Another wave of young talent on horizon for Edmonton Oilers

By Lawrence Bailey
Photo: Picked 19th overall in the 2011 draft, Oscar Klefbom has the tools to be a solid top-four defenseman for the Oilers for many years to come. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Fans of the Edmonton Oilers have demonstrated their patience over the past number of years, buying into the mantra of a wholesale rebuild. After two seasons in the NHL’s basement however, expectations are rising and that patience is wearing thin. Fortunately for the Oilers faithful, a lot of the team’s future is on or near the NHL roster and there is still a wealth of quality talent coming down the pipe. Unlike years past, much of the current talent in the prospect pool is complementary and demonstrates a wide range of skills. With the exception of the 2011 top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the players who succeed at the NHL level off this list will be likely be playing supporting roles to the top line talents who have already made the jump to the show.

1. (NR) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 1st overall, 2011


There is a difference of opinion in many circles on Nugent-Hopkins’ top end potential, his NHL readiness, and on the completeness of his game. His statistics from junior suggest a very good player, though not someone with elite offensive pedigree. He was in the mix as a top five selection for much of the 2010-11 season, but by the time the draft rolled around he had clearly established himself as the top pick.

His statistical output was impressive but wasn’t head and shoulders above other would-be top picks, and when the question was put to scouts and coaches alike about what separated him, there were similar refrains. He is meticulous, a perfectionist, with an incredible work ethic and attention to detail. He possesses elite vision on the ice, is a remarkably intelligent and cerebral player, and has a commitment to defense and the “little things” that make him a favorite of his coaches. Personally, he is humble, grounded, and fairly soft spoken.

The big knocks on Nugent-Hopkins are his size—despite being 6’1”, he has a very slender 175 pound frame—and the fact he isn’t seen as being able to be a truly dominant, elite player. There are questions whether he will be able to withstand the physical rigors of the NHL and avoid injury when challenged by much bigger men. Only time will tell, though his smart and shifty style of play—a style that has been likened to Joe Sakic and Pavel Datsyuk—gives him the chance to avoid much of the contact he may otherwise have had to endure.

2. (5) Jeff Petry, D, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 45th overall, 2006

Jeff Petry followed up a top notch college career with the Michigan State Spartans with an even more impressive professional rookie season. The rearguard split time between the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons and the Oilers, showing well in his 35 NHL games and shining in his 41 matches with the Barons. Petry doesn’t have number one defenseman upside, but his ability to contribute at even strength, on special teams, combined with his size and excellent mobility means he has all the tools to be a very good top four defenseman in the NHL, perhaps as early as this season. He may start the year in Oklahoma City again as a result of a bit of a numbers game, however any minor league stint is likely to be brief, as the Ann Arbor, MI native has shown he is certainly ready for a regular shift in the show.

3. (NR) Oscar Klefbom, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2011

 

The Oilers second pick in the first round of the 2011 draft, acquired in the deal that sent Dustin Penner to the LA Kings, has many in Oilers Nation very excited. While his draft year in the Swedish Elite League wasn’t statistically eye popping, due in large part to his playing a depth role on a good team, his performance in international tournaments and the reports from many in the scouting community demonstrate his tremendous potential. He captained Sweden’s silver medal winning U18 team providing offense and leadership from the back end, and is likely to play a major role for their World Junior entry this season. It’s his tools that have the scouts drooling however, at 6’3 and 200 lbs, he is a plus skater, with a physical edge and aggressive offensive instincts. He is still raw in many ways, including at the defensive end of the ice, but his upside is the kind of complete defenseman all teams covet.

4. (11) Anton Lander, C, 7.0B
 Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2009

Ever since he was drafted, Anton Lander has been a darling of those who follow Oiler prospects closely, and has been tabbed by many as a man who will wear a letter in Edmonton sooner rather than later. The Swedish center was captain of his country’s WJC team last season and was a fan favorite and a team leader for his SEL club Timra, so much so that they held a farewell ceremony to honor him as he makes the jump across the pond to play in North America this season.

Lander plays a very smart, high energy game, and boasts the skill set of a quintessential third line pivot. There is some belief he may bring more offense to the table than one would expect from a third liner, which remains to be seen. Coming into camp this season, Lander has a real chance at grabbing a bottom six spot amongst the Oiler forwards, however it’s much more likely he spends some or all of the season in the AHL, adjusting to the North American game and being groomed for a lengthy Oilers career.

5. (4) Martin Marincin, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2010

The Slovakian second rounder burst onto the scene last season, dominating the WHL in his rookie season with the Prince George Cougars. His performance tailed off in the second half of the year however, and Marincin himself conceded to having hit a wall and struggling with the rigors of the length, physicality and travel associated with a full WHL campaign. As a result, there is a good chance he is back in Prince George for another year despite being AHL eligible, and that may be the best thing for him as there are aspects of his game he still needs to work on. Marincin is creative and intelligent offensively and has tremendous size, though concerns were raised last season about his positioning and coverage in the defensive zone. If he can continue to develop like he did last year, fine tune his defensive play, and become more comfortable and capable when it comes to enduring the grind of a full season, it will be considered a successful step forward.

6. (9) Linus Omark, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 4th round, 97th overall, 2007

 

Much like Jeff Petry, Linus Omark split time between the AHL and NHL in his rookie season in North America, and much like Petry he showed his rightful place is on an NHL roster. Omark is interesting in that he plays a similar game to some of the younger, more talented, and more famous wingers on the Oilers roster. That said he showed last season that he has much more to his game than was initially expected. While his offensive skill and flair were well known and were evident in spades, his ability to control the puck, retain and regain possession, and his compete level were all welcome surprises. He still needs to work on his defensive game—and he has acknowledged as much—as well as his consistency night in and night out, but Omark has emerged as a quality NHL player and should continue to build on that this season.

7. (7) Curtis Hamilton, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2010

A draft day slider in 2010 due to a somewhat scary injury history, a healthy Curtis Hamilton turned a lot of heads in 2010-11 and his star is definitely on the rise. He was a central part of a very good team in Saskatoon, and played multiple roles for Canada’s World Junior entry, demonstrating his versatility. He will almost certainly make his pro debut this coming season in Oklahoma City, and he may be playing in the NHL sooner than later if he can continue to progress and stay healthy. His game is well suited for the pro ranks, as he has a wide range of skills, combining size, a willingness to play physically, offensive drive, and a strong defensive awareness and dedication to his own zone. The biggest test for Hamilton may be to make it through his first full pro season injury free, if he can manage that and adapt to the speed and size of the AHL, he should be in the mix for a roster spot in Edmonton as early as next season.

8. (NR) David Musil, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2011

Once thought of as a possible top 10 pick in the 2011 draft, David Musil saw his stock drop over the course of the season, due in large part to a lack of progress offensively. His game is very much predicated on being physical, economical, and defensively responsible, and at 6’3 and nearly 200 lbs, he has the body to do just that at the NHL level. It is unlikely he will bring a lot of offense with him to the NHL if/when he makes it, however he has all the tools to be an impact top four defenseman who can play a shutdown role at even strength and can anchor a penalty kill. Another item that gives Musil a bit of an edge is his NHL pedigree, as his father Frank Musil had a lengthy pro career. While it doesn’t necessarily make much of a difference once he’s on the ice, it does mean he has seen first hand what it takes off the ice to be a successful professional, and that can only help him as he develops going forward.

9. (14) Teemu Hartikainen, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2008

It’s hard not to cheer for Teemu Hartikainen. He brings the kind of grit, all out effort, physicality and relentlessness that Oiler fans have adored for decades. Similar in style to players like Tomas Holmstrom and Ryan Smyth, Hartikainen doesn’t go to the dirty places on the ice, he lives there, and he never leaves them. The thickly built Finn had a slow start to his North American rookie season in 2010-11 but came on strong in the AHL, operating at a near point-per-game clip in December and January and earning a late season 12 game call up to the big club where his three goals and two assists were a welcome surprise to many Oiler fans. With a lot of veteran depth in front of him on LW this season, he is almost certain to open the year in Oklahoma City again, however he is likely to be the first call up in case of injury and even without that he could force the issue with his play. Don’t be surprised if he gets a longer look at the NHL level this season, he definitely plays an NHL ready style.

10. (6) Tyler Pitlick, C, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2010

After creating a lot of buzz in training camp last season, Tyler Pitlick’s rookie campaign in the WHL was a bit of a letdown for many. He posted solid numbers, with 27 goals and 62 points in an injury-shortened 56 games, however he didn’t really have the kind of offensive outburst or dominance many had hoped for or expected. Heading into last season, there were a number of people who felt he had top line upside and that enthusiasm has now been tempered somewhat with most projecting him as a top-nine forward. Pitlick still has a lot to like: he has good size, isn’t afraid of getting physical and has a tremendous shot. He also has a clue defensively, which will bode well if he needs to break into the league as a checking forward. He is eligible to play in the AHL this year if the club decides to go in that direction, however there’s a decent chance he heads back to the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, especially if they are willing to use him at center (he played on the right side for much of last season). Pitlick is coming off a serious ankle injury, still adjusting to a longer schedule, and will be looking to improve on his offensive output, better endure the lengthy campaign, and stay healthy this season.

11. (17) Tyler Bunz, G, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 121st overall, 2010

Five years ago it was Jeff Deslauriers from the QMJHL and Devan Dubnyk from the WHL battling to be the goalie of the future in Edmonton. Fast forward to the present and a similar intra-organizational battle is brewing. Tyler Bunz is coming off a spectacular season for the Medicine Hat Tigers, posting a 2.47 goals against average and a .919 save percentage, and was widely viewed as one of the top netminders in the league. He has good size for a goalie (6’2, 200 lbs) and has caught the attention of Hockey Canada, as he was among the goalies invited to the World Junior summer camp. Almost certain to be in the mix for a roster spot in December, likely in a battle to back up returnee Mark Visentin (PHX), Bunz now needs to shift his focus to maintaining or improving upon his performance for the Tigers. Goalies rarely develop quickly or in a straight line, but the arrows are all pointing in the right direction for the St. Albert, AB native so far.

12. (15) Jeremie Blain, D, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 91st overall, 2010

It was a rough start to the 2010-11 campaign for Jeremie Blain, as the first pick of 2010’s fourth round broke his foot early on and missed the first half of the QMJHL season. Upon his return he was a revelation. Blain scored at a near point-per-game clip (37 points in 40 games) in the back half of the season for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and helped them vastly improve in that time. He was a catalyst of sorts for the Quebec league club, and is likely to be relied upon heavily for leadership and as a difference maker this year. He plays a well-rounded style, with some concerns raised about his foot speed and foot work, however he doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses and performs above average in most areas, especially at the offensive end. Another dominant (and healthy) season in the Q will solidify Blain as a quality NHL prospect.

13. (12) Ryan Martindale, C, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 61st overall, 2010

 

A member of the CHL’s top scoring line last season, Ryan Martindale had an impressive season statistically. Despite the success, he couldn’t shake the criticisms that led to him sliding on draft day in 2010, namely that he had questionable work habits and lacked passion for the game. On the plus side, opposing coaches named him among the best defensive centers in the OHL, and he managed to post 34 goals, 83 points and a plus-38 rating in 65 games. Martindale is eligible to play in the AHL this season, having completed four years in the OHL, but it looks like the Oilers will have him return to Ottawa for another season of junior, as they have yet to sign the 6’3 center to a professional contract. They are likely looking for improvement in the same areas they were looking for last year—work ethic, consistency, and passion.

14. (13) Olivier Roy, G, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2009

Watching Olivier Roy play is an exercise in volatile unpredictability, when he is good, he is very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid. Widely seen as one of the top goalies in the QMJHL (as evidenced by his selection to Canada’s WJC entry) when he is on his game, Roy can be almost unbeatable. The problem with Olivier is that he seems to have mental lapses and stretches of poor play that can be devastating to a team. Two examples of this from the past season were him losing the starting job for Canada at the World Juniors due to poor play and then his atrocious playoff performance for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan that saw him get shelled for the first three games of their opening round series and finally benched for the fourth game. He debuts as a pro this season, likely as the starter for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder, and it will be his ability to play consistently and bounce back from bad outings that will be watched most closely by people inside and outside the Oilers organization.

15. (NR) Colten Teubert, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Los Angeles Kings, February, 2011

 

A highly touted first round pick in 2008 (13th overall), Teubert has the look of more of a physical, depth defensive defenseman early in his pro career. He is a picture of intimidation, and has enough nastiness to strike fear into his opponents, however it doesn’t appear as though he will provide a great deal of offense, nor will he likely develop to the point of being worthy of top pairing minutes. That’s not to say he doesn’t bring value to the table, in fact, nasty, stay-at-home, defensive defenseman have a history of being folk heroes in Edmonton—look no further than former captain Jason Smith. Stylistically, Smith is a good comparable for Teubert’s player type, though he has a long way to go before he can be considered in the same class as the man they call Gator. The biggest area where Teubert needs to improve this season and going forward is his decision making, and he’ll likely have at least one more full AHL season to work on that.

16. (NR) Travis Ewanyk, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2011

 

Travis Ewanyk is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Ryan Martindale. His stats are unimpressive; he only scored at a .37 point-per-game clip for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings in his draft year. Make no mistake, he is not on a trajectory to play a role in the top six on an NHL club. That said he is the embodiment of all the hockey intangibles that are so often discussed. He is a ferocious competitor, a physical agitator, aggressive on the forecheck and the backcheck, a skilled faceoff man, and a player who takes the utmost pride in his defensive game and in shutting down the opposing team’s top players. Despite his limited production offensively, all the other aspects of his game were enough to earn him a spot on Canada’s U18 team last season, and it will be very interesting to see how he performs for the Oil Kings this year in what is likely to be an increased role.

17. (10) Alex Plante, D, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2007

It’s getting to be a dangerous time for Alex Plante as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. It’s been four years since he was selected in the first round of the 2007 Entry Draft, and he has yet to really carve out a place in the organization. The skills he brings—size, physicality, defensive responsibility—are identical to recent addition Colten Teubert, and similar to current younger NHLers Ladislav Smid and Theo Peckham. Plante has struggled with injury since being drafted, as well as uninspiring play, and in all likelihood he will need to make his mark this season or risk being passed by a number of the promising young defensemen ahead of him on this list.

18. (NR) Dillon Simpson, D, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2011

 

When you look at the stat line from Dillon Simpson’s freshman year at the University of North Dakota, it’s not overly impressive. When you consider he played regularly in one of the toughest divisions in college hockey as a 17-year-old, it becomes much more remarkable. Simpson is a tough player to get a read on, he’s the son of former NHLer Craig Simpson, so he grew up around the professional game, and he was highly touted when he joined the Fighting Sioux. That said, he doesn’t have ideal size for an NHL defenseman, and it remains to be seen if he has the pure offensive ability to project as a contributor down the line. He did received an invite to Team Canada’s WJC summer evaluation camp though, which is a very positive indicator, and he will likely have at least two more years to hone his game in the NCAA, so there is certainly a great deal of potential and upside. He will definitely be a player to watch in the coming years.

19. (NR) Tobias Rieder, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2011

Tobias Rieder is an undersized but immensely talented young player. He made the move from Germany to the OHL last season and came out of the gates on fire. He hit a major wall in January though and struggled mightily in the second half of the season and in the playoffs for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers. This could be the same issue Martin Marincin and Tyler Pitlick faced, coming from leagues that play fewer games, or it could be a result of his 5’10, 165 lbs frame just getting worn down. Either way, it is definitely an area where he will need to improve. Rieder plays a similar style to current Oiler Linus Omark, in that his calling card is that of an undersized, skilled, puck wizard with a nose for the net, however he also plays with a high level of energy and intensity, and isn’t afraid of going to the dirty areas. He will be an interesting player to watch in Kitchener this coming season, to see if he can handle the long, physical season better this time around.

20. (16) Brandon Davidson, D, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 162nd overall, 2010

The Brandon Davidson story is a good one, and by now likely fairly well known. He is a late bloomer in large part due to his family not having the means to provide him with high level hockey when he was younger, though he has taken major strides the past two seasons with the WHL’s Regina Pats. He emerged as a leader last year on a young Pats team, and played in any and every situation for the club. Despite being considered an overager this coming season there is a good chance he will be back in Regina, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering his late start in high level competitive hockey. He’s a jack of all trades, master of none type on the blue line, and could become a very useful NHL depth player if he continues to develop. For the coming season, working on his skating and decision making will be the key—whether he’s in Regina or Oklahoma City—and staying on the upward trajectory he’s enjoyed each of the past two season.

 

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