Oilers European prospects update

By Guy Flaming

xmlns:w="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:word"
xmlns="http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40">





href="./oilers%20European%20Prospects%20Update_files/filelist.xml">

Members of the Edmonton Oilers management team recently
returned home from a two-week visit to Sweden where they were able to check in
on the progress of most of their 12 European based prospects. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> General Manager Kevin Lowe and VP of Hockey
Operations Kevin Prendergast caught as many games and practices as they could
in order to see their crop of players, but were there largely to scout the
eligible players for the next class of NHL draftees.

 

The European leagues have seen an increased level of
competitiveness this year, obviously attributable to the fact that over 400 NHL
players have dropped like paratroopers into the area over the course of the NHL
lockout. The majority of NHL players
have ended up in Sweden, Switzerland or Russia, but others have found jobs in
nations like Austria, France, Holland, Italy and Hungary.

 

Asked which Euro league he felt most closely resembled the
NHL, Prendergast indicated that the Russian one was by far the best
league. “They have four weak teams over
there but their high-end teams are as good as anybody,” said Edmonton’s chief
scout earlier this season. “They’re all
good leagues but if you’re looking for a league with the best players who are
playing more of a North American style then it’s the Russian league. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The Finnish League is very tight; you don’t
always get a lot of goal scoring in that league. The Swedish League has probably opened up a bit with all the NHL
players there, but normally it’s a tight checking league.”

 

With so many jobs being taken over by NHL talent, the result
for prospects in Europe has been devastating.
For the Oilers the most damage has come in Sweden where the bulk of
their youngsters were primed to make their SEL debuts this year or were
expected to have their breakout seasons.

 

“We’ve talked to those guys and all we can say to them is to
keep working hard because this thing is eventually going to end, hopefully
sooner rather than later, and all they can do is play as well as they can,”
Prendergast said. “A couple of them
have been called up to play but again, then they play on the third line in a
checking role and that’s not what we’d like to see from a development
standpoint.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">

 

The February journey kept Lowe and Prendergast in Sweden but
the Chief Scout is scheduled to make an Eastern European stop in April during
the World U18 Championships being held in the Czech Republic. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Therefore, this update will focus on the
prospects playing in Scandinavia but will offer brief information for the
Russians and the Czechs.

 

Jonas
Almtorp
– Almtuna (SWE2)

Age: 21 Draft: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 4th Round (111th

Overall) 2002 Outlook:
Average N.A. Target: 2 years

 

Defensive center Jonas Almtorp has been bounced
around this year in large part because of the NHL infiltration of Europe. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The 21-year-old began the year with Almtuna,
then saw spot duty with Brynas in the SEL before finding his way back to square
one.

 

“The young guys have really been hurt by the NHL drift over
there because they’ve been kicked down, but Almtorp is probably in the best
situation because he gets to play 25-30 minutes every night,” offered
Prendergast. “Although it might not be
the best league in Sweden, it’s a grind and he’s playing hard.”

 

Prendergast was able to see Almtorp play a pair of games,
the second of which saw the native of Uppsala strike for five points. The
center has amassed 37 points in 45 games for Almtuna this season.

 

“It’s not what you would call great hockey in the league
that he’s in, but he’s gotten a lot bigger from when he was here two years ago
at rookie camp,” said Prendergast.

“He’s got a lot of responsibility on the team as far as power plays,
taking faceoffs and playing on the first line.”

 

The Oilers would like to see Almtorp get an opportunity to
play more in the SEL before they might consider bringing him out West, but it’s
pretty obvious what they expect from their 2002 fourth round pick.

 

“Jonas we feel is another
checking center, but if he’s playing in the SEL then he’s certainly going in
the right direction,” the scout offered.
“When he comes over to North America he’s going to be a third or fourth
line checker.”

 

Björn Bjurling
Djurgården style='mso-bidi-font-family:Arial'> (SEL)

Age style='mso-bidi-font-family:Arial'>: 25
Draft: 9th

Round (274th Overall) 2004 Outlook: Average N.A. Target:
Unknown

 

We didn’t
get to see him play, but we saw him practice twice,” sighed Prendergast.

 

Even if Lowe and Prendergast had caught a Djurgården game
they probably still wouldn’t have seen their keeper play. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Bjorn Bjurling has only played in 24
games all season for the SEL club team because he’s had to share time with a
couple of NHL goalies. First it was
Marty Turco, before the Dallas Star eventually bailed out of the league, and
then Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens.

 

“It’s tough and he’s very disappointed with what’s happened,
but when you’ve got a kid like Jose Theodore there who’s probably one of the
top 5 goaltenders in the world… the best thing you can do is watch and learn
and he’s doing that,” Prendergast said.
“He works hard in practice, he was the last guy off the ice in both
practices and his coach said it’s one of those things where it’s still pro
hockey in Sweden and so the best guy has to play and right now, Theodore is the
best guy.”

 

What Bjurling has been able to do is post respectable
numbers; his .912 save percentage and 2.58 goals against average are strong in
this lockout year and are not that far off from Theodore’s .915 and 2.49 stats.

 

“Bjorn is working hard and I think down the road when things
change there might be an opportunity for him to come over here,” Prendergast
suggested.

 

Josef
Hrabal
style='mso-bidi-font-family:Arial;color:black'>Vsetín (CZE)

Age: 19 Drafted:
8th Round (240th Overall) 2003 Outlook:
Good N.A. Target: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> At least 2 years

 

As the second last player cut from the Czech Republic’s 2005
World Junior Championship entry, Josef Hrabal has continued to impress
the Oilers. Drafted late in 2003 as a
blueliner with some offensive upside, Hrabal is an unspectacular player but is
continually proving to be a reliable one.

 

“For a kid that was in B hockey there a year ago, he’s come
a long way,” Prendergast told Hockey’s Future in January. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “He needs time and a couple more years over
there, but he’s getting exposure to higher divisions and he’s getting bigger
every year too. When we start looking
at what we’re going to be doing 2-3 years from now, I think he’ll be a part of
it.”

 

The 6’0 blueliner will have to add some muscle to his frame
if he’ll want to survive playing in North America. For a defenseman who has the reputation for creating offense,
Hrabal’s pair of points at the pro level are a bit worrisome, but with the
junior club he has been able to score almost at a point per game pace.

 

Fredrik
Johansson
style='mso-bidi-font-size:8.0pt;mso-bidi-font-family:Arial'>Västerås IK Ungdom
(SWE2)

Age: 21 Drafted: 9th

Round (274th Overall) 2002 Outlook: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Average
N.A. Target: 2-3 Years

 

One of the more interesting Oiler prospects currently overseas is
Swedish winger Fredrik Johansson.
After spending all of last year in the SEL with Frölunda and also
finishing third in team scoring at the 2004 WJC, Johansson this year is skating
for Västerås in the second tier league.
Another victim of the NHL lockout, Johansson’s development is stagnating
while having to play at a lower level.

 

He’s probably the one with the most skill of all of (EDM’s Euro
prospects) but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to get any bigger,” Prendergast
said recently. “There’s time to wait on
him, Kenta Nilsson talks to him a lot and he seems to think 2-3 years from now
will be the time for him to come over, but he’s got to get stronger. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> He has one of those frames where it’s hard
to put weight on him but he has the ability to think and play the game.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">

 

Because of the large number of prospects in the system on
the verge of turning pro or challenging for jobs in North America, Prendergast
admits that the Euros could take a back seat.

 

“It’s going to be difficult to get them all here and there’s
only so many we have room for at once so if we can backtrack some guys for a
couple years that would be good.”

 

By no means does that indicate that Johansson isn’t in the
future picture for the Oilers but it definitely shows that his development has
reached a plateau.

 

He’s still considered a prospect for us, but he’s got to work on
his toughness if he’s ever going to want to play in North America and I just
don’t see that in him right now,” said the chief scout. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “For hockey sense, he’s as good as any
player around because he makes the players around him better, but anytime it
gets physical he just doesn’t want to really be part of it.”

 

Johansson has recorded 31 points in 47 games for Västerås
this season.

 

Misha
Joukov (Mikhail Zhukov)
- Moscow Spartak (RSL)

Age: 20 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft: 3rd Round (72nd Overall) 2003 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Outlook: Average N.A. Target: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Unknown

 

Misha Joukov spent last year playing in Sweden while
continually trying to secure his Swedish citizenship and was finally successful
in those endeavors. Oddly enough, a
year later the native Russian has returned home to continue his hockey
career. Unfortunately for Joukov, or
Zhukov as he is referred to in his homeland, the winger reportedly broke his
arm in the preseason while still skating for AK Bars Kazan.

 

Having missed the vast majority of the regular season by the
time he’d regained his game shape and healed his arm, Kazan had loaded up with
NHL superstars and ended up dealing Joukov to Moscow. He had an immediate impact notching a trio of points in his first
few games but the talented forward has since hit a roadblock in the offensive
department.

 

Because they didn’t tour Russia this time around the Oiler
brass couldn’t comment much on the situation with the free spirited Joukov.

 

“When I talked to his agent he said ‘injuries’ and he sort
of left it at that, we had trouble communicating with the guy,” Prendergast
said. “He’s bounced around a little
this year starting out with AK Bars Kazan but where the hell do you go when they
bring in those NHL guys on top of you?”

 

Ilya Kovalchuk, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Alexei
Kovalev and Alexei Morozov are just some of the NHL players to suit up for the
Russian powerhouse this season.

 

Ivan
Koltsov

Lipetsk (RUS-3)

Age: 21 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft: 4th Round (106th Overall) 2002 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Outlook: Terrible N.A. Target: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Highly Unlikely

 

Representing what is possibly the worst draft selection the
Oilers have made during the Lowe-Prendergast regime, defenseman Ivan Koltsov
is officially a bust. Edmonton’s sixth
pick in the fourth round of the 2002 draft has done nothing since the moment
his name was called, except regress.

 

“Koltsov’s gone backwards,” Prendergast bluntly stated in
January. “At this point I don’t
consider him to be a prospect anymore.”

 

The report didn’t get any rosier two months later and the
Oilers appear to have completely turned the page on the 6’5 rearguard. style="mso-spacerun: yes">

 

Alexei
Mikhnov
– Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (RSL)

Age: 22 Draft:
1st Round (17th Overall) 2000 Outlook: Average

N.A. Target: Overdue –
2005-06

 

After spending much of the Russian schedule in the coach’s
doghouse in Novosibirsk, Alexei Mikhnov was dealt to Yaroslavl to finish
the season. When he left Sibir the 6’5
center had just five points but after joining the talented Lokomotiv club,
Mikhnov has received more playing time and has increased his point total to an
even dozen. This is still a
considerable drop in productivity from a year ago when he ended the year with
almost twice as many points.

 

When discussing possible AHL roster scenarios for next
season, Mikhnov’s name is still brought up, but in a way that suggests both
frustration and an eagerness to finally see once and for all whether the
towering Ukrainian winger will ever figure into the plans for the team.

 

“Mikhnov is still kicking around in Yaroslavl; either Kenta
Nilsson or Frank Musil will go in to see him play in the next little while,”
said Prendergast. “He is playing more
on that team and getting more of a roll so we’ll go in and see.”

 

Surely the disappointing season Mikhnov has had to endure
this year will benefit Edmonton’s abilities to lure the 22-year-old to North
America. If the NHL is still locked out
next fall, the writing should be on the wall that ice time will again be
limited in Europe and that the AHL would be a much better opportunity for him
to play, albeit it at likely a reduce salary compared to in the RSL.

 

Evgeny
Muratov
href="http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/csl.php?tid=2703"> style='color:windowtext;font-weight:normal'>Novokuznetsk Metallurg style='mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-family:Arial'> (RSL)

Age: 24 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft:

9th Round (274th Overall) 2000 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Outlook: Poor N.A. Target: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Not Likely

 

At 5’9 and just 176 lbs, the Oilers drafted Evgeny
Muratov
because of his ability to generate offence and score. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Unfortunately, the diminutive Russian’s
skating and foot speed are well below NHL caliber and so Muratov is not likely
to receive much consideration from Edmonton.

 

In 52 games this year Muratov has scored 26 points, pretty
good in the ultra defensive RSL, but still he has not done enough to impress
the Oilers.

 

“He’s getting points, but his skating hasn’t improved to the
point where we think he can come over here and play,” said Prendergast. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> “He’s getting older and he’s another small
centerman which is something we’re wanting to stay away from. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> We had him over here for one camp and we
found that his foot speed was going to take awhile so at this point we’re going
to leave him over there until something changes.”

 

Kalle Olsson – Frölunda (SWE-J20)

Age: 20 Draft:
5th Round (147th Overall) 2003 Outlook: Good N.A.
Target
: 2-3 years

 

After registering three points in six games at the 2005
World Junior Championships, Kalle Olsson returned to Sweden having
impressed the Oiler scouting staff.

 

“I thought Kalle played well in
the tournament,” Prendergast told HF in January. “He is what he is; a third line type of player who’s responsible
at both ends of the ice. He’s a good
skater, he thinks the game very well, he’s not overly physical at 178 lbs but
he gets in the way. We saw a lot of
positives in his game at the tournament.”

 

While the Oilers are still
holding out hope for the newly turned 20-year-old from Munkedal, they are
projecting him to be yet another checking line player with good two-way
skills.

 

“We think he’ll be a third line
player over here but the big part of his game is how responsible he is all over
the ice,” said Prendergast. “He’s
getting points on the Division I team and we still consider him to be a good
prospect for us but we’ve got time on our side to wait for him. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Hopefully things will change for him there
next year but he hasn’t taken a step back in his mind as to wanting to be a pro
or not wanting to work hard.”

 

With the log jam of two-way
players building within the organization, it might seem like a long shot for
Olsson to find his way through but should he develop physically he will at
least earn an opportunity.

 

Jani Rita – Hameenlinna (SM-Liiga)

Age: 23 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft: 1st Round (13th Overall) 1999 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Outlook: Above Average N.A.
Target
: ASAP

 

Perhaps the best news coming
from Europe pertaining to Oiler prospects stems from their lone player skating
in Finland. Jani Rita is amongst
the leaders of his Finnish Elite club team HPK and has been for at or near the
top of that list all year. With 20
goals and 17 assists for 37 points, the 23-year-old currently sits in second
place in team scoring.

 

“He’s fluctuating between the
second and third line but he’s playing on a really good team so he’s got to
earn his wings which is good because he’s going to have to do that when he gets
back over here,” Prendergast’s November report said. “Getting that battle mentality into him early can only be good.”

 

By the time December rolled
around, Rita’s season was really beginning to take off and there was talk of
the winger possibly getting opportunities with the National team.

 

“Great skater, great hands, very
good offensive player but not very physical,” described Prendergast just before
Christmas. “He’s playing on the second
line, getting a lot of ice time and playing well. If he continues to play the way he is he’ll have an opportunity
to play in the World Championships.”

 

In February Rita did get the
chance to represent his homeland while playing at the Swedish Games where both
Kevin Lowe and Prendergast were able to take in a game or two.

 

“The first game we got to see
him play he was basically used as a penalty killer and a fourth line player but
he looked OK,” said Prendergast. “Kevin
(Lowe) saw him play a second game while I was watching the ‘86’s and he said he
played a lot better and handled the puck a lot more. The opportunity to play on the national team at that level of
competition is good for him.”

 

“Jani’s got a ways to go to be a
regular in the NHL but he’s taking the steps to get there.”

 

All indications are that Rita
will be with the Oilers the next time the team plays a regular NHL game. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Then the challenge will be to overcome an
apparent lack of interest from coach Craig MacTavish to play him with any sort
of regularity.

 

Mikael Svensk – Halmstad (SWE2)

Age: 22 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft: 6th Round (186th

Overall) 2001 Outlook: Above
Average N.A. Target: 1-2 years

 

Hard hitting, defensive
blueliner Mikael Svensk is again playing for Halmstad this season and
has doubled his modest offensive output from last year in the process. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Now with eight points, an most of them
coming very recently, Svensk is still very much in the plans of the Oilers and
may receive an invite to North America as soon as this summer.

 

“He’s sort of been buried and we
didn’t get a chance to see him, but I’m hoping to when I go back in April
because he’s starting to come around from where he was in November,” said
Prendergast who speculated earlier this year about an AHL job for the
blueliner. “I think Svensk is another
one who is hurt by the situation over there, but he’s a player I think I would
like to bring over to North America next year to play with the Road Runners and
to get acclimatized to the hockey here because he plays this style.”

 

Dragan Umicevic – Södertälje (SEL)

Age: 19 style="mso-spacerun: yes"> Draft: 6th Round (184th

Overall) 2003 Outlook: Very
Good N.A. Target: 2-3 years

 

Of all the prospects based in
Sweden, only Dragan Umicevic has been able to survive the NHL invasion
enough to keep his SEL job. Although he
has recently lost his top line spot to Kyle Calder and Scott Thornton, as
Prendergast points out, there’s a silver lining to that cloud.

 

“He’s down to fourth line duty
but he’s still with the big team, the rest of our guys have been kicked down
and out of the league,” Prendergast said.
“He’s getting good ice time, the coach really likes him, he’s a bit lazy
at times but he’s got great hands. The
game against Modo he played really hard; didn’t play much but he had two really
good shifts.”

 

The Oilers are extremely pleased
with the rapid development of the offensive winger but would like to see
sustained performance at the SEL level before really considering to bring him
to Edmonton. According to Umicevic in
the href="http://www.hockeysfuture.com/article.php?sid=7477&mode=threaded&order=0"> style='font-weight:normal'>January interview he had with
Hockey’s Future, anything less than the NHL probably doesn’t interest him
anyway, so time seems to be on both the organization and the player’s side at
this point.

 

“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,”
Prendergast said in response to Umicevic’s comments. “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.”

 

In the first game of the
playoffs, Umicevic recorded an assist and played on the second line with
Thornton and Calder.

 

Summary style='font-weight:normal'>

 

Jani Rita and Dragan Umicevic are having good season while
the rest of the European crop seem to be running in place or slipping backwards
partly because of the negative impact of the NHL/NHLPA stalemate.

 

While the roster turnover for the Road Runners is expected
to be very high over the summer, it does not appear likely that any of the new
faces will be coming from overseas.
Mikael Svensk is a possibility as is Alexei Mikhnov, but even those two
names are far from certainties. However
as was proven with Jesse Niinimaki’s midseason move, anything can happen.

 

The Oilers will tour Eastern Europe later in the spring and
then hold their meetings to discuss which players they are interested in
inviting over to North America, which to leave alone for the time being and if
there are any they’ll simply cut loose.

 

style='mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt'>Comment on this story at the Oilers section
of the style='font-weight:normal'>Hockey’s Future Message Boards.

Copyright 2005
Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial
staff.