Offensive talent, defensive depth, highlight Edmonton Oilers Top 20

By Lawrence Bailey

Justin Schultz - Edmonton Oilers

Photo: Newly-signed Edmonton Oilers prospect Justin Schultz (#6) will begin his pro career after a strong NCAA career with the University of Wisconsin (courtesy of Elsa/Getty Images)

 

The expectations have been building for the Edmonton Oilers, and the time has come to deliver. After half a decade at or near the bottom of the NHL standings, the club now has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young talent. This is true not only of graduated, full-time NHL players but also of the team’s prospects.

A trio of first overall picks, a blockbuster free agent signing on the blue line, and a host of complementary and supporting talents has stocked the cupboards incredibly well. The 2012-13 season is the first in awhile where there is a real expectation that the team begins to deliver on the brighter future that has been promised over the last five years.

1. (1) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, C, 9C
Drafted 1st round, 1st overall, 2011

This will be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' last appearance on this list given the fact that the only reason he remains is due to injury. A Calder Trophy runner-up in 2011-12, the young star posted near point-per-game numbers as an 18-year-old rookie, opening eyes with his offensive ability, defensive awareness, sublime vision, and off-the-charts intelligence. He is everything you would expect from a first overall pick and is destined to be a fixture on the top line in Edmonton for the next decade or more.

There are few negatives to identify in Nugent-Hopkins' game, but the concerns from his draft year regarding how well his slight build would hold up to the rigors of a physical league like the NHL still remain. He missed time due to injury, however it was the result of a seemingly innocuous fall and the jury remains out on whether his size poses an injury concern. There are no such concerns regarding his ability, as he impressed even his most staunch supporters with regular displays of brilliance in his freshman campaign.

2. (NR) Nail Yakupov, RW, 9C
Drafted 1st round, 1st overall, 2012

Edmonton's unprecedented third-consecutive number one pick saw this slick Russian sniper join fellow first overall selections Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. The team stayed true to the consensus top-ranked prospect despite thoughts that they would draft for need and take defenseman Ryan Murray, who went second overall to Columbus. Yakupov is a dynamic talent who is both quick and fast. He also boasts an immense passion for the game and incredible offensive gifts such as his great shot.

There were concerns over the so-called "Russian factor," but he has repeatedly and strenuously denied any plans to bolt to the KHL. To the contrary, the 18-year-old Yakupov plays a very team-oriented game despite his big personality. He has shown to be a leader among his peers and was named captain of Russia’s entry in the recent Canada-Russia Challenge.

Yakupov will almost certainly break camp with the Oilers once the season gets underway, but he may see a more sheltered and limited role than some of his predecessors due to the amount of young talent already amassed in Edmonton. The Russian sniper still figures to factor in as a central piece of the Oilers future and should be expected to produce immediate offense this season.

3. (NR) Justin Schultz, D, 8C
Acquired via free agent signing, July 1, 2012

While top picks are earned by being a bad team, signing a highly sought after free agent is indicative of something else altogether. Schultz spurned the Anaheim organization that drafted him, becoming a top free agent target of nearly every NHL club. Schultz chose the Oilers in the end, citing a belief that the team was on the verge of something great and that it was the best opportunity for him as a player. Many saw this as the beginning of a change in perception of the perennial last-place Edmonton club.

During his college career at the University of Wisconsin, Schultz was a dominant offensive-defenseman. He is a very good skater, a tremendous passer, and displays excellent vision. The 22-year-old rearguard has good size, and while the physical and defensive sides of his game are underdeveloped, they have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. Schultz has the tools to be a top-pairing defenseman and power play quarterback at the NHL level, and he will likely open the year among the Oilers top-six defensemen with minutes on the man advantage.

4. (2) Oscar Klefbom, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2011

Despite a post-draft season with little to speak of in the way of offensive statistics in the SEL, Klefbom provided many reasons for optimism. He made his way from an eighth defenseman and regular scratch on a good team at the beginning of the year to a top-four option, playing 20 minutes a night by the time the playoffs rolled around. In addition to his success at the professional level, he also shined against his peers at the U-20 World Junior Championship, where he was named to the all-tournament team and left Alberta with a gold medal around his neck.

There was thought in some circles when Klefbom was drafted that he would be an offensive force but less impactful in his own zone. With more viewings and time to see him develop, the 19-year-old Swede has the look of a classic two-way defender capable of logging big minutes and contributing at a high level in all situations. A big man and sublime skater, Klefbom has improved defensively and been used in key situations playing for both club and country.

5. (6) Teemu Hartikainen, LW, 7B
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2008

Hartikainen is the kind of player Oilers fans and management love. He is physical, goes to the dirty areas, scores hard-working goals, agitates the other team, and works his tail off on every shift. Comparable in style of play to Ryan Smyth and Tomas Holmstrom, Hartikainen’s skill set is fairly unique among Oilers prospects. With the amount of high-end skill amassed in recent years, the player who will dig in the corners and park himself in front of the net is a wonderful complement. The 22-year-old winger’s skating had been holding him back, and while it is still below average, he has worked hard to get it to a respectable point. He is a decent bet to make the team out of camp, but failing that should see a lot of opportunity in a top-six role in the AHL.

6. (3) Martin Marincin, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2010

One of the more consistently impressive prospects in the Oilers stable over the past couple seasons, Marincin will be turning pro this year and likely playing regularly for the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons. He had a slow start offensively in 2011-12 playing for one of the WHL’s worst teams in the Prince George Cougars, but Marincin was excellent playing big minutes for Slovakia at the World Juniors and then poured it on in the second half of the season following a trade to the Regina Pats. The 20-year-old defender has all the tools to be a well-rounded, top-four NHL defenseman and has improved his defensive positioning and decision-making significantly the past couple seasons. If he continues to develop, he could be pushing for a spot in the Oilers lineup as early as the 2013-14 season.

7. (7) David Musil, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2011

Musil is an interesting prospect but opinions vary regarding his upside. No one doubts his toughness, work ethic, or defensive play. When it comes to whether his skating will be good enough, and whether he will deliver any kind of offense at the top level, there are a wide range of responses. He is a smart, physical player who is very strong with his positioning, all traits that help compensate for his below average skating ability. Musil was used in a shutdown defensive role by Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay, so much so that his opportunities to put up goals and assists were limited. That’s not to say that he will shoot the lights out if given the chance, but it is certainly hard to know how good he might be at the offensive end of the rink. The 19-year-old beast on the blue line has another WHL season ahead of him for more time to develop and perhaps more offensive opportunities, but he is among the safer bets on the Oilers defensive prospect depth chart.

8. (8) Tyler Bunz, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2010

Tyler Bunz has done nothing but improve over the last two seasons. Each year he has bettered his save percentage and received more glowing reports from scouts, opponents, and coaches alike. Projecting goalies is among the most difficult things to do, but his steady improvement and constant progression are both signs of a player on the rise. He will make the jump to the pro ranks this year, but Bunz should take the lead role with the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder with Olivier Roy and Yann Danis the likely tandem in Oklahoma City. If the 20-year-old goalie continues to stop pucks at a high level, the optimism will continue to rise.

9. (4) Anton Lander, C, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2009

There were questions following his last SEL season in 2010-11 whether Lander had the offense to be a second-line forward in the NHL or whether he was destined for the bottom-six role most expected. After a poor rookie season (albeit one spent mostly as an NHL regular) the question has been answered. Lander is a fierce competitor, a smart player, and has a long track record of excellent defensive play, but this past season he struggled mightily and is very likely to spend some or all of the 2012-13 campaign in the AHL finding his game anew. The 21-year-old pivot still has excellent potential as a defensive forward and penalty killer who can chip in a little offense, but he was rushed to the NHL last season and is now paying the price.

10. (9) Tyler Pitlick, C, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2010

It was looking awful for Pitlick at Christmas. The big forward was struggling to find ice time on a veteran-laden and competitive Oklahoma City club and was not doing much with the time he was getting. The second half of the year and the playoffs were a different story altogether, and as the Minnesota product started coming into his own, he showed the blend of size, skill, and toughness that had the Oilers and their fans so high on him. The 2012-13 season will be a big test for the 20-year-old Pitlick as departures up front and a year of seasoning have him in line for a bigger role in the AHL. A strong performance could see him knocking on the door as early as the trade deadline for a cup of coffee at the NHL level.

11. (14) Olivier Roy, G, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2009

The knock on Roy has long been a lack of consistency and poor performances when it matters most. While the latter is still likely out there in the general narrative, a very strong season from beginning to end has started to calm some of the consistency concerns. The QMJHL grad had a standout season for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder and looks likely to play the back-up role to Yann Danis in Oklahoma City this coming season. Goalies are notoriously difficult to project, but his improving consistency and mechanics are both excellent indications of progress and reasons for optimism with the 21-year-old Roy.

12. (15) Martin Gernat, D, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2011

Perhaps one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises for the Oilers system in 2011-12 was the arrival of Martin Gernat. When he was drafted in the fifth round in 2011, the Oilers claimed he was among their top 35 prospects in the entire draft. That comment was met with eye rolls for its assumed hyperbole, but after turning in a brilliant rookie campaign in the WHL, the hype seems more warranted. The 6’5”, 187-pound Slovakian rearguard posted 55 points in 60 games and a gaudy +41 for the WHL Champion Edmonton Oil Kings. The 19-year-old blueliner was also part of a strong top-pairing alongside fellow-Oilers prospect Martin Marincin at the World Junior Championship. He is raw defensively, aggressive on offense, and an excellent skater who has a lot of development still ahead of him. After a junior season like he posted, you cannot blame the Oilers or their fans for being excited.

13. (16) Tobias Rieder, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2011

If Gernat was not the biggest surprise, then this skilled German winger would have to be next in line. Tobias Rieder fell on draft day due to concerns over his size, durability, and fears he could not handle the rigors of a North American season. In his first post-draft year, however, he alleviated those concerns by actually getting stronger as the year went on, following up an outstanding 42 goals and 84 points in 60 regular season OHL games with an astonishing run in the playoffs where he tallied 13 goals and 27 points in just 16 games. Some of those worries about the 19-year-old winger’s size and strength persist in anticipation of an eventual transition to the pro game, but Rieder performed at a high level all season and contributed on the power play, the penalty kill, and at even strength for the Kitchener Rangers. He will have a chance in 2012-13 to prove he can do it again and solidify himself as a piece who could fill a complementary scoring role at the NHL level in three to four years.

14. (NR) Daniil Zharkov, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2012

There are players where the total is more than the sum of their parts, but the opposite is true in the case of Zharkov. While that may not seem flattering, it is the reason he was available to be taken at the top of the third round this year. The 18-year-old Zharkov has an excellent skill level with scouting reports regularly impressed by his ability but baffled at his low production. An excellent candidate to turn some heads if he manages to put it all together, it is still concerning that he has not yet translated his skill set to productivity at the junior level. 

15. (NR) Dillon Simpson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2011

At first glance nothing seems to stand out about Dillon Simpson. He is slightly undersized for a blueliner and does not play overly physical. Although he has put up decent offensive totals, his production has not been eye-popping. That said, playing WCHA hockey as a 17-year-old freshman and then being counted upon as an 18-year-old veteran is incredibly impressive. Simpson goes about his business quietly, but he is an effective NCAA contributor heading into his junior season with a top program at the University of North Dakota. He does not turn 20 until next February, and although he may not be on the fast track to the NHL, Simpson has shown incredibly well since draft day.

16. (10) Curtis Hamilton, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2010

In a year that had a number of pleasant surprises among the Oilers prospect ranks, Hamilton’s season never got off the ground and the high expectations bottomed out with a resounding thud. The versatile winger struggled to earn ice time in his rookie pro season in Oklahoma City, and unlike fellow rookie Tyler Pitlick, Hamilton’s situation did not improve as the year wore on. The Canadian World Junior alum battled injuries and healthy scratches to post a paltry 11 points while appearing in only 41 games. After injury issues throughout his junior career, the 20-year-old Hamilton missed an opportunity last season to take advantage of injuries to other players in the Barons lineup because he was out of action himself. He will need to bounce back in a big way to keep from being passed by some of the other prospects coming up behind him.

17. (NR) Mitch Moroz, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2012

There have been few, if any, picks in the Stu MacGregor era as controversial as Mitch Moroz. The Edmonton Oil Kings tough guy was taken at the top of the second round with a number of more skilled and high-profile players still on the board. To his credit, Moroz improved quite a bit as the season wore on and was a force in the postseason. However, his 25 points in 66 games and eight points in 20 playoff games do not suggest an offensive talent or the top-six upside that might be expected of an early second-round pick. There are voices that say he has the upside and tools to be a dominant power forward, with comparisons made to Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic. For every Lucic, there are countless forgotten names that were never more than WHL tough guys who looked good from time to time. The 18-year-old Moroz will need to prove his doubters wrong on the ice next year before the masses warm up to his high draft slot.

18. (17) Alex Plante, D, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2007

A long-term project when he was drafted five years ago who has been beset with injuries for much of that time, Plante finally had the look of a quality pro defenseman in 2011-12.  He was named to the AHL All-Star team, and while another injury impacted his year, his performance was enough to earn him another contract and vote of confidence from the Oilers. If the 23-year-old defenseman makes the show, and he very well could be among the first blue line call-ups, expectations should be tempered. He is slow, lacks offense, and will not be mistaken for a top-four option. That said, he plays a simple, effective defensive game, is tough as nails, can help on the penalty kill, and has no issues dropping the gloves. The Oilers brass loves that kind of player.

19. (11) Colten Teubert, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Los Angeles, February 28, 2011

While Teubert in many ways mirrors Plante’s playing style, he is better when it comes to his skating and that is a key benefit. As it stands, he still needs to work on adjusting to the speed of the pro game and refining his decision-making ability and likely needs at least another year in the AHL to improve in those areas. Like Plante, he projects as a mean, tough, bottom-pairing option with the ability to help on the penalty kill. It would not be a surprise to see the Oilers make the call on either prospect following the 2012-13 season considering the abundance of defensive prospects set to transition to the pro game from junior, college, and European leagues in 2013-14. This is a big year for the 22-year-old Teubert, and he will need to impress to stay ahead of the curve.

20. (18) Kyle Bigos, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2009

Sticking with the theme at the bottom of this edition of the top 20, Bigos is another hulking blue line option who is a willing combatant and physical force, but he has limited upside as a pro. He is a year older than Teubert and just three days younger than Plante, which is significant because both of those prospects have had a head start on their adjustments to pro hockey. The 23-year-old Bigos is entering his senior season in the NCAA after being drafted out of the BCHL and will be playing for a pro contract. It will be interesting to track his senior year and to chart his development versus men of similar skill sets in the organization. He is one of many when it comes to big, mean, defensive-defensemen, so he will need to do something to stand out and earn a leg up.