Q&A with Kevin Prendergast: Prospects update

By Guy Flaming

Hockey’s Future recently sat down with the Edmonton Oilers top scout Kevin Prendergast, VP of Hockey Operations, to discuss an array of topics ranging from prospect updates to scouting strategies, the World Junior Tournament and even a comprehensive comparison to the differences between the Oilers’ scouting policies of today compared to those in years previous.

Part 1 focuses on the players who will eventually wear the copper drop.

The Toronto Roadrunners

HF: Jani Rita is currently playing pretty well, could he realistically be a call up this year?
KP: There’s always that possibility. Jani’s still got to work on the physical part of his game, and he is –- he’s working really hard. He’s playing through tough situations, he was really struggling down there and now he’s one of their best forwards. I think he or (Tony) Salmelainen are probably the two best forwards right now so, depending on what side (the need) is on, we’ll see if he gets a call up or not.

HF: Would you agree that his defensive game has improved though?
KP: Yeah, his overall game defensively has really improved and he works a lot harder in his own end now. He’s starting to play the physical game a little better like we’d like to see him play, especially in his own end. He’s using his strength, which is something I’m not sure that he’s ever done before; I don’t think he knows how strong he really is! Jeff Beukeboom is working with him a lot down there to teach him and he’s going in the right direction. I told him when he went down that Jason Chimera went through the same thing by going down but you have to play. Sitting here not playing isn’t good enough, you have to go down there and play and be the best player. Now he’s certainly one of the top two or three down there.

HF: Jan Horacek has only played in eight games this year. What is his status right now?
KP: It doesn’t look like he’s going to play again this year. He’s got a kidney ailment and he’s going in for an operation the day after Christmas and then he’s going to have a three-month rehab. He’s got a hole in his kidney and it’s a bit more serious than we thought. Doctors have said it’s at least three months rehab and probably a month to get into shape from there so we don’t anticipate that he’s going to play again this year.

HF: Is it career threatening?
KP: No, but it is for the rest of this year anyway.

HF: Can you give me a scouting report on Jeff Woywitka and tell me how far away from being NHL ready he is?
KP: Jeff’s got all the tools. He skates really well, he’s smart defensively, moves the puck really well, he’s a good passer and I don’t think he’s all that far away from being in the NHL. But there’s still part of his game that he has to work on, more so to do with his strength to play at this level. He’s going to get to play a lot down there, he might get an NHL opportunity this year and if not I certainly anticipate him being a part of this team at some point next year if not at the beginning of the year.

HF: Jeff has missed some time in each of the past couple of years in Red Deer. Were the injuries anything to be worried about for the long term?
KP: No they were just typical defensemen injuries. One was an arm or a wrist injury and the other was a knee or ankle injury. Nothing that’s been operated on, just something that meant he had to sit out due to soreness.

HF: Is Doug Lynch another guy you feel will be ready very early next year if not even sooner?
KP: Dougie’s coming. He’s playing really well down there and getting better all the time. The one thing he does have to work on is the outside speed of the game. He’s doing an awful lot of work on that with his feet movement and Jeff Beukeboom is doing a lot of work with him. Physically he can play at this level, he thinks the game really well, but if he’s going to be a defenseman in the NHL you’ve got to be able to handle that outside speed. The more he plays down there the better he’ll get at it.

HF: With Lynch, Woywitka and Matt Greene in the system, you appear to have the future cornerstones of your defense.
KP: Well we certainly think we have three great young defensemen. Mikael Svensk is another big kid and we think he has a chance to be another good one. Kenny Smith playing in Harvard has some learning to do but he’s got a big heart and he plays very intense. You know, you throw in Semenov and Brewer and we have some great young defensemen coming.

HF: Was the fact that Woywitka and Lynch played together in Red Deer a factor in your interest in Jeff or was it just an added bonus?
KP: I think all those things fit in. When a name comes up you sort of put it all together. He was a player we liked an awful lot in his draft year and it just so happened that Hemsky was ahead of him on our list. I know Kevin Lowe’s always liked him because he’s a defenseman and (Lowe) loves those defensemen! He’s very steady and he very seldom gets himself into trouble and you’ve got to have those guys in your line up. When his name did come up from Philadelphia, and the opportunity to get another first round pick in this draft, we thought it was a good deal for us.

HF: You have an excess of blueliners right now in Toronto. Have you been reassigning them yet?
KP: Well for the time being we haven’t done anything, we’re flip-flopping them around right now. Igor Ulanov’s down there on a 25-game tryout, we’ll probably send Mathieu Roy to Columbus for about two weeks just to let him play and just see what happens from there. Luoma’s another one coming in and out of the line up. The team is struggling so until we find some sort of chemistry where everything is going good then I think we’ll make a decision from there.

HF: Some of the first year pro players like Joe Cullen, Dan Baum and Brad Winchester seem to be struggling with the jump to the AHL.
KP: For the most part they all do, especially the college kids. The biggest thing for them is the travel; the long bus rides on the weekends where you play three games in two and a half days. I think the speed of the game has been a bit of a problem for the three of them but they’re all working very hard. Dan Baum went over and played for Canada in some Slovakian tournaments where they finished first and I think that was good for him. Winchester and Cullen both are learning and getting better every day so we’re happy with their development to this point.

HF: Has the AHL move to Toronto been a positive and how has the attendance been so far this year?
KP: Attendance has been up and down but they started off really well. The other night against Philly they announced 3500 and then the next game against Saint John’s (the Leafs AHL affiliate) they had in the 7000 range. It’s a tough market and I think it’s something you’ve got to attack every day to get the people into the building but the team is playing exciting hockey down there and I think once people see it a bit more they’ll come back to see it again.

ECHL Players

HF: Chris Legg is not with your ECHL affiliate in Columbus anymore, what has happened to him?
KP: Chris is playing for another team in the ECHL and I don’t think he’s going to be a part of our future.

HF: Is the situation with Kristian Antila driving you crazy?
KP: (sighs) Kristian is in the ECHL. He started off in Columbus and really got off to a tough start, was called up to Toronto for a couple of games as a backup but didn’t get the opportunity to play because (Michael) Morrison played so well. It’s a tough thing. We thought he was going to come over here and be better than what he was. He’s really struggled with the North American game and that’s a player that at the end of the year we’ll make a decision on whether we want to keep him or just release him.

HF: Do you have to find another team for him like you did last year with Wichita?
KP: Yup. Right now he’s on Columbus as a third string and they’re trying to trade him to another team for us so that he can play.

HF: What is the situation with J.F. Dufort?
KP: He’s still not cleared to play. It’s post-concussion syndrome and he’s seen a doctor in Montreal twice now and she still hasn’t cleared him to play. We would have to think at this point that J.F. is a write off. Unless something drastic happens in the next 6-8 months, and certainly the door is always open for him, but at this point we’re not counting on him for anything.

HF: Adam Dewan, is his career over?
KP: Adam is still done at this point, it’s the same scenario as Dufort and he’s not cleared to play.

Update from Russia

HF: Alexei Mikhnov is having a really good season and leading his team in scoring. Is the plan still to have him here next year and what potential roadblocks might be out there that could prevent that from happening?
KP: At this point I think the only potential roadblock is money; he is a first rounder. Do we wait until a new CBA is in place and sign him from there? From what we hear, and Frank Musil has seen him, he’s on the right track to be playing in the NHL soon or in the next couple of years but again it always comes down to that same situation: What’s it going to cost us to get him here? I think for his development, he’s gone far enough in that Russian league now that it’s time for him to make the jump. That’s something that Kevin [Lowe] and his agent will talk about as soon as the season is over.

HF: Will Nikolai Zherdev’s situation in Columbus have any bearing with what happens to your Russian prospects?
KP: We’re not really sure because basically the same rules are still in place. I think the positive we have going with Mikhnov is that he isn’t really a Russian he’s Ukrainian and so there’s no possibility of him ever playing for the Russian National team which is something with Zherdev and all those guys, they try and hold over their heads. His contract is up this year over there and I know from talking to his agent and his parents last summer they want him to come over to North America and try it. Again, the timing of the whole thing and what it’s going to cost us in the end is what’s going to dictate what will happen with him.

HF: Hopefully Mikhnov will make it over for the summer prospect camp this year though?
KP: Yes, hopefully for the mini-camp. I think if we did get him over for the mini-camp we’d probably like to keep him for the majority of the summer just to get him acclimatized, get his English a little bit better, and get him into training camp with the proper attitude and within the proper situation so that he understands what it takes to play over in North America.

HF: Did you watch Ivan Koltsov while he was here with the Russian team?
KP: Yeah I don’t think he played as well as he’s capable of playing and I think a lot of that had to do with playing on a poor team. We’re going to get to see him play in a couple of tournaments when we go back over there in February and April. We’ll talk to him again and see what he wants to do. He was happy staying over there for another year or two when we talk to him last summer because he thought his development would be a lot better over there. If we feel he’s better off playing in the Elite league in Russia, which is a hell of a hockey league, we’ll leave him over there until he decides that he wants to come over here. I don’t think he played very well over here but we saw him play at the end of last year and he played very well. To be picked for the team though was a bit of an honor for him but it was basically his first whack at North American type of hockey on a poor team that was outmatched on five of the six nights. Frank Musil goes over there quite a bit, I’m going back twice more this year and we’ll look at him from there.

HF: Alexander Fomitchev has been stellar this year in Russia and he’s a player that you once drafted.
KP: We drafted him but we don’t own his rights anymore. He’s a great young man and I wish him all the best. At that time when we had him, small goaltenders were just having a hard time playing so we released him at that point to give him an opportunity to go somewhere else and he went back home where he’s making the best of it.

HF: I thought that an NHL owned a European player’s rights until they eventually play in North America?
KP: That’s true but you can drop them if you want to. It’s called a defected list and if you want to drop them off to defected status it basically makes them a free agent to give them that opportunity and that’s what we did, we gave him an opportunity.

HF: Speaking of Russians, there are only two in the system at the moment. Is there any particular downside to drafting a player from Russia that isn’t there when taking a player from another European country?
KP: Not really from our standpoint although it seems the Russians are becoming harder to get out of the country because the Russian Elite league is paying so much money now so a lot of kids will want to stay home. As far as rating them and going into the draft to take them, we haven’t based our stance on that. If we feel that there is a player that we really like we would take him, it just so happens that other players were on our list ahead of where we had some Russians over the last couple of years.

Other European Prospects

HF: I’ve been talking with Jesse Niinimaki while he’s been in Edmonton and I know he’s planning on being in North America next year. Is that still your plan for him too even with the shoulder injury?
KP: Well Jesse will be here provided he wants to work at it. He’s got to get bigger, he certainly has the skills to play in the NHL but we haven’t seen a lot of development from a strength standpoint in the last two years. Being injured this year has set him back a little but at the end of the year we’re going to look at all our prospects, look at our situation, and see how much money we have left over. I think we’d like to have him come over here but we only want him to come over here when we know he can play and contribute. If you’re not strong enough to play in the AHL then you’re not going to contribute. We’re going to have a long talk with him (laughing) before he goes home tonight and basically explain these things to him and talk to his agent, his agent is well aware of these things. Once he does start his rehab at home he’s going to have to work very hard. He certainly can skate well enough to play in the NHL and he has the sense to do it but you need to be strong enough to do it too.

HF: It’s going to be pretty hard for him to build upper body strength with his shoulder as bad as it is though isn’t it?
KP: That’s right and that’s what has hurt him. It’s going to take a while extra but it might very well mean that we have to bring him over here to train this summer so that we basically have control of what he’s doing. I know they train a little bit differently over in Europe in that there’s a lot of bicycle training and running but in some cases you have to get that upper body strength and do a lot of weight training. When his shoulder gets to about that 75-80 percent range and he’s able to start lifting weights again, I think we’re going to have to get involved in that again where we have to get him back here.

HF: Dragan Umicevic is playing for his third team already this season after starting in the Swedish Elite initially. Is this something you are concerned about?
KP: We anticipated him to be a player maybe 3-5 years down the road and he started struggling midway through last year but we thought that once he got settled on one team he’d be OK and it hasn’t turned out that way. He’s a great kid but he might be pressing too hard to stay up there. Once you get into an elite league and you get bounced around a little bit it’s hard, but we’re going to have a look at him in February and watch him again and have a talk with him. He might want to come over and play in North America next year and that’s something we’ll talk to him about at the end of this year.

HF: How is Mikael Svensk developing?
KP: Progress is going really good with Mikael and I think coming over to our camp in the summer was really good for him. It gave him an opportunity to see how far away he was and also how close he was at the same time. He’s a physical player, he moves the puck really well and he’s got good size and he’s a good skater so certainly he’s one of the players we’ll sit down at the end of the year and discuss whether we want to bring him over next year or not.

HF: What is going on with Mishail Joukov and his citizenship situation in Sweden?
KP: He tried to get his citizenship to play for Sweden at the WJC and it didn’t come in time. He’s bounced back and forth between HV-71 and a team in Vasteras. He’s played on the fourth line when he’s gone up to the SEL and I think it’s been a big jump for him too. His dad’s not coaching him anymore which was one of the things he had going for him over there. He’s big, strong, can skate, he’s got a lot of tools and I think it’s just more so a maturing thing to get into the Elite league and knowing that he can play there, I think that’s what he has to do. We’ll see him a couple of times before the end of the year.

HF: Obviously he can’t play in the WJC for anybody though.
KP: No, (laughing) he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. I think maybe by that time he’ll have his Swedish citizenship but he’s not going to have an opportunity to play for Sweden at the World Championships and right now I think he needs to focus on making HV-71 and being a regular member of that team.

HF: Can you give me an update on Josef Hrabal?
KP: He’s playing well over there. Right now he’s still on his junior team but he’s being looked at by one of the senior teams in the Czech league and we’re hoping that he’s going to move up to the senior league after Christmas.

U.S. College Players

HF: You mentioned Kenny Smith earlier. Both he and Jason Platt are defensively-oriented defensemen and you can’t get a read on how their seasons are going by looking at a stats sheet. How are they both doing in this college year?
KP: I just saw Kenny Smith play last week and if he has a negative it’s that he plays at Harvard, as much as you can consider that a negative. The problem is that they don’t play a whole lot of games and it’s tough for him to get into a groove because of exam schedules and they also start later than any other school. Kenny’s got two things going for him: He’s got a big heart and he’s got a desire to play the game. He has a lot of sense, he skates well enough, he’s certainly strong enough and he’s a great young man who I think understands what it’s going to take to play in the NHL. He’s one of those players that it’s going to be a process, probably play in the AHL for one or two years and hopefully from then he’ll go into the NHL.

Platt is a different scenario in that he’s built like (Marc-Andre) Bergeron in that he’s 5’9″ and 215 lbs. He’s a solid kid, skates very well, he’s a very physical player but he’s got to learn to be able to handle the puck and do things in his own end a little better. His coaches say that he presses sometimes but Jason came to our camp in the summertime and he showed us that he has skills and he has the desire to be a player. These are the type of kids that we know that down the road we’re going to win with and at the end of the season we’ll talk with him and bring him back here for the summer and go from there. They can’t all play in the NHL at once, they have to go to the AHL to learn and develop their skills and these are two kids that I think for sure will have to go there for a while but we know by the way they compete that they’re going to get the opportunity to be here.

HF: Glenn Fisher is playing as the back up at University of Denver but that was expected wasn’t it?
KP: Yeah, the basic situation with Denver was that they have a senior goaltender (Adam Berkoel), which is the same with every college team in that they ride their seniors. (Berkoel) is going to be a free agent. Their thought process was that if they got off to a bad start and they really stumbled then they were going to get Glenn in and use their younger players more but if they got off to a good start then they would slowly bring Glenn in. They’ve gotten off to a good start. He’s gone up to a bigger level than where he was and to be in that situation to learn, he’s got three years after this year to take over that number one spot and we fully anticipate him being the No. 1 goalie there next year.

HF: Eddie Caron has just two goals so far, was more expected from him this year?
KP: He’s playing on the third line there but he’s playing a lot on the third line. I just saw him play last week and I was happy with how I saw him play. He’s playing very physical, they have two small lines and one big line and he’s on the big line. He’s had opportunities to score but the puck just hasn’t gone in the net for him. The night that we were there he hit the crossbar once and had a semi breakaway so he’s getting the chances to score they’re just not going in the net. Sitting out a whole year last year we’re prepared to give him the leeway and wait until after Christmas and I’m sure they’ll start going in then.

HF: Chris McCarthy told me that Eddie dropped some weight to become more agile.
KP: He’s probably down now to about 215 and he was about 232 when he was out here in camp (June). I had no problems with any of his game when I saw him because he handles the puck well and shoots it well plus he’s very physical.

HF: How is Brock Radunske playing at Michigan State?
KP: He’s playing well this year. He’s playing a lot more physical than he has in the last couple of years and he’s working on his skating, which was a bit of a problem for him but he’s getting stronger now so he can handle it more. He’s also playing a bigger role at Michigan State this year than he was in his previous two years.

HF: Has Michigan freshman David Rohlfs surprised you with his play this year?
KP: Yeah because he went to a school like Michigan and he started the year on the second line, I think he’s down to the third line right now but, he’s contributed and stepped right in there and played at a pretty good school program. He’s a big kid and we thought that it would probably take him a year to get used to that level but he’s stepped right in there and so he’s been a big surprise for us so far. It’s a bit of a surprise because we didn’t expect him to play as much as he is playing in Michigan this year.

Major Junior in Canada

HF: Of all the Oiler prospects, who is breaking out so far this year more than you maybe expected? I’m thinking of Kyle Brodziak of course but is there anyone else?
KP: Kyle is having an outstanding year. The rest of our kids that we took in this past draft are all coming along at the proper pace right now. We’re not in a hurry for these guys, we just want to make sure that they are developed properly and at the right rate.

HF: To what do you attribute Brodziak’s fast start? Is it a case of him now as a 19-year-old playing against players younger and smaller than he is?
KP: No I don’t think so. He played really well last year as an 18-year-old and I think that by coming into an NHL training camp, his confidence only got better and he looked around at the guys and thought ‘you know I’m not all that far away from playing with these guys’. He’s got a great attitude as a young man, he just wants to be a hockey player but he’s a learner as he’s going along. He knows he has to be able to play defense to play at the NHL level and also have some offensive skill. His offense was there last year with 32 goals and he’s working on his defense this year. Fror most of these kids the biggest thing that’s stopping them at this point is strength, they have to get stronger to be able to play 82 games at the NHL level. That’s something that he’s well aware of. It’s fun for him right now, he’s on a good team in Moose Jaw, but he knows that at training camp coming into next year he’s going to have to be a lot stronger than he was at this year’s camp.

HF: Marc-Antoine Pouliot almost seems injury-plagued this year.
KP: It’s a muscle in the lower abdomen area. He tweaked it here in training camp then when he got back (to junior) he hurt it again for a couple games, he came back and played some more then hurt it a third time by trying to come back too early. It’s one of those things that if you don’t treat it properly and give it the proper rest he could be sitting for the whole year. We’ve monitored that very closely, he’s skated lightly now for the past three weeks and over the last four or five days he’s skated a lot harder. The good thing he has going for him this year is that he’s not playing on a team that’s going to lose 38 in a row, that’s a good hockey club so they’re able to wait for him to come back. He’s pretty disappointed at this point but he understands that if it isn’t getting better we’ll bring him out here too and have a good look at him. I’m not worried about him becoming a player we just want to make sure he’s 100 percent and healthy to go from here.

HF: How is Jean-Francois Jacques playing in Baie-Comeau?
KP: He’s had a really good year. He’s playing with a bad shoulder and it’s something that’s going to go eventually. After the draft last year we examined him here. It’s going to pop at some point and it’s probably going to need an operation but we don’t want to operate on him until it does pop. It hasn’t hindered his play, he’s got 18 points in 25 games, he’s had a number of fights down there, and we drafted him for his physical play and he’s certainly done that so far this year in Baie-Comeau.

HF: It sounds odd that you have to wait for the shoulder to get worse before you can fix it.
KP: I guess the way the joint is in the shoulder, the ball thing…(laughs). I don’t understand it but Dr. Reid looked at it at the camp and said he didn’t want to do anything with it until it did get to that point.

HF: If there is a work stoppage of some kind next season how does that affect the development of the players who at this point you think could be moving up to the NHL?
KP: I don’t think that we’ve really approached that because we don’t know exactly what the rules are going to be. Guys who can play in Toronto would go to Toronto. We’re proceeding as if there is going to be a season next year and we’ll look at our guys that we think are coming out, try and get them signed and get on with it from there. If there’s a stoppage then we’ll approach it from whatever way we have to at that point. We have a plan here as far as bringing our young players in and starting to develop them as they come out of college or junior and at this point we’re not going to stop doing that.

Talk about this article on the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.