Loaded defense the strength of Edmonton Oilers prospect system

By Kady Hobbins

David Musil - Edmonton Oilers

Photo: David Musil is part of a deep and talented pool of defensive prospects for the Edmonton Oilers (courtesy of Steven Alkok/Icon SMI)

The Edmonton Oilers have a diverse group of talent in their pipeline, most notably in their pool of 13 defensive prospects. Edmonton’s 2013 first round pick Darnell Nurse has been particularly impressive in his few outings as an Oiler.

Dark horse prospects Jujhar Khaira and Brandon Davidson also made waves at training camp, giving the Oilers brass their fair share of tough choices when it came time to make cuts.

Their weakest area of development is arguably their goaltending, with no prospect being a sure bet for NHL success at this point. Considering the current state of the Oilers goaltending and both Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera reaching unrestricted free agent status is 2014-15, the Oilers may need to make some moves.

Worthy of note, the Oilers’ right wing prospect pool has taken a bit of a beating with some unexpected losses. Aside from the looming graduation of Nail Yakupov, the right wing has dwindled with the loss of Toni Rajala to Europe, Tobias Rieder’s trade to Phoenix, and the tragic death of Kristians Pelss.

Also departed from the Oilers pipeline since last update are Anton Lander (graduated), Chris VandeVelde (rights expired), Alex Plante (rights expired), Colten Teubert (rights expired), Kyle Bigos (traded to San Jose for Lee Moffie), and Samu Perhonen (rights expired).

New additions this year (excluding draft selections) are Niko Hovinen (waiver claim), Andrew Miller (free agent signing), Brad Hunt (free agent signing), and Kale Kessy (acquired in Rieder trade).

Left Wing

After a strong season as the Belleville Bulls’ leading scorer and a member of Russia’s 2013 World Junior team, Daniil Zharkov has returned to Russia to spend two years with the Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the KHL. While a move across the pond makes it more difficult to track his development, Zharkov should benefit from the high caliber of play in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Jujhar Khaira continued to turn heads at the beginning of the 2013-14 season after leaving college a year early to turn pro. He had a strong outing at this year’s Oilers training camp and was a strong contributor in the few preseason games he laced up for. He was eventually assigned to his junior team, the Everett Silvertips, where he looks poised to have a standout year.

Further down the pro ranks is Curtis Hamilton, who has yet to take the ice after undergoing knee surgery in May. Hamilton has had two disappointing professional seasons thus far and unless he turns a major corner in the final year of his entry-level contract, it appears the end of the line may be near for him. Acquired in the trade that sent Tobias Rieder to the Phoenix Coyotes, Kale Kessy has played seven games for the Oklahoma City Barons thus far. He has not been much of a difference maker at this point, with zero points on the season in a fourth-line role.

WHL power forward Mitchell Moroz has been under the microscope since being selected 32nd overall in 2012 and has undoubtedly felt tremendous pressure to have a breakout season with the Edmonton Oil Kings. So far, he seems to be delivering on that in the 2013-14 season. In 12 games, he has 11 goals and five assists, for a total of 16 points. He also leads the team in penalty minutes with nearly four minutes per game on average, as he manages to throw in a few punches on an almost-nightly basis.

NCAA prospect Kellen Jones is starting his senior year at Quinnipiac this season with his sights set on an NHL contract. Fifth round 2013 pick Evan Campbell kicked off his freshman season at UMass-Lowell after two seasons in the BCHL. Aidan Muir is a bit of an outlier, having never played above the Midget AAA level, but he has committed to the Western Michigan University Broncos. However, he will spend a year with the Indiana Ice in the USHL this season, where he has logged three points in seven games thus far.

New addition Anton Slepyshev will be making his return to the KHL this year to finish out his professional contract in Russia. Also headed to the Kontinental Hockey League is Teemu Hartikainen, who has logged 14 points in his first 18 games with his team, Salavat Yulaev.

Right Wing

Nail Yakupov continues to head the list of right wing prospects, despite his recent stint in the press box with the struggling Edmonton Oilers. As a player that is often described as having a great amount of heart and soul in his playing style, he appeared somewhat dejected in his first few outings this season, perhaps due to the large amount of effort that the team had been putting in every night but not receiving the results to match. He returned from his two-game hiatus looking much more like the explosive forward that he is.
 
Antti Tyrvainen played the last two seasons with the Oklahoma City Barons but returned to Europe to play with Jokerit of the Finland’s Liiga for the 2013-14 season.

John McCarron was named captain of his NCAA team, the Cornell Big Red. He has played two solid, but not particularly noteworthy seasons at Cornell when it comes to point production. His junior and senior years will be important for McCarron, who was taken deep in the 2012 draft.

New addition Jackson Houck is returning to the Vancouver Giants of the WHL for his second season. He will likely find a role on a higher line with the struggling Giants who finished with just 44 points in the 2012-13 season. Just barely hanging on is pro prospect Cameron Abney, who looks poised to spend another season splitting time between Oklahoma City and Bakersfield, likely in a fourth-line enforcer role.

Center

The Oilers added four new centermen to their prospect ranks prior to the 2013-14 season with the addition of free agent signing Andrew Miller as well as 2013 draft picks Marc-Olivier Roy, Bogdan Yakimov, Kyle Platzer, and Greg Chase.

Marc-Olivier Roy has an intriguing offensive upside and was ranked 54th by Central Scouting heading into the 2013 NHL Draft. After the Oilers snagged him at 56th, he was given an invite to training camp in September. He was sent back to his QMJHL team after the first cuts were made. A spot on Canada’s World Juniors team may be on his radar. Fellow 2013 draft pick Kyle Platzer also headed back to his junior team, the OHL’s London Knights, after a 2013 Memorial Cup appearance. Seventh round pick Greg Chase, well known for his ability to be a pest, will be heading back to the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL for his third junior season.

Acquired via free agent signing in April 2013, Andrew Miller is making the transition from captaining his NCAA club, the Yale Bulldogs, to a rookie spot in Oklahoma City. His strong leadership skills and strong, cerebral playing style should help him bridge the gap between the two quite seamlessly. He looked at home as he scored his first professional goal in a win over the Texas Stars.

Bogdan Yakimov will continue to play in Russia in 2013-14 in his first KHL season with the Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik. The increase in caliber of play should provide a good measuring stick for Yakimov should he look to make the jump to North America in the future.

Travis Ewanyk is entering his first professional season with the Oklahoma City Barons this year. He had a respectable outing at the Oilers training camp and was sent down after appearing in one preseason game with the Oilers against the Flames. While he does not appear to have the offensive brilliance to make the jump to the NHL right now, he will be a great addition to the Barons with his natural leadership tendencies and consistent play.

Just when Tyler Pitlick was looking like a write-off, he turned a corner in the postseason with the Oklahoma City Barons in 2012-13 after coming off an injury. He has showed no signs of slowing down since – he had a great training camp and received praise from Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins. He will head to Oklahoma City with a renewed energy and will look to get his first cup of coffee at the NHL level. Also currently playing in OKC in his third season is Ryan Martindale, who is battling with Pitlick for a job on the top line. He spent the 2012-13 season shuttling between the AHL and ECHL, so he will be looking to find a more permanent spot on the Barons roster this year.

Defense

While the Edmonton Oilers continue to lose hockey games and critics bemoan the quality of play on the team’s blue line, a glimmer of hope lies with their deep defensive prospect pool. Justin Schultz leads the pack of defensemen again as he closes in on graduation from prospect status by Hockey’s Future standards. The Edmonton Oilers have had a disappointing start to the season, currently sitting at 2-6-1. While Schultz has shown his usual streaks of brilliance, he still looks somewhat shaky in his own end from time to time. He currently has four assists on the season and sits at a minus-eight, the worst plus-minus among Oilers defensemen.

Following a stellar training camp, Darnell Nurse was sent back to his OHL team to get in one more year of development at the junior level, where he is currently producing at a point-per-game rate. After watching Nurse play during the Oilers preseason, it is clear that he has all the makings of the next franchise defenseman. If the Oilers’ record continues to plummet as it currently is, it is likely that we will see Nurse in an Oilers jersey as early as next year. Junior prospect Ben Betker has played some good minutes with the Everett Silvertips so far this year, logging one assist in nine games.

Oscar Klefbom is still shaking off the rust from the 2012-13 season in which he missed the majority of the year due to an injury and subsequent surgery. He has one assist through six games thus far. Martin Marincin was another standout at training camp this year, but the Oilers ultimately reassigned him to the Oklahoma City Barons. Like Klefbom, he has one assist in six games, but both defensemen have all the tools necessary to hammer out a strong season. Barons stalwart Taylor Fedun returned to the lineup after a strong campaign for a job with the big club. After missing the cut, he has appeared in seven games for OKC, logging two points. If he keeps his consistency level high, chances are good that he might see an Oilers call up in his near future.

David Musil is another Oilers defensive prospect currently playing in OKC coming off four strong junior seasons. The 2013-14 season will be his first pro season. His former teammate from the Edmonton Oil Kings, Martin Gernat will also make his pro debut in Oklahoma City this season. Rounding out the pro prospects is Brad Hunt, acquired via free agent signing in 2013. He was the leading scorer among defensemen with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves last season and will help bring some offense to the Barons’ blue line.

If you are looking for a feel-good story, Brandon Davidson is it. After being diagnosed with testicular cancer in November 2012 and undergoing treatment, many wondered if that would be the end of Davidson’s hockey career. Amazingly, Davidson has bounced back, seemingly with more talent than he left with. He made a splash at Oilers training camp and kept his strong work ethic after returning to Oklahoma City, which rewarded him with a call-up to the big club on October 6. While he was not able to suit up for the game, it was a great testament to how far he has managed to climb since his illness.

Dillon Simpson enters his senior year at the University of North Dakota this season, while fellow NCAA prospect Joey LaLeggia plays his junior season with the University of Denver. Simpson will be turning his sights towards an NHL contract and a pro transition while LaLeggia needs to turn it up from his respectable but less-than-noteworthy sophomore performance.

Erik Gustafsson is the only European defensive prospect in the Oilers’ system currently. The sharp-shooting rearguard will remain with Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League for two years.

Goaltending

Previously touted as a top goaltender in junior, Tyler Bunz has been on a downward spiral since making his professional debut in 2012-13 and currently finds himself with the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. While Bunz continues to fall off the radar, Oklahoma City’s Olivier Roy takes over the top spot in the Oilers goaltending prospect pool. At this point in the season, Roy only has one game under his belt, a win, as he continues to play back up to ex-NHL goaltender Richard Bachman, who will also be fighting for a job with the big club after both Dubnyk and LaBarbera become unrestricted free agents in 2014-15. Roy is not on the fast track to NHL success by any means, but he has shown the most consistency thus far in what is a relatively weak pool of goaltending prospects.

Across the pond, Oilers prospect Frans Tuohimaa is getting his first opportunity in a starting role with the Hameenlinnan Pallokerho of the Liiga, which will greatly benefit his game, especially if he decides to make the jump to North American hockey. Finnish goaltender Niko Hovinen was acquired off waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013 and will play the 2013-14 season with the Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL.