EDMONTON - Still distraught, still searching for answers mere hours after losing Game 6 and the Western Hockey League Championship to the Portland Winterhawks, the Edmonton Oil Kings gathered at Rexall Place to clean out their lockers, say their goodbyes and meet with the media one last time.
"It's never fun to go through," said Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk, who scored the lone goal in Sunday's series-deciding defeat. "Last year we lost in the Memorial Cup and that was hard, but we still won the WHL Championship, so the sting wasn't quite as bad.
"It's a lot tougher (to deal with) this year. We're going home empty-handed."
Architected by General Manager Bob Green, the 2012-13 Oil Kings were supposed to win it all. Delivering a record-setting 51-win, 108-point regular season, it certainly was tracking that way until the determined Winterhawks got their chance to avenge last year's defeat.
"You realize how special it is to win a championship and how lucky we were last year," said Ewanyk. "To win with that group of guys last spring and to get a chance to repeat with the same group again this year, it was pretty special. We were a special group again and we ran into a really good Portland team.
"But we made it a great series and left it all out there."
In addition to the graduating overagers (TJ Foster, Trevor Cheek and Dylan Wruck), a host of talented players and lifelong Oil Kings will not be back next season. Nineteen-year-olds Ewanyk, David Musil, Martin Gernat, Michael St. Croix, Laurent Brossoit, Henrik Samuelsson, Keegan Lowe and captain Griffin Reinhart are all signed to NHL contracts and could turn pro in the fall.
"If I'm back with the Oil Kings, that's great as well. But I think I'm ready to make that next step in my career," said Ewanyk, who, along with fellow Oilers prospects Musil and Gernat, will be heading to Oklahoma City Tuesday morning to spend the remainder of the season practicing with the AHL's Barons. (All three signed amateur tryout contracts with the club Monday afternoon.)
"Getting that contract made me hungrier to get to that pro level. That's where I want to be."
Ewanyk was drafted by the Oilers 74th overall in 2011. The St. Albert product collected eight goals and 23 points in 58 regular-season games. Registering 10 points in 22 games while providing a pivotal role as an agitator, he was a force in the post-season as well.
Ewanyk, Musil and Gernat (who was the second-highest scoring defenceman in the post-season with six goals and 17 points) all signed their three-year entry-level contracts this past season.
"I'm pretty happy with my year," said Ewanyk. "It was great starting the year at 100 percent and getting the chance to play a full year healthy, all the way through."
"It was a lot of fun," added Musil, who was acquired from the Vancouver Giants in late October. "It didn't end the way we all wanted, but we all got some great experience. I'd never make it this far in the playoffs before, so it was a pretty special year. Going through all the emotions was pretty cool. I really loved being here for it all. It's a great group of guys and they made it very fun to come to the rink every day.
"Winning a championship is a tough thing to do. It's every kid's dream to win something big and it didn't work out this year. Next year and the year after that, I'm going to do everything I can to go as far as possible and get there."
Musil recorded six assists in the post-season while playing big minutes alongside Keegan Lowe due to the absence of Reinhart (foot surgery) on the back end.
Of course, Musil, Ewanyk and Gernat weren't the only Oilers prospects having success this season. Mitch Moroz, the Oilers' second pick (32nd overall) in 2012, potted 13 goals and a career-high 34 points in 69 games this past season. On a line with Ewanyk and Edgars Kulda most often, the hulking winger recorded seven points in the post-season.
With the graduating members moving on, Moroz is looking forward to an increased role next season.
"I've thought about it. There will be a little more of an opportunity, so getting some further experience (offensively) will be good," he said. "It's something I can look forward to, but it's something that comes with a lot of work. I came into this year expecting to play a little bit of a bigger role and I didn't really promote myself well enough at the start of the year. I got away from some of the things that made me successful, but started to turn things around as the year went on.
"I feel like I grew into somebody that can play in whatever role the team needs me to. Maybe we didn't see it all on paper, but we did some gritty work and had some success doing it. When you look at it from that standpoint, I feel as though I grew a lot as a player and as a person, too."
Moroz, Stephane Legault, Curtis Lazar, Cody Corbett, Ashton Sautner, Dysin Mayo and Tristan Jarry: This is your team now.
"There's been lots of talk about all the guys moving on, but everything I keep telling people is to not be surprised when they're still a solid hockey club next season," said Ewanyk. "We've built this franchise into a winning franchise and it's not going to take a step back next year. Not a chance. They're going to put the best product on the ice that they can.
"A lot of guys gained a lot of experience in the last couple years. We have some older guys that have been here a while, but look at guys like Brandon Baddock, Cole Benson and Luke Bertolucci. They were playing good minutes in a series against a team like Portland for the League championship. That's huge.
"I wouldn't count on this team being anything less than great next year."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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