OIL KINGS DE­FENCE COMING OF AGE

Gavlas ac­qui­si­tion adds vet­eran pres­ence to bat­tle-hard­ened blue line corps

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - DEREK VAN DI­EST dvandi­est@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/DerekVanDi­est

Through two re­build­ing sea­sons, there were nights when Ethan Cap, Con­ner McDon­ald, Matthew Robert­son, Wy­att McLeod, Will Warm and Scott Atkin­son felt more like punch­ing bags in­stead of Western Hockey League de­fence­men.

Through a youth move­ment, which saw the Oil Kings fin­ish out of the playoffs the past two sea­sons, the young de­fence corps were thrown to the wolves on a nightly ba­sis.

Hav­ing to fend for them­selves, how­ever, is prov­ing div­i­dends this sea­son as the Oil Kings now have one of the most bat­tle-hard­ened, ex­pe­ri­enced de­fence­men in the league.

They added an­other vet­eran in Parker Gavlas, 19, who was ac­quired from the Regina Pats on Fri­day for an eighth-round pick in the 2019 WHL Ban­tam Draft.

“I don’t think we’ve even yet reached our full po­ten­tial this year,” Cap said prior to fac­ing the Koote­nay Ice on Fri­day in the first of a three-game road trip.

“We’ve had a cou­ple of guys hurt, in (Jac­son) Alexan­der and Will, but when we had our full six in the lineup, I thought ev­ery­one was see­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent unit than they saw last year. We’re mov­ing pucks a lot more ef­fi­ciently, we’re all a lot more con­fi­dent and the goals-against are go­ing down.”

Warm, 19, sus­tained a lower­body in­jury early in the sea­son and has been lim­ited to five games this year. Alexan­der, 17, is out week-to-week with an up­per body in­jury. The two in­juries are part of the rea­son the Oil Kings ac­quired Gavlas.

“The four top guys there right now, Robert­son, Cap, McLeod and McDon­ald, ever since Jack­son went down and Will Warm went down, we’ve put a lot of min­utes on those four,” said Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer. “They’ve done a very good job. It does help they’ve been in the league, they’ve been through a lot as a group in the last cou­ple of years, and they’ve been in sit­u­a­tions where per­haps they weren’t com­fort­able, but now they are com­fort­able in them.

“It’s nice for me as a coach to have guys who are ex­pe­ri­enced on the back end. It is a tough league to play de­fence in, es­pe­cially if you’re young. Those four guys have done an un­real job car­ry­ing some big min­utes.”

It was a long and, at times, try­ing road for the Oil Kings to de­velop the de­fence­men to the point where they are now. Mid­way through the 2016-17, the Oil Kings de­cided to start from scratch and adopted a re­build­ing plan in or­der to get back to elite sta­tus.

McDon­ald, Cap, McLeod and Warm took on much more re­spon­si­bil­ity than the av­er­age first- or sec­ond-year WHL de­fence­man should. The fol­low­ing sea­son, Robert­son played reg­u­larly as a 16-year-old.

“You, ob­vi­ously, get a lot more ex­pe­ri­ence than you would prob­a­bly play­ing just about any­where else these last cou­ple of years,” Cap said. “You get put into sit­u­a­tions where last year you’re play­ing against (for­mer Regina Pats stars) Sam Steel and the year be­fore, you’re play­ing against Adam Brooks ev­ery sec­ond shift and you’re a lit­tle bit wide-eyed, be­cause you’re go­ing up against that cal­i­bre of player.

“They’re hard to play against, but them ag­ing out of the league, it just makes this year and next year a lot eas­ier be­cause you have al­ready played against guys who were first-round NHL picks, so you kind of have an idea what to ex­pect.”

As ex­pected, there were a lot of long nights for the Oil Kings de­fence­man in the past. Hav­ing traded away most of their vet­eran as­sets in or­der bring in younger tal­ent, for­mer head

It is a tough league to play de­fence in, es­pe­cially if you’re young. Those four guys have done an un­real job car­ry­ing some big min­utes.

coach Steve Hamil­ton had no choice but to keep throw­ing his young crew over the boards and wit­ness the car­nage.

“There were def­i­nitely cer­tain games where the score would get run up and you’re def­i­nitely flus­tered and frus­trated and you’re go­ing, ‘Holy cow, how are we go­ing to be these guys?’ But ob­vi­ously, it’s paid div­i­dends,” Cap said.

The Oil Kings’ blue line is con­sid­ered one of the strengths of the club this sea­son. They have dras­ti­cally re­duced the num­ber of shots against and are win­ning more bat­tles in the cor­ners and in front of their own net. It is the rea­son they are near the top of the Cen­tral Divi­sion stand­ings this year.

The top four are also pitch­ing in of­fen­sively. McDon­ald has five goals and 11 points in 19 games head­ing into the con­test against Koote­nay. Robert­son has two goals and 11 points in 13 games. Cap and McLeod have six points each.

“I think the big­gest thing for us is the one-on-one bat­tles and be­ing able to end the play and hav­ing that sup­port,” Lauer said. “So when our D do win the play, we have that sup­port to tran­si­tion out of that bat­tle, so we’re not in it as long, which has been re­ally good lately. Our guys have done a good job, they’ve re­ally grown in the last month for sure.”

TIM SMITH

Nine­teen-year-old de­fence­man Parker Gavlas, left, was ac­quired from the Regina Pats on Fri­day for an eighth-round pick in the 2019 WHL Ban­tam Draft.

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