Enter the Dragan
Off the radar of the casual Oiler fan in North America, European based prospects have found themselves in the midst of stiffer competition this year with the influx of locked out NHL players to their leagues. Not only are things more challenging on the ice because of world-class players donning sweaters of Modo, Djurgården and Malmö, but also off the ice the competition just to have a roster spot is also extremely tough. Through all the turmoil of this unusual year, one Oiler prospect has not only kept pace but he has stepped to the fore on his SEL team and captured the attention of Edmonton fans and the organization itself.
The Oilers selected Dragan Umicevic with the 184th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, but had their eye on him long before then as Kevin Prendergast, the club’s chief scout and VP of Hockey Operations, told Hockey’s Future that year.
“Umicevic is a kid that we’ve liked for a number of years,” Prendergast said in August of 2003. “He’s a kid that really goes to the net well and is able to finish; he’s one of those guys we feel in three or four years has a chance to play for us.”
The 2003-04 campaign was unpleasant for Umicevic as he struggled to stay with Södertälje of the Swedish Elite League and he actually bounced amongst teams. In fact, before Christmas of 2003, Umicevic had played for three different clubs. Unhappy in the lower tiers of Swedish hockey, Umicevic’s play was uninspiring and the Oilers weren’t sure they had actually come away with the sleeper hit they originally thought they might have found.
“He’s struggled basically for the last two years and that’s why we were able to get him as late as we did in the draft,” Prendergast said at the end of that year. “He’s either got to get himself to another team or he’s got to play himself through this to put himself into a position where we think he can come over here.”
“I talked to him when I was over there and told him that we didn’t expect him to come over (in 2004-05) and play in the NHL but we do expect him to improve and Kent (Nilsson) said the next time he saw him play he played very well,” Prendergast added.
With the advice of family friend and Oiler scout Kenta Nilsson, Umicevic worked his tail off over the summer and appeared at Södertälje’s training camp with renewed intensity and improved play. The 20-year-old right winger had a strong preseason, but once the regular schedule commenced he found himself on the outside of head coach Timo Lahtinen’s plans for the team.
In a scenario few thought was justified, Umicevic was returned to Södertälje’s junior team, but after just three games the offensive dynamo had racked up 11 points proving once and for all that he deserved his shot in the SEL.
Upon his return, Umicevic was placed on a line with center Olli Jokinen and Mikael Samuelsson who both played for the Florida Panthers in 2003-04. Instantly the trio found chemistry and became one of the hottest lines in the country. Umicevic ranks third on the team in scoring, just ahead of Jokinen who admittedly has played significantly fewer games.
A midseason coaching change in Södertälje has benefited Umicevic’s playing conditions, but even under new bench boss Mats Hallin, the club currently sits outside the playoff picture.
“He’s got a great attitude, very outgoing,” Prendergast said earlier this year. “He’s a lot like (Tony) Salmelainen in that he always has a smile on his face and he’s always having a good time. He has a lot of confidence in his ability to play the game and I think that hurt last year when he got slapped down and he didn’t get the opportunity but he showed a lot of mental toughness this summer and came back and won the job. I think down the road that he could be a good player in the NHL.”
Asked to categorize what kind of player Oiler fans would see if they had the chance to watch Umicevic and the answer came right away.
“He’s a goal scorer,” said Prendergast simply. “He’s got a really good shot and a quick release. He has that Brett Hull type ability where, when he shoots the puck he knows exactly where it’s going. I’m not comparing him to Hull, but he has that type of shooting ability. He’s a gunner and that’s exactly what we need.”
Where does he fit in with respect to the overall picture? Is he a projected top two line player?
“He’s going to have to be, Guy, his checking is only a little bit better than average, but from our standpoint for down the road, we’re looking at him as a top two line, power play guy and a finisher,” the Oiler executive stated. “This guy is a shooter and we really don’t have that kind of a guy that we put on the ice to just shoot the puck all the time and Dragan’s one of those guys. From the blueline in he’s a great hockey player because he can skate and he can score. He’s not a great playmaker, but he thinks the game well enough to make things happen but his strong forte is finishing off plays.”
While he was at home recovering from the flu, Hockey’s Future caught up with the red hot Dragan Umicevic, one of this season’s notably emerging prospects in Edmonton’s system.
HF: Tell me where you first started playing hockey?
DU: I started playing hockey in a small town in Sweden called Koping. I think I was 9 years old or something like that.
HF: I’ve read that you were born in Croatia and then moved to Sweden?
DU: No, I was born in Serbia, in Bosnia. I’m a Serb.
(Note: Dubica is in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, maybe five minutes south of the Croatian border. Of course, it was all part of Yugoslavia at one time. Umicevic is of Serbian ancestry, not Croatian, born in a part of what was then Yugoslavia and is now Bosnia-Herzegovina.)
HF: At what age did you move to Sweden?
DU: When I was about 4, it was in 1989 or something like that.
HF: Because you played for Sweden at the U18 World Junior Championship in 2002, I assume you must have become a citizen since moving there?
DU: I don’t remember for sure when I got (Swedish citizenship), but I’ve had it as long as I can remember.
HF: Off the top of my head I can’t think of another player who comes from Serbia, hockey is not very big there is it?
DU: No it’s not, they have a league but it’s maybe seven teams or something like that.
HF: If you’ve been living in Sweden since you were 4 years old, after all this time do you just consider yourself to be Swedish?
DU: No. I feel a little bit Swedish because I’ve lived there almost all of my life, but I still feel Serbian too.
HF: Oiler scout Kenta Nilsson is a close friend of yours, what has he told you about Edmonton?
DU: He hasn’t told me so much, he’s just told me to work hard and play well, things like that.
HF: But has he told you about his time with the Oilers, anything about the city or along those lines?
DU: I have been to Edmonton so I know it pretty much.
HF: Oh you have?
DU: I played in a tournament there in Calgary or something and then we went to Edmonton.
HF: Do you remember what tournament that was or when it was exactly?
DU: No, I don’t remember but it was with the national team.
(Note: Umicevic represented Sweden at the 2002 Viking Cup in Camrose, a town approximately 40 minutes southeast of Edmonton. There is also the possibility that Umicevic was a participant at the Mac’s AAA Midget tournament in Calgary that same year or previous to that. The language barrier prevented getting this information confirmed accurately from Dragan.)
HF: How would you describe this season for you? Are you happy with the way you have played?
DU: Yes, I’m very happy. I’ve played a lot but in the beginning I wasn’t playing so much. In maybe the last 15 games I have played a lot so I am happy.
HF: You started with the SEL team but were sent down soon to play with the Junior squad after the season started.
DU: Yeah, I played three games.
HF: In those three games you had 11 points so it seems that you’re maybe too good to play at that level anymore.
DU: (laughs) Maybe.
HF: Maybe? You don’t think so?
DU: Yeah… I think so.
HF: Since coming back up to the SEL you have been playing excellent hockey.
DU: Yeah because I am playing with good players now like Olli Jokinen and now also Robert Carlsson.
HF: The stint with the junior team, did they send you down there to give you ice time or because you weren’t playing well?
DU: I played very well in the preseason but the coach, he didn’t like me so much. He didn’t give me much of a chance but I was playing good before, then he sent me back to the junior team to play in some important games.
HF: So was it because you played so well with the juniors that when you came back to the SEL team that he had to play you more?
DU: Yeah, I think so.
HF: There have been some coaching changes in Södertälje this year correct?
DU: Mats Hallin is the coach now. It has been a good change for me and also for the team too, we won four games in a row right away although now we are in a four-game slump and I don’t know if they’ll win today.
HF: How big are you physically now?
DU: I only know in centimeters… about 6’1 I think.
HF: That’s OK because I’m in Canada and unlike the US, we use the metric system too.
DU: Oh good, I’m 1 meter and 85 cm (6’1.5) and 95 Kg. (209 lbs)
HF: Do you want to play in the NHL one day?
DU: Of course! It’s my dream.
DU: Because everybody wants to play in the best league.
HF: How soon do you want to be in the NHL?
DU: I don’t know, it doesn’t matter to me when, I want to play there eventually but it doesn’t matter how soon. One day I will play there.
HF: How about the idea of the AHL and playing there to get used to the North American style of game before trying the NHL?
DU: I don’t know if I want to play there. I think it’s better for me to play here (SEL) than in the American League.
HF: But there is a big difference between the NHL and the European leagues right?
DU: I think so too, but there are many European guys who are very good there too.
HF: But many Europeans come and play in the AHL for a year or so first, to get comfortable with the smaller ice surfaces and the culture too, but that doesn’t interest you?
DU: I don’t know… I don’t think so, no. You never know though and maybe I’ll change my mind.
HF: What is different this season than last year for you?
DU: This year I get a chance to play. Last year they did not believe in me.
HF: Is that the only difference or are you a better player now too?
DU: I was playing good last year too and maybe I have grown a little bit this year too, as a human being.
HF: Has there been another time when you’ve been to Canada other than that tournament in Alberta that you can’t remember?
DU: Yeah, I played two or three tournaments in Canada. I was also in Toronto last year to visit with Mats Sundin. I was there to watch the playoffs against Ottawa in April of last year.
HF: The Oilers have a number of Swedish prospects; do you talk to any of them at all?
DU: No, not really. I don’t know them so well except Freddie Johansson from playing with him on the National Team.
HF: Can you describe him as a player to me?
DU: He’s a very smart player. Physically he’s not so strong but he has a very good brain and he’s a skilled guy.
HF: Will Södertälje make the playoffs?
DU: Yeah, it will be tough but I hope so. We are in ninth place right now.
HF: I should tell you that with the way you’ve played this year, you have caught the attention of many fans here and they want to know more about you. One of your games coming up will be on Canadian TV and fans are excited to see you play.
DU: (laughs) I appreciate that. You can call me back whenever you want to then!
After speaking with Umicevic earlier in the day, Hockey’s Future was able to ask Prendergast to comment on the player’s words about the AHL and his seemingly indifference to that possibility.
“We haven’t talked to him at all; we’re going over in February to see him play. He’s playing in the Elite League and I’m sure in his mind if he’s going to come over here to play it won’t be anything but the NHL, but we’ll make that decision when we see him. Kent Nilsson has seen him a lot and I spoke to two other European scouts at the WJC and they both said the same thing, that the kid’s been outstanding over there. He might very well go right to the NHL if we decide to bring him over.”
With a name that the Oilers marketing department must just be salivating over, Dragan Umicevic is perhaps the biggest wild card in the current prospect deck held by the organization. Is this impressive year a flash in the pan or a legitimate breakout season? That’s the question the Oilers will want to get the answers to as soon as possible and if they like what they see in Södertälje in February, Umicevic could actually be in the team’s NHL plans as early as the next full season. 2005-06 could be the Year of the Dragan.
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