This is the second edition of the Edmonton Oilers yearly prospect awards. After missing the playoffs for the seventh year in a row, the Oilers are looking to make some big changes in their roster and have a strong reliance on a deep prospect pool. The 2012-13 season saw great improvements for some, while others fell short of expectations. The Oilers have some strong defensive prospects in the pipeline with a mix of skilled but not yet fully-developed talent on their front end.
Prospect of the Year: Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
Although Yakupov played in every game for the Edmonton Oilers this year, the shortened lockout season keeps him on the prospect list heading into next season. Yakupov capped off a strong rookie season with a hat trick against the Vancouver Canucks in his last game of the 2012-13 regular season. In total, he logged 31 points in 48 contests and his play and hockey sense seemed to improve each time he hit the ice.
Yakupov has managed to inject some much-needed energy into his team this season and has an unrelenting desire to put wins on the board for the Oilers. His raw emotion and obvious talent (not to mention his highlight-reel goals and celebrations) make him an exciting player to watch as he continues to develop at the NHL level.
Since being drafted 163rd overall in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft, Teemu Hartikainen has had to work to prove his worth at the NHL level. His strong work ethic, willingness to fight tough battles and ability to fill multiple roles has made up for his average talent and has set him apart from others in his draft position. He has played in a handful of games at the NHL level between 2011 and 2013 and always brings his top game. In the 2012-13 season, he bounced back and forth between the big club and the Oilers’ farm team due to injuries, but managed to take it all in stride and make solid contributions night after night regardless of role or team. Hartikainen was never able to seal up a roster spot in Edmonton despite his hard work, and that has led to the 23-year-old winger signing a contract in the KHL with Salavat Yulaev Ufa for the 2013-14 season.
Hardest Shot: Tyler Pitlick, C, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Pitlick spent most of 2012-13 recovering from a broken ankle, but made a return to the OKC Barons to contribute six points in 16 games during their playoff run. Tyler Pitlick has the size, speed, and raw talent to be an NHL-level centerman, but has fallen short of expectations since turning pro, partly due to injury and partly due to underwhelming, inconsistent performance. Regardless, Pitlick still possesses a hard, accurate shot and a deadly wrister that manages to find its way to the back of the net from almost anywhere. Perhaps the reason that many are so critical of Pitlick at this point stems from the fact that his raw talent and natural scoring ability is so seldom seen.
Best Defensive Prospect: Justin Schultz, D, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
As a member of one of the Oilers’ top defensive pairings, Justin Schultz was an obvious choice for this award. Schultz had a strong debut as an Oiler, although he fell victim to a slump midway through the season. A change-up in his defensive partner helped him find his stride again, and his offensive production was a valuable asset to his young team. In the attacking zone, Schultz looks like a veteran defenseman. In his own end however, his inexperience shows and it becomes evident that although he has tremendous skill and potential, he does still need time to develop his game and grow into a solid two-way player. Nonetheless, Schultz had a strong rookie year overall and it is obvious that the sky is the limit for this young rearguard.
Fastest Skater: Nail Yakupov, RW, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
Although Yakupov took home the award for the Prospect of the Year, it is impossible to overlook him as one of the fastest skaters in the Oilers’ prospect pool. His explosive speed was a crucial component of his success early on with the Oilers. Whether he was in position or out of position, wherever he was headed, there was no doubt that he was getting there quickly. He often led many great rushes for the Oilers and while not all were successful, he showed signs of great things to come for the young winger.
Breakout Player for 2013-14: Jujhar Khaira, W/C, Michigan Tech Huskies (WCHA)
Jujhar Khaira was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft out of the BCHL. He has worked his way up from an undrafted bantam player to a force to be reckoned with as a left winger with the Michigan Tech Huskies. He put up 25 points in 37 games in his freshman year with the Huskies and is an intriguing mix of talent and size.
Khaira still has three more years with Michigan Tech and has shown no signs of slowing down thus far. He is already pretty high up on the depth chart in his organization for a freshman, logging more ice time than his average counterparts across the NCAA. He will likely take on some more responsibility over the next few years and see some minutes during key situations and on special teams. This season was crucial for Khaira to make a name for himself and stand out in a prospect pool that has a few different options in the power forward category, and he seems to have done just that.
Most Improved Prospect: Dillon Simpson, D, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Dillon Simpson finished his junior season with the University of North Dakota in 2012-13 and has made great strides in his development. In his draft year, many called his foot speed into question. He acknowledged this weakness and with the help of the staff at North Dakota and Simpson’s strong work ethic, he has managed to improve his skating and has become a more valuable asset on the team’s back end.
This past season, he stepped up and filled a leadership role on the team as a 20-year-old veteran. He received more ice time against top lines and was a solid contributor to the special teams. Aside from his skating ability, his consistency in his own end and improved puck movement helped make Simpson a top defenseman for North Dakota this season.
Overachiever: Mark Arcobello, C/RW, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Mark Arcobello is taking home the overachiever award for the second year in a row. As a 5’9, 165-pound undrafted free agent acquisition, Arcobello is an unlikely candidate for NHL success. However, his hard-working attitude and perseverance has paid off – he took to the ice in his first NHL game this year, centering young superstars Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.
Arcobello played four seasons with the Yale Bulldogs before turning pro and recently signed a one-year contract extension with the Oilers on June 14, 2013. He was an instrumental part of the Oklahoma City Barons’ playoff run this year, leading the team in points with 12 goals and eight assists in 17 games. Since his NCAA days, Arcobello has played a consistent two-way game, has put up solid offensive numbers, and has filled numerous roles, proving himself to be a very versatile and valuable member of any club.
Underachiever: Ryan Martindale, C, Oklahoma City Barons (AHL)
Ryan Martindale was a high third round draft pick at 61st in 2010. After putting up 83 points in 65 games in his last season in the Ontario Hockey League, Martindale was touted as a goal scorer with a mix of size and good two-way hockey sense. Since his pro debut, he has been a shadow of himself and has struggled badly at both the AHL and ECHL level. Martindale has played 98 games at the professional level since the 2011-12 season, registering only 33 points in total thus far.
Like Pitlick, it is frustrating to see a player that cannot seem to harness his skill at the pro level and falls into a major slump. Even his strength and solid positioning on the back end seems to have all but gone out the window and many wonder if it is a question of heart rather than ability. The clock is ticking for Martindale to find his offensive numbers that he once had and to prove himself as an NHL-caliber centerman.
While some may argue that we have yet to see the reward from left wing prospect Mitchell Moroz, it is clear that the Oilers have big plans for the power forward, drafted 32nd overall in 2012 behind first overall pick Nail Yakupov. Moroz is big, tough, and physical but is not without offensive ability, making him a valuable addition to the Oilers’ front end. In 2012-13, he logged 34 points in 69 games during the regular season on top of 140 penalty minutes. He will play his third full season with the Oil Kings of the WHL next year in what is sure to be a pivotal season for the young winger. While many saw his high draft slot as a risk, Moroz’s physicality and offensive skill creates great potential for reward and is worth being patient for.