OIL KINGS DEFENCE COMING OF AGE
Gavlas acquisition adds veteran presence to battle-hardened blue line corps
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.”
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.