EDMONTON – Edmonton Oilers fans are about to find out whether or not the dazzling offensive skills Linus Omark has displayed as a YouTube sensation translate to the NHL.
With Ales Hemsky out a month with a strained groin, and captain Shawn Horcoff lost two months with a sprained MCL in his right knee, the Oilers recalled the diminutive Swedish winger, along with Ryan O’Marra, from the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL on Wednesday.
Omark, 23, who reports back to Edmonton among the top-10 scorers in the AHL after being a late cut by the Oilers at training camp, will begin his test Friday when he makes his NHL debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I’m excited to play my first game,” Omark said. “I worked a lot on things down there, so I’m glad to be here.”
Omark, drafted 97th overall by the Oilers in 2007, made his displeasure at not landing a roster spot at camp abundantly clear. He backed up what he said by shredding AHL goaltending for 13 goals and 26 points in 26 games with Oklahoma City. He had a five-goal game.
“When I get something like that against me, I try to prove to everybody that I can be better. I tried to do that,” Omark said of his demotion. “It was tough to play, like mentally.
“I was sent down and it was like anger on the ice all the time. There were five or six games. After that, I played pretty good.”
With Hemsky and Horcoff out, the five-foot-10, 175-pound winger will get a prolonged opportunity to make an impression in a role that will showcase his obvious offensive skills. Omark skated Thursday on a line with O’Marra, his centre with the Barons, and Ryan Jones. He’s met with coach Tom Renney to discuss what’s expected of him.
“You want to put him a position to have success,” Renney said. “Linus is not going to play on our fourth line. That doesn’t make any sense at all. Fact of the matter is he could move up in our lineup.
“You’ve got to give any player who comes in as a callup a little bit of a foundation to work from on both sides of the puck. You’ve got to be synchronized with the guys you’re on the ice with. You can’t just go out there and play around.
“There may be four guys on the ice who understand what we’re doing on the breakout and one guy can destroy that. We do have to do a little bit with him in terms of the basic structure of how we’re playing.”
When Omark reported to camp in September, he’d already played four seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Lulea and another with Moscow Dynamo of the KHL. Omark had 23 goals and 55 points with Lulea in 2008-09 and 20 goals in Moscow in 2009-10, producing countless highlight reel goals along the way.
Omark showed some of that flash in three pre-season games with Edmonton, scoring a goal and adding two assists, but he was stuck behind fellow rookies Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi on the depth chart and ended up getting a ticket to the minors.
“When you’re skilled at other levels, it usually translates, I think,” said Hall. “At the end of the day, high-end skill is what makes the NHL what it is.
“He’s a good skater. He’s obviously a little bit small, but one thing I noticed about him in training camp is that he really battles. He goes into the tough areas. For a skilled player to do that, it adds a component to your game.”
Creativity in shootouts and when he has the puck is one thing. How Omark handles defensive assignments and plays within Renney’s system is quite another. Then, there’s the obvious—Omark will be facing a better level of competition than he’s seen in Oklahoma City.
“These are valuable points,” Renney said. “We don’t want to lose games because we’re not paying attention to detail and we haven’t sacrificed at least some of what we’re good at for the good of the defensive game.
“That said, there are things that you have to allow people like this to do. It’s not unlike the young guys. We’ve given them and opportunity to handle the puck, try to be creative and attack in their way so that can foster some confidence and help our team.”
Not surprisingly, Omark is confident he’s got what it takes to stick, even after Hemsky and Horcoff return.
“I’m going to always try to play my game,” Omark said. “I can just play my game, do my stuff.
“Of course, I worked on it but I don’t think I’m so bad (defensively). I think I was plus-6 or something down there. If you’re a plus, it’s OK.”