Oilers Top 20 prospects

By Guy Flaming

The following Top 20 list is a snapshot in time of the prospect depth pool currently held by the Edmonton Oilers. Comments from Edmonton scouts and management as well as various sources from around the developmental leagues were collected over the last few months and while they appear in this project, they were not necessarily given for it at the time.

The player ranking is property of Hockey’s Future and should not be considered the official opinion of the Oilers or anyone associated with the organization. While the list certainly could not be constructed as accurately without the feedback and insight of their management and scouting staff, the seeding of players is strictly the work of the writer.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Andrew Cogliano, C – 19
2. Robert Nilsson, LW/C – 22
3. Rob Schremp, C – 20
4. Taylor Chorney, D – 19
5. Marc-Antoine Pouliot, C – 21
6. Denis Grebeshkov, D – 23
7. Viatcheslav Trukhno, LW/C – 20
8. Ryan O’Marra, C – 19
9. Tom Gilbert, D – 24
10. Jeff Petry, D – 18
11. Devan Dubnyk, G – 20
12. Jean-Francois Jacques, LW – 21
13. Kyle Brodziak, C – 22
14. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, G – 22
15. Colin McDonald, RW – 22
16. Dragan Umicevic, LW – 22
17. Alexei Mikhnov, LW – 23
18. Bryan Young, D – 20
19. Cody Wild, D – 19
20. Fredrik Pettersson, LW – 19

The Top 20 is based on peak potential and projected long-term impact on the organization and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Players are assigned an individual grade (HF Prospect Rating) based on comments from both inside and outside the organization. Other factors that help determine ranking order to varying degrees include: player age, draft position, current league and team quality, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity. Players are removed from the prospect list according to the HF Prospect Criteria.

The graduations of Matt Greene and Ladislav Smid this season opened up two positions on the top 20 list.  However, with the NHL trade deadline deals involving roster players Ryan Smyth and Marc-Andre Bergeron, three former first-round draft prospects from the New York Islanders have now joined the organization’s pool.  
Key: Current Rank, (previous rank), Name, position, age
Grade (previous grade)

1. (3) Andrew Cogliano, C – 19

Grade: 8C (8C) Projection: 1st line scorer

You know you’re talking about an excellent prospect when the biggest detraction you can pin on him is that he’s not 6’1 and 200 lbs.  Andrew Cogliano had an impressive 28-point freshman campaign for the University of Michigan Wolverines and has followed that up with an even better performance this season.  With 48 points in 37 games, Cogliano sits second among sophomores in the NCAA‘s overall scoring race. 

A second gold medal at the WJCs has been followed by a strong second half in college as opposed to last year when he’d admittedly hit a wall.  Some criticized Cogliano for only recording three points at the tournament, but it should also be pointed out that he was named Canada’s Player of the Game twice so evidently played very well despite the lack of offensive stats. 

"I personally think that I had a better tournament last year," Cogliano said after returning to North America. "What I was really happy with [this year] is that I showed up for the big games and I came through in the pressure situation with the shootout and I scored a big goal in the final game which was very nice.  I tried to elevate my game when the top teams came and I think I did that."

Oilers GM Kevin Lowe says Cogliano is far from the first player who struggled early in his career to find statistical success in big games.

"I remember a player named Wayne Gretzky who didn’t perform very well in the Stanley Cup Finals and in fact it took him a couple of series to even score a goal. I remember [the comments that] Wayne Gretzky is underachieving," shrugged Lowe.
 
Head coach Red Berenson likened the speedster as a spilt between a former Oiler and an all-time NHL great.

"He’s kind of a cross between Todd Marchant and Dave Keon," the legendary bench boss said. "A great skater, a tireless worker and a player who has a knack around the net and has good hands."  

Although the Oilers definitely have an interest and will check to see if the player would consider turning pro this summer, Cogliano could return to Michigan for another season where he would become the clear No. 1 center and play on the first power-play unit as well.  The decision will be his.

2. (1-NYI) Robert Nilsson, LW/C – 21
Grade: 8C (7C) Projection: 1st line playmaker

One of the three pieces Edmonton acquired in the Smyth trade is someone the club is intimately familiar with.  The son of European scout Kenta Nilsson, Robert Nilsson, was targeted by Edmonton at the 2003 draft with their first pick only to see him snapped up by the Islanders two spots earlier.

Nilsson played two years in the SEL before collecting 20 points in 53 games last season as a NHL rookie with the Islanders.  Unfortunately for him, last summer’s off-ice facelift negatively impacted his standing on Long Island.  With Ted Nolan at the helm, Nilsson seemingly bore the brunt of a message the new coach sent his team in training camp and inexplicably dispatched the Swede to the farm.

"I played more than half of last season [in the NHL] and this year I didn’t even get to play a preseason game so of course it’s frustrating," Nilsson said candidly. "I didn’t get any opportunity at all but the past is past and I can only look forward."

Critics of Nilsson claim that his heart and desire don’t always equal his talent level, but one source claimed that the youngster’s conditioning is top notch and that his skill set is world-class.  With a father nicknamed "Magic Man" with the Calgary Flames, the son’s genes appear to have given him similar abilities.

"He’s a lot like his father," head scout Kevin Prendergast said. "He’s got great hands and hockey sense, good acceleration and he’s able to beat people one-on-one.  He’s slick with the puck, and makes players around him better and he’s able to be creative like [Ales] Hemsky is. He’s got skill like Hemsky and we need to improve our skill level."

As you would expect, Kevin Lowe also spoke highly of his new acquisition.

"The cynics say he’s a soft European player, but I beg to differ; I’ve seen this kid throw body checks and dig in when he needs to."

Nilsson was the leading scorer in Bridgeport before the deal, he’s now the top man in Wilkes-Barre as well.  Next year Nilsson will receive every opportunity to make the team out of training camp but in order to play for Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, he’ll need to address what has been humorously described as an ‘allergy to his own end’.

With Edmonton’s roster decimated by injury, Nilsson has been recalled to the NHL on an emergency basis and scored his first Oiler goal in his first game with the team.

3. (1) Rob Schremp, C – 20
Grade: 8D (8B) Projection: 1st line scorer or bust

Yes it’s a mighty big step up from junior to play in the AHL against men, but when you go from scoring 57 goals in 57 games one year to 16 goals the next, you’re going to get criticized.  Schremp certainly isn’t the only player who scored at will in junior last year, but unlike Alexander Radulov this season or Patrick O’Sullivan the year before, he hasn’t been able to translate that offense as easily to the next level.

"In London, defense really wasn’t part of their game; they were prepared to win games 11-10," Prendergast suggested. "Robbie had to learn that part of the game and we thought it was a great scenario for him to be in Wilkes-Barre this year on a very good team, with a very strong coach and a good teacher. 

"I just saw him play [recently] and I was very happy with the way he’s come on," added Prendergast. "He’s working on faceoffs, on his zone coverage in his own end, he still has a ways to go on the skating part of it, but we know what Robbie brings to the table offensively because he’s one of the most gifted players we have in the organization. But to play in the NHL nowadays you have to be accountable at both ends of the ice and we want to make sure that Robbie understands that and he’s getting there."

One problem for Schremp might be that to be productive, he appears to need offensively talented players with him.  He had that in London and the points followed, but on an AHL team where the best players are often pulled up to the NHL, Schremp hasn’t always had those finishers on his line. 

Schremp has improved his offensive output lately, having recorded 13 points in his last 10 games.  However, two weeks of terrific hockey doesn’t erase a season that has included being a healthy scratch on half a dozen occasions and ineffectiveness in many of the games he did dress for.  It’s been a learning year for the former first rounder and by the sounds of it class isn’t over yet.

"It’s not like I don’t have any points and I’d like to have more but the other parts of my game that I’m learning are way more important than getting goals right now," Schremp said earlier this season.  

Schremp’s critics categorize him as a one trick pony — a power-play specialist not good enough to play even strength and it will be up to him to prove them wrong which so far, he has yet to do.

4. (9) Taylor Chorney, D – 19
Grade: 7.5C (7C) Projection: Top 4 offensive defenseman

While many of Edmonton’s prospects have shown progress this year, few have impressed as much as defenseman Taylor Chorney.  The North Dakota Fighting Sioux rearguard has developed into a stalwart for the WCHA club and according to many scouting reports, now seems to have become the premier defender on the team. 

Chorney has accumulated 29 points thus far compared to 18 a season ago, making him the top-scoring blueliner on his club and a leader on and off the ice.  At the WJCs in Sweden, he was on Team USA’s top defensive unit with Erik Johnson and was the team’s power-play quarterback as well.  With North Dakota headed for another NCAA national tournament, Chorney’s leadership skills will once again be counted on under pressure situations.

"He’s got some points this year which we knew was going to come and he’s a leader on that team even though he’s a sophomore," said scout Chris McCarthy. "He was captain of his World Junior team amongst a lot of guys who probably could have been captain.  He was named because he’s a great character kid and he can handle a room.  He’s really grown into the type of player we’re going to see as a pro."

Not unlike Cogliano, once the college season is done, Chorney will have a decision to make.  In early February, one Oiler source told Hockey’s Future that he felt the best thing for Chorney would be to return to North Dakota for his junior year, but more recently that same source has changed his tune. 

"You never know, we seem to be on a bit of a youth movement now so why wouldn’t we talk to him and see where his head is at?"

Despite now having their own AHL farm team lined up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the biggest hurdle for the organization might be room for him.  Teams are only allowed to have a maximum of 50 players under contract and at this time the Oilers have 43, with several key players from junior, college or Europe whom decisions have to be made on this summer.  If there isn’t room for him, the Oilers have an out in that Chorney can go back to college for another two seasons.  

"He skates well enough, he appears to be strong enough, he has tons of character and so he looks like he’s going to be a big pro," Lowe said in January. "If he comes to us at the end of the season and says [he’s] ready to turn pro we’d be more than happy to sign him and get him going in that respect."

5. (4) Marc Pouliot, C – 21
Grade: 7.5C (7.5B) Projection: 2nd line playmaker

His strong play with the Oilers at the end of the current regular season might make this ranking seem a bit low, but it’s actually why Marc Pouliot has not risen in the top 20.  Pouliot is showing that he belongs in the NHL, but it has taken five months of hockey and a ton of NHL injuries to get the Quebec City product into the line-up. 

Pouliot was expected to make the team out of camp and perform as well as he is these days, but he was cut and spent a chunk of the campaign on the farm in Wilkes-Barre where he totaled 29 points in 30 games.

"I’ve improved a lot this year, I’m better now than at the beginning of the season," Pouliot told Hockey’s Future recently. "[Being cut from camp] was good for me because I was playing a lot down [in Wilkes-Barre] instead of playing on the fourth line here and that was better for me.  I didn’t realize it back then but I do now." 

Quiet and perhaps a bit introverted, Pouliot would benefit from being more aggressive on the ice because he has the skills to be a dangerous player when the puck is on his stick.  A long reach and strong puckhandling ability are two of Pouliot’s better traits and with a very quick release, his shot makes him a versatile player.

Every great player needs a talented sidekick and in a nutshell, that might be the best analogy to use for Pouliot; he may not ever become a star player himself but he will help an excellent player become a superstar.  As far as complimentary players go, Pouliot could be one of the best anywhere in his age group, but when asked if he felt his AHL days were behind him, the answer didn’t come easily.  

"That’s a hard question," he said. "The only thing I can control is my game so I just try to prove to them that I don’t belong in the AHL anymore."

6. (6-NYI) Denis Grebeshkov, D – 23
Grade: 7.5C (7D) Projection: Top 4 offensive defenseman

"The opportunity to get a defenseman like Grebeshkov, in our situation as far as getting a puck-moving player, doesn’t come along very often," Prendergast stated.  "We consider him a top blue-chip prospect."

That’s high praise for a player who now joins his third NHL franchise at the age of 23; after all, if he’s so great, why did two other teams let him go?  For the Los Angeles Kings, he was part of the price they paid in order to acquire veterans Brent Sopel and sniper Mark Parrish before the NHL trade deadline in 2005-06.  The Islanders are a different story, however, as Eugene Belashchenko of russianprospects.com and Hockey’s Future explains.

"It’s really quite surprising that the Islanders did not sign him," Belashchenko suggested. "They offered him a two-way contract and he was coming off his three-year, two-way [entry level] contract with the Kings and understandably it is the tradition in the NHL that in the first few years players get that but he spent the entire season after the trade in the NHL logging close to 20 minutes a game so he felt he deserved more."

Faced with the choice between returning to his homeland for a salary closer to $1 million US tax free to play for his hometown club and playing in Bridgeport again, Grebeshkov made the more natural choice and went back to Russia.  With Yaroslavl, the offensive-minded blueliner has scored 16 points in 47 games while playing with former Oiler Igor Ulanov as well as Alexei Mikhnov.

"He can make the five-foot pass to get out of trouble, he can make the 50-foot pass or carry the puck out but his decision-making was always the right one," Prendergast reported after the Swedish Games. "He’s 25 lbs heavier than when he played in the American League so his defense is a lot better, he’s an outstanding skater and he has great agility and mobility."

During the NHL lockout, several players dropped down to play in the AHL and a large number of them seemed to struggle but having scored 49 points that year, clearly Grebeshkov was not in that group.  With his name already penciled into a top-four role in Edmonton for this fall, he will finally have the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL.    

7. (8) Viatcheslav Trukhno, LW – 19
Grade: 7.5C (7C) Projection: 2nd line power forward

He fell just short of a 100-point season a year ago as a member of the PEI Rocket, but now Slava Trukhno is positioned to establish a new career high in points with the Gatineau Olympiques.  Trukhno recently crossed that magic century mark for the first time in his CHL history.

The Russia-born, Denmark-raised winger was memorable in Oiler training camp for his lackluster practices, but caught the attention of MacTavish when it came to game time where Trukhno clearly elevated his effort.

When asked if he is better prepared for the pro game than Rob Schremp at the same age, GM Kevin Lowe offered this opinion.

"He’s a better skater at the same age but like Robbie, [Trukhno] has to get a little stronger and quicker as well," said the GM.  "He still looks very young in terms of his physical maturity but a lot can happen over the course of six months; he could grow an extra inch and put on another 10 pounds and show up at camp and be ready to physically step into the NHL."

Trukhno has now scored 25 goals in each of his three seasons in the QMJHL and playing alongside Claude Giroux (PHI) in Gatineau has definitely played a role in that this year.  Unlike in previous campaigns in PEI where he was largely a one-man show, Trukhno isn’t the top scorer now and appears to be playing the role of accessory player extremely well.  Both Giroux and Trukhno have missed games at different points of the schedule, but it should be noted that the team seems to have struggled more without the former than the latter.  It could be a case that Trukhno is benefiting more from Giroux than the other way around.

"Trukhno’s better when Giroux is there," agreed one scout. "Trukhno has become better defensively without the puck this year.  I’m not so sure he’s going to be a top line guy but you can’t beat skill and he’s got it and anytime you have a guy with skill you never know what he’s going to do.  He can score and set up plays and that’s a nice combination to have."

Skating still seems to be the biggest facet of the game that Trukhno is lagging behind in, but when he wants to he has shown the drive and desire necessary to work at his shortcomings.  The Moscow product also needs to get stronger in preparation for the next level.    

8. (5-NYI) Ryan O’Marra, C – 19

Grade 7B (7B) Projection: 2nd/3rd line two-way center

His ceiling might not be what it once was considered, but there might not be a player closer to a sure thing anywhere in the Oiler system than Ryan O’Marra.  A consensus top-10 pick in his draft year, the Tokyo-born center slid to the 15th spot where the Islanders quickly snapped him up but going later than projected didn’t surprise O’Marra.

"I was rated high going into it but I sort of thought I might not go top 10 simply because I kept being labeled as a ‘safe pick’ and I didn’t seem to be as exciting as some of these other prospects were," O’Marra said recently.  "You look at a guy like Anze Kopitar who went 11th overall in that draft and look at how well he’s doing for the L.A. Kings."

No one is expecting that O’Marra will turn out to be an offensive star like Kopitar but few doubt that the 19-year-old has the potential to be a premier second or third-line center in the NHL.  Brent Sutter, who coached O’Marra at the 2006 WJC in Vancouver, had plenty of good things to say.

"There was a role that we had him play there that was a pretty significant role in that I played him on wing and used him at center ice too," said Sutter.

Sutter went on to say that O’Marra is at his best playing with a physical edge to his game as opposed to concentrating solely on offense.  Thinking he’s a goal scorer leads O’Marra down the wrong path, it’s only when he’s banging and emotionally involved that he’s playing his game and coincidentally that’s when the goals come to him.  The head Rebel in Red Deer also threw out the name of Jason Arnott as a possible NHL player of today that O’Marra could one day be similar to.

How soon until O’Marra is ready to play in the NHL?  According to one source, he was earlier this year before a broken ankle delayed the inevitable.     

"He pretty much had the Islanders made in camp and then he got hurt so they sent him back to junior," claimed the source.

"It’s tough to project where they’ll be when they’re coming out of junior," suggested GM Lowe. "He plays an offensive role in junior, but he could be a guy that plays anywhere in the lineup because he’s got good hockey sense."

Lowe said that O’Marra’s role at the WJC should not be seen by fans as a sign that his NHL future will only be as a checker.

"Some people will say that he wasn’t an elite offensive guy [on the WJC team] in those tournaments, but I would argue that we had a player that we unfortunately just traded by the name of Ryan Smyth who was a fourth-line guy on all the Team Canadas too and he was a pretty good player."

9. (11) Tom Gilbert, D – 24
Grade: 7C (6.5B) Projection: 2nd pairing defenseman

Many wondered if Tom Gilbert would be able to achieve the same level of success that fellow collegian Matt Greene did last season having permanently graduated to the NHL around the midway point.  He didn’t, but he’s not that far away. 
 
"The way he moves the puck and the way he thinks the game," Prendergast singled out as Gilbert’s two biggest assets.  "Tommy’s a cool kid and he understands the game really well.  He’ll come into training camp next year and he’ll be better for having played a little bit [this season] and I anticipate that he could be one of our top six next year."

Gilbert played his first NHL game against San Jose on his birthday back in early January and has appeared in two and a half more since then.  Unfortunately, after having his bell rung by Columbus enforcer Jody Shelly, Gilbert has been in the press box with a concussion for the past month.

While on the farm in Wilkes-Barre, Gilbert obviously won the respect of coach Todd Richards in a hurry.

"I’m a big fan of Tom Gilbert," Richards revealed unabashedly. "He has a vision, he has a plan and he’s acting on it.  He’s a good pro, he takes care of himself off the ice and shows up to the rink early and gets his workout in, he’s prepared for practice and I don’t have to stop practice because he’s screwing up a drill. He is a good pro and I think you guys will see him up in Edmonton definitely next year."

Gilbert had 27 points in 45 games with the AHL Penguins, still good for top 25 in league defensive scoring despite not having played a game there since mid February.  The smooth-skating blueliner will have a better than average shot at making the Oiler roster next fall unless offseason activities see Edmonton adding veteran defensemen to the organization.  

10. (12) Jeff Petry, D – 19
Grade 7C (7C) Projection: 2nd pairing defenseman

Still considered a long-term project, Jeff Petry has had an impressive second season in the USHL with the Des Moines Buccaneers.  His 37 points are good enough for third in the league among defensemen and is more than double his rookie season total. After having scored just once last year, Petry has found the back of the net 15 times in 2006-07. 

"It’s a good year for him to get confidence and fine-tune his skills before he goes to Michigan State," Oiler scout Chris McCarthy said earlier this season.

Petry has made the most of his year with the Bucs and earned a spot at the USHL All-Star game where he won the hardest shot competition with an NHL-quality 95 mph blast.  With former standouts Trevor Lewis (LA) and Kyle Okposo (NYI) gone from last year’s team, Petry has taken on a bigger role providing both leadership and offensive reliability for the Bucs.

"He’s really a skinny kid; I don’t know if he shaves yet!" kidded one scout. "He’s late in developing his maturity; he’s only 185 lbs right now and he’s 6’2 so when he gets stronger he can probably be a 200 lb guy who skates really well.  He’s very smart with the puck, can lead the rush, uses his long reach to defend well and he can really blast it from the point."   

Next year the Ann Arbor, Michigan native will return to his home state as a freshman Spartan.  Michigan State will graduate four senior blueliners at the end of the year so there should be room for Petry to slide in and play a significant role, even more so if any other current players leave the program early.  

"Michigan State is a pretty defensively-oriented team so he’ll definitely learn that aspect of the game next year as long as a great workout regimen and he will get stronger there too," said Chris McCarthy.  "He’s on track and progressing.  We think he should be dominating that league and he does at times and he’s ready for college; he’s doing very well."

11. (7) Devan Dubnyk, G – 21
Grade: 7C (7.5C) Projection: starting goalie

The effects of not having a farm team is felt most by the goaltenders and although this year has not been as challenging for him as the previous one was for Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Devan Dubnyk has nonetheless put up with a similar situation.

Dubnyk has been relegated mostly to the ECHL where he played an acceptable amount of minutes and faced a lot of rubber, but not of the quality his development would have most benefited from this year.

In the ECHL, Dubnyk has very good but not exceptional statistics and took part in the league’s midseason All-Star game, which is aimed towards prospects.  However, it’s still not where the netminder should have been playing this year as the Oilers have admitted.

"Devan Dubnyk is playing a lot in the ECHL but he doesn’t deserve to be there and so that’s been a bit unfair to him," conceded Assistant GM Scott Howson recently. "Given his credentials and his pedigree and where he was coming from he deserved to start in the AHL, maybe not a full-time No. 1 role, but certainly as a shared duty."

Dubnyk appeared in a total of four games with Wilkes-Barre this season, one in relief and three that he started.  The Calgary native went 2-1 in his three starts including a shootout victory over Hamilton in his first ever AHL start. 

Early in 2007, Dubnyk represented Canada on the international stage in Switzerland at the Davos Cup under head coach Pat Quinn.  Dubnyk and Canada were shelled 5-0 in one of his appearances, but in the next match the Oiler prospect was stellar and received high praise from the former NHL coach.

Next season it is expected that Dubnyk and Drouin-Deslauriers will split time on the farm for the Springfield AHL affiliate the Oilers have arranged.  Should Edmonton not retain or replace unrestricted free agent backup Jussi Markkanen, a position with the big club might also be available.    

12. (6) Jean-Francois Jacques, LW – 21
Grade: 6.5B (6.5A) Projection: 3rd-4th line energy player

When it comes to players failing to meet expectations, the list has to start with J.F. Jacques.  After a terrific rookie campaign in 2005-06 that featured a mid-season stint with the Oilers, the club expected Jacques to establish himself as a legitimate NHL power forward this year.  Jacques made the team out of camp, but did not appear in a game until Oct. 25 and then failed to deliver the performances that he needed to.

"It’s been a pretty weird year, I didn’t start the way that I wanted to," Jacques admitted. "But the last two and a half months on the farm were really good for me and I really got my game back.  I’m trying to figure how to bring back the game I had down there to [Edmonton]."

On the farm, Jacques has been a dominant player but he has not been able to translate his game to NHL success and it’s unclear as to why.  He has the speed, the size and the ability but it almost appears as though Jacques gets intimidated by his surroundings and plays less aggressively than his reputation would indicate.

Jacques has dressed for a third of the games this year in Edmonton but has yet to record a single point.  In fact, the 6’4 217 lbs winger didn’t contribute a point in his seven games last year either, which is a stark contrast to his 68 AHL points over the course of the last year and a half.  

"No clue," Jacques admitted when asked why he feels he’s still looking for his first NHL point. "It’s getting frustrating; having over a point a game in the minors but I can’t get a point in 30 games up here."

13. (16) Kyle Brodziak, C – 23
Grade: 6B (6C) Projection: 3rd-4th line two-way center

The most improved prospect the Oilers have is probably center Kyle Brodziak, who went from being a disappointment in training camp to a healthy scratch in Wilkes-Barre to now being a capable injury replacement at the NHL level.  If not for suffering a broken hand in late January, Brodziak would have made his first appearance in Edmonton this year long before March.

"I used him in all situations — key faceoffs, 6-on-5, 5-on-6, power play, penalty kill. He plays the point on the power play which isn’t an easy position to play," said coach Richards.  "Any critical situation, he’s the guy I’d go to.  I saw him with Iowa last year and my expectation of him coming in was more of a third-line center, but he’s won me over and I’m using him in a lot more offensive situations."

The Oilers have been equally impressed with the way the former seventh-round pick has performed this season.

"We’re really, really pleased with his development," said Kevin Lowe earlier this year. "There’s a case for letting a guy go down [to the minors] and letting him play.  We’re quite convinced that Kyle is going to step in and play a role on this hockey club in the very near future."

With 21 goals and 46 points in 49 games, this has easily been Brodziak’s best season as a pro and considering it’s the third and final year of his entry-level contract, it couldn’t come at a better time for him.

"Keeping track of the points and stuff is something that I don’t really do too much but I’ve been fortunate getting the ice time that I have been getting," Brodziak said.  "I don’t think of it so much as a contract year.  Coming into camp I just wanted to have a big year because last year wasn’t a great year for me and I didn’t play as well as I could have or should have."

The most obvious improvement in Brodziak’s abilities from last year is in his skating.  Not unlike Jarret Stoll before him, Brodziak has never been regarded as a good skater but no longer does he stand out for being slow.  If he can continue to improve at the pace he has this year, who knows where he could end up on the Oilers’ depth chart.      

14. (13) Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, G – 22
Grade: 6.5C (6.5C) Projection: NHL goalie

No one needed a bigger rebound year than Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers and the impending restricted free agent definitely resurrected his good standing within the Oiler organization with his strong play all season long.

After appearing in just 13 AHL games last year, JDD has played 32 times in 2006-07 posting a respectable 2.60 goals against average and .905 save percentage, tops of all four goalies that have dressed for the Penguins this year. 

Richards described how the Oiler prospect has fared in Wilkes-Barre this season.

"He’s been very good.  He’s had his ups and downs just like everybody else, but his good moments have definitely outweighed his bad ones," said Richards.  "What I like about him is that when he’s on his game he really challenges the shooter.  He’s a big guy and he’s able to catch pucks with his glove or he absorbs shots with his chest.  There are very few second opportunities."

Drouin-Deslauriers was handed a four-game suspension earlier this year for a flagrant bumping of an official after what he deemed a blown call.  What some would call competitiveness others might describe as being a hot head, but the Oilers feel that mentally, this is the best they’ve seen JDD in a couple years.  In the past they felt that the goalie was his own worst enemy, psyching himself out by putting too much pressure on himself.  Now that JDD is simply getting opportunities and making the most of them, he appears back on track towards the NHL.

15. (10) Colin McDonald, RW – 22
Grade: 7D (7C) Projection: 2nd-3rd line forward

"With some college players that don’t have great numbers, you can just tell that they’re going to be better pros."

That was one scout’s take a few seasons back on eventual bust Eddie Caron, but while that example didn’t pan out, the theory does hold water.  For some players, usually power forwards, the pro game lets them excel in some of their strong areas that the closely-officiated college game does not.  Can Colin McDonald be one of those guys?

"The times I saw him play this year, he was making plays and doing all the things he’s supposed to do but the other guys were either not skilled enough or just didn’t know what to do and they couldn’t finish," said one Oiler scout.  "It’s almost like he was spinning his wheels there this year."

At the beginning of the year people were saying that 2006-07 was going to be McDonald’s breakout season.  As a senior, most expected him to be the Friars’ goal scoring leader and that he could carry the offensive workload for the rest of the team. 

McDonald did lead his team in goal scoring with a paltry 13 goals, surprisingly a career high, but that number says something about the sad offensive abilities of the Friars more than this single player. 

"It was definitely a tough one but it really wasn’t that much different than my previous three years; although we had a better year [in 2005-06], we were still eliminated in the first round," McDonald told Hockey’s Future. "Losing as many games as we did this past year and throughout my four years here, it really made me realize just how hard it is to be part of a winning team and how much I want to be a part of a winning team in the years to come.  Although my time at Providence did not go as I would have hoped, I’ve improved every year and feel that my best hockey ahead of me."

Further to the point, McDonald only accumulated four assists on the season and before you think the worst, you should know that only three Providence players broke the 10-assist mark and none had more than 16.  Truly a dismal team effort but McDonald can’t escape without his fair share of the blame.

"Was I disappointed with his production?  Yes and no," said McCarthy. "I would have loved to see him score 20 goals but ‘No’ because I know how starved for offense that team was and he was the leading goal scorer for them.  He was a good soldier, tried to do everything he could do to win.  I saw him setting up guys with great passes through the slot for one-timers and the shooter would miss the net."

Even with his college career behind him, it doesn’t look like McDonald will get the opportunity to play pro games this year in either the AHL or the ECHL thanks again to Edmonton’s AHL situation.

"It’s probably unlikely because we don’t have our own team," Howson confirmed. 

McDonald though is eager to get his pro career underway.

"I couldn’t be happier to finally know I’ll be playing pro hockey next year," the 22-year-old said.  "I mean no disrespect to Providence when I say this, but it has almost been a relief for me to know that I am moving on to the next level and that I can put my time at Providence behind me and continue to concentrate on getting better.  I thought I had a good [prospect] camp last summer and am ready to be a part of that environment again."

16. (20) Dragan Umicevic, LW – 22
Grade: 7D (7D) Projection: Potential 2nd line scorer

Serbian Dragan Umicevic picked the right time to churn out a career year in the SEL.  Not only will the Oilers have their own AHL farm team and therefore more spots for their prospects in North America, but Umicevic also happens to be staring free agency in the face as Edmonton will have to get a signature on a deal this summer to keep his rights.

Umicevic’s 28 points in 51 games is the highest of his SEL career although he did play in eight more games than last year and four more than in any previous season.  Most notably is the increase in goal scoring; 13 this year up from back-to-back six-goal campaigns previously.

"Well he was on a much better team this year too," Prendergast said in regards to Djurgarden compared to Sodertalje last year who missed the postseason and were relegated as a result. 

"That and he lost almost 20 lbs during the summer so he was in much better shape for this season," the head scout added.   

17. (5) Alexei Mikhnov, LW – 23
Grade: 7D (7C) Projection: Top 2 line winger or bust

Another player who has taken a tumble on the ranking this spring is the 6’5 Ukrainian who couldn’t work his way into the NHL line-up and eventually retreated back to the RSL.  Last fall Oiler fans were told that Mikhnov might be able to fill the void on the top two lines created by the departed Sergei Samsonov, but the 23-year-old never really got the chance in NHL games to how if he could or not.

This year Mikhnov’s NHL career lasted a whopping 15 shifts and 13:43 in ice time and yet the organization isn’t second guessing the way they used their 2000 first-round draft pick.

"There’s not much we could have done differently," began Kevin Lowe. "We still feel like he could play in the NHL at some point, but sometimes when you come from that European background for so long the game is quite a bit different.  Alexei was used to the big ice surface where he could use his big body and long reach to sort of control the puck but in the NHL’s tight confined places, he was able to protect the puck a little bit in training camp but at the NHL ready level he wasn’t quite capable."

Mikhnov spent a lot of time in Wilkes-Barre and the coach said he was adapting to a more North American style but he was still not good enough for the Oilers.  According to Lowe, the decision to transfer him back to Yaroslavl was made by the player.

"We left it up to him," Lowe said. "We wanted to see where he would develop best and his game wasn’t coming the way he’d liked in Wilkes-Barre and we thought if we can sort of allow this guy to go over then he’ll be pleased with our decision to let him [go back]."

The Oilers still have some hope that Mikhnov will return next fall to give the NHL another shot and with the addition of Grebeshkov, that idea might seem a little more palatable to the player.

"He said to me on the day that he was leaving ‘Yes, I’d definitely like to come back next year if you guys would consider that’ so we’ll have Frank Musil continue to watch him over there and maybe he’ll take what he learned here and apply it there and the transition will be that much easier for him next season."

Mikhnov has picked up seven points in 11 games back in the RSL since returning to Yaroslavl.

18. (15) Bryan Young, D – 20

Grade: 6B (6B) Projection: 4th-6th defenseman

Bryan Young is the stealth bomber of the Oilers organization — completely off the radar but a player who could make a major impact if given the opportunity.  Young never posts points, has ridiculously low penalty minutes as a pro and yet is one of the most physical players in the entire organization.

"That’s a sign of a guy who is thinking about his positioning pretty well," MacTavish complimented.
 
Young began the season in Milwaukee having been loaned to Nashville’s farm team where he would play in just 22 games between the start of the regular season and Jan. 4.  The Oilers sent the former Peterborough blueliner down to Stockton to get more playing time before NHL injuries created a vacuum through Wilkes-Barre that sucked Young back to the AHL and eventually to Edmonton.  As you can imagine, sometime during that flight to Anaheim even Young wondered if he was getting in over his head.

"I’m not going to lie, I was thinking that," Young admitted. "Once you get out there with the guys you start to feel more confidence and you realize that maybe you can play.  I realize there are a lot of guys that are ahead of me on the depth chart that are out right now, but I’m just trying to contribute in any way." 

Although you’d assume that he is outmatched playing in the NHL under these emergency situations, Young is doing his best and showing MacTavish what he can do.  Against San Jose he was credited with delivering five hits, a third of the entire team’s total that game.  With Edmonton being down to just five healthy blueliners, Young is even getting more ice time in the NHL than he was in the minors. 

"He’s played alright for a guy who has virtually no professional experience," MacTavish said.  "He’s improving, he’s got the physical skills to play and he’s surprised a lot of people because he’s done so well."

19. (NR) Cody Wild, D – 19
Grade: 6.5C (6.5C) Projection: 4th-6th defenseman

What’s more impressive; the fact that Cody Wild led all Providence Friars defensemen in scoring for the second straight season or that he did so while playing much of the year through the pain of a torn labrum?

Wild missed four games with the injury and ended the year with 13 points on the same unremarkable team that Colin McDonald played for.  In fact, Wild finished fourth in team scoring just three points behind McDonald so it is clear how important the blueliner is to the Friars’ offense.  A drop in eight points from his freshman year pretty much has to be excused considering the circumstances doesn’t it?

"He was playing at 80 percent or less all year," said Boston-based scout Chris McCarthy. "His game is built on being able to take the puck and lug it, skating to defend and that’s why it hurt his game because it’s all built around skating.

"There were times that he probably shouldn’t have been playing but he sucked it up and he played," added McCarthy.  "The doctors told him that it really couldn’t get any worse [by playing] so he kept playing.  He loves the game, wants to be a player and he just wants to be on the ice.  That team was so bad and he’s such an important piece for them that he didn’t want to let his teammates down so he fought through it."

It is expected that Wild will undergo surgery very early in this offseason to repair the labrum and although he might not be healed enough to partake in Edmonton’s prospect camp tentatively scheduled to begin on June 4, he will be ready to train later in the summer and back for action with the Friars in the fall.

20. (18) Fredrik Pettersson, LW – 19
Grade: 7D (7D) Projection: 3rd-4th line energy player

Off the ice you would never guess that 5’10, 185 lb Freddie Pettersson could possibly have a future in the NHL, but once you see him play you come away feeling guilty for having stereotyped him as a tiny European.  

"He’s a little buzz saw that never stops, doesn’t back down and he plays in a lot of tough situations, kills penalties, a shutdown guy and he’s a pain in the ass to play against," McCarthy complimented.  "You can never count guys out who have that type of work ethic and that type of desire.  He’s already exceeded what people have already expected of from him just in his time in Calgary."

The 19-year-old Swede is a point a game player this year in the WHL and has scored 20 goals for the second consecutive year.  February was a special month for Pettersson who had a 10-game scoring streak in which he totaled 15 points. 

Pettersson has always been known for his competitive spirit and team-first attitude and leads by example with a solid work ethic.  An inconsistent WJC back home in Sweden was a disappointment, but with two tournaments now under his belt he has gained plenty of valuable experience. 

The Hitmen will be in tough in the first round of the WHL playoffs likely headed for a series against Kootenay but should they prevail one can safely bet that Pettersson will be one of the main reasons why.  

Missing the Cut

There are a number of players who received consideration for the final three or four positions on the list and an argument could be made strongly for any of them.  There are four players currently on the NHL roster who did not make the top 20 list, a credit to the depth of the organization.

Patrick Thoresen had a terrific training camp, made the team and has been in Edmonton for most of the season.  Unfortunately it has become clear that the Norwegian has hit the proverbial wall as his production has completely fallen off the rails having contributed just four points since mid-November.

Zack Stortini will receive the opportunity with Edmonton to be a regular NHL player next year as the club obviously needs a player who can come to the defense of his teammates.  The same can be said for Mathieu Roy who has nearly spent as much time in the NHL as the AHL this year.  Danny Syvret is another player who may go on to play 15 years as a pro, but his ceiling may not earn him a regular top-six job, instead being a top minor league call-up for his career. 

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