|Wes Vannieuwenhuizen wore No. 90 during the 2011 Young Stars Tournament in Penticton (Photo by Marissa Baecker / Getty Images)
- All any player wants is an opportunity. When it comes and it's met with preparation, good things happen and dreams can be made.
Just ask Wes Vannieuwenhuizen.
Paired with Oilers prospect David Musil
with the WHL's Vancouver Giants last season, the 6'3", 205-pound rearguard notched eight assists, a +11 rating and 157 penalty minutes in 64 regular season games. It was enough, in the Oilers' eyes, to put in a call. The Chilliwack, BC, native was subsequently invited to the team's camps, where a close-to-home NHL experience took place in the Okanagan.
It all started with a 45-minute plane ride to Kelowna aboard the team's chartered aircraft; an Airbus A320, fully-catered with delicious meals and an equally as satisfying taste of what the NHL dream entailed.
It's a bit different than bussing 13 hours (each way) between the coast and Oil Country, which he and his squad did on Saturday when the Giants beat the Oil Kings 3-2 at Rexall Place.
"Oh, it was awesome," said a smiling Vannieuwenhuizen who, through a year of eligibility, remains undrafted by an NHL club. "I don't think I've ever traveled quite like that. But beyond the plane and accommodations, going there and getting the chance to play [in the 2011 Young Stars Tournament] was unreal. I had such a blast with the guys, and it really was my only pro experience to this point.
"It was short and such a whirlwind because we were so busy throughout, but I learned so much, so quick. It was a great experience and I'm thrilled to have gotten the chance."
As tough as he can be, tilting with Edmonton's Mitchell Moroz (6'2" and 208 pounds) in Saturday's main event, Vannieuwenhuizen sees even greater potential, embracing his versatile skill-set to better round out his game.
In order to reach the next level, it's a must.
"It's very intense and the pace is that much quicker," he said, noting the NHL's exceptional leap in skill. "It's such a big step up from the WHL. I only had three games to make an impression in Penticton, so there was some pressure.
"[The Oilers] invited me to main camp, which was really nice. I didn't expect them to do it. I personally thought I played well, but it sure says something when the coaches and managers get together and say, ‘Yeah, this kid deserves a longer look.' I really appreciated it."
As a gritty, hard-working player that's dedicated to establishing a staunch, two-way presence, Vannieuwenhuizen has approached his development with a simple laundry list: Awareness, positioning, skating. Repeat.
Now he's better than ever, and he credits so much of his rise to the Oilers' keen approach in helping him develop back in September.
"My summer was a big part of it, because I put in more time to training in those areas," he said. "Coming into camp here and seeing how the pros do it was so enlightening; watching them prepare, battle and do what they do on a day-to-day basis to be here permanently, it was amazing.
"I brought that knowledge back to Vancouver. I'm an older guy now, and I feel as though I've become more of a leader this season. I think that has a pretty big impact on development, too; to mature a little bit and learn things through experience, and there was no better experience than getting to work on my skills with the Oilers.
"I got some great feedback from the coaches," Vannieuwenhuizen added. "Tom Renney in particular was great, but I didn't expect the players to be as hands-on as they were. One time during the camp, Jordan Eberle
came up to me and Mus (David Musil
). There's a bit of a connection there, with him having had so much success in the WHL, so he came and said 'hi' and welcomed us in. It was very nice. It also shows what kind of leader he's become, even at his age. Those are the leadership qualities I believe I picked up on, too."
Sporting an 'A' on his sweater and logging challenging minutes on a nightly basis, Vannieuwenhuizen has emerged, both as a leader and as a charismatic wall on the Giants' talented blueline. His skating and quickness have improved so much in the four months since his orange and blue debut; so, too, has his ability to guard against the league's most dangerous attackers.
Physically speaking, he still lays the body and hammers his counterparts with ease. It's an intriguing skill-set.
Although he wasn't given an indication as to whether or not his experiment could be re-visited with the Oilers, it hasn't altered the 19-year-old's mindset one bit.
"I don't really know what's going to happen," he laughed. "I've got some more goals this season, which has been nice, but I haven't really set a number on where I'd like to be points-wise. At this point and with the experience I've had with the Oilers now, I want to be a good, solid player.
"I need to keep working on my skills," Vannieuwenhuizen added. "Skating and puck handling are vital, especially if you want to move up to a higher level. That's where I want to be. That's where I believe I can be."
Opportunity can also engineer a surge in desire.-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick