days. If you can be the hardest-working team on the ice I think you're going to win more than you lose and that's where we're going to be."
The Cougars have decided on their two goalies to start the season, sophomore Brett Zarowny and rookie Ty Edmonds. Zarowny, a native of Edmonton, learned this week he'll begin the season as the starter now that 20-year-old Mac Engel has been released.
"It's tough seeing Mac go, we roomed together last year so we spent a lot of time together but at the same time it's exciting," said Zarwony. "I get the opportunity to be a starter and play a lot of games and kind of carry the team on my back. I think it'll be good."