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Oilers’ Lavoie working to prove he can adapt, thrive among pro ranks

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers have run the gamut of experiences with their draft picks at the World Junior tournament.

From Darnell Nurse, a top D-man in Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds who was called upon to become a shutdown defenceman in 2015 and walked away with one assist and a gold medal. To Jesse Puljujarvi, whom they drafted a few months after he was named tournament MVP with 17 points in seven games.

They’ve won some and they’ve (so far) lost some.

So when second-round pick Raphael Lavoie found himself as a depth forward last December in the Czech Republic, Oilers director of player development Scott Howson just sat back like a good scout does, and observed.

“Raphael got to the World Juniors, and he had a different role. But he seemed to embrace the role, and earned the coach’s trust,” said Howson, who is scheduled to leave the Oilers and begin his new job as commissioner of the American Hockey League this spring. “He could have been one of those guys who kind of gets lost in the shuffle, and doesn’t play very much, but he played right down to the end. I know he didn’t score or produce as much as maybe he wanted to (just two assists in seven games), but we were happy with what we saw.”

We’ve heard the tale at every level when it comes to Canada’s national teams. Literally every invited player is the star on his club team. They’re all first-liners, top pairing defencemen and No. 1 goalies — but when they pull on that red maple leaf, they’re just members of Team Canada.

“My end goal was to win, so I didn’t mind taking on a defensive role if, in the end, it could mean we would have a gold medal,” said Lavoie from his home in Chambly, Que. “I think I did the right choice. I wasn’t the only one to have a more defensive role. Everyone put their ego aside, and I think that’s why we won the tournament.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Lavoie is a big centre/right-winger with a wicked shot, who fancies himself in the Ryan Getzlaf mould. “I haven’t scored a goal in the NHL yet,” he laughs when compared, but he’d like to pattern his game after the big Anaheim centre. In the Czech Republic however, he found himself on the fourth line with Connor McMichael (Washington) and Akil Thomas (Los Angeles), tasked with playing a defensive game and chipping in where they could — which Thomas did tremendously when he potted the game-winner in the gold-medal game.

“He’s going to have to learn how to do all those things on a consistent basis in order to pay in the NHL,” Howson said of Lavoie, who at age 19 is six-foot-four and 198 pounds. He signed his entry-level deal with the Oilers over the weekend — a three-year deal with an average annual value of $925,000 — after being a second-round pick (38th overall) in the 2019 draft.

“He’s going to have to check hard, be reliable,” Howson continued. “He’s got a great shot. He’s a one-shot scorer who only needs one chance. His pace of play isn’t always terrific, as it is with a lot of the top players in junior because they play so much that they rest on the ice a lot of the time. And there was no resting on the ice at the World Juniors.

“I think it did educate us. Now we know he can do those things when he turns pro.”

“It shows a different aspect on how I can play hockey,” added Lavoie. “That’s good for me.”

Lavoie was dealt from Halifax to Chicoutimi as the Sagueneens anticipated a Memorial Cup run this spring, but with Monday’s news that the rest of the Canadian Hockey League season has been officially cancelled, his next stop will be Bakersfield of the American Hockey League.

“Guys are a lot bigger,” said Lavoie. “It’s a lot more physical, and a lot more tough than junior. Those are big parts of the adjustments I will have to make.”

The book on Lavoie is that he needs to work on his skating, a line in the scouting reports that gets over-used in today’s game, where everyone skates so fast at the NHL level. As such, Lavoie has been working with Oilers skating coach David Pelletier, the former three-time Canadian champion and Olympic gold-medal figure skater.

“Leg strength, core strength, power,” began Howson. “He’s a good skater in junior — there’s nothing wrong with his stride. It’s just power and strength. He’s got to get a little more powerful off the mark. He’s got to separate from people, because when you’re a pro it’s all about getting the time and space for you to make plays or get a shot off. His separation isn’t what it’s going to need to be once he gets to the NHL.”

What does Pelletier stress when he gets on the ice with Lavoie?

“Edges, cross-overs, strides, starts… There is room for improvement pretty much everywhere,” smiles Lavoie. “I skate well for junior. I can go around guys, I can outskate guys. But I want to be able to bring my skating to a pro level. Everything needs to get better, because next year I won’t be playing against guys who are 16-19 years old. I’ll be playing against guys who are 20 and older.

“Everything just needs to be better.”

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