The Edmonton Oil Kings have their sights set on a championship.
The Alberta capital club with WHL Coach of the Year Brad Lauer at the helm was sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 42-12-6-4 showing and 94 points through 64 games prior to last season’s COVID-19 halt. When they return to the ice in the coming months they’ll have a clean slate but capturing their first Memorial Cup title since 2014 remains the goal.
Edmonton ranked second in the pre-season edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings – and first among all WHL clubs – and look to push their younger talents to new heights when play resumes. That process begins at the forward position following the departure of last year’s leading scorer Riley Sawchuk, whose 76 points finished 11th in the league-wide scoring race.
Enter 17-year-old right-wing Dylan Guenther.
The first-overall selection in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, Guenther is an early favourite to once again hear his name called early on draft day, this time at the 2021 NHL Draft. Following a brief eight-game trial with Edmonton in 2018-19, the hometown product parlayed that experience into a successful rookie showing, producing above a point-per-game clip that counted 26 goals and 33 assists through 58 appearances, good for second in scoring among all freshmen as the budding forward was later presented with the Jim Piggott Trophy as the WHL Rookie of the Year.
“An amazing skater who shoots the puck with a deadly release and wicked accuracy, Guenther has been a driving force for Edmonton’s bench boss Brad Lauer,” writes Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino. “He has swagger to his game and is a star in the making. It’s not often a first-year player is a key contributor to a Memorial Cup contending team.”
While the Oil Kings will lean on Guenther to help push the team offensively this season, he won’t be without scoring support as Edmonton’s forward core also boasts several key up-and-comers like newly minted St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Neighbours who heard his name called 26th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft as one of seven WHL talents to be taken in the opening round.
Combining a scoring touch with bruising physicality, Neighbours brings a rare old-school style as evidenced by his 2019-20 campaign in which he provided a well-rounded game while finishing second in team scoring with 23 goals and 47 assists for 70 points through 64 contests.
“To be drafted by a recent Stanley Cup-winning team and an amazing organization with a lot of great players on it, I’m very, very excited and very honoured,” Neighbours told Derek Van Diest of the Edmonton Sun following Round 1 on Tuesday.
Commenting on Blues general manager Doug Armstrong likening his playing style to that of Portland Winterhawks graduate Brenden Morrow, Neighbours added, “That’s a huge comparison. You think (of him as) kind of a glue guy in the room and someone who provides some secondary scoring, but really shows up in a role as (an) energy guy and a leader.”
While Neighbours will have an opportunity to earn a spot with the Blues in the immediate future, the more likely scenario is he returns to the Oil Kings for further seasoning and continues to grow in a leadership role and potentially play for a spot on the World Junior stage on home ice with Team Canada after previously serving as an alternate captain with the program at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
In all, with his selection, Neighbours becomes one of two players on the Oil Kings to be drafted into the NHL alongside teammate Matthew Robertson, one of the league’s most promising blue-liners who was chosen by the New York Rangers in the second round of last year’s draft.
After putting together a modest 33-point campaign as a first-year draft eligible, the big-time rearguard took another step last season in tallying 47 points through 60 games including 13 goals that were outpaced by only seven rearguards league-wide. Combining desirable size with modern puck-moving abilities, the noted smooth skater helps power the Oil Kings’ offensive game from the back end.
That strong support in the team’s own end continues in the crease with standout netminder Sebastian Cossa whose 33-game rookie season saw him impressively finish among the WHL leaders with a fourth-best 2.23 goals-against average and third-ranked .921 save percentage.
Chosen in the second round of the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, Cossa made an immediate impact with the Oil Kings last season, turning aside 40 shots in his October debut versus the Winnipeg ICE to secure a shutout in his first-ever appearance and his first of 21 victories as the 17-year-old later took over the starter’s role.
Like Guenther, Cossa is an expected early selection in the upcoming 2021 NHL Draft who will undoubtedly serve as a key piece as the Oil Kings aim to return to the winner’s circle in the coming campaign.