For Edmonton Oil Kings captain Mark Pysyk, the trip to the Memorial Cup this year has an extra cachet.
The 20-year-old Buffalo Sabres draft pick expects his junior career is pretty much done.
“Chances are it will be the last year,” he said as the team prepared to head to Shawinigan, Que., for the four-team tournament.
“I’ll probably end up in the American Hockey League next year, so to finish off with the WHL championship and maybe a Memorial Cup coming up, that’s definitely pretty special.”
He says it’s also pretty special to be part of a WHL franchise that has come so far so fast. The Oil Kings name is an old one in Edmonton but this edition dates back only to 2007 and Pysyk has been there for all but that first year.
“We’re very proud of the kids,” head coach Derek Laxdal said.
“To bring back the Oil Kings name from the ’60s and ’70s and start it all up again and to be going to the Memorial Cup and having the league championship is outstanding.”
Taking it to the top is the challenge now and getting past the experienced and talent-laden Saint John Sea Dogs is a big hurdle, for Edmonton as well as the London Knights and Shawinigan Cataractes.
“The Sea Dogs are obviously the favourite going in because they won it last year and they have a lot of returning players,” Laxdal said.
“If you look at Edmonton and London, they’re like the Sea Dogs last year, they’re going in with a young team a year ahead of where they’re supposed to be.”
And while Shawinigan was knocked out in the QMJHL playoffs and is there as host team, he knows it will be trying to use that home-ice advantage.
Unlike the league playoffs won by London, Edmonton and Saint John, this format doesn’t allow much time to adjust to the opposition.
“We’ve never played against any of these teams,” Pysyk said. “It’s a little bit like a bunch of Game 7s. Every game is huge and win or lose really dictates where you’re going to end up in the end.”
The Oil Kings will be going in with the same defence-first philosophy that carried them to the top of the WHL.
“My philosophy and that of my staff is defence first, but not to the point of where we’re going to try and trap it up and play a boring style of hockey,” Laxdal said.
“We allow the kids to have some creativity but there’s rules in place.”
Besides Pysyk, the Oil Kings defence is anchored by players such as 6-foot-5 Edmonton Oilers prospect Martin Gernat and 6-foot-4 draft eligible Griffin Reinhart, the son of former Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks defenceman Paul Reinhart.
All have considerable two-way skills. Gernat had seven goals and six assists during the playoffs. Pysyk had three goals and eight assists and Reinhart two and six.
Backstopping that defence is the best goaltender in the WHL, Calgary Flames draft pick Laurent Brossoit.
“We’ve had the best goaltender in the regular season and the playoffs,” Laxdal said. “He’s a beast. He’s a 6-foot-4 kid who’s an absolute animal. He’s got great athleticism and he’s very poised.”
Edmonton isn’t without offensive bite.
Centre and New York Rangers draft pick Michael St. Croix (another hockey brat as the son of former NHL goaltender Rick St. Croix) had 105 points during the regular season and sat eighth in WHL scoring.
With WHL sophomore Curtis Lazar, St. Croix tied at 19 points to lead Edmonton during the playoffs. They’re also no slouches defensively, sitting at plus-9 and plus-8, respectively.
“Even our goal-scoring lines are very good in the defensive zone and very responsible,” Pysyk said.
“We work hard and take pride in that.”
Edmonton opens the Memorial Cup tournament against Shawinigan.
The Canadian Press