Oilers 2000 draft evaluation

By Guy Flaming

It was a changing of the guard in Edmonton during the summer of 2000 as it was the last season for outgoing draft chief Barry Fraser and the dawning of a new era under a new scouting regime headed up by current VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast.

Make no mistake about it, at the table in 2000, it was still Barry Fraser who was running the show and is the one who should accept the bulk of the jeers or bouquets for the results of the draft that year. Most critics consider it one of the poorer drafts the Oilers have had in the recent past, although there are still a few players with NHL potential ahead of them and one late round selection in particular that is another example of Edmonton having success finding a diamond in the rough.

Heading into the draft, the Oilers had dealt away their own second round pick (51st overall) in a previous transaction with the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for future captain Jason Smith. To somewhat offset the loss of that pick, the Oilers acquired an extra seventh round selection, but it was a deal made at the event itself that created the biggest news on the day for Edmonton.

Alexei Mikhnov, LW, 1st round, 17th overall (Yaroslavl, Russia)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games: 0

When the Oilers chose 6’5 194lb winger Alexei Mikhnov with their first pick, it was received with mixed reaction from Oiler fans. Ranked as the 19th European skater by Central Scouting before the draft, Mikhnov was a player that few were familiar with, including the majority of the Oilers’ scouting staff.

The Oilers had Mikhnov right at the top of their list that year, but nobody on the scouting staff had seen him play but Barry Fraser, Kevin Prendergast and Kent Nilsson. The fact is that it was Fraser’s last draft and he was going to put his mark on it for the last time and did so by snapping up the towering winger. In Fraser’s defense, Mikhnov had size, his skating was good, he could score and there appeared to be a lot of upside.

“There was an upside that we felt made him a first round player and certainly the potential was there to be a good player in the NHL,” said Prendergast. “Unfortunately to this point he’s not here, but he’s still young and we still have time to change the situation.”

The problem with the pick hasn’t been that the player has been a bust; Mikhnov has actually faired fairly well in Europe. The issue has always been with convincing the Ukrainian-born forward to leave the comforts of home and take the journey to North America. Last year with the lockout season it became impossible to entice Mikhnov out of Russia where he could make more money, despite not playing every game and often with a limited role.

“When we talked to his agent earlier on in the year they were going to run it by him and he recently got married last year and so I think as a young kid the NHL is where you want to be, but I think he’s kind of caught in the middle,” said Prendergast. “He’s not sure about coming to play in the American League when the possibility exists that there’s no NHL, where he thinks he might be able to stay home and keep making more money is something he might want to do.”

“He can make more money there than playing in the AHL, but then really how important is it to this kid to play in the NHL really?” asked one scout. “I don’t know if the agent has pressed upon him that he maybe needs to take one step back to take to two or three steps ahead. If the kid came over to play in the AHL, he might be in the NHL soon.”

Brad Winchester, C, 2nd round, 35th overall (Wisconsin, NCAA)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Edmonton’s big draft day deal came when the Oilers shipped defenseman Roman Hamrlik to Long Island in exchange for Eric Brewer and the Islanders’ second round pick. With that selection Edmonton grabbed a 6’4 208lb center out of Wisconsin by the name of Brad Winchester.

“My recollection is that we had him a lot higher than where we got him,” said one scout from that draft. “Guy, you’ve talked to Brad, he’s an outstanding kid and he’s likeable to moment that you start to talk to him. We loved him on the wing because he just absolutely dominated one of the international tournaments. He looked like he was going to be a certain NHL winger but he always saw himself as a centerman and then of course we saw him for four years at center in Wisconsin.”

Winchester is now tipping the scales at just over 230 lbs which suggests that on draft day, there was a lot of projection that went into that pick.

“He was gangly but he had good strength and controlled the puck well and protected it,” said another report. “The upside on him we thought was very good. He learned how to be a pro this year and had a breakout year I thought as far as dominating with his physical play and his toughness. He might not turn out to be a top two-line guy but nevertheless he’s going to play an important role by playing tough and he can put some pucks in the net.”

Winchester scored 22 goals for the Road Runners this past season and impressed the organization enough that he will get an extended look at the next Oilers training camp.

Alexander Ljubimov, D, 3rd round, 83rd overall (Samara, Russia)
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

For Edmonton’s third round selection the team looked to Russia again by taking 6’3 rearguard Alexander Ljubimov. The closest Ljubimov ever got to playing in the NHL was half a season he spent with the Central Hockey League Odessa Jackalopes in 2001-02. Since that year, Ljubimov has played two seasons in Russia and totaled a combined two points in 28 games for three different teams.

“At the WJC that year he was outstanding against Canada, of all teams,” said Prendergast. “He played very physical and got very involved. He came over and played half a season but I don’t think he was mentally prepared to pay the price to play in North America and basically at this point is no longer a prospect.”

Lou Dickenson, F, 4th round, 113th overall (Mississauga, OHL)
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

According to some scouts who saw him during his days in the OHL, Lou Dickenson was one of the players who did the least while possessing the most. With an abundance of speed, size and strength it appeared that Dickenson was a player that would fit the pro game very well. Then things changed.

Dickenson had all the skills in the world but when Jason Spezza arrived in Mississauga, it took away from who he was and he started crying the blues instead of going out and proving that he was the legit No. 2 guy on the team. The Oilers’ scouts had done the research and found out there were flaws there and that he wasn’t going to push himself to be better, but surprisingly they ended up drafting Dickenson anyway.

So then the question becomes why did the Oilers take him? Sources say that the comment made at the Oiler table was along the lines of “Can you imagine a kid with that much talent still sitting there?” That perked up the ears of Barry Fraser who replied, “Can you pass on that much talent at this time of the draft?”

Some at the table were stunned because Dickenson was nowhere near their own lists at the time but in those days when Fraser had made up his mind, there was no swaying him.

After drafting him, Dickenson attended a couple training camps but failed to impress and was subsequently released.

“I don’t know if it was a maturing process he had to go through, but after a couple years we just weren’t prepared to wait,” said Prendergast.

Dickenson toiled with three different teams in the AHL, ECHL, and CHL this year alone after playing with St. Thomas University of CIS in 2003-04. Most recently Dickenson was seen trying to but failing to win a NHL camp invite during the first season of the reality TV series Making The Cut.

Paul Flache, D, 5th round, 152nd overall (Brampton, OHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games: 0

It’s not hard to see what the attraction was to Brampton Battalion’s defenseman Paul Flache. Standing at 6’5 and 196 lbs, the gangly rearguard showed enough ability and skill to warrant the Oilers selecting him in the middle of the fifth round.

“He didn’t play a lot, but our scouts had a feeling on him and thought there was an upside to him and they were right,” said Prendergast. “He’s shown that playing in the AHL that he might have an opportunity to play in the NHL.”

Flache was not signed by the Oilers and instead went back into the 2002 draft where he was picked up by Atlanta, again in the fifth round. He had 15 points and 172 penalty minutes in 61 games with the Chicago Wolves this season.

“Great kid, great work ethic; it got to the point where it became very close and we had to make a decision and budget-wise within the organization we weren’t prepared to get into a signing bonus with him and so he went back into the draft,” continued Prendergast. “As an organization you have to make those decisions sometimes, but it came down to a situation where we didn’t feel we could make a deal with his agent and that it was going to take too long of a time period for him to be a part of the organization.”

Shaun Norrie, RW, 6th round, 184th overall (Calgary, WHL)
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

“Not much upside skill wise but he was a gritty kid,” one scout said of Shaun Norrie. “If he was going to be a pro he would have been a grinder. I liked his character and his drive.”

Norrie played for the Calgary Hitmen, the Kootenay Ice and the Vancouver Giants until his eligibility ran out. Not signed by the Oilers, Norrie then moved on to CIS playing a year for the Lethbridge Pronghorns in 2003-04.

“He was a hard-nosed kid, up and down blue collar player and certainly played that way in Calgary and Kootenay when he got traded there,” described Prendergast. “In the end we just didn’t feel he got himself over the hump to get to the next level.”

Joe Cullen, C, 7th round, 211th overall (Colorado College, NCAA)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games: 0

Until this year, Edmonton’s choice of Joe Cullen appeared to be nothing short of brilliant. After a terrific rookie year with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate in 2003-04 Cullen stumbled massively in his sophomore year and was swapped, not officially traded, to the Florida organization for Eric Beaudoin.

“Joe, for whatever reason, didn’t get off to a good start here this year,” Prendergast began. “We needed to do something in order to change the size of our hockey club and the opportunity came because Florida was in the same boat with Eric Beaudoin and we felt it would be beneficial for both organizations to flip the players.”

The Oilers will revisit Cullen’s situation during the offseason, but the Minnesota-born center will most likely become a free agent in July. When the Oilers drafted him they saw a player with some skills and some weaknesses they felt they could repair in order to make a solid professional.

“His skating wasn’t that great but he had a stride that I knew could be improved on, he had a nose for the net and a bit of a scoring touch and I liked the way he competed,” said one scout. “He came from a good hockey family and he had some skills. Up until this year I thought he had a chance to play in the NHL.”

Matthew Lombardi, C, 7th round, 215th overall (Victoriaville, QMJHL)
Status: NHL Player
NHL Games: 79

The only player that Edmonton drafted back in 2000 that has so far dressed for a single NHL game is Matt Lombardi, but unfortunately it’s been while wearing the sweater of their bitterest rival, the Calgary Flames.

“It’s always painful to watch one of your players play for someone else, but we have to worry about the players within our organization,” said Prendergast. “Matthew is a great kid and I wish him all the best, just not the best when he’s playing against us!”

Negotiations with Lombardi’s agent went sour very quickly when the first request was for significantly more money than the Oilers were willing to entertain in regards to a seventh rounder. The organization was really caught in a bind financially, but the scouting staff recognized that they really had found a talented player with the late draft pick and wanted the club to sign him.

“It was a tough call, we watched him a lot in that final year when he went to the Memorial Cup and he had a great year,” Prendergast continued. “It came down to dollars and cents and we felt the agent was being unreasonable in what they were asking for and basically left us no choice because we couldn’t pay that type of money for that type of player at that time.”

In the end, Lombardi went back into the draft and was chosen by Calgary in the third round in 2002. At the time, some felt the Flames nabbed the former Oiler because Edmonton in turn had done the same thing to Calgary by taking Jarret Stoll who had become available after an identical situation. Many people almost consider it a trade of sorts, Lombardi for Stoll, but the jury is still deliberating on who came out ahead in that swap.

It was the Oilers that took the first chance on Lombardi and although he’s now part of Calgary’s system, it remains a positive reflection on Edmonton’s scouting staff for finding him originally.

Jason Platt, D, 8th round, 247th overall (Omaha, USHL)
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games: 0

First seen at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Jason Platt was a player that some on the Oilers scouting staff really wanted to take a flyer on if they got the chance in one of the later rounds.

“He was a kid who wasn’t very big but he had skill and determination and we really liked him,” said Prendergast. “He was going to school for four years. The background check on him was that he really wanted to be a hockey player, he was a great kid and came from a great family. We felt that going to Providence that he was going to play right away and that he would play a lot. So far he’s been a bonus.”

After finishing his four years at Providence, Platt signed an amateur tryout contract with Edmonton’s AHL affiliate last year and scored rave reviews from Coach Geoff Ward. As a rookie with the club a year later the rugged defender continued to hear accolades and was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dismal year for the Road Runners.

Platt is a coachable player and terrific teammate who is proving to be a real steal in the late rounds. If he can play like he did during 2004-05, then there’ll be room for him on any team.

Evgeny Muratov, F, 9th round, 274th overall (Nizhnekamsk, Russia)
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

With their final selection of 2000 the Oilers went back to Russia, the third time that draft, and chose a diminutive but skilled forward by the name of Evgeny Muratov.

“I think Kent Nilsson was the only one who had seen him that year in a tournament but he was the leading scorer in it,” sighed Prendergast.

The Russian did attend a single Oiler camp but was a bitter disappointment in the skating department, a definite must at one time for the organization.

“He came over to one training camp and his skating wasn’t that great, but he had good hands and hockey sense,” Prendergast described. “We just felt that his skating has never gotten better in subsequent years to the point that he may have been a stretch to even be an American League player. At this point he is still on our list, but not considered a prospect now.”

Summary

While most wouldn’t consider a draft where only one of ten players has even seen NHL daylight successful (eight NHL games played per pick), the Oilers don’t consider 2000 a wash just yet. Winchester, Platt and even Mikhnov still have varying degrees of potential for playing in the NHL and those three added to Lombardi would mean nearly half of the year’s crop was fruitful.

“I think if you can get three kids into your system, and if you get one kid from every year that makes it to the NHL, I would consider that good,” said Prendergast. “There’s only room for very few players every year. If you have one of those years where you get three or four good players you can basically set your organization up for ten years. I think we’re getting to the point now in this organization where we can look at the Winchesters and even the Platts, they might be far off from the opportunity but they’ve shown the coaches here that they’ve got something.”

Since taking over the reins of VP of Hockey Operations, Prendergast has instilled some drastic changes in the way the Oilers handle scouting. With the exception of the lockout year and the budget restrictions it created, every Oiler scout now sees every player on the team’s top 50 list heading into the draft. That means that at least once a year, every Oiler scout heads to Europe to take in at least the U18 tournaments there and maybe the WJC if it’s also financially feasible.

There is far greater communication, not only between the scouts themselves but between the scouting department and the rest of the organization, something that had previously contributed to some players not being signed or others being kept too long.

The following season brought the scouting additions of Stu MacGregor, Gord Pell and Bob Mancini who is now the GM of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit. Two or three of the scouts left to join the New York Rangers under their former boss Glen Sather.

As a result of all of these changes to both personnel and policy, the Oilers appear to have drafted much better in the 2000’s than they did in the ‘90’s but as with all things, only time will tell for sure.

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