Oilers 2008 draft review

By Guy Flaming

The 2008 Draft will probably be remembered for two things — the number of high quality players taken and the almost non-stop trade action that continued through the first round.  As usual, the Edmonton Oilers entered the weekend eager to be a player in the action by making some deals involving roster players and draft picks but as has been the norm lately, were unable to complete anything over the weekend.

The Oilers were definitely in the mix for Mike Cammalleri before the draft even began but were outbid by the three-team deal that resulted in the forward landing in Calgary.  There was definite interest in acquiring picks in round two and three but the club simply didn’t have the picks necessary to complete the transactions as most of the other swaps around them were based on 2008 picks.

“Kevin is always busy trying to acquire assets that will help us be a better hockey team,” confirmed head scout Stu MacGregor. “He was busy trying to maybe use picks from future seasons to acquire a pick in this year’s draft for us in those two rounds but some teams were paying a pretty high price.

“It started getting a little silly there when we started seeing teams [moving up] one pick and there was a third round pick involved for doing that,” he added. “We started thinking we could just hold on and we’d still get some pretty good players in the 4-7 rounds and I really believe that we did do that.”

The Oilers began the draft with five picks and came away with five new prospects.  The basic goals the club hoped to achieve at the event were to add a scoring forward in the first round and more size and skill the rest of the way.  If one were checking off a ‘want list’ that featured scoring, skill, size, character and toughness then it would be hard to argue that Edmonton had a successful weekend. However, with four of their five picks coming in the later rounds the bulk of the 2008 Oiler draftees have to be considered far from slam-dunk NHLers.

The Oilers have always been considered to be a classy organization so it only came natural that they paid special tribute to a recently deceased member of the organization.  Lorne Davis had been a scout with the Oilers for 30 years until losing his battle with cancer in late 2007.  Hall of Fame inductee Glen Anderson relayed some special words about Davis before announcing that the organization was dedicating their first selection of the weekend to him.  Fittingly, Edmonton’s selection with the 22nd overall pick was of a player from the Regina Pats, the city where Davis lived and the WHL team he once coached. 

Jordan Eberle, RW – Regina Pats (WHL)
Drafted: 1st round, 22nd overall
Height: 5’10 Weight: 174 lbs

There was little surprise that the Oilers claimed Eberle when their turn came up as the smallish WHL forward fit the bill for the team looking to add a scorer.  Forty-two goals in the WHL, normally described as the toughest CHL league to score goals in, is definitely a respectable total. 

“He’s a player with really good skill and hockey sense and has the ability to score goals and we’re pretty excited about that,” admitted MacGregor. “When you can get a player that is of that type of quality, that skill level and hockey sense and scoring ability that late in the first round, I think you’re doing pretty well.”

The pick wasn’t without its share of drama though as moments before the Washington Capitals traded up to the 21 spot.  Such a move means that Washington had concerns that the player they coveted was also the one the Oilers were going to select but in this case it was a deal the Capitals didn’t have to make.

“Well there was [some concern]; anytime somebody trades right in front of you, you think that they’re after the player that you’re after,” confirmed MacGregor. “There’s no doubt that Anton Gustafsson who they drafted is a very good player.  We still had Jordan Eberle ahead of him but Gustafsson would have been one of those players, had Eberle not been there, that we would have probably had some interest in.”

Eberle, a former Notre Dame Hound, had 28 goals and 55 points in his rookie WHL season as a 16-year-old and that was good enough for the fourth highest total on the Pats that year.  This past season saw 42 goals and 75 points, totals that easily had the 17-year-old as the team’s scoring leader.

A lifeling Oiler fan, one of Eberle’s best minor hockey memories is winning the annual Brick Invitational tournament played at West Edmonton Mall.  Eberle’s team won the tournament when he was a 10-year-old on the strength of his game-winning goal.  Coincidentally, both Steve Stamkos and Alex Pietrangelo were on the team that Eberle’s squad beat for top spot.   

“Most kids are happy to just be drafted period but he was genuinely happy and excited to be drafted by the Oilers,” GM Kevin Lowe said during a post-draft media scrum. “It’s kind of neat that he reminded us that [Craig] MacTavish and I handed him the trophy at the Brick tournament when he was a little guy.”

The winger was stellar for Canada at the U18 tournament in April finishing second on the team on scoring.  It is widely expected that he will also be invited to the U20 camp in Calgary in August as Canada begins to assemble its 2009 World Junior entry.

He knows that he has work ahead of him but still Eberle talks about coming to camp in the fall and doing his best to make the NHL roster.  Of course no one expects that he’ll be able to do that mere months after being drafted, but for proof that it can happen he only needed to look to his right while on the podium because Sam Gagner was in the same position last year and defied the odds.

Pros:  He’s a goal scorer and it was the primary asset the Oilers identified heading into the draft that they wanted to address.  Eberle is a sniper and after 28 and 42 goal seasons, it’s not out of line to suggest 50 goals to be a very achievable target next season.  He is well spoken, has terrific personality and character.  The fact that he is a genuine Oiler fan is a nice intangible that he has going for him as well.

Cons:  Two things — size and skating.  You can’t exactly teach a body to grow so that aspect is completely out of the hands of the player and the Oilers.  Skating however, that is something that can be worked on and improved and if Eberle can make progress in that department he will greatly increase his odds of making it as a NHL player.

Johan Motin, D – Färjestad BK Karlstad (SEL)
Drafted: 4th round, 103rd overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 202 lbs

It was a 81-position gap between Oiler picks when the fourth round came around and the team’s want list had a lot of names crossed off of it by that point.  Sources tell Hockey’s Future that the Oilers were debating on a couple of players, one of which was Kelsey Tessier of the Quebec Remparts, but settled on Swedish blueliner Johan Motin primarily because of size.  At 6’1 and 202 lbs, Motin is already physically impressive and uses his size to his advantage.
“He’s a defensive defenseman, solidly built and a really strong boy,” said MacGregor who added that Motin’s international play helped raise his stock.  “He played on the Swedish WJC team as a 18-year-old player and went with Sweden to the gold medal game as the No. 5 defenseman on that team.  He had a good finish to his season and played some games in the Elite League.  He’s developing and he’s a good solid player that we liked as a defender that could help us down the road.”

The risk of drafting Europeans in this day and age is that they may never come to this side of the Atlantic.  According to the Oilers, that’s not a concern with the Swede.

“We met with Motin at the combine in Toronto and he wants to play in North America in the NHL,” said MacGregor.

Motin was much higher in the early-season rankings than he was at the end of the year and most independent scouting agencies seem to point to a mediocre performance this year after an impressive 2006-07.

“I saw him two years ago at the U18 and at the time the scouts were projecting him to be a top 10 pick in this year’s draft,” said GM Kevin Lowe. “He’s a big boy and he’s played in the World Juniors already and to me that’s a pretty good pedigree that he’s already up at the world level.”

The Oilers see Motin as a perfect addition to their already formidable stable of blueliners which is now largely populated by offensive-minded puck movers.

“[Motin] is just a stay-at-home guy, he doesn’t handle the puck a lot but he moves it,” said Kevin Prendergast. “We like what he brings to the table because he just doesn’t get into trouble. Nowadays [you need to] have a guy that can keep the net clear and keep it simple in their end and we’ve got guys like Chorney and Wild and Peckham who can all go and get the puck and move it so [Motin] sort of blends in on the opposite side for them.”

“He was the best player on the board and we just feel that he’s one of those sure-bets that he will play,” Prendergast added.

Pros: There was an organizational need to add a defense-first rearguard and Motin’s size helps as well.  It’s worth mentioning that Motin was singled out by ISS head scout Mike Oke as being a player who was underrated heading into the draft.

Cons: Obviously when a player’s stock falls as far as his did this year there have to be reasons why.  The Oilers have to hope that Motin can continue to progress and develop and not that the plateau his performance hit this year is not actually closer to his ceiling.  

Philippe Cornet, LW – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)
Drafted: 5th round, 133rd overall
Height: 6’ Weight: 173 lbs

Average size and speed, average numbers, forgettable performance at the Top Prospects game and injury-plagued year.  There would appear to be plenty of negatives in regards to Phillipe Cornet but the Oilers made him their fifth-round selection and had no qualms about doing so.

“Highly skilled, good hands, pretty good skater, good hands around the net,” countered Kevin Prendergast.  “He’s probably got to get a little bit tougher in some areas around the ice but we were told the same thing about Hemsky when we took him too.”

Cornet played 61 of 70 regular season games for the Remparts this past season after appearing in only 46 the year before.  Injury history has to be a concern and it’s oddly reminiscent of Marc Pouliot’s junior career, which was also spent in Rimouski with the Oceanic.

“He had a lot of injuries this year and wasn’t really able to play a lot in a row,” explained MacGregor. “He broke his finger and the year before he broke his tibia and he also broke his toe.  With the toe it was one of those breaks where instead of going across the bone it went in line with the toe so every time he went back to skate it seem to [regress] and re-crack so he’d have to take a little more time off.”

2008-09 will provide Cornet with opportunities to shine as the Oceanic are slated to host the Memorial Cup so, barring trade, he already knows he’ll be playing well into May.

“At the end of the year he played on their top line and he and his linemate Patrice Cormier were two of the best players in their playoffs,” added Macgregor.  Cornet managed six points in nine postseason games.

“He’s that player who has hockey sense and a good stick so he gets to a lot of pucks around the net,” stated MacGregor. “He needs to get stronger and improve his skating a little bit but he has those skills that you need to be an elite player and I think he’ll have an opportunity if he develops physically and puts the effort in to learn to battle.”

Pros: Still only 17 so he has plenty of time to develop physically and mentally. The Oilers have several players on their roster who were also labeled as having average skating who turned it around.

Cons: Doesn’t really stand out in any aspect so has to improve a lot in many areas of the game.

Teemu Hartikainen, C – Kalpa Kuopio (Finland)
Drafted: 6th round, 163rd overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 198 lbs

Days after the draft the player that seems to be the most intriguing, outside of Eberle, is Finnish forward Teemu Hartikainen.  Already compared to a current NHL player by Oiler brass for the way he plays, expectations for the sixth-round pick are going to be inflated.

“He’s almost like a poor man’s [Tomas] Holmstrom in that he competes all over the ice, he’s a big kid that uses his size,” said Prendergast. “Playing in the Finnish Elite League as an 18-year-old is a pretty good thing to do and hopefully he’ll make the national team and play [in Ottawa] at the World Junior Championship.”

It will be tough to live up to those Holmstrom comparisons but the fact that he was listed as the 25th best European available this year by Central Scouting suggests that there is some promise with Hartikainen.  ISS had the Finn ranked 89th overall so the Oilers managed to grab him much later in the draft than some expected him to be available.

He played 37 games with KalPa’s junior team and recorded 10 goals and 17 points and showed both strengths and flaws in his game.  

“He needs to really develop his skating, he’s a bit of a plodder, but he’s a really smart guy and competes very hard in all those tough areas,” said MacGregor. “He’s the guy in the middle of the battle there in front of the net or in the corner. He can compete hard and is really strong, and makes something happen every shift with his great work ethic.” 

The hope is that Hartikainen will be in the mix to play internationally with the U20 squad next year and the Oilers say that’s the information they’ve received.

“He’s going to play in the Finnish Elite League next year as an 18-year-old and we’ve been told by the Finnish Ice Hockey Association that he’ll likely be on the WJC team,” confirmed MacGregor.

Pros: Past success with Finns aside, the Oilers like character and grit and according to them this is a guy with oodles of both.

Cons: Hartikainen might be the grittiest guy in the world but if his skating is as poor as some have suggested, he’s got a long road ahead of him.  There are plenty of checkers that can skate.

Jordan Bendfeld, D – Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Drafted: 7th round, 193rd overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 216 lbs

The Springfield Falcons had a problem with a lack of toughness last year so the Oilers are seeking ways to alleviate Theo Peckham from having to carry the workload this coming season.  One way they have addressed that is by drafting 20-year-old local product Jordan Bendfeld.

Originally selected by Phoenix in the fifth-round back in 2006, Bendfeld returned to the draft when he was unsigned by the Coyotes.  The 6’3, 216 lb blueliner had 25 points and 160 minutes in penalties while wearing the captain’s C for Medicine Hat this past season. 
“We liked Jordan in his draft year and were kind of surprised that it didn’t work out with Phoenix for him but we’ve always liked him,” MacGregor said. “He’s a hard-nosed physical guy that comes to play every night and hopefully he’ll be able to do something for us next year in Springfield and we’re very excited about that.”

Some criticize the use of a draft pick on a player who they theoretically could have singed two weeks from now but the team felt it was going to be far from easy to get him signed as a free agent.

“There was information that there were other suitors and we made the decision to get the player we want instead of trying to get into some sort of a [bidding war] situation,” confirmed MacGregor.

“We thought about going through the draft and try and make a deal with him afterwards but we looked at our list and thought rather than trying to fight with 29 other teams let’s take him,” said Prendergast. “We know him very well, he played for Bob Green in Medicine Hat so we had a good book on him and he’s probably a kid that can go in and play for us in Springfield.”

It’s hard to believe that 29 teams would have been clamoring for Benfeld’s services but it is realistic to suggest that there would have been two or three and so Edmonton decided to jump the turnstile and claimed him with a late pick. 

“We’d talked to Phoenix about possibly making a trade for his rights leading up to the draft but we couldn’t do anything so we figured we’d take our chances here,” added Lowe from Ottawa. 

Bendfeld still has a year of junior eligibility left but all signs from the organization suggest that the local product’s WHL days are more than likely behind him.  

Pros: Fills a need at the minor-league level and is ready to contribute in the AHL immediately so there is no wait to see the selection pay off. Another leadership, character pick-up as well. 

Cons: Fairly limited to a specific role and may never play in the NHL unless he exceeds expectations.

Quotes from the draft

“We got stuff to add to our depth and a little bit of toughness, a few grit players like the Finnish kid and the good thing about the picks is that they’re going to get a good chance to play at a world championship level in terms of juniors.”
– GM Kevin Lowe’s summary of the weekend.

“We got the guy we wanted in the first round and we’re really happy.  Having nothing in [round] 2 or 3 hurts a bit but we got a solid stay at home guy in Motin, another skill player in Cornet and Hartikainen is an up and down tough guy, grinder type player. We got a tough defenseman in Bendfeld so I think we got everything that we came in here trying to get outside of goaltending but we still have Deslauriers, Dubnyk, Pitton and Fisher so it wasn’t a priority for us.”
– Kevin Prendergast’s recap.

“I think the scouting staff got the player that they wanted to get.  In a perfect world if we could have left here this weekend with a [current] top 3 forward that would have been a good thing.”
– Lowe touching on the failed trade attempts.

“We think Eberle is going to be invited to the WJC team summer camp, same with Riley Nash, Hartikainen with the Finnish team and Motin for Sweden so that’s pretty good for those four players.”
– Stu MacGregor on the 2008-09 outlook for some of the recent draftees.

“We’d kind of kicked things around about what would be a nice way to honor Lorne and his contributions to the organization and to us as a scouting staff and Kevin Lowe had the great idea.  He had the idea of asking Glen Anderson who Lorne had a great impact on his career.”
– MacGregor on the genesis of the tribute to deceased scout Lorne Davis.

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