Cupboards that were bare and wanting not too long ago are now bursting at the seams. In the span of three years, the Edmonton Oilers have impressively rebuilt their prospect pipeline, finding success both early and late in the draft, as well as with a handful of shrewd free agent signings. Being among the league's worst teams the past few years has certainly helped with early first round picks, however the depth and breadth of talent currently bubbling under the surface is primarily the result of two things: an organizational commitment to a full and thorough rebuild, and the incredible work done by Head Scout Stu MacGregor and his team at the draft table.
The organization's all in approach to a "tear it down to the studs" style rebuild plays a huge part in the quantum leap forward in terms of prospect quality. The Oilers have not been a competitive team at the NHL level for the last three seasons and as such the organization has been moving out any players not deemed central to the future for picks, prospects, and youngsters. That kind of influx of young talent and additional opportunities at the draft table is bound to pay dividends eventually, and we're starting to see the results now.
Most importantly however is having the right team in place to maximize the value of those additional draft picks and to identify the right young prospects to target via trade. The job done thus far by MacGregor and his team-albeit early in the evaluation process-is nothing short of spectacular. In the past four years, they have not only done well with their early picks, but they have consistently unearthed players late in the draft who show incredible promise and ability.
The Oilers system is deep, it's varied, and it's full of players knocking on the NHL door. Not only does that bode well for the club and their fans in the future, but it pushes the players currently in the NHL to perform at a consistently high level or risk losing their spot to a younger, cheaper option.
Traditionally a weak point for the Oilers and many NHL franchises, the port side has a few quality options in the works, and with high end young talents like Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi already on the roster in Edmonton, there is more of a need for multi-tool support players than bonafide stars. Fortunately for the organization, the top two left wing prospects fit that mold perfectly.
Curtis Hamilton leads the way on left wing, and is following up a very successful WHL campaign with the Saskatoon Blades (as well as a turn with Team Canada at the World Juniors) by making the transition to pro hockey with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. Hamilton has a pro frame at 6'3 and 202 lbs, and he plays a very pro style game. He uses his size to his advantage, enjoys the physical play, and likes going to the dirty areas on the ice. He has a nice touch around the net, but perhaps more importantly is an excellent two-way winger with a dedication at the defensive end that allows him to be an asset on the penalty kill as well as at even strength. He may get a look at the NHL level at some point this year, but will likely spend at least a full season with the Barons.
Teemu Hartikainen is a fan favorite already in Edmonton, with many people feeling he should have made the big club in a bottom six role out of camp. The thickly built Finn has a feisty style, playing with boundless energy and an uncanny nose for the net. He can mix it up with the best of them and makes his living in the corners and in front of the goalie. Often drawing comparisons to Tomas Holmstrom, Hartikainen is unique in that he can play effectively anywhere in the line up-in a scoring role, a defensive role, or as an energy guy. "Harski" is likely the first call up on the wing this season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him grab a spot with the Oilers permanently before the year is out.
Drew Czerwonka is a cut below Hamilton and Hartikainen, but he does have upside as a possible energy/depth player with grit and leadership. He evolved last season with the WHL's Kootenay Ice from a physical depth player who could chip in here and there to a relied upon secondary scorer for one of the top teams in the country. This year he is back in Kootenay and sporting the "C," a nod to his leadership abilities. Czerwonka is a lunch pail, blue collar player-he skates hard, works hard, and hits hard. He's not guaranteed to make an NHL impact, and if he does it won't be soon, but however far he goes it will be on the basis of his grit and tireless work ethic.
The remaining five Oiler prospects on the left wing can safely be described as long shots. Well, except for William Quist, he's so far from the team's plans it wouldn't be a surprise if some in the organization have no clue who he is. Kristian Pelss and Kellen Jones are both cut from the undersized skilled winger cloth; however neither looks like they have enough skill to overcome their lack of size, physicality, or defensive acumen. Hunter Tremblay was a CIS star who is getting a chance to show whether he can establish himself at the AHL level and maybe surprise by excelling there, however at his age it's unlikely he will become much more that a decent minor leaguer. Finally, Philippe Cornet is in his second season as a pro, and while he didn't turn heads last season he's gotten off to a quick start in 2011-12 with four points in his first three games. He may take a leap forward, but to this point looks like the NHL might be a bridge too far.
The center position has long been the Oilers white whale. A team once blessed with Gretzky and Messier, and more recently with Doug Weight and a young Jason Arnott, the middle of the ice in Edmonton has been a sore spot at the NHL and organizational depth level for a long time. It seems the tide might finally be turning in that regard.
2011 first overall selection Ryan Nugent-Hopkins came into training camp with a lot of questions swirling around him: Was he big enough for the NHL? Would he be able to play as an 18-year-old? What did he bring to the table other than offensive vision and flare? Could he really be a franchise center?
The early returns are unbelievably positive.
The slender pivot turned heads almost immediately in Edmonton, though it wasn't with his skill alone. What set fans and media abuzz was how smart he played the game, how sound his positioning was, and how accomplished he was defensively. The stylistic comparisons to Pavel Datsyuk were evident from the get go and he hasn't missed a beat, making the NHL team out of camp and pacing the club offensively through five games. He'll never be a dominant physical force, but Nugent-Hopkins displays a level of skill, smarts, and pure offensive ability the Oilers haven't had at the center ice position since Weight left for St. Louis.
The depth at center ice is just as impressive in Edmonton, as there are a number of very good prospects with differing skill sets coming through the ranks that deserve a lot of attention.
Anton Lander also made the NHL roster in a depth role this year, though there's a good chance that Sam Gagner's imminent return will see Lander sent down to Oklahoma City. Nonetheless, the Swede makes his living winning draws, killing penalties, and doing all the little things that help teams win. He may spend most of the year in the AHL, but Lander is a key cog in the Oilers' long term plans, likely as a classic third line, shut down center.
Tyler Pitlick is a big, physical center with an excellent shot and a knack for scoring goals. He's made a mark early in the AHL season with three points in four games, and could really force the issue with a quality season. Pitlick is the perfect complement stylistically to Nugent-Hopkins should he develop to the second line center potential many see in him, and he has also played on right wing over the past few years, so there's a chance he breaks into the NHL there before sliding to center. Either way, he's got a pro body, a pro shot, and is handling the pro game well early on. All very promising signs.
Ryan Martindale is another big promising center, though he plays a different style than Pitlick. Martindale plays more of a skilled game, and faces continued questions about his passion and work ethic. His game isn't well suited to a bottom six role, so he will need to either evolve his toolbox or excel on a skill line, which likely played a role in his starting the season with the ECHL's Stockton Thunder instead of in OKC.
2011 draftee Travis Ewanyk has high hopes for this coming season, especially after a solid tournament with Canada's U18 team, but he's sidelined by injury until around January. Known for his feisty, physical, no quit style, he's a longer term prospect but one that could very well find a role in the bottom six in a few years.
The trio of Chris Vande Velde, Ryan O'Marra, and Milan Kytnar all have the look of players who are good, but just not quite good enough for steady NHL employment. Vande Velde and O'Marra are a cut above Kytnar and both have had brief stints with the Oilers, however with the emergence of talents ahead of them in the pecking order the window of opportunity may be closed. They may both get a few games in this season, depending on trades and injuries, but neither seem to be in the long term plans. In Kytnar's case, he's struggling to find a role at the AHL level, something not likely to get any better if/when Lander is sent down.
The final two players on the Oilers' center depth chart-Tanner House and Marc Arcobello-both look like capable AHL contributors, albeit with limited upside. Both come via the college free agent signing route and possess some nice skills, but nothing to make one think they will pass enough of the players ahead of them to make a meaningful impact beyond Oklahoma City.
The right side is the area where the Oilers are most lacking in quality and depth, though there are still some solid talents worth keeping an eye on. At the pro level, Jordan Eberle is locked in as a top six option for the foreseeable future, while the top right wing prospect Linus Omark is still looking to solidify his spot.
Omark reminds many of former Oiler Robert Nilsson in that he shows electrifying skill and flashes of brilliance, but doesn't bring a consistent effort night to night. Omark has a more complete game than Nilsson however, and his ability to control the puck makes him a valuable and dangerous player. That said, he's ill suited for a checking or depth role, and he may be a player who ends up excelling in the NHL with a different club. For now he should get a lot of opportunity while Ales Hemsky is hurt, however he's a good candidate for the role of odd man out if the Oilers get to full health any time soon.
In the OHL, a player who has many similarities to Omark is 2011, fourth round pick Tobias Rieder. The slightly undersized German winger thrives on his skill and speed, and like Omark he isn't afraid to go to the dangerous areas of the ice. He tailed off towards the end of last season, his first in North America, but has come out of the gates strong this year with 11 points in his first eight games. If he can add strength and stand up to the rigors of a full campaign, he's likely to make the jump to the AHL next year and could be challenging for a spot on the big club in a few years.
A pair of Finns are also plying their trade for the Oilers at the pro level, with Toni Rajala skating with Ilves Tampere in Finland and Antii Tyrvainen with the AHL's Barons. Rajala has the look of a player passed by too many in the organization, as his Finnish league numbers have been underwhelming and he doesn't bring enough to the table beyond skill to be effective in a lesser role. Tyrvainen on the other hand has impressed since being an offseason free agent signing. The 22-year-old has a reputation for playing on, and often over, the edge, and he brings ferociousness and a reckless abandon the Oilers have been lacking in recent years. If he proves useful enough in other areas of the game this season in the AHL, he could carve out a role as a 13th forward and agitator sooner rather than later.
Finally Cameron Abney is one pick roundly viewed as a poor one in the MacGregor era. A 2009 third rounder, Abney isn't much more than a goon with a touch of skill currently playing for Stockton. He's still young enough to surprise, but it wouldn't be reasonable to expect him to develop into much more than an average minor pro player.
The future on the blue line has many in Edmonton very excited. There are prospects of varying shapes, sizes, and skill sets coming up, many of whom are performing well above expectations.
At the pro level, Jeff Petry paces the group. Splitting last season, his first as a pro, between the AHL and NHL, Petry made the Oilers out of camp and has looked good early on. Petry was recently sent down where he will spend time playing big minutes in all situations with OKC rather than as a depth defender on the big club, but Petry is definitely a part of the future in Edmonton, and likely a part of the top four sooner than later.
Alex Plante and Colten Teubert are the two big names currently playing the AHL, however Teubert definitely looks to be the better of the two so far. Both play similar styles and were drafted in the first round so they have similar pedigree as well. Teubert has gotten off to a fast start this year, with three points in four games, and is looking to establish himself as the superior option. Plante meanwhile has continued to develop slower than expected and isn't delivering the offense that Teubert has. With a lot of quality defensive prospects coming through the ranks Plante faces the real risk of no longer being in the organizations plans, if that isn't already the case.
Johan Motin is also playing in the AHL, and is looking to establish himself in the final year of his contract. He's played well early, but may be the victim of a numbers crunch once the dust settles.
Promising college free agent signing Taylor Fedun was one of the surprises of training camp and was challenging for a spot on the Oilers roster when a horrific crash into the end boards in a preseason game broke his leg, ended his season, and threatens his career.
The Oilers second pick of the 2011 first round was Swedish defenseman Oscar Klefbom. An incredible raw talent, he combines size, skating, and tremendous offensive instincts but still needs to work on his positioning and mental game. His season got off to a bumpy start as he wasn't able to earn a regular spot in Farjestad's SEL lineup; however he is now playing big minutes in all situations for their J20 club. Klefbom is likely still a few years away, but has the ability to develop into a top pairing blue liner.
The CHL plays host to a quintet of Oilers' rear guards, all impressive in their own rights.
Former second-rounder Martin Marincin impressed last season as a rookie in Prince George and is picking up where he left off this year with eight points through nine games. The 6'4 Slovak is a good skater, with great offensive instincts, and an ability to man the point on the power play effectively. He still needs to bulk up and work on his defensive positioning and physical presence, but is a very promising prospect.
His countryman, 2011 5th round pick Martin Gernat exploded out of the gate as a WHL rookie this season with the Edmonton Oil Kings, posting 15 points in just 11 games thus far. His scouting report is almost a carbon copy of Marincin's as his offense and skating are top notch however he needs to refine his defensive game and work on filling out his 6'5 frame.
Another 2011 draftee, second rounder David Musil, may be the most pro ready of the junior bunch. Musil is son of Oiler scout and former NHLer Frank Musil, and plays a similar brand of hockey to his father-physical, simple, and defensively sound. There is more natural ability and offensive talent in the younger Musil, however he's unlikely to be an offensive threat at the NHL level. The 18 year old has a pro ready 6'3, 190 lbs. frame and is performing well early in the WHL season for the Vancouver Giants with seven points through 10 games and a plus-four rating.
Jeremie Blain of the QMJHL's Acadie Bathurst Titan is looking to build on an injury shortened near point-per-game campaign last season, and with eight points in 10 games so far in 2011-12, he's off to a good start. Blain is co-captain of the Titan and the type of player who is good not great in all facets without any real glaring weaknesses. He's unlikely to develop to a very high ceiling, but could very well become a quality second r third pairing NHL defenseman in a few years.
Finally, Regina Pats' captain Brandon Davidson rounds out the CHL blue line contingent. Playing his overage year after getting a late start in high level junior hockey, Davidson has the most work to do on fundamentals such as skating and positioning. He's off to a promising start with 11 points through 10 games and is relishing the leadership role bestowed upon him thus far. He'll need to turn pro next year and with the talented cohort likely turning pro with him, he'll want to impress this season to get a leg up on the competition.
The Oilers also have a pair of players toiling in the college ranks in Dillon Simpson and Kyle Bigos. Simpson is a smart, smooth skating undersized sophomore for the University of North Dakota, while Bigos is much older but still just a junior who makes his living being an imposing physical presence. Simpson is a project who will likely spend a couple more years in college, while Bigos plays a style more suited for the pro game and may make the jump to Stockton as early as next year.
It's been decades since the Oilers drafted and developed an in house goaltending solution, though Devan Dubnyk looks to be the player to buck the trend. Vying to be the player to challenge and potentially unseat the lanky net minder are a quartet of promising youngsters-two Canadians and two Finns.
Olivier Roy had a very successful but very inconsistent junior career and is debuting as a rookie pro this season. He's starting in Stockton, presumably to see as much playing time as possible, however he's sharing the crease with a Sharks prospect in Harry Sateri, a quality youngster in his own right, so he will need to play well to see enough starts. The competition may be good for him as it will push him, however if Sateri earns the starting job it's nothing but bad news for Roy.
The other Canadian prospect is a goalie vying for one of the spots on Canada's World Junior team this season-a spot Roy held last year-Medicine Hat Tiger Tyler Bunz. While Roy oscillated between brilliant and dreadful as a junior, Bunz has been consistently good the past couple seasons. He's off to a great start this year with seven wins in 10 games and a sterling .925 save percentage, and will be poised to leap frog Roy if the Quebec product falters this year.
Perhonen is a lanky butterfly goalie who boasts excellent athleticism and ability but is still very raw and learning the finer points of positioning and the mental game. He's definitely a project for the Oilers organization and will likely continue to play in Finland for a few years, however Oiler fans may get a chance to see him up close later this season if he manages to make Finland's World Junior team.
Tuohimaa on the other hand is already 20 years old and is a much more polished product. He started the season with Jokerit in the SM-Liiga but they recently loaned him to a second division team where he will see a lot more action. The early returns are promising, as he has posted a .927 save percentage through five games. Like Perhonen, the Oilers will likely give Tuohimaa time to play and develop in Finland before possibly bringing one or both over to North America.