Farm land scarce

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

Having abdicated control of their prospects by suspending operation of their own American Hockey League team two seasons ago, the Edmonton Oilers are trying to wrestle it back in time for the 2007-08 season.

That, with the Edmonton Road Runners in mothballs since the Oilers received permission from the AHL to suspend operation of the franchise following the 2004-05 season, is easier said than done.

The Oilers need a market capable of sustaining an AHL franchise and, topping their wish list, they'd prefer a circumstance in which an ownership group would step forward and run the operation.

FANS NEED ROAD MAP

Until the Oilers find that situation - the search is ongoing and there isn't, to hear assistant GM Scott Howson tell it, a leading candidate - fans will need a road map to keep track of the organization's minor leaguers.

The trick for fans, like the prospects who've been strewn from coast to coast, is to avoid getting lost.

"You lose control of development to a certain extent," says Howson, who knows the AHL inside and out as the former GM of the Road Runners and Hamilton Bulldogs.

"The coaches aren't employed by you. You don't control what's going on with the AHL team as much as you'd like."

The "in the system" section of the team media guide doesn't really apply because, well, the Oilers don't have a system. "In the minors?" Absolutely. They've had players in Grand Rapids, Hamilton, Wilkes-Barre, Iowa and Milwaukee in the AHL, as well as in Stockton of the ECHL.

It's a 180 degree swing from the situation the Oilers enjoyed with the Road Runners, where prospects performed right under the noses of GM Kevin Lowe, Howson and coach Craig MacTavish.

That's a far cry from having Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Alexei Mikhnov and Rob Schremp in Wilkes-Barre, affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens have absolutely nothing invested in them. Same for prospects in Milwaukee (Nashville), Grand Rapids (Detroit), Hamilton (Montreal) and Iowa (Dallas).

"Long term, you want to have your own team with your own players and your own coach and have them grow up in the system," Howson said. "That's not happening now. We have to fix that."

The decision to suspend operation of the Road Runners after the NHL lockout was a bad one from a player development standpoint - although Howson disputes there's been significant stunting of the progress of prospects to this point. What else can he say?

In that regard, the Oilers probably never should have pulled out of Hamilton and moved to Toronto for one ill-fated season. Mind you, they made a very tidy profit on that move with Lyle Abraham absorbing the costs of operating out of Ricoh Coliseum in Hogtown.

"It's important we get our development system straightened out and that there's some stability in the long term," Howson said.

"We've been getting by for two years now, but we have to get this pointed in the right direction."

Maybe selling the AHL brand in an NHL city like Edmonton wasn't going to fly once the lockout ended. That's the argument the Oilers used when they pulled the plug on the Road Runners.

Of course, it was a situation made more, ahem, cumbersome by the Oilers' pursuit of a WHL team.

Getting the Road Runners going again won't be as easy. The Oilers would prefer to stay in Canada, preferably in the west, if possible. Failing that, the American Midwest is an option. But where?

The AHL has conditionally approved the sale of the suspended Cincinnati franchise to a group in Windsor. That won't help the Oilers until 2008-09 at the earliest, assuming they could strike an affiliation deal. And they'd still have to sell the rights of the Road Runners.

KANSAS CITY UNLIKELY

There's a new rink in Kansas City, but interested parties in that city are going after an NHL franchise, not an AHL outfit. As for any other potential markets, Howson isn't offering up the Oilers' laundry list.

"It's a challenge," admits Howson, who has to have something on paper by March to be back in business for 2007-08. "We got close last year with Moline (Illinois). It's not an easy task.

"It's early in the process. We've had discussions with two or three markets, but there's nothing close right now. There's markets out there, but we're still trying to analyze and do our homework."

Better sooner than later.


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