Oilers 2005 draft preview

By Guy Flaming

Oilers Top 10 Prospects

1. Rob Schremp, C
2. Marc-Antoine Pouliot, C
3. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, G
4. Devan Dubnyk, G
5. Matt Greene, D
6. Jeff Woywitka, D
7. Doug Lynch, D
8. Brad Winchester, RW
9. Colin McDonald, RW
10. J.F. Jacques, LW

Team Needs

The Edmonton Oilers are entering the new era of the NHL in search of two things: a premium top line center and an elite offensive defenseman. Arguably, Edmonton has lacked a true No. 1 pivot since they parted ways with Doug Weight for financial reasons back on July 1st 2001 and considering that money should no longer be an issue, the club has publicly stated that it will at least have a new center in the line up to begin the 2005-06 campaign.

In regards to the blueline, the truest offensive defenseman on the roster is Marc-Andre Bergeron and while his rookie year had encouraging moments, most believe a serious upgrade is both possible and needed to take the club to the next level.

While some question the wisdom of heading into the new schedule with the goaltending duo collectively known as “Conkanen” by many fans, the Oilers have expressed confidence in both Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen. Although Markkanen signed a contract to return to Russia next season, it does contain an exit clause and he is expected at camp in September. While neither goaltender has been a starter in the NHL, both have shown the ability to play at the elite level in support roles and the feeling is that they will be given the opportunity to establish themselves in the league this year.

Organizational Strengths

In some ways the NHL roster and the prospect pool of the Edmonton Oilers is very similar. There are a plethora of role players for the forward units at both levels, several two-way defensemen and a smattering of skilled players. Rearguards Jeff Woywitka, Doug Lynch and Matt Greene will eventually be natural replacements for Eric Brewer, Steve Staios and Jason Smith, but that day has not yet arrived.

The forward depth in the system is well-balanced in the sense that there are NHL-caliber players at each position, but when compared to the NHL roster the scoring ability is completely opposite. In Edmonton the scorers are found on the wings while the center spots are populated by role players, while on the farm and in the prospect pool the middlemen are the skilled players while the wings mostly boast muscle.

For future scoring the Oilers will look to centers Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Rob Schremp while big men such as Brad Winchester, J.F. Jacques and Colin McDonald will provide the hitting and secondary scoring from the wings.

Having two goaltenders in the prospect pipeline that are projected to eventually be NHL starters is a luxury the team hasn’t had in many, many years. While Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk are still a couple of years away from the big league, at least they are in the system and give the Oilers confidence for down the road.

Organizational Weaknesses

A look at the prospect depth chart shows that although there is some talent on the wings, both sides are lacking a serious offensive threat. McDonald is the closest thing to a sniper on the right wing and has continued to score goals in college but he could be hard pressed to deliver at the NHL level. Dragan Umicevic and Liam Reddox are the two scorers on the left side but most insiders describe the Serbian/Swede as more of a playmaker while the diminutive Peterborough Pete, as talented a junior as he is, will be challenged to reach the NHL.

Edmonton needs to add an offensive rearguard to their prospect pool as badly as they do at the NHL level. Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch can contribute in that department but not at the level of a NHL class power play quarterback. Tom Gilbert and Roman Tesliuk are two more offensive-minded blueliners but also are not of the elite ilk needed in the system.

Draft Tendencies

Since the current Oiler regime of Kevin Lowe, Kevin Prendergast and Scott Howson assumed total control of the organization’s managerial duties, they have made 47 draft selections (48 if you include the botched Robin Kovar choice in 2002). Of those players picked, ten were European based junior aged players, 12 collegians or college-bound players and 21 Canadian major juniors.

There has been a clear direction to increase the average size of the organization over the last four years with selections of Greene, Geoff Paukovich, Jacques, Zack Stortini and McDonald. Will that continue for much longer? Not necessarily, according to Prendergast who makes the draft day decisions as Edmonton’s VP of Hockey Operations.

“In our meetings we’ve had a bit more of a priority of if a guy is 5’10, we put him where we think he should go rather than putting the 6’3 guy ahead of him,” Prendergast told Hockey’s Future in early June. “There’s a lot of smaller defensemen available in this draft that are like 5’9 or 5’10, all great skaters so I think it’s something that this year we might take one and then go with a bigger one in the next round. We have a list of certain guys that we want, and if we take one then we’ll move on to the next type of player in the next round.”

“The time for us to get huge is kind of over,” agreed Boston based Oiler scout Chris McCarthy. “We need skilled guys.”

Goaltending appears to be a position the Oilers may not need to address this year, but don’t be surprised if Edmonton still selects a keeper.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a goalie that’s going to displace the two guys we’ve got right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we take a goalie,” confirmed 12-year scout McCarthy, “We try to take a goalie each year; sometimes we don’t but you can never have enough assets.”

Best Player Available is still the mantra, but fans won’t see another goalie selection in the first round even if the top rated keeper is still available when the Oilers pick at 25.

“We would go off that (policy) then,” admitted Prendergast. “As much as I love Carey Price, it just wouldn’t serve our purpose to take him.”

Edmonton hasn’t been opposed to swinging for the fence on draft day, even if it means going well off the map. The selection of Jesse Niinimaki in 2002 was a shocker and so far hasn’t panned out, but it’s one example of how different their list can be from those of other teams or scouting publications.

“There’s the possibility of that this year,” said Prendergast. “I’ve seen some of the lists that are out there and they look way out of whack in some cases so I have no idea what will be there at 25. But chances are good that one of our guys will still be there.”

Look for the Oilers to be busy in the third round where they expect to have three picks; their own, Philadelphia’s acquired in the Mike Comrie trade, and a compensatory pick for Phoenix’s signing of Petr Nedved could fall in that area. If so, it will be in that round where the Oilers can get creative.

“We’ll take a flyer with one of those picks,” admitted Prendergast. “There are some players in that range that we like that I don’t know if a lot of other teams like, but that our guys have done a lot of background checking on over the last five weeks since our meetings. Our guys have worked hard this year, we have a good idea of what we’re looking for and the type of player we need.”

Another category of player the Oilers have always shown a tendency for are captains, of which approximately two-thirds of their prospect pool were at one time or another for a previous team.

“I think as an organization we like to look at character and we’ve had a bunch of kids recently who are or were captains,” agreed Prendergast. “It only helps the player to be in that type of situation and to face that type of pressure, being the leader on the team, especially when they are winning and playing well; you hope they bring that with them when they turn pro.”

Although nearly 25 percent of their draft picks over the last four years were Europeans, look for that trend to go down. In 2004, the only European based player Edmonton drafted was overage Swedish goaltender Bjorn Bjurling. Not only have the Oilers begun to shy away from European players but also the 2005 class from across the Atlantic is a far cry from previous years.

“Normally there are about 15 Euros that go in the first round and this year it might be about four or five,” said Prendergast. “Partly it’s because they’re not as strong this year and partly it’s because North America is very strong. There’s still good players for the second to seventh round.”

“No Russians, their U18 squad was the worst Russian team I’ve ever seen,” he added. “I guess their ’88 class is very good though so they’ll be back next year.”

Drafting Russians is likely something Oiler fans won’t have to live through anymore as historically the team has really struggled with the players they’ve selected from that country. Whether it’s the travel to scout or follow the progress of the players (Misha Joukov) or actually getting them out of the country to North America (Alexei Mikhnov), the risk has definitely grown larger than the benefits.

“Well they’re difficult,” Prendergast agreed. “Unless you’re going to take an Ilya Kovalchuk or a high end guy, it’s a tough scenario. With the IIHF deal not in place with the Russians it makes it tough for us to consider them. We’ll have some on our list and if the right guy falls to us then we’ll take him and worry about it later on but we haven’t had a lot of success with bringing them over. I don’t think you ever completely sour, you have to look at players talent-wise and we try and do our homework to see if these guys are willing to come over and play. Certainly the Russian guys because of the whole situation over there, they’re a little bit scary. If there are two players on our list that are very close then chances are we won’t take the Russian. I’d rather take a high school kid who’s going to college for four years and we have a much better handle on.”

(It should be noted that since those comments were made the NHL and the IIHF have reached a new transfer agreement.)

Where the Oilers have had tremendous success recently is with their later round picks. Sixth round choice Umicevic, seventh round selections like Kyle Brodziak, Mathieu Roy, Stephane Goulet, eighth rounder Tyler Spurgeon and ninth round pick Troy Bodie are a credit to the scouting staff.

“To me there’s realistically very little difference in the guys ranked from 80-150th and if one of our guys has a feel for someone, then we change things as we go,” explained Prendergast.

Asked why the team has enjoyed so much success in the later rounds, OHL scout Brad Davis offered his opinion to Hockey’s Future in May.

“Because it comes down to guys in the area,” Davis stated. “I think we’re strong there because somebody is going to step up and say ‘I know we all have this guy in this area but I really like this kid.’ Some people are willing to push in order to get the guy they really want. Basically, when we’re at a standstill we have a hodgepodge of players to pick from that we can’t break apart because we’d have nine guys around the table vote for nine different guys. It gets hard to narrow it down so we kind of go around the table and say ‘who’s the guy in your area that you really have a feeling for? Let’s put them in this group and we can fight about them later on in order to see if you concur with what the area scouts feels about this guy.’ I think that now you’re getting into the strength of what your scouting staff is.”

“Why do you have guys in certain areas, why don’t we all just work out of Edmonton?” the scout asked facetiously. “Well, this is the reason, we get to see guys more and you get to see the guys that have heart or the guys that have exceptional skills that only come out because they’re players like Goulet who other scouts haven’t seen a lot because of coaching or whatever. The only scouts that get a good view of them are the area guys, that’s where the strength of our staff shows up. They’re not paying me for Central Scouting’s list or to apply my list accordingly off of Central’s; they’re paying me for mine. I think that it shows by us doing so well in the later rounds where we’re putting the onus on the individual scouts and the area guys, that’s where we’re striking it because that’s where our strength is. I think we have a very astute scouting staff.”

Certainly the scouts have refilled the prospect pool to depths never before seen in the organization and Prendergast feels that one more successful draft weekend will cement the Oilers for years to come.

“If we have a good draft this year, we have an opportunity to set ourselves up all the way down the line with good assets for the next ten years,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in the situation where if we need to make trades then we have assets that we can move or we have players here that can put pressure on guys that are playing in the NHL. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last four years.”

It certainly was a blow to fall so far in the draft lottery when the odds were far stronger that Edmonton would be selecting from a much earlier position that the 25th spot they were awarded.

“It’s disappointing obviously, we had higher hopes than 25th for sure,” said assistant GM Scott Howson. “It’s a deep draft and the good news is that we’ll pick 36th and get another good pick too. It’s small consolation and we would have certainly preferred to be in the top ten, but you have to make the best of it and I’m sure we’ll come out with two players that we’ll be extremely pleased with at 25 and 36.”

“We went into (the lottery) very optimistic, we thought we had a good chance of being in the top ten,” Prendergast sighed. “We felt that there are ten very high end prospects in this draft, and certainly it does drop off after that, but there are some good players from that 11-40 range and next week in our meetings we’ll concentrate on that 20-40 area.

“I’m not concerned really, I know we’re going to get a good player,” Prendergast concluded. “There’s going to be some good players there at 25 and I think there’s going to be some good players there at 36. We’re looking for two things going into this draft and skill is the thing that we have to improve on and there are going to be a lot of skilled guys still available at 25. It might not be help that’s going to come in over the next two or three years, but it will be someone who’ll have the opportunity to play down the road.”

Player most likely to be taken with first round selection (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result): Devin Setoguchi, RW, Saskatoon Blades.

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