When Keith Aulie signed a one-year contract with the Oilers in free agency, he was looking for an opportunity.
Aulie, 25, played just 15 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last season while dealing with upper body injuries, including a broken hand that needed surgery. The defenceman battled throughout pre-season and training camp but didn’t stick on the roster for opening night. He was assigned to the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League.
“At camp, we thought his confidence wasn’t there,” Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins said. “Sending him back to Oklahoma City, he probably didn’t think that was the greatest idea. We thought it was important for him to get playing and he’s come up and given us some real solid hockey.”
Aulie may not have been pleased with the assignment, but he logged a lot of minutes in eight games with the team. His time in the AHL helped him get his feet under him and get back into the swing of a hockey season.
“Coming into the start of the season, I didn’t play much last year,” Aulie said. “It was a bit of a rocky road for me last year. Just to get some playtime this year through pre-season and through some games in Oklahoma City was awesome, just to get my feet back under me, get playing the game and that’s helped me out a ton.”
Being sent to Oklahoma City was a blessing in disguise for Aulie, and it helped build his confidence leading up to his return to Edmonton.
“Just to play hockey again, as a hockey player, you grow so much confidence just through playing every night, getting ice time and being through those situations. To be able to go down there, it’s a huge credit to the coaches down there. It’s an awesome spot, it’s great development down there and I got some good ice time down there, played solid and kind of found my game again. Hopefully I can get it going here.”
|Photo by Getty Images |
The Oilers recalled Aulie on November 11. Since then, the blueliner has played six games for the Oilers. He has registered 19 penalty minutes and is +4.
“He’s provided us with physicality, which we need and some size that we greatly need in our division,” Eakins said.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Aulie said. “You just want to come in and help out the team anyway you can. That’s a big credit to the coaches when you come in that suddenly, they have to help you out a bunch to bring you up to speed. I’m just coming into work everyday and trying to help the team any way I can.”
Aulie has played “solid” in his time with the Oilers, drawing praise for his game and physical presence. The latter was on display against Ottawa on November 13. Aulie fought twice in that game, with 14:19 of ice time.
“It was obviously a little bit of a circus out there but it’s fun to play in games like that, that are confrontational and aggressive,” Aulie said. “That’s got to be a part of my game, to bring some energy to this team. We had a couple of bad starts in a few games there and to be able to bring a little bit of energy was something I can be happy about. I think we’re just trying to get it going here. Last night was a step in the right direction, we’ve just got to take another step now.”
Being physical is something that has helped him get back into playing regularly.
“I always feel like I’m playing my best when I’m using my body and banging, especially down low,” Aulie said. “If I can squeeze guys out, separate them from the puck, stop the cycle or have the right stick position or be hard on guys down low, I think that’s where I’m at my best.”
Aulie is now in competition with the other Oilers defenders for playing time. He knows that with the depth and youth the club has, he’ll have to continue to focus on his own game if he wants to stick in the NHL.
“You can think about that type of stuff, but to be honest my focus is just on one day at a time,” Aulie said. “It’s to come to the rink everyday and work on little things and it’s to work as hard as I can everyday. That stuff will work out or it won’t work out or whatever will happen. If I give 100% effort everyday, that’s all I can do.”
Spot on the Oilers secured or not, Aulie is getting the opportunity he wanted.