By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Goaltender Bryan Pitton is a young player who has been sent to Stockton by the Edmonton Oilers to develop his skills.
Usually that definition would fit a few guys on the team, a half dozen at the most.
But this season, it describes the majority of the roster.
The 2008-09 Thunder will be unlike any of its predecessors when it opens the season at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday against the Fresno Falcons at Stockton Arena. The Oilers promised the Thunder they would provide enough talent for their ECHL affiliate to be competitive and, clearly, they weren’t messing around.
Of the 26 players on the roster, 19 have been supplied by Edmonton or its American Hockey League team, the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons. Fresno has five.
The number will grow for Stockton as four more Springfield prospects and goalie Andrew Perugini, who is working out his immigration issues, will be added.
In a league where teams usually are comprised of free agents with a few affiliated prospects, the Thunder is an anomaly. Last season, 14 of the 31 players Stockton used during the season were from its affiliates.
“There’s no question this team is different than the status quo,” coach Chris Cichocki said. “But I think this is the way the minor leagues are going.”
Pitton, 20, a fifth-round draft pick for the Oilers in 2006, will make his pro debut tonight in front of a crowd expected to exceed 8,000. Veteran Tim Boron has been re-signed in Perugini’s absence.
“It’s very exciting, because it’s been like a month and a half of training camp and now we get to play,” Pitton said. “A lot of us know each other from the other (Edmonton) camps, and this is a very good group.”
Cichocki said NHL teams have relied more on their minor league franchises since the salary cap was adopted in 2006. The Oilers have been at the forefront of the movement. Last season, an inordinate number of injuries affected the entire organization, but the Oilers made sure they had more than enough players to stock Springfield and Stockton.
“There’s a lot of good players (in Stockton), and we don’t have any qualms of bringing the guys we sent to Stockton back if the players who are in Springfield are not performing,” said Kevin Prendergast, Edmonton’s vice president of hockey operations. “We wanted to sign a lot of players and create a lot of competition on the minor league teams, and we’ve done that so far.”
The influx of players should helped the Thunder in every area, particularly on defense.
Stockton’s corps of talented defensemen includes Cleve Kinley, Jordan Bendfeld, Ryan Constant and Robbie Bina. Neil Petruic, a 26-year-old free-agent signee, has played in the AHL, ECHL and Europe, and veteran Mark Adamek has returned.
Stockton has the same situation with its forwards. Young prospects, such as Toby LaFrance, David Rohlfs, Garet Hunt and Ryan Huddy, are under the on-ice tutelage of Mike Lalonde, who is returning to the Thunder after a season in Europe. The Thunder has not picked its on-ice leadership team, but Lalonde, Petruic and Rohlfs will serve as alternate captains today.
“I think there’s a good balance here,” Kinley said. “It’s a long year, but we’ve got the talent on the ice and, in the dressing room, it’s a good bunch of guys.”
There are likely to be several roster changes this season, which is normal in the minor leagues. But the Thunder heads into its fourth season with a unique roster and plenty of optimism.
“I’ve never seen this many (affiliated players). I’ve seen 11 or 12 on a team, but not this many,” Fresno coach Matt Thomas said. “It’s a great thing for them; you are getting high-quality players out of the deal. And that’s a very good team.”
On Friday, the Thunder signed free-agent forward Craig Valette. The 26-year-old spent five seasons in the AHL with the San Jose Sharks’ organization, playing in 328 games. He will not play today.