Year after year in the Kevin Lowe era, the Edmonton Oilers have relied upon rookies to play at the top level of hockey. Players like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Ladislav Smid, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Justin Schultz have been asked to come in and play veteran roles in minutes they weren’t yet ready to handle. The results have been predictably poor for this once-proud franchise.
The newest General Manager, Peter Chiarelli, has not done much to change the prevailing philosophy of feeding young men to the front lines. He had little choice when it came to Connor McDavid of course, but an inexperienced defense corps and a lack of veteran depth means yet another lost season – one that seems likely to send the Oilers ownership group to the podium for yet another lottery pick.
Jujhar Khaira, LW, 21
Following an injury to Edmonton Oilers winger Nail Yakupov, Khaira received the call that he would be appearing in his first NHL game on November 26. Khaira is a quintessential power forward, and a hulking presence on the ice at 6’3 and 215 pounds. He plays a strong, heavy game and isn’t afraid to go to work in the tough areas of the ice, but also has some passing and puck-handling ability. His offensive upside is intriguing, if not fully realized, as he continues to grow and develop. After all, this is a prospect that was drafted as an overager out of the BCHL, a route that doesn’t typically translate to NHL success, but Khaira seems to be bucking the trend.
With the return of Yakupov and others to the Oilers lineup, Khaira was re-assigned to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL, but reviews from his NHL debut were largely positive, including from head coach Todd McLellan. Khaira was suspended two games for a knee-on-knee incident in an AHL game against the Texas Stars on January 15, but has been perhaps the Condors’ best player during February with ten points in six games.
Connor McDavid, C, 19
It’s hard to cover elements of Connor McDavid’s game that haven’t already been done to death by other media outlets, especially considering that he was sidelined by an unfortunate collarbone injury on November 3 and didn’t make his NHL return until after the All-Star break on February 2. If nothing else, it’s still abundantly clear that the Edmonton Oilers have a generational talent in this 19-year-old player, who looked as though he hadn’t missed a beat when he suited up against the Columbus Blue Jackets after 37 games missed. He scored a highlight reel goal, undressing the Bluejackets’ defense like he had the puck on a string.
More recently, the Edmonton Oilers were ravaged by the New York Islanders in an 8-1 beating. Who scored the lone goal for the Oilers? You guessed it – Connor McDavid. He currently sits 8th in rookie scoring with 26 points in 22 games. He remains the only rookie to produce at a higher than point-per-game pace and is just three points behind Calgary Flames rookie Sam Bennett, who has played 55 games.
McDavid is only a prospect technically, even at this early stage, but the story of his career still depends on many factors, not the least of which has to be a better effort to build a decent supporting cast around him.
Griffin Reinhart, D, 22
Originally a fourth-overall draft selection, many have had high expectations for the former Edmonton Oil King, as evidenced by the high price paid to acquire him. As is the case with many blueliners, the development curve can be full of ups and downs.
While Reinhart made his NHL debut in 2014-15 with his draft team, the New York Islanders, he made his first NHL appearance for the Oilers in 2015-16. He originally remained with the big club out of training camp, but was a fringe player, sometimes watching from the press box as the odd man out. He was sent down to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL in November, but injuries later in the season forced a call-up for Reinhart, who seemed to hold his own in his second round of NHL appearances. The big, stay-at-home rearguard shows flashes of brilliance, but sometimes gets burned by his inexperience and occasionally his lack of speed. It’s evident that some more development time for Reinhart at the AHL level certainly won’t hurt his game.
Darnell Nurse, D, 21
Nurse’s inexperience shows sometimes, unfortunately, and he has been burned on some tough plays. But when he’s good, Nurse is really good and his pure skills – strength, skating, and even puck-handling – really shine through. The 21-year-old is a big, mean defenseman who certainly doesn’t back down from a battle for the puck, or from a good old-fashioned scrap, recently going toe-to-toe with Max McCormick of the Ottawa Senators. In late December, he challenged Milan Lucic of the Los Angeles Kings to a fight – an opponent many NHLers would likely shudder at facing.
Darnell Nurse is making it clear that he’s willing to fight for his spot in the NHL, one way or another. His high-level skill is evident, and the tools he possesses makes him a very valuable commodity for the Edmonton Oilers, a team that’s severely lacking in elite talent on the blueline. For that reason especially, the team would do well to take its time with Darnell Nurse, and avoid putting too much pressure and expectation on the young rearguard.
Brandon Davidson, D, 24
Brandon Davidson finished the 2014-15 season with the Edmonton Oilers, but was still a question mark on the roster sheet heading into 2015-16, with his position to start the year resting on his training camp performance. Davidson was better than expected, punching his ticket for a spot on the Oilers’ blueline, where he’s remained since. The progress of the 2010 sixth-rounder is a credit to the scouting staff and the organization, and hopefully a lesson as well.
He plays a simple, defense-first game and is a big body on the ice. Combined with his solid positioning, some shooting ability, and good hockey sense, Davidson has worked his way up from his late draft selection to an NHL player with legitimate value for his club. He has played mostly in a third-pairing role, playing reasonable minutes in somewhat sheltered assignments. While his inexperience shows at times, Davidson has managed to remain consistent throughout his 50+ NHL appearances thus far.
Davidson is certainly high on the list to re-sign this summer, barring any major decline in his performance between now and the conclusion of 2015-16. He currently is rounding out a bargain-basement one-year contract extension, which will make negotiations interesting, depending on how the rest of his 2015-16 season shapes up. It seems likely that the Oilers will want to lock him down in a multi-year deal, but what that will cost them remains to be seen.
2016 World Juniors Update
The lone Oilers prospect that participated in the 2016 Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships is defensive prospect William Lagesson, who suited up for Team Sweden. The squad finished an eventual fourth, losing to the United States in an 8-3 decision for the bronze medal. Lagesson was an integral part of Sweden’s special teams, logging big minutes on the penalty kill in a number of matchups. He finished the tournament with two goals and one assist for three points over seven games. The freshman has also been a solid steadying presence for U-Mass, a team that has struggled in conference play this season.
Prospect of the Month
Laurent Brossoit earns this month’s spot as prospect of the month. The goaltender most recently earned a call-up to the Edmonton Oilers, who have struggled to find consistency in net for a number of seasons. Anders Nilsson will join the Bakersfield Condors as part of the transaction. Brossoit nearly stole a game for the club in 2014-15, where he stopped 47 of 49 shots from the San Jose Sharks and had similar luck this time. He made 32 saves on 33 Winnipeg Jets shots before losing in a shootout. Brossoit currently holds a 2.70 goals-against average and .921 save percentage for the Condors.
Brossoit continues to be the deciding factor in a number of games for the Bakersfield Condors, earning the clear-cut starting role once again for his AHL squad. He certainly stands a better than average chance of backing up goaltender Cam Talbot next season.