Oilers 2007-08 European review

By Guy Flaming

The Edmonton Oilers had just six prospects playing in Europe this past season with a pair in Sweden and the other four all in Russia.  While not all are in the long-term picture for the Oilers, a few are on the radar and a couple could potentially make the move to North America as early as next season.

Alexei Mikhnov headlines the group as the highest drafted and most talented of the six.  The Kiev native had a career year with Yaroslavl while enduring a myriad of nagging injuries including wrist and shoulder troubles.  Lokomotiv reached the RSL finals before losing out and Mikhnov was one of the key contributors to that playoff success having collected eight points in 16 games, third-best on his team.  At the end of the campaign, Mikhnov had set new personal RSL highs in goals, assists and points and had also played on the national team at intervals during the course of the year.

Of course the question remains whether a return to the NHL may be in his future but although it is something the player says he wants to do, it doesn’t appear very likely to happen any time soon.  Sources suggest that Mikhnov’s camp are seeking a one-year, one-way contract in the $1.5 million range and with Edmonton already overloaded with NHL-caliber forwards, there simply isn’t room to guarantee an opening.

“He’s had a decent season this year,“ GM Kevin Lowe said in late March. “To bring Alexei over we’d almost have to give him a spot on the team and I’m not certain that we’ve seen enough to be able to do that at this point.  If he’d be receptive to come over and, like everybody else, try to make the team in training camp and if things didn’t work out go down and put some time in the minors, then probably it would be something that we’d explore.

“Alexei’s been a interesting one for us,” Lowe added. “Nice person, definite skill level, big body and appears to have some offensive upside.  I know last year [Wilkes-Barre head coach] Todd Richards really felt that he was coming on and we left it up to the player to make the decision whether he wanted to stay or go back and originally he wanted to stay [in North America] but then he decided to go back [to Russia].”

Lowe says that, for cases like Mikhnov, he wishes the NHL had different rules pertaining to roster sizes above the current 23 maximum.

“With players like that you wish you had more time with them, i.e. you wish for a 28 or even an unlimited roster where you could work with guys because it really takes time for [European] players.  You want them to feel like a part of the organization and learn what it takes to be a NHL player but unfortunately we’re in a business where we just don’t get that enough time with these players and so the result is some players that have potential slip through the cracks.”

The Oilers hoped to get another close look at Mikhnov at the World Championships going on right now in Eastern Canada where coach Craig MacTavish is on the bench for the host squad.  However, Mikhnov was not added to the Russian team. 

“It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see Mikhnov next year, but he did show us enough that at least I have some intrigue in going forward,” Lowe summed up.

Like Mikhnov, Mikhail Zhukov also had a career year but with three goals and 11 points in 43 games it’s hardly something to get excited about.  Zhukov played again for AK Bars Kazan but will not return to the team next year, however, the Russian is not headed to North America either.

“I just met with him over in Kazan where he played,” Kevin Prendergast told HF in April. “He’s going to go and play in Switzerland next year by the looks of it.” 

Asked whether the move would change the organization’s outlook on the player or whether the organization would remove him from their property list, Prendergast said, “The progression just hasn’t been there so whether he’s on our list or not I don’t think it makes a difference.”

Zhukov, known as Misha Joukov while playing in Sweden some years ago, is not a player of importance in the Oiler organization making that a wasted third round pick.  The native of St. Petersburg was pointless in four playoff games.    

Another prospect rapidly sliding out of the big picture is small but talented Alexei Bumagin.  After a fantastic RSL rookie campaign in 2005-06 the winger has had back-to-back years of disappointment.  The Oilers had hoped to be able to convince Bumagin to come to North America for prospect camp in June and the possibly play in the American Hockey League but that sounds less likely now.

“We’re not sure on Bumagin [coming to prospect camp] because he has a contract over there and he’s been a bit [difficult] over the whole thing,” said a clearly frustrated Prendergast.

Bumagin’s stats this year with Khimik were not horrible, but 8 goals and 15 points in 31 games is far from lighting the world on fire.  The product of Togliatti was pointless in five playoff games.
 
Defenseman Josef Hrabal played another season for Cherepovets in Russia and was good enough that the Oilers recently attempted to sign him.  Unfortunately, negotiations have gone nowhere with the player’s agent asking for more than what the Oilers feel comfortable with and so the Czech rearguard will go unsigned by June 1, thus becoming a free agent.

Hrabal was the second highest scoring blueliner on his team with 13 points but the 22-year-old went pointless in eight playoff games.

So while the Oilers’ dismal success rate with Russia continues there are interesting developments out of Sweden as both 2007 draft selections will be in Edmonton just a couple of weeks from now.

“[Linus] Omark and [William] Quist are coming for sure,” confirmed Prendergast when asked about potential Europeans attending the June prospects camp.

Omark, Edmonton’s fourth-round pick last June, had a good year in the SEL.  Playing for Luleå, the diminutive forward racked up 11 goals and 32 points in 55 games, numbers that are comparable to those put up by Swede Fabian Brunnstrom (9 goals, 28 assists) who recently signed a much-hyped contract with Dallas.

Luleå owns the rights to Omark for another season but there is definite interest from Edmonton in getting the talented Swede to their side of the Atlantic.  

The only drawback that has the Oilers concerned is his size, but once the 5’9 winger is in Edmonton they’ll be able to get a better sense of his mental make-up and see in-depth how he competes.

They might get more of a chance to do that with Quist who is currently on the fence as to where he’ll play next season.  The gangly forward was Edmonton’s last selection in June, but impressed at their fall training camp.  That feeling quickly disappeared after Prendergast saw the prospect in Sweden midway through the year.

“I told him when I was there in February that I’m not happy with his development and I think he has to come over here and play because he plays a North American system anyway,” said Prendergast.  “We have to make a decision on him by the end of next year and I told him ‘at this point if you’re going to go back and play and do the same thing you don’t have a hope in hell of getting a contract from us, but at least in junior hockey you’d put the pressure on us’.”

Making the move to the CHL would first mean getting picked up in the Import Draft which goes 10 days after the NHL Entry Draft.  Quist recently told HF that the Edmonton Oil Kings have already contacted him to gauge his interest level in playing in North America.  The WHL club confirmed that they had a degree of interest in the player, however, the second-year franchise will have a top 12 pick in the Import Draft and only one opening on their roster now that Robin Figren has signed with the Islanders.  It would seem improbable that the Oil Kings would use that pick on a player that could only be with them for a single season so the local team probably isn’t the right fit.

Also worth noting is that Quist recently signed a one-year deal with Nybro back in Sweden but that would not prevent a move to the CHL if the player decided to make the change.

“[Quist] has an opportunity to leave that deal at anytime if he wants to come to North America,” confirmed Prendergast who clearly feels the CHL would be the best place for the 19-year-old next season.

 The Oilers will hold their annual summer conditioning camp from June 1-9 this year before the brass convenes in seclusion to prepare for the NHL Entry Draft later that month.  Upwards of 30 players are expected to attend the camp, including some young free agents.

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