It was being billed as potentially the most important draft weekend in the history of the Edmonton Oilers. Depending on whom you ask, the Oilers either came away with important new pieces to their future puzzle or completely missed the mark and wasted opportunities to better the club for years to come.
Armed with three first-round picks and another very early in Round 2, the Oilers were vocal heading into the weekend about addressing urgent needs on their current NHL roster and hinted that this year’s picks were very much up for grabs. In the end, Edmonton completed a single swap involving only draft picks and it was a decision that caught many onlookers off guard.
Edmonton began the weekend with seven selections to make but thanks to the trade, they came away with the rights to six new players.
Sam Gagner, C/W
6th Overall – London Knights (OHL)
5’11, 191 lbs.
Projection: 1st line playmaking center.
Despite what appeared to be a sincere effort by General Manager Kevin Lowe to move into a top-2 draft position, history repeated itself and the Oilers failed to improve on their selection via trade. Instead, Edmonton was faced with a decision they truly did not anticipate having to make with the sixth position — deciding between Halifax winger Jakub Voracek and London center Sam Gagner.
Both players were higher on the team’s draft list than the No. 6 spot, but with the Los Angeles Kings surprising everyone with their choice, Voracek and Gagner ended up available. In the end, the Oilers opted to go with the son of a former NHL star, a Canadian, a 17-year-old who put up a pile of points in his first season in the OHL.
“We felt there was a little bit more grit there, more bite to his game than Voracek had,” said chief scout Kevin Prendergast. “From the skill standpoint they were pretty close. When we left our meeting in the afternoon, [Gagner] was the guy we targeted and he was the guy we came out with.”
Dave Gagner introduced his son to the world of pro hockey and since the age of 5, Sam has been around NHL dressing rooms and immersed in the lifestyle of a top NHL athlete for as long as he can remember. That built-in pedigree was something that helped convince the Oilers that he was the right man for their future team.
“He’s about as mature a young player as you’ll find, in his game and as an individual,” one Oiler scout told HF ahead of the draft. “He’s been around the game enough. Right from the start of the year and you see the maturity level of him on the ice in the way that he rarely makes a play that gets his team in trouble and if there’s a key draw, he takes it.”
Another factor was that in trying to determine the dressing room composition of the squad in a two or three-year period, Gagner has a history with several current Edmonton prospects. Ryan O’Marra and Andrew Cogliano were teammates at the World Junior Championships and both Rob Schremp and Danny Syvret are former Knights.
Gagner spent last season in the USHL with the Sioux City Musketeers where he recorded 46 points in 56 games. With his dad behind the bench in London as an assistant to Dale Hunter, making the move to the OHL was obviously a smooth one. Thirty-five goals, 83 assists and 118 points later, Gagner finished fifth in the entire league for the regular season although he played in the fewest games of all the top 5 scorers. The playoffs did not slow the youngster down one bit and in fact his 29 points in 16 games was third highest in the OHL behind linemate Patrick Kane and Sudbury forward Nick Foligno who appeared in 21 games.
Pros: All variables considered, Gagner was arguably the best player available at that point in the draft. His terrific playmaking abilities help increase the skill level of the organization and unlike other London developed prospects, no one has mentioned his defensive game as being overly problematic.
Cons: Very few prospects in the world are without areas of concern and Gagner is no different. His skating is not a problem but at his size and weight it would be fair to say that better could be expected. Physical maturity and Gagner’s work ethic should take care of that. The other point to keep in mind is in regards to the Knights. When their top lines play in excess of 35 minutes a game, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that London forwards have been a staple at the top of OHL scoring for the past several years. Many of those players have struggled to continue their junior production into the pro ranks and there are whispers in some circles that the Hunters’ focus on winning at the junior level comes at the expense of the long-term development of their players.
Alex Plante, D
15th Overall – Calgary Hitmen (WHL)
Projection: 2nd pairing 2-way defenceman.
The evolution of Friday’s opening round continued to surprise as two key players continued to get passed over. With both Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito still up for grabs midway through the round, the Oilers didn’t deviate from their plans heading into the weekend and chose to add to their blueline. Imposing rearguard Alex Plante of the Calgary Hitmen was higher on the draft list of several NHL teams than he appeared on those of Central Scouting, ISS or Redline but that didn’t give Edmonton reason to reconsider.
“You know, people say we didn’t draft skill, well he had 38 points in 56 games and 10 points in 12 playoff games,” countered Prendergast. “He’s a big strong kid at 6’4 and over 215 lbs, he moves the puck really well and in today’s game if you can’t go back and get the puck and move it you’re going to have a lot f problems. I sort of question the ‘fact’ that we didn’t draft skill… he’s got skill.”
The Oilers bird-dogged the Calgary Hitmen on a regular basis this year initially to focus in on Karl Alzner as well as to check up on the progress of Freddie Pettersson, their own player there. However, someone else kept drawing their attention.
“We went to see Alzner but always came away remembering [Plante],” admitted Prendergast prior to the weekend.
"I’m not sure that in the long run he’s not going to be better than Alzner,” echoed one Oiler scout, also before the draft. “He has all the upside in the world.”
The Oilers see Plante as a great passer of the puck who often skates the puck before having to move it. Although perhaps not yet as physical as you would expect someone of his size, he does throw the body around and does so without taking an excessive amount of penalties.
Plante is already a physical specimen but at 17 years old, Edmonton expects that he’ll still grow a bit more and could end up in the 6’6, 235 lbs range. Once he stops growing and fills his frame with muscle, they feel his skating will finally catch up to the rest of him.
“He doesn’t skate as well as he’s going to once he grows into his body,” said another Edmonton scout. “He’s going to be a pretty damn good skater. I just think he’s a little raw.”
How high did the Oilers have the towering blueliner on their wish list?
“His upside though… I think he’s going to go in the top 10, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t,” a source in the organization confided to HF before the draft.
For his part, Plante was all smiles after hearing his name announced by Prendergast on Friday evening.
“As soon as I heard my name called I couldn’t be any happier; it’s an unreal feeling,” Plante told the assembled media. “It’s nice to get it all over with but the best part is pulling the Oiler jersey over my head.”
Pros: In Plante, Edmonton gets a prospect who is already regarded very highly but is still just scratching the surface of his potential. Well rounded at both ends of the ice, Plante can quarterback the power play or use his powerful slap shot in the role of the triggerman.
Cons: Because he is still developing physically, Plante can be fairly described as a project. His sideways mobility and overall quickness needs work as smaller and faster offensive players at the junior level can challenge him.
Riley Nash, C
21st Overall – Salmon Arm Silverbacks (BCHL)
6’ 175 lbs.
Projection: 2nd/3rd line 2-way center
More dramatics ensued as the draft continued after both Cherepanov and Esposito were finally claimed when Edmonton packaged the No. 30 and 36 picks to move up to the No. 21 spot previously held by the Phoenix Coyotes. Oiler fans were surprised for the second time in the round when Edmonton overlooked talented Swedish scorer Mikael Backlund and instead zeroed in on a tier I rookie originally from rural Alberta.
Riley Nash was named the BCHL’s Rookie of the Year for his outstanding effort with the Sliverbacks where he totalled 38 goals and 83 points in 55 games. Nash follows in the footsteps of former Salmon Arm stars Travis Zajac (NJ) and Kris Chucko (CGY) who were both first round picks in 2004. Similarily, the Devils traded up in order to select Zajac just as Lowe and the Oilers did to secure the rights to Nash.
“I was a little surprised,” admitted Nash on The Pipeline Show after the draft. “I knew I had a really good interview with them and I knew they liked me. When they traded up I had a little inkling that it might be for me but I didn’t want to put to much pressure on myself and just let it happen and fortunately it came out for the best.”
Most rating services had Nash ranked as a mid-second rounder. However, as was the case with Plante, the Oilers believe their list resembled other NHL teams in that Nash was not going to make it out of the first round.
“If you really like a player you have to move up to get him and we’d talked to a couple teams earlier about moving back behind Phoenix [21st overall] at that point but they weren’t prepared to do it,” Prendergast recounted. “We didn’t think we were going to get him past that point as a matter of fact, Phoenix traded back thinking that they were going to get him with the No. 30 pick.”
Nash has heard that some fans were disappointed in the team’s decision involving the pick, but feels that’s just extra fire that he can use for motivation.
“I know that there’s always going to be doubters,” Nash said. “In my case being a junior A guy, not many people have heard of the junior A players from out of province. There are always going to be skeptics out there trying to critique you and put you down, but if you let that get to you they’ll get the best of you. If you just stick to what you believe you’ll be alright.”
In Nash, the Oilers get a driven character player who is considered by many as a ‘can’t miss NHL player’ albeit one that might be a third liner with second line potential. The fact that Nash is NCAA-bound should not be lost in this case because had Edmonton chosen to select another CHL player or dipped into Europe, they would have been faced with three first-round picks all needing entry-level contracts at the same time, a potentially costly scenario. But because Nash has committed to joining his brother Brandon as a member of the Big Red of Cornell, the Oilers have the luxury of delaying that possibility if they need to.
Nash’s choice of NCAA program seems a bit odd considering he has been quoted as saying he’s fully prepared to stay in school only as long as necessary. If education isn’t really the reason to head south one has to wonder why he didn’t head for a destination like North Dakota or Denver both of which are considered premier hockey development NCAA programs and options he had available. As an Ivy League school, Cornell also plays fewer games per season. The allure of playing with his brother at Cornell appears to have overridden what was arguably a better development path to the NHL, a decision some scouts mentioned when speaking with HF.
“Heck of a player, bad college choice,” said one bird dog.
Another said he wasn’t as concerned with the scholastic decision Nash made.
“I don’t think it’s a huge deal at all,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. As long as the kid gets ice time, he can play and he improves that’s all that matters to me.”
Pros: Top-notch work ethic and character in a talented package make Nash a desirable prospect for any NHL team. Having the ability to delay his progression to the professional ranks could be useful in two years time and the 18-year-old will benefit from the extra practice and workout time that a college program provides.
Cons: Was his performance in 2006-07 a fair read on his future potential considering the level he was playing at? Like Andrew Cogliano before him, Nash will have to prove in college that his tier I numbers were not a product of weaker competition but an indication that he possesses the ability to deliver at any level.
Linus Omark, LW
97th Overall – Luleå (SEL)
5’9 168 lbs.
Projection: Long shot top 6 forward.
Having moved their second-round pick earlier in the day and previously unloading their third rounder to Minnesota in the Dwayne Roloson trade, the Oilers sat out the first two rounds on Saturday until their turn in Round 4. Having just seen the Columbus Blue Jackets trade up to the No. 94 position to select Maxim Mayorov (CLB), the player they were sizing up, Edmonton was left to pull another sleeper out of their hat. They hope that Sweden’s Linus Omark can be that sleeper.
“I think if anybody knows Andrew Cogliano, Omark’s the same type of player; he’s small and quick and he’s got very good hands,” Prendergast described. “We liked his quickness and his ability to compete and to finish.”
Listed at 5’9 and 168 lbs, most would assume that the diminutive Swede would be a long shot to have a pro career in North America, but Edmonton hopes that’s not the case.
“He played in the U20 tournament and he didn’t look out of place there. And we saw him with Luleå in the SEL playing against men and he didn’t look out of place there either.”
Norwegian NHLer Patrick Thoresen’s name has been mentioned as one possible comparison for Omark, however, a Swedish source recently told HF “I recall Thoresen as a gritty and aggressive player, at least in the SEL, but Omark does not have that kind of aggressiveness.
“However, his technical skills and creativity is superior to most young Swedish players,” the source added, “but I guess there is some ‘bust potential’ because he has a tiny body and not a lot of strength, so he could have some problems against bigger opposing players.”
At the World Junior Championships held in his homeland, the winger put on a show in front of friends and family. Omark earned player of the game honors against both Canada and the United States, was second on the team in scoring and was chosen as one of the best three players on the home squad by the coaches involved in the tournament.
“He was the top Swedish forward during the WJC, quite surprisingly really, as he outshone Nicklas Bäckström for the most part,” insisted one Swedish source. “He had his way with most defensemen in the tournament and was especially successful behind the net, with slick moves and dekes.”
Omark notched 17 points with Luleå this past season, third highest total in the league among players his age. The coming season is setting up to be a big one for Omark.
“If he stays in the SEL, which I assume he will for another season at least, he should put up pretty decent numbers,” the source told HF. “[Luleå] is not as strong this year, so the youngsters should see even more ice time.”
When pressed to offer a NHL comparison player for the benefit of fans on this side of the Atlantic, the Swedish insider said “if everything pans out, he could be a 60-point second liner; a Kristian Huselius type of player.”
Pros: Skill and speed, two things the Oilers have always coveted. He has shown that he can excel under pressure situations in the WJC and that his lack of size has not prevented him from producing in the SEL.
Cons: Obviously the big concern has to be that he’s an awfully small player; could he possibly survive the much more rigorous game schedule, travel demands and physical nature of hockey in North America?
Milan Kytnar, C
127th Overall – Topolcany (Czech Republic)
6’, 183 lbs.
Projection: Skilled 2-way forward
The Oilers were able to snag an interesting player in the fifth round when they announced the name Milan Kytnar. The 6’ 183-pound center had solid numbers playing for Topolcany including 91 points and a plus-78 in 53 games played. If there is a sleeper in Edmonton’s draft class from 2007, this might be the guy.
“He’s a very smart player, does a lot of good things at both ends of the ice, he was physical and he always seemed aware of what was going on all over the ice,” Prendergast said. “Our understanding is that he’ll come over to play in the CHL so we’re looking forward to that and seeing him play over here.”
Indeed, the Kelowna Rockets who had the seventh overall pick selected Kytnar in the CHL Import Draft. The fact that he’ll be playing in the WHL will allow fans the opportunity to see the player in person when the Rockets come to town as part of the five-team preseason tournament being hosted by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the fall.
Kytnar represented his country at the U-18 World Championships in Finland and it was there that he solidified himself on Edmonton’s list.
“His role with the Slovaks at the U18, they didn’t have a very good team so the puck was in their end the whole time, he did have some points for them but they weren’t a very offensive-minded hockey club,” described the Oiler executive. “Anytime there was an important faceoff in their end or a penalty to be killed, he was the guy out there doing it for them.”
Also of note this year, Kytnar played 27 games with Topolcany’s senior club in what has been described as the second best league in the country. His 13 points at that level represent a fine showing against older and more mature competition.
Pros: Not a lot to dislike here as he appears to be productive at both ends of the ice and is regarded as one of the top U20 players in his country. The fact that he is willing to play in the CHL and has been drafted to do so should also be considered a big bonus.
Cons: His impressive stats came in a relatively weak league while playing for a strong team but although the possibility exists that those numbers are inflated or an anomaly, until next year that can be neither proven nor rejected.
William Quist, LW
157th Overall – Tingsryd (Sweden)
6’3, 185 lbs.
Admittedly, Prendergast was pretty unfamiliar with the player the Oilers drafted in the sixth round, but when his area scouts talk he is ready to listen and that was the reasoning behind William Quist’s selection.
“Kent Nilsson saw him play a few games at the end of the year and came away very impressed with him,” Prendergast confirmed. “He’s 6’3 and a 185 pounds, he’s an excellent skater. His numbers don’t show that he’s much of an offensive player, but Kenta seemed to feel that his hands were pretty good and for Linköping to sign him they must feel there’s something there too. You have to trust your guys and when they have a feel for a player at that point of the draft, looking at what we had on our list at that point, he was the best player available for us.”
Certainly history has shown that the Oilers have done very well in the later rounds when the ‘gut feeling’ picks are made proving that Prendergast’s willingness to defer to his area scouts at those stages is a sound move. Kyle Brodziak, Mathieu Roy and Jussi Markkanen are three players Prendergast’s staff has identified in the latter half of the draft who have all played for the big club.
For his part, Quist appears very happy with the way the draft played out and was quoted in the Swedish newspaper Barometern while on vacation.
“Now I want to get back home and show that I am good enough for Edmonton to sign me in the future,” Quist told the paper. “It is impossible to estimate when I will be ready for the NHL. First, things have to go well in Linköping.”
As Prendergast also stated, Quist has signed on with Linköping but had other options presented to him.
“I received a good contract from Tingsryd, but chose Linköping because I feel I will have a lot of ice time there and get better hockey training,” the forward said. “Playing junior hockey with Linköping attracts me more than playing senior hockey in Division 1 (Swedish tier III).”
Pros: Quist has the size and produced 23 points in 20 games so appears to have some talent to go with it. He doesn’t turn 18 until the end of July.
Cons: No question, Quist is a long-term project and he’ll have to fill out that frame. Provided he can progress to the point where he’s had some SEL experience by the time Edmonton needs to make a decision on him in 2009, he might be another sleeper to watch for.
Edmonton failed to improve their NHL roster at the draft as they had publicly assured they would, but it has been well documented that they were very aggressive in their efforts to do so. Considering no deals were made by any teams during the draft that included roster players, perhaps there were league-wide concerns about the quality of the draft or other aspects that made trading such an unpopular route for everyone.
Of the six players they chose, the Oilers will follow the progress of three of them in the CHL, two in Sweden and one is headed to the NCAA. Five were forwards, including three centers and two wingers, while Plante was the sole defenseman chosen; as expected, Edmonton did not add a netminder this year.
Johan Nilsson, Jeff Dahlia and Dustin Nielson contributed to this article. Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff. Comment on this story at the Oilers section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards.