Oil Kings mid-season report card

JASON HILLS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

After beginning their fall out of the playoff race around the Christmas break last season, the Edmonton Oil Kings have maintained a strong push for their first playoff position this year. They are currently sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference.

They've improved in every aspect of the game except goals against, which is an area they continue to struggle with in their second WHL campaign.

One key area of improvement is on special teams.

Sun Media takes a closer look at the Oil Kings in each position in this mid-season report card.

Forwards: B-

Let's face it, last season the Oil Kings were a team that had to play trap-happy hockey to compete. Not this year, as their top two lines - Jeff Lee, Brent Raedeke and Tomas Vincour; Craig McCallum, Brenden Dowd and Brett Breitkreuz are comparable to any of the top lines in the WHL.

There was a three-way tie for the team's top scorer in 2007-08. Vincour, Dowd and McCallum finished with just 39 points. This year, the Oil Kings already have three players with over 30 points (Lee, Breitkreuz and Dowd).

Lee has had a breakthrough season as he leads the team with 36 points in 35 games - and currently has a franchise record nine-game point-scoring streak going.

Vincour, Raedeke and McCallum are a strong supporting cast as they are closing in on 30 points.

"We've got some depth. Even our third line has been productive and when our young guys have played well that makes us a real tough team to play against," said Oil Kings coach Steve Pleau.

Biggest surprise: Jeff Lee

After suffering his longest goal drought (18 games) in his junior career, he's been their biggest offensive catalyst.

Defence: C

Brandon Lockerby was the most experienced defenceman on their blueline heading into the 2008-09 campaign. He had just 76 WHL games under him and many of those were played at forward.

Lockerby has continued to be a threat on the power play, recording 17 points in 35 games.

The Oil Kings are beginning to see the emergence of 16-year-old rookie Mark Pysyk. He arguably logs the most minutes of any player on the team - and any rookie in the WHL - and he's playing like a true veteran on the backend.

If there was one area of concern heading into the second half it would be the number of goals the Oil Kings have allowed this year. They are ranked dead last in the WHL in the goals against department and part of it has to do with their inexperienced defensive corps.

"The thing on defence is that I am happy with their development to this point, I am not happy with how inconsistent we are back there," said Pleau. "We're learning, but we're not fundamentally sound and that is what disappoints me."

Biggest surprise: Jesse Pearson

The 17-year-old literally fought his way on the blueline. For a defenceman who is just six feet and 162 pounds, he is proving to be tough as nails.

Goaltending: B-

The season began with just as much inexperience in goal as on the blueline with Dalyn Flette and Cam Lanigan.

Flette is injured and won't begin skating until next month. Lanigan is showing he has the tools to be the Oil Kings goaltender of the future, but he's gone through the ups and downs of a typical rookie.

With Torrie Jung's arrival, he's helped push the Oil Kings back into the playoff race.

"He (Jung) solidified it," said Pleau.

"When he came here, he's given the team confidence and he's helped get us back into the race."

Special Teams

Power play: B-

Ranked 10th in the WHL at 18.8%

Penalty Kill: C-

Ranked 17th at 77.1%

Outlook:

If comparing records at this point in the season, one might think the Oil Kings aren't much further ahead than their expansion season.

At this point last year, the Oil Kings were in the midst of a big-time skid, losing six of their last seven game before Christmas and it began their slide out of the playoff race.

This year, they've been in the thick of the playoff race and the team has played some of their best hockey in the past month, going 6-3 in their past nine games.

THEN & NOW

2007-08

First half: 12-18-2-4

Goals for: 91

Goals against: 125

Home: 7-11-1-1

Road: 5-7-1-3

2008-09

First half: 14-17-1-3 (heading into yesterday)

Goals for: 104

Goals against: 137

Home: 8-8-0-1 prior to last night

Road: 6-9-1-2


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