Portland, OR - Eight months ago, Martin Gernat could barely speak the language.
Now, 226 days later, a regular-season title in hand and with an opportunity to snatch another as WHL Champions, Gernat's the go-to guy.
The 19-year-old has collected seven goals (only one behind Oil Kings leading scorer Curtis Lazar) and 11 points in 16 post-season games. And in a time when Head Coach Derek Laxdal can't put his trust in Cody Corbett, Ryan Dech and Ashton Sautner -- as evidenced in Game 3 Sunday night when the bench boss rolled four defencemen for most of the game -- his role has become even bigger.
It wouldn't be right to suggest his season has been a rollercoaster ride, but Gernat has had his ups and downs, all in an effort to become a more complete player. When the season began, he got off to an incredible start, posting six goals and 17 points in his first 14 games.
Laxdal couldn't (and wouldn't) deny Gernat's exceptional up-ice talent at the time; but defence is king, meaning the bench boss encouraged his rookie to challenge himself at the other end, to focus more on creating a monstrous presence that would help complement his staggering offensive numbers.
"When I got here, everything was much harder," recalled the Oilers' eighth pick, 122nd overall in 2011. "My whole world changed, every single thing. I had a good start to the season and adapted pretty quick, but it wasn't easy."
When the season began, Gernat was listed at 6'5" and 185 pounds. Today, he's up six on the scale, adding meat and muscle to a naturally-gifted build.
"It didn't take me long to notice how physical it is (in North America)," he explained. "I struggled to handle it at times, but I think I worked hard to get better. I started going to the gym a little bit more with the guys once practice was over, building some more muscle and strength. It was really important. I feel better in the defensive zone now, especially in the corners and when working on a guy one-on-one."
Before long, defence was no longer an issue. It's under constant scrutiny, of course, but it's improved leaps and bounds over the course of 72 regular season games, the 2012 World Junior Championship and run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Amid it all, Gernat's best and most lethal strength continued to blossom. He concluded the 2011-12 campaign having racked up 55 points in 60 games, 46 penalty minutes and a team-high +41 rating.
"It's been unbelievable," he said of his regular- and post-season success. "I'm glad that I can be helping the team, and the team can help me grow into a better player. It's been a great experience, a big opportunity to play some big minutes and in the important situations.
"(Oilers Coordinator of Player Development) Billy Moores and the scouting staff are glad, too. They've helped me all season in letting me know what I should be working on. I want to do my best to work on the areas they want me to."
Gernat's post-season numbers are exceptional, and it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise when you consider how he approaches the game -- even against the high-octane Portland Winterhawks, who currently lead the WHL Championship Series 2-1.
Whether it's 5-on-5 or on the power-play (here especially, as the young rearguard leads the Oil Kings in man-advantage tallies with three), Gernat is constantly getting involved on the rush. With the talent to bury a chance and the burners to get back if it goes awry, it's become an integral part of his all-encompassing arsenal.
Doing so helped spur Edmonton's third-period surge in Game 3, scoring with a pinpoint shot from the right-wing faceoff dot.
"If there's a chance, I'm there," Gernat said, smiling. "I'm counted on to score goals because I'm an offensive guy, so it's my job to help out like that. Sometimes I can't (join the rush) because the other team can counter with a breakaway or 2-on-1, but I try to be aware of that.
"I'm always looking for the best spot to score, either by taking a one-timer or by making a good pass to a teammate in a certain spot on the ice."
Communication with his D partner is especially vital -- a relationship that's worked well in the post-season, and was seen Sunday at the Rose Garden as Gernat was paired with stay-at-home defenceman and highly-ranked prospect Griffin Reinhart.
"We're always talking to each other and we even go over it before the games, too," Gernat said. "I told him, 'If you go up, I'll be behind you covering.' And he does the same with me when I go. It's really good to have that kind of communication, and it's even better when everyone on the ice supports it."
If the Oil Kings are to get back on even terms in their best-of-seven set against the Winterhawks, Gernat will be a big part of it. Look for No. 28 to lead the charge.
And the rush.-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com -