Oilers 2003 draft evaluation

By Guy Flaming

2003 was hyped as the best draft year since 1979 and has proven to be just that with 29 of 30 players in the first round having already appeared in the NHL.  The Edmonton Oilers made 12 selections that year, of which five have played in the NHL and a total of 10 still have their NHL rights owned by the franchise.

While none of the players drafted by Edmonton have become franchise players like many from the class of 2003, the Oilers depth at the NHL, AHL and ECHL level all feature names taken that June.

Despite the relative success that five NHL-caliber players indicates, the organization didn’t come away with one of the many true impact players from in the first round.  A person could throw a dart at a list of the top 30 names and the odds of hitting a star are better than not, however, the Oilers are one of the few teams that managed not to do so.  This is made worse by the fact the club traded out of its original position only to see, years later, the player taken in that spot develop into a budding superstar.  

Marc Pouliot, C – 1st round, 22nd overall
Status: NHL Regular
NHL Games Played: 78

Much has been made of Edmonton’s first-round activities in 2003.  Sitting in the 17th position at the start of the event, the Oilers attempted to move into the top 10 where they’d hoped to have an opportunity to draft defenseman Ryan Suter.  Although that failed to materialize, they still had a realistic chance to draft Robert Nilsson.  The New York Islanders beat them to the punch by grabbing the touted Swede with the 15th overall pick leaving Edmonton to refocus their attention.

With their original targets off the board, the Oilers entertained an offer from the New Jersey Devils who had possession of St. Louis’ first rounder thanks to the Scott Stevens tampering fiasco several years earlier.  The Devils’ offer would see Edmonton trading down five spots while adding a late second-round pick which most considered fair compensation.  Edmonton had three players on their list that they coveted and felt the odds were strong that at least one of them would still be around for them so they made the trade. 

However, the plan started to go south immediately when Washington grabbed Eric Fehr and Anaheim selected Ryan Getzlaf, two of the players on Edmonton’s short list.  Brent Burns (MIN) and Mark Stuart (BOS) followed allowing the Oilers to choose Marc-Antoine Pouliot which many print and TV pundits at the time felt was a solid choice.

Pouliot’s next few years saw two failed team Canada tryouts because of lingering injuries.  As a junior, the Quebec City product battled a hip flexor, an abdominal tear, a broken wrist, and as a pro he came down with mononucleosis that kept him out of Edmonton’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006.

It took Pouliot a while to adjust to the pro game but he managed 45 points in his rookie season playing on a AHL team not operated by the Oilers.  The next year he was in Wilkes-Barre playing on Pittsburgh’s farm club and he was nearly a point-per-game player.  At the NHL level, Pouliot has appeared in a total of 78 games and has 19 points.  Much of that time has been spent on the fourth line but during stages of the year when the Oilers were ravaged by injury, Pouliot took shifts with seasoned veterans and showed at least a little chemistry with them.

The NHL is still in Pouliot’s future although his impact will not be as noticeable as most of the players drafted around him in 2003.  Although not directly traded for one another, most Oiler fans will always link Pouliot with Zach Parise, the player New Jersey drafted with Edmonton’s 17th overall pick who has since gone on to star for that franchise.

Colin McDonald, RW – 2nd round, 51st overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Size and scoring; the two assets that led to Colin McDonald’s selection by Edmonton with the 51st overall pick.  As a junior with the New England Junior Coyotes, McDonald was a sniper and collected a plethora of league awards for his offensive prowess. 

His subsequent four years at Providence College were a far cry from what was expected.  Despite the fact that many years he was one of the Friars leading scorers, the numbers he and his Providence teammates were compiling were well below Hockey East standards.  Sources tell Hockey’s Future that if not for the fact the Oilers did not operate their own farm team during McDonald’s junior and senior seasons, they would have signed the prospect away from college sooner. 

McDonald admits that as a rookie in Springfield last year he really hit a wall at the midway point of the campaign.  He was given a lot of opportunity in many different roles including on the top line but McDonald could not tap into his pre-college offensive skill set.  2008-09 is the final year of his entry-level contract and once again the now 24-year-old is going to be counted on to provide some spark with contributions to the score sheet. 

J.F. Jacques, LW – 2nd round, 68th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 53

The second round pick acquired from New Jersey became Jean-Francois Jacques, a huge aggressive forward from Baie-Comeau. The Montreal native was a raw prospect but packed with potential and fit Edmonton’s need to get bigger and tougher.  Not only did Jacques show some offensive abilities but he was a terror on skates earning the nickname “Crazy Train” from the Drakkar faithful.

By the time Jacques was in his fourth and final QMJHL season, many felt that he would be the best player Edmonton took in 2003 having nearly doubled his career offensive numbers with a reputation in the league that left him with few physical challengers.

As a pro at the minor-league levels, Jacques has continued to have success.  He had 44 points as a rookie with the Hamilton Bulldogs and followed that with nearly a point per game with Wilkes-Barre.  This past year he played near the same pace before a serious vertebrae injury ended his season.

Unfortunately, as an Oiler Jacques has not been a success and is still without a point after appearing in 53 NHL games.  While the player struggles to discover why he can’t produce at the top level the way he does so efficiently in the AHL, his NHL employers would like to see him concentrate on his physical strengths first and foremost.

The 6’4 and 217 lbs forward’s name was mentioned in trade rumors at the 2007 draft and now as an impending restricted free agent some wonder if he could be in play again at the 2008 event where the Oilers do not have a second or third-round pick.   

Mikhail Zhukov, C – 3rd round, 72nd overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

The 72nd pick in the 2003 draft was assigned to Edmonton as compensation for losing the rights to Group III free agent Mike Richter, the Rangers goalie that the Oilers temporarily acquired.  This was the first of two choices Edmonton would make in round three, which was interesting considering they had given their own third rounder to Philadelphia the year before in exchange for Jiri Dopita.
 
The Oilers made what has turned out to be an awful pick by selecting Mikhail Zhukov, a Russian who was playing in Sweden during his draft year.  Citizenship issues with Sweden carried on for a couple of years until they finally were resolved just in time for Zhukov to return to Russia where he has stayed ever since.

The forward has never developed into anything more than a depth player in the RSL and the Oilers have gone on the record stating that although they have made no attempt to remove him from their protective roster, Zhukov is well off of their radar.  Edmonton believes that next season Zhukov will play in Switzerland but for all intents and purposes, a future with the Oilers is not in the cards.

Zack Stortini, RW – 3rd round, 94th overall
Status: NHL Regular
NHL Games Played: 95

Edmonton had previously acquired the 94th overall pick from the Washington Capitals when they had dealt Mike Grier to the U.S. capital.  The Oilers were enamored with what they saw from 17-year-old Sudbury captain Zack Stortini that they couldn’t help but pick him up with their second third-round opportunity. 

Stortini qualified for the draft by just four days and was therefore one of the youngest players in the Class of 2003.  While he was busy putting up his dukes and penalty minutes in the OHL, Stortini was busy earning top grades in school, a fact that impressed Edmonton to no end; not only were they getting an extremely tough competitor but they weren’t adding the stereotypical brainless thug.

Stortini’s dedication to personal development has paid off over the last five years.  His slow skating has improved with his efforts and his attitude and coachability helped him stick with the NHL club for the bulk of the 2007-08 schedule.  To date, Stortini has amassed 13 points and 306 penalty minutes in 95 NHL contests and is the closest thing the Oilers currently have to a big-league tough guy, although no one considers him to be a heavyweight at the NHL level.  Stortini has evolved into a pestering player and one who is willing to drop the gloves as a result of his actions or to defend a teammate. 

No player chosen in 2003’s third round has appeared in more NHL games than Stortini.

Kalle Olsson, C – 5th round, 147th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

The New York Rangers held Edmonton’s fourth-round pick so their next turn came in the fifth round.  The 147th pick originally belonged to Montreal but the Oilers used it to select Swede Kalle Olsson. 

While talented, Olsson did not develop quickly enough to warrant a contract and is therefore currently an unrestricted free agent while he plays in Sweden’s Allsvenskan league a step below the SEL.

Last year Olsson was a point-per-game player for Västerås, suggesting that he may have the ability to play at a higher level.  In his junior years he did appear at the 2005 World Junior Championship for Sweden and recorded 3 assists.

David Rohlfs, RW/D – 5th round, 154th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The Edmonton Oilers used their own fifth-round pick to select another hulking forward in David Rohlfs who had 30 goals and 44 points in the NAHL in his draft year. Following his junior career, the Michigan native spent four seasons in the hands of Red Berenson as a member of the Wolverines where he would spend time as both a forward and a rearguard.

His senior year saw a promotion to the top line where he got to play with future NHLers in T.J. Hensick (COL) and Kevin Porter (PHX).  As a result, Rohlfs established new career highs in every offensive category and developed confidence as he turned pro.

Rohlfs made his minor-league debut with the Stockton Thunder in the ECHL and aside from two games in the AHL, he spent the entire season in California.  In 65 games, he had 16 goals and 32 points, sixth in team scoring, playing in a checking role. Unfortunately his season ended with a concussion the effects of which have carried over into the off-season and kept him out of Edmonton’s recent prospect camp. 

Dragan Umicevic, LW – 6th round, 184th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

With their sixth-round option, the Oilers chose another transplanted player skating in Sweden.  Serbian Dragan Umicevic was considered a real sleeper pick by Edmonton in 2003 as the talented forward was just scratching the surface of his talent.  The season following the draft was a learning one for Umicevic as he bounced around between three teams while trying to stick with Södertälje in the SEL.  Finally in 2004-05 he did find a permanent position and blossomed while playing with Olli Jokinen during the NHL lockout.

Described as a cocky, headstrong but skilled forward it soon became apparent that it was going to be difficult to lure Umicevic to North America.  After the NHL lockout season, Umicevic felt he had proven enough alongside Jokinen, Dick Tarnstrom and Mikael Samuelsson to warrant a one-way contract.  The Oilers disagreed and wanted Umicevic to be willing to spend some time in the AHL which was something the player had no interest in doing.

In the end, Umicevic became a free agent and has toiled in mediocrity in Europe for the last few years never once reaching the 30-point plateau.  Conditioning was also an issue for Umicevic at one point but a transfer to Djurgården for one season helped the player to get into much better shape.  

Kyle Brodziak, C – 7th round, 214th overall
Status: NHL Regular
NHL Games Played: 96

The Oilers had egg on their face in 2002 when they used a fourth-round pick to draft Robin Kovar from the Vancouver Giants.  The problem was that despite league-produced information stating he was eligible, Kovar was too young to be drafted so the selection was voided.  In 2003, the league made up for their blunder by awarding a compensatory pick and in the end Edmonton came away with Kyle Brodziak.

Considering that Brodziak is thus far the most successful player Edmonton has from 2003 and where he was taken in the draft, the Oilers are extremely happy.  The vast majority of the credit for the selection falls at the feet of Lorne Davis, the elder statesman of the scouting staff who actually pushed to draft Brodziak a year earlier despite a rather non-descript season in Moose Jaw. 

2003-04 was a breakout year for Brodziak.  He was invited to try out for Canada’s World Junior team, only to be one of the last players cut, and then went on to score 93 points, which was third most in the WHL in 2005.

2005-06 was spent with the Edmonton Road Runners where after a slow start he continued to develop and ended the year as one of the squad’s best players.  Two more seasons in the minors would follow.  In Iowa, Brodziak played out of position and well down the depth chart but he sucked it up, didn’t complain and was able to use the experience to help round out his defensive game.  The following year in Wilkes-Barre, his offensive side was counted on and he produced 56 points in 62 games.

After an impressive training camp, Brodziak won a spot in Edmonton for 2007-08 and appeared in 80 games.  He scored 14 goals and had 31 points in his first full year mostly spent centering the fourth line between Stortini and Curtis Glencross.

Brodziak has established himself as a dependable utility player who can kill penalties, take important faceoffs and has added a much-needed physical element to his repertoire. As a player who was long ago pegged as too poor of a skater to play in the NHL, the Alberta native should be commended for the time and effort he’s put in to address that flaw.

Mathieu Roy, D – 7th round, 215th overall
Status: NHL Regular
NHL Games Played: 30

If a seventh rounder ever plays a single game in the NHL, it should be considered a success and if not for a subscription to bad luck and an assortment of injuries Mathieu Roy would have played many more than 30 contests with the Oilers.

A broken nose, multiple concussions, a separated shoulder, a torn MCL — these are all ailments that have befallen Roy in the last few years.  Still, he was named the top defenseman with the Edmonton Road Runners in 2004-05 which was also his rookie year as a pro.  He’s been Edmonton’s seventh or eighth defenseman for the past few seasons and when not sidelined by injury he’s been able to step in and fill holes in the line-up without looking altogether over his head. 

This coming year, Roy has a one-way contract and like last season he would have to clear waivers to be sent to the farm (which he did last year).  A healthy Mathieu Roy provides Edmonton with depth at the NHL level and a high caliber AHL veteran on the farm so there is definite value from this late-round selection.   

Josef Hrabal, D – 8th round, 248th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

Just when it appeared safe to write off the Czech blueliner as a NHL bust, the Edmonton Oilers announced that they’d signed the 23-year-old to a two-year contract that will see him make the move to North America in 2008.

After being drafted late in 2003, Hrabal played the next three and a half years in the top league in the Czech Republic.  But midway through 2006-07, he left Vsetin HC for the Russian Super League where he hooked up with Severstal Cherepovets.  Hrabal is of average size and has produced fairly average numbers each year in Europe but in the AHL with Springfield he should play a key role as one of the few puck-moving defensemen.

Sources tell HF that negotiations with Hrabal’s agent had ended in early May but a late call back from the player’s camp to check if the last offer was still on the table panned out.  Apparently the spot Hrabal had counted on with Cherepovets next season wasn’t as secure as the agent believed. 

Having played against men for the last five years should provide Hrabal with an advantage that most AHL rookies don’t have coming in.  Whether or not he has NHL potential won’t become clear until next season at the earliest but the organization has labeled him publicly as ‘a poor man’s Denis Grebeshkov’ — a player who exceeded all expectations in 2007-08.   

Troy Bodie, RW – 9th round, 278th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 0

The final player taken by Edmonton is 2003 was targeted simply because of his size.  Troy Bodie was a rookie with Kelowna that year and only managed eight points, so clearly it wasn’t his production that caught Edmonton’s attention.  Bodie was 6’4 at the draft but was a gangly and physically immature project of a pick at best.  The fact that the player is still with the organization after five years is a credit to his dedication and development over that time.

Now checking in at 217 lbs, Bodie has two pro campaigns under his belt and is looking to take on a bigger role in Springfield during 2008-09.  He’ll have a familiarity with coach at least; it is all but announced that Bodie’s head coach from Kelowna Jeff Truitt will become the farm team’s bench boss after he spent last year as an assistant to Kelly Buchberger.

As a pro, Bodie is a checking forward who has shown a willingness to fight when needed plus he is another character player in the dressing room.

Summary

With five players who have already played at least 30 games in the NHL and a pair more who appear to have no worse than an outside chance of doing so in the future (McDonald and Hrabal), the Oilers can rightfully claim that they had success at the 2003 draft.  However, most  will focus more on the fact that 25 other NHL teams came away with a better first-round pick and consider the year to be rather dismal.

It is interesting to note that since 2003, the Oilers have added Robert Nilsson, one of the forwards they coveted in the first round, and more recently Ryan Potulny who Philadelphia selected with Edmonton’s third-round pick.

Clearly, hindsight shows that the priority for the Oilers was to get bigger and to add skill at the same time if possible.  Choosing skill over size may have led to different decisions which would likely have worked out better in today’s NHL but this draft took place before the lockout and the stricter enforcement of the rule book.    

In all, Edmonton has received 352 NHL games from players taken in 2003 for an average of 29.3 games per player.  This is on the low end among teams, especially given the two second rounders.  But 84% of the players Edmonton chose that day are still members of the organization, an indication that to this point the franchise deems them assets and commodities worth keeping. 

Quotes about the class of 2003

“[Rimouski] was an unbelievably terrible team and he never stopped working the whole year.  Thirty-six games in a row they lost and he never gave up.  This guy has size, he can skate, he’s got character, he can score, he’s got hands and he’s very cerebral as a player.”
– Oiler scout on Marc Pouliot (November, 2003)

“He’s a very skilled player and it wasn’t a fluke that he was drafted in the first round.  It’s nice when he’s in the line up because it spreads it out for both of us.  To have a guy like that out on the power play it’s such an added bonus and when he’s not there, you can definitely tell and he’s really missed. We’re similar types of players actually but he’s such a skilled guy that, especially on the power play he’s a good guy to have around.”
– Sidney Crosby on his Rimouski teammate (August 18th, 2004)

“He came out of high school and went right into college, he didn’t have that one or two years in Junior like many American kids do prior to College.  If you were to put Colin against other players all his same age… he’d dominate.”
– Current Player Development coach Bob Mancini on Colin McDonald after a disappointing freshman year in Providence (November, 2003)

“Colin is going to be a big loss for them.  They need him because he’s a top-notch player; by the end of last year he was probably our best forward as a freshman.”
– Former Providence teammate Jason Platt after McDonald’s midseason knee injury (November, 2004)

“He’s just blowing me away.  I don’t think he’s ever going to be the goal scorer in the NHL that he’s showing he is right now but the one thing we told him when he left here was that he needed to work on his shot.  Everybody I’ve talked to in the Quebec league says he’s not the same kid he was last year; he’s spending a lot more time being a hockey player which is good because nobody wants to fight him anyway.”
– Kevin Prendergast on J.F. Jacques early on in his final QMJHL season (November 2004)

“He’s the hardest hitter that we’ve seen here in a long time with that combination of strength and power.  He gets a couple big hits every game so he’s in the mix too.  He’s been able to provide a big physical presence for us.”
– Head coach Craig MacTavish during training camp (September 15th, 2005)

“[Zhukov] had a bad year.  He shuffled around and I think part of it is that he played for his dad for a couple of years and he had that cushion but now there’s a lot more expected of him and he didn’t react properly to it.”
– Kevin Prendergast (April 26th, 2004)

“I saw Stortini last week.  I saw him score a goal and he had blood on his sweater so I was happy to see that.”
– Kevin Lowe said with a laugh (November 15th, 2003)

“He was probably one of our best players in the playoffs.  He’s got big size, huge heart, he leaves everything on the ice for you every shift, he’s got no fear, goes to the net with reckless abandon, loves to knock guys around on the fore check and he’s pretty tough to move from in front of the net too.  He’s got another year of junior but, boy oh boy, to be able to see him a year down the road after his performance in the playoffs for us last year, is pretty exciting.”
– Road Runners head coach Geoff Ward (July 22, 2004)

“He’s [really] huge… I mean huge!  He’s so strong on his legs they’re enormous.  He must have Ben Johnson legs.”
– Oiler scout on David Rohlfs (February 2003)

“Of course!  It’s my dream.  Everybody wants to play in the best league. I want to play there eventually but it doesn’t matter how soon.  One day I will play there.  I don’t know if I want to play [in the AHL]; I think it’s better for me to play here (SEL) than in the American League.”
– Dragan Umicevic on his wishes for the future (January 6th, 2005)

“I think he would come over with the opportunity to play in the NHL but they all have to understand that they may not be quite ready and it might take a little time to get used to the game but I think Dragan, in his mind, thinks it’s time to come over and play.”
– Prendergast on Umicevic three months before the Oilers dropped him from their protected list (April 2006)

“Considering where we got him, if he turns out to play it’ll make the staff look like geniuses!”
– Oiler scout on Kyle Brodziak (September 2003)

“Moose Jaw wasn’t deep and as a result he was playing 30-35 minutes a game and this is a kid that blocks shots, kills penalties and plays powerplay.  He’s so smart and good with the puck.  If I was a good winger, I’d sure like to play on the wing with him.”
– Long time Oiler scout Lorne Davis on Brodziak (June 18, 2004)                 

“[Mathieu Roy] plays a pretty complete game and he can add stuff to your blueline offensively, he had one of the best shots on our blueline last year, and he’s a guy who is very effective down low because of his physical play. He’s a guy I’m excited about and I’m looking forward to seeing him at [Road Runners] camp.”
– Former Edmonton AHL head coach Geoff Ward (July 22, 2004)

“He can do everything, he’s tough, he can really throw the body, he has great hands and great eyes and he can definitely shoot the puck.  He’s a huge asset for this team and anybody would be lucky to have him.”
– Former Oiler prospect Jason Platt on Mathieu Roy (April 18, 2005)

“I have no doubt that Josef can play and that one week wouldn’t have hurt him, and would have benefited him in the long run.  He would have seen what it North American hockey is all about.  He’s a very good skater, a puck moving defenceman.  I was really looking forward to seeing him here.”
– Euro scout Frank Musil’s reaction when Josef Hrabal was a late scratch from training camp (September 5th, 2005)

“He’s a up and down player, nothing finesse about his game, we feel that if he’s got a chance to play down the road it’s as a third or a fourth line checking player.  We’re not even sure of his hands to be honest with you because he’s never really been put in that position.  He’s spent some time on the first line this year but mainly to be in front of the net to create room for the other guys.”
– Kevin Prendergast on Troy Bodie at the Memorial Cup (May 2004)

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