Defensive strength apparent in Edmonton Oilers’ prospect awards

By Kady Hobbins

Oscar Klefbom - Edmonton Oilers

Photo: Oscar Klefbom made his North American debut in 2013-14 and finished the year with 17 games with Edmonton (courtesy of Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 2013-14 season was another disappointing finish for the Edmonton Oilers, who ended up 28th in the league, but at the prospect level, an increasingly large crop of young talent has shown promising development.

Seven different players (Tyler Pitlick, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun, Brad Hunt, Laurent Brossoit, Will Acton) made their NHL debuts this year while many others made the jump to professional hockey, or have assumed larger roles with their current clubs. A number of the accolades below could have been awarded to multiple players, but the following prospects have earned recognition in their respective categories for 2013-14.

Hardest Worker: Dillon Simpson, D, University of North Dakota (NCHC)

In his senior year with the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team, Dillon Simpson captained his squad to a final berth in the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four tournament. A Hobie Baker candidate, Simpson played heavy minutes and was an integral part of his team’s success in a tough, new NCAA conference (North Dakota was moved from the WCHA to the NCHC conference at the beginning of the 2013-14 season).

Though Simpson is not overly physical and his game certainly is not flashy, he has extremely keen hockey sense and is rarely caught out of position. He certainly is not one to shy away from a little self-sacrifice for the greater good of his team, leading the league in blocked shots in 2013-14. His puck possession numbers are strong, and he has a keen eye for connecting with his forwards on his first pass out of the zone.

His hard work clearly paid off – on April 22nd, Simpson signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Simpson will finish out his college education at North Dakota and will make an appearance at Edmonton’s 2014-15 training camp this fall.

Hardest Shot: Tyler Pitlick, RW, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)

Pitlick takes top honors in this category for the second year in a row. Pitlick’s deadly wrister matched with his aggressive nature made his transition to the NHL as a call-up in the 2013-14 season a seamless one. That is, until he fell victim to another untimely injury in January, not long after he scored his first NHL goal.

Pitlick is now back on the ice in Oklahoma City, where he has been a solid contributor to the Barons’ playoff run. At this point in his development, Pitlick needs to stay off the injured-reserve list and have the opportunity to string a full season together, free from interruption.

Best Defensive Prospect: Martin Marincin, D, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2013-14 season has been the tremendous success of defensive prospect Martin Marincin. Originally a call-up to fill some holes in the Oilers roster due to injury, Marincin exceeded all expectations and settled in to a regular role with the big club.

He kept his game very simple and purely defense-focused (he still has yet to score his first NHL goal through 44 games), but he has been a welcome presence for the team that has struggled mightily on the blue line in 2013-14. His positional awareness is strong for a player of his experience level, and his ability to stick-check is as good as they come. The Slovak defender even got some time to play with former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara for his native country at the 2014 Olympics.

Prospect of the Year: Darnell Nurse, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)

The 2013 Oilers first-round draft pick Darnell Nurse is coming off a career-high season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. The 6’5”, 192-pound defenseman racked up 50 points in 64 games and finished plus-one on the season, then capped things off with eight points in nine post-season appearances.

After Nurse’s team lost out in the OHL playoffs, he was shipped to Oklahoma City to help bolster the Oilers farm team’s post-season efforts but the team’s run ended early after a three-game sweep at the hands of Texas. Nurse has faced a bit of a learning curve, making a few errors of inexperience that have led to giveaways and scoring chances against, but his speed and talent are clearly evident.

He may need one more season at the junior level, but it is clear that this prospect has real, elite-level talent that just needs to be harnessed correctly.

Breakout Player for 2014-15 & Fastest Skater: Oscar Klefbom, D, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL) / Edmonton Oilers (NHL)

Oscar Klefbom’s transition from European to North American hockey was hampered by a shoulder injury and subsequent reparative surgery, which then led to a bit of a shaky start for the young rearguard in his first professional season with the Oklahoma City Barons. Klefbom’s point production was nearly non-existent in his first few games, and he appeared a step behind the play at times.

Fortunately, things improved for Klefbom as he shook the rust off and regained strength, eventually leading to an opportunity to get some games under his belt at the NHL level late in the 2013-14 season. The 20-year-old played 17 games with the Edmonton Oilers, scoring once and adding two assists. His sheltered minutes soon grew into increased responsibility, and he seemed to gain confidence at an exponential rate, finding his stride and getting into tough areas of the ice against some top-level opponents.

Klefbom was also awarded the distinction of fastest skater in this year’s edition of Oilers prospect awards. While not necessarily a pure speed demon, the Oilers are lacking in prospects with true, explosive speed, like Nail Yakupov or Taylor Hall. Klefbom is an extremely efficient, correct skater, and likely one of the fastest among the current prospect pool.

Klefbom may still need some time to hone his craft at the AHL level, but expect to see him in an Oilers jersey again at some point in 2014-15.

Most Improved Prospect: Mitchell Moroz, LW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

With the graduation of a number of Edmonton Oil Kings star players (Michael St. Croix (NYR), Dylan Wruck, T.J. Foster, and Travis Ewanyk to name a few), the door was open for 20-year-old Mitch Moroz to step up and take a leadership role with his perennially successful WHL team.

Moroz answered the call in the 2013-14 season, hitting the 35-goal mark for the first time in his career (the closest he ever came previously was 16 goals in 2011-12) and chalking up 28 assists for 63 total points in 70 games.

Aside from his point production, Moroz’s foot speed was much improved, and he seemed to play a much more complete, two-way game on a nightly basis. Moroz signed an entry-level contract with the Oilers in December 2013.

Overachiever: Anton Slepyshev, LW, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)

This prospect award could easily be given to either of Anton Slepyshev and Bogdan Yakimov, both 2012 third-round Russian prospects. The two have been successful with their respective Kontinental Hockey League squads this year, but Slepyshev’s outstanding performance at the 2014 World Junior Championships was the slight tiebreaking factor (although it should be noted that Yakimov had a strong tournament as well). Slepyshev captained Russia’s squad to a quarterfinal upset win over the United States and an eventual bronze medal finish, and was commended by Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish on his dynamic skill set.

While he is labeled natural leader and has proven himself as a consistent performer, Slepyshev is still green at the professional level and saw a decline in ice time this year. He spent some time in the MHL (Russia’s junior league), but made the most of every opportunity, including a deep playoff run once returning to the KHL’s Salavat Yulaev, who were knocked off in the conference finals by Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Slepyshev may look to transition to North American hockey next year, where he would likely find a spot with the Oklahoma City Barons.

Underachiever: Daniil Zharkov, LW, Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo (KHL)

In his first professional season with the Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo of the Kontinental Hockey League, former Belleville Bull Daniil Zharkov had a particularly underwhelming year. Through 49 games, he managed a mere two goals and three assists.

While the KHL is certainly a tougher place to play than the OHL, coupled with the fact that rookie players often do not see a lot of ice time, Zharkov was expected to have a much higher production rate, given his touted skill level. He has not yet played out his entry-level contract with the Oilers, but unless he makes vast improvements in 2014-15, there will be a lineup of talent ahead of him for a roster spot, even with Oklahoma City.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Greg Chase, C, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

Seventh-round selection Greg Chase has been defying all expectations since almost being overlooked at the 2012 draft. Chase finished out his season with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League, losing to the Kootenay Ice in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Chase then joined the Oklahoma City Barons, where he logged a goal, three shots and a plus-two rating in his first AHL game. Since then, he has made a seamless transition to the professional game, something that even early round prospects often struggle with. Chase plays a brand of hockey that is tough to play against, and he is not one to shy away from a spirited tilt or a race into the corner.

He is known to be a bit of a pest, but Chase is a smart, careful player and knows how to manage risk well, not something common in a player of his age, let alone of his draft position.