On the clock

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:32 PM ET

It's now or never. Make or break. This is it. Pick a cliche. This time, they really mean it.

Three guesses which Edmonton Oilers first-round pick I'm talking about. If Jani Rita isn't on the tip of your tongue, you haven't been paying attention since draft day in 1999, when the Oilers selected the fair-haired forward from Jokerit in Helsinki with the 13th pick.

Back then, Barry Fraser was chief scout. Glen Sather was GM and waging the small-market fight before bailing for Broadway. Ron Low was the head coach. You get the drift.

Here we are 48 hours from the opening of the Oilers 2005 training camp, and Fraser - he of the Cabo cocoa-butter tan - Slats and Lowtide have long since moved on.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out Rita - who has just 15 NHL games on his resume since draft day - will be next if he can't show the current regime something significant before Oct. 5.

It's about time, already.

"I don't have any thoughts other than making it this year," insists Rita. "That's the only thing I'm thinking about now."

FIRST-ROUND SKELETONS

Six NHL entry drafts have come and gone and the Oilers have selected 73 more prospects since they passed on Jeff Jillson, Martin Havlat and Jordan Leopold to select Rita.

After a half-dozen camp calls, Rita is one more failed opportunity from being locked in the closet where the skeletons of first-rounders gone wrong - most recently, Joe Hulbig, Jason Bonsignore, Steve Kelly, Michel Riesen, Michael Henrich and Alexei Mikhnov - are kept.

The flipside is the 24-year-old from Helsinki, coming off an outstanding season with HPK Hameenlina, is one great camp from hearing Oilers current chief scout Kevin Prendergast exclaim, "We never doubted you, kid." Better late than never, and all that.

"He has the ability to play in this league," said Prendergast. "But it's up to him to create the spot for himself. He'll be given the opportunity."

If camp scrimmages meant anything, the six-foot-one, 206-pound Rita would have 200 NHL games in the books. They don't and he doesn't. Rita is a "tweener." He skates well, has good size and decent offensive touch, but won't knock your socks off with any one aspect of his game. And, while Rita's shown flashes, he hasn't been able to sustain it.

"He has to improve the physical aspect and get more involved in the tighter areas," Prendergast said. "He has the hands. He has the speed. He has the strength.

"Can he play in the NHL? Like I said, he has the ability. We'll figure out over the next 18 days whether he can or can't."

Some insist Rita hasn't been afforded a long enough look - he played 12 games with the Oilers in 2002-03 and just two in 2003-04. Others say he hasn't done enough to warrant one.

HAS TO 'GAIN TRUST'

"There are always the new guys coming, but I am getting better, also," said Rita, who had 21 goals and 39 points in 56 games with Hameenlina. "I had a great season. I think it will help. Confidence-wise, just knowing the game, it's kind of an all-around thing."

Over there, fine. Over here?

"Consistency, I guess, is the word," he said. "I have to be good every night. I can't take nights off. I have to gain the trust of the coaching staff, get more ice time, build the confidence."

Rita is behind Radek Dvorak, Hemsky, Fernando Pisani and Georges Laraque on the camp depth chart.

"I know where I'm at. I don't have to read it in the newspapers," Rita said. "I'm going to give it everything I've got in camp and the pre-season games. My mindset is I'm going to make it."

This time, he means it. Really.


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