As VP of Hockey Operations for the Edmonton Oilers, Kevin Prendergast runs the ship on draft day. It might be GM Kevin Lowe who makes the first selection announcement at the podium, but make no mistake; the name called will be a result of a recommendation from Prendergast and his staff.
Prendergast joined the Oilers organization in the very early 1990’s after the team won its last Stanley Cup against the Boston Bruins. Since then, the philosophy behind Oiler drafting and scouting has seemingly changed as much as the players on the team.
Few could argue that the Oilers talent pool under Prendergast’s eye is a marked improvement from the last decade of the 20th Century. A once dismal draft record that created an organization with the depth of a puddle has been revamped. Now that puddle has flooded into a deep talent pool on which the Oilers hope to dip into for years to come.
When it comes to the European prospects within the Oiler legions, Prendergast knows them best and he spoke with Hockey’s Future about several of them.
Q: I need to ask you about several of the Oiler European prospects. If you could briefly touch on what style of player they are, how their development has been progressing, if we might see them in N.A. soon, etc.
A: OK, no problem.
Q: I’d like to start with the three players you most recently drafted from the Swedish Leagues. First, Kalle Olsson.
A: We took Kalle because he’s a great skater and he fits the Oiler mold of player because of his speed. He’s one of those players we feel is going to take a little time to develop in the Swedish League so we don’t anticipate Kalle coming over to North America for at least three to five years.
Q: How about Dragan Umicevic? (Pronounced: U-mi-che-vik)
A: Umicevic is a kid that we’ve liked for a number of years. He’s a kid that really goes to the net well and is able to finish. He had a bit of a tough year last year but we just consider that a little bit of a glitch in his development and he’s another one of those guys we feel in three to four years he has a chance to play for us.
Q: Mishail Joukov? (Pronounced: Zhu-KOFF)
A: He’s a big strong kid. I’m not sure if he’s going to be a center man or a winger in the NHL but he’s a great skater, he’s very good in his own end, good at faceoffs, good in the corners so he’s got all the ingredients to play in the league. He’s probably about two years away from coming over to North America.
Q: Joukov has some citizenship issues doesn’t he?
A: He’s got a little bit of a problem in that his dad was a coach in Sweden, though I don’t think he’s a coach there anymore. The problem is that (Joukov) wants to go back and play for the Russian National team and they’ve taken out citizenship papers in Sweden and I don’t know if it went through or not. He’s gone up to HV-71, which is one of the best teams in the SEL. He told us at the draft that he wanted the opportunity to play for a Russian National team because he’s never done that before. I think the way the Russian Federation is going right now they’re trying to stick to home-brewed type players.
Q: Jan Horacek is signed and will be at camp in September?
A: He’s definitely coming back to camp. Jan is a very physical defensemen and I think playing in Europe he ran into a lot of problems last year in that he spent a lot of time in the penalty box. A couple of teams that had him didn’t want him because of that but when he played in North America he’s more adept at playing our style. I think the year of playing away from North America probably did him a lot of good. He’ll be in camp in September and we think he’s one of the players who’ll challenge for that seventh defensemen spot in Edmonton.
Q: Alexei Mikhnov?
A: Mikhnov was two days away from coming to our prospects camp this past June and he just resigned with his team in Siberia. When he asked his coach if it was OK for him to come his coach said ‘yes he could go but don’t come back’. Over the course of the last two years it’s been a struggle for the organization for where we took him, and for Alexei too being a Ukrainian kid playing in Russia. Last year in Novosibirsk he had a real good year and Frank Musil, our scout in the Czech Republic, went in to see him play twice and the first thing that he noticed was that (Mikhnov) is no longer a boy he’s a man now. He’s 215 lbs and 6-4.5 so he’s coming in the right direction. Being a first round selection and considering the amount of money you have to fork out, especially for a small team like ourselves, we want to 100% sure that he’s able to come over here and contribute. After talking to a number of scouts in Europe and Central Scouting in Europe, everybody’s on the same page. This kid has come a long way in the past two years and if he continues to go that way then maybe next year, if there’s no lock out, then we’ll try and do something and bring Alexei over to North America.
Q: Can you give me an update on a player you drafted way back in 1994 named Jussi Tarvainen?
A: Jussi Tarvainen is a player we’ve tried to sign a number of times and was looking for what we considered to be too much money. I think at this point he’s pretty much going to stay in Europe. We’ve wanted to bring him over a couple of times but basically he’s priced himself out of what the market was at that point. We’ll continue to talk to him over the next little while but at this point we don’t consider him a part of our future.
Q: But if he ever does come to North America the Oilers will still hold his NHL rights?
A: Yeah we have his rights. The thing he does is he scores goals and he gets a lot of points and that’s why we wanted to bring him over but his asking price is just way too high.
Q: Your last pick in the 2000 draft was Evgeny Muratov.
A: We had Evgeny in camp two years ago. He’s small and his skating was a little bit of a problem but he’s got tremendous hands. Again, he’s one of these kids playing in the Russian Elite League and the amount of money these kids are making there it’s impossible for us to go over and say ‘Look, we’d like you to come over and play in the AHL’. He’s still young, he’s still only 24 years old and maybe when he’s 26 or 27 he’ll change his mind and he’ll want to come over. He’s one of the kids we keep on our list and just keep monitoring him while he’s over there.
Q: In the same draft year you took Alexander Liubimov in the third round, is there an update on him?
A: We’ve bought Liubimov out and released him. He’s no longer a part of our organization. He wanted to go back to Russia and play and we just didn’t feel that he had the ability to be a contributing factor in the AHL or certainly in the NHL.
Q: The last player you took in 1999 was Tomas Groschl.
A: Groschl is still on our list but basically he’s not on our radar screen anymore.
Q: Fredrik Johansson could not attend the prospect camp because of a bad back. Has he fully recovered?
A: I’ve just seen him play in Lake Placid two weeks ago with the U.S. Junior camp. He scored a couple of goals and played very, very well. We took Fredrik in the ninth round on Kent Nilsson’s recommendation. He’s offensive minded. I think he was the second leading scorer in the Swedish Junior league last year and I certainly could see why. He’s very gifted with the puck but right now he’s only 174 lbs. He has some time to mature and get himself into the Elite League and then when we think he’s ready to come over we’ll make him an offer. We think he has the chance to play in the NHL somewhere down the road.
Q: Is Jesse Niinimaki progressing, as you would like to see?
A: He was very good at the rookie camp we had and he’s back with his big team back in Finland. We talked to their coach last week and Jesse is going to be a big part of their rebuilding. They went out and signed some good players to play around him. He’s just got to understand that there are some things that he’s got to improve on from a mental and physical standpoint but from an ability to play the game, we certainly think he should play for us, probably, within the next two years.
Q: Mikael Svensk?
A: Svensk had a really good camp with us in June. He’s 6-3 but only 189 lbs right now. He’s hoping to play in the SEL this year. He moves the puck very well and he’s very physical for a Swedish kid. Our coaches and our entire staff were really impressed with him at the camp in Edmonton after the draft and he’s expressed a strong interest to coming over and playing in North America. He’s one of the kids we’ll have Kent Nilsson keep a close eye on this year with the possibility that next year we’ll do something with him and if not then the next year probably for sure.
Q: Jonas Almtorp?
A: Almtorp is a defensive minded kid, he’s a great skater, typical Swede who plays very well in his own end and he’s good on faceoffs. He has to get a little bit stronger for our liking but at our conditioning camp he played very well for us and showed a lot of positives. For any team it’s like a puzzle; some guys have to play defense and some guys have to be good penalty kill specialists and we think Jonas is going to fit that bill for us somewhere down the road.
Q: Is Mikko Luoma another player that you expect to challenge for a spot this year?
A: I certainly expect Mikko to challenge. He played very well for his team in Finland and the Championships. His skating is not pretty to look at but he gets the job done. He moves the puck very well and he keeps things simple and rarely gets in trouble in his own end. He quarterbacked the power play for Tampere in the playoffs. Reijo Ruotsaleinen, who used to play for us, told me that he was one of the players that killed them in the finals. We think that at his age and what he’s been though in an elite league over there and pressure situations that he’s going to be a strong candidate to make our team this year.
Q: How was Kristian Antilla’s year in North America?
A: He had a very disappointing year last year. He reported to camp overweight, which is very disappointing for me personally and for the whole organization, and then he got himself into a situation where he never got to be the number one goaltender. He kicked around a bit from league to league and hopefully it was a bit of a wake up call for him. He went back home, and I’ve talked to his agent, he’s trained very hard this summer. He certainly has the ability to play at a higher level in North America and hopefully from a mature stand point he’s learned that from last year. Hopefully he comes to camp and challenges for the back up job in Toronto (Roadrunners) this year.
Q: Ivan Koltsov?
A: Koltsov is a player we tried to bring over this year. He had a very strong finish to his year in Russia. He’s a big kid at 6-3 200lbs and he’s very similar in our eyes to (Alexei) Semenov. He doesn’t panic under pressure, he keeps his game simple, he’s very aware in his own end, but he wanted to stay in Russia for one more year. He has an opportunity to play on a better team over there this year but we consider him to be one of our better prospects.
Q: The last guy I want to ask you about is Peter Sarno who played in Finland last year. Will he be coming back to play in Toronto this year?
A: I would like Peter to come back. We’ve talked to him a couple of times and he’s still our property and he is back in North America. From my stand point, and I know Kevin Lowe’s stand point, we’d like to give Peter the opportunity to see what he can do with the big team and see if he can challenge there, or if that didn’t happened he’d at least be the number one guy in Toronto that gets called up. He has the ability to score points because I think he finished third or fourth in scoring after missing the first half a dozen games. Offense is certainly Peter’s strong point it was having to play the defensive position in North America that’s always been a little bit of a down side for him. Again, he’s a little bit older and a little bit more mature and he’s going to get a fair opportunity with our team at training camp this year.
Q: Can you compare the drafting philosophies of the current Oilers under your scouting command to when you first joined the club back in the early 1990’s?
A: I think the difference is that in the early 1990’s they’d won five Stanley Cups for one thing because of the way they had drafted and the trades they’d made. The philosophy had to change a bit under Barry (Fraser) in that we were always picking late in the draft in those years and a lot of times you were just taking a flyer on a player because of his size or whatever it might be. We didn’t have any scouts from North America go over to Europe to scout. Since I’ve come in I’ve basically tried to make sure that all of our scouts go over to Europe. I want the top 50 players on our list to be seen by everyone on our staff so that when we have a meeting it’s not just a one or two person situation that they’re voting on. That’s basically the main change between Barry and myself outside of the fact that Barry had to pick later in the draft then I’ve had to do since I’ve taken over. Glen Sather was the GM at that point and now Kevin is and he’s looking for specific types of players early in the draft. We go into each draft with a game plan. This year it was we wanted to get two skilled players to start with then we were going to go with some big strong kids after that then skill again after that. We think we had a pretty good draft. From an organization’s standpoint this regime is looking to rebuild the team and Barry’s regime had a team that was already at the top and they just had to keep it there.
Q: Which draft year was the first where you were really took over from Barry Fraser?
A: The Ales Hemsky draft year (2001). Three years ago.
Q: If I were an actor and after a dozen years I had been in a myriad of movies, I am sure that there would be four or five that I held in personal high regard. As a scout who has literally drafted over a hundred hockey players, there must be a few names that you were really cheering for on a personal level, players who you considered to be “your guys”. Can you give me some of the names of those guys past and present?
A: I think every scout has his own favorite players. Our staff works as a team and whomever the player is that we take we’re talking him as a team and there might be three or four scouts who don’t like that player but the other nine guys on staff do like him. My first pick being Hemsky, you certainly want him to play and I’m yearning for him to be a success and so far I think Ales is going to be. My first draft we took some flyers on some older guys like Jussi Markkanen who I really rooted for because I’d seen him play in Finland. I knew he was exactly what we were looking for because we’d just signed Ty Conklin but we needed Ty to develop in the AHL rather than be a back up in the NHL. Now Ty is ready to come in and be the back up goalie in Edmonton and probably challenge for the number one spot there and we traded Jussi for a second round pick to the Rangers. The classic line is ‘I love it when a plan comes together’, and this one worked out about as well as a team could have hoped for. At this last draft we made the trade to move back down because I still thought we were going to get Marc-Antoine Pouliot but the player I really, really like is Jean-Francois Jacques. He’s exactly what the Oilers were looking for, he’s a big strong kid and he’s tough. We got him with that extra pick we got from New Jersey. We took a lot of heat for not taking Zach Parise but we felt that we had enough small centers in the organization. Pouliot gives us a lot of skill and he can skate, he’s also a lot tougher than people give him credit for. Joukov was a player that only Kent Nilsson and myself had seen and for only one game so we took a bit of a flyer on him. We got into a situation in the second round where both of us really liked this guy and we weren’t sure if he was going to be there the next time around as well.
Q: Do you have any other European scouts other than Kent Nilsson and Frank Musil?
A: No but like I said, we send all of our scouts over to Europe during the course of the year to the tournaments, which I consider to be the most important parts. While they are over there they might catch a couple of Elite League games. As long as we get to the tournaments over there we go into the draft pretty confident of what players are over there.
Q: You made no overage European selections this year. Was that a deliberate decision?
A: We actually had three overage players that we were looking at but they all got picked by another team basically right before our turn came up. We feel with the signing of Luoma, we have solidified that one situation and with the trade we made at the end of last year with the Islanders we shored up our forwards. The way Hamilton finished we look to our own guys like (Raffi) Torres and (Jani) Rita, (Tony) Salmelainen, (Jarret) Stoll, Bobby Allen and Conklin and we think we have enough depth in the organization to draft an older player this time.
Q: You certainly addressed size up front and toughness and grit at the draft. Which areas do you need to focus on now, what are your priorities?
A: Our defense is solid but we’re not really as deep as we want to be as an organization. Down the road we have kids like Svensk and Kenny Smith but right now our immediate concern is still to beef up the defense in the next draft if we can. We went into this draft and goaltending was not a high priority for us because we feel that with (Jeff) Deslauriers and (Glenn) Fisher we have good depth there. But goalies are like pitchers in baseball in that you can never have too many. I think going into next year’s draft goaltending will be a priority during the first couple of rounds anyway.
Q: When drafting, do size and skill matter over talent and character or is there a set order of preference or importance?
A: The number one thing is that they have to be able to skate to be an Oiler. We sort of got off that a bit with Zach Stortini but he’s got character and he’s strong and tough. We knew when we drafted Georges Laraque that he wasn’t a great skater but we needed a tough guy at that time. Down the road, in Zach’s case, we know he’s going to show up to play all the time. We go into each draft with five different lists and basically work our way across those lists. Next year’s draft might be a little different in that we might take a small skilled player.
Q: At what point does a scouting staff begin focusing on a specific draft year? Obviously 2004 is in your sights but are you already looking at 2005 or 2006 too?
A: Not really. We basically have a little bit of a book for players for next year’s draft but in most cases a lot of these players change a lot from year to year. You’re not closely looking at what their faults might be you’re looking at what their positives are all the time. Just getting ready for each draft individually is what is important for this organization. We look at the elite camps over the summertime, which bring in the players eligible for the next year’s draft, like the Canadian or the U.S. camps. We make sure they are covered by all of our staff so everybody knows whom the top players are heading into the draft at the end of that season.
Q: Do you consider the first prospect camp a success and are there plans to make it an annual event?
A: I think it was a huge success because we’ve got so many young prospects. It’s easy for me and the scouting staff to say it but for Kevin and the coaches they might see one player but not get an opportunity to see all of them. To put them all together where you’re looking at size, skill and ability. Now down the road we’re looking at five or six forwards who are going to play in Edmonton over the next couple of years and goaltenders that we think are going to be OK. It’s good for the hockey fan in Edmonton, everyday we were there that building was full. People want to see the people we are bringing in, they want to see what they are going to bring to the organization. It’s easy to say it or put it the paper or listen to other people’s opinions but until you see them yourself, you’re not really sure what you have. I think from an organization’s standpoint it was huge.