Kevin Lowe and his scouting staff have built one of the most balanced prospect pools in the league over the last few years, with quality players knocking at the door from every position. While there may not be a truly, elite prospect in the system, new GM Steve Tambellini has plenty of depth at his disposal. With such a young and talented roster at the NHL level, his biggest problem may be finding the space to accommodate the graduating players.
The depth has even spilled into their minor league affiliate in Springfield, where some quality prospects are getting limited ice time, or have been demoted to Stockton of the ECHL.
Center is arguably the strongest position throughout the organization, and several of their highest profile prospects were drafted as centers, but have subsequently spent time on the wings.
Very few people, having seen Rob Schremp and Gilbert Brule in their junior years, would have guessed that neither would yet be an NHL regular. Schremp dazzled in the Top Prospects game and went on to dominate the OHL, while Brule was considered by many to be elite, and went on to lead his team in scoring in the Memorial Cup. While they have taken different paths to get where they are now (some say Schremp hasn’t been given enough of a chance, and Brule too many chances, during his time in Columbus), both have started the year well in the AHL and should be in the NHL at some point this season.
Ryan O’Marra is another player who was highly touted as a junior, and even made the Islanders as a teenager, but has taken longer than expected to make his mark. Injuries have set him back more than Schremp and Brule, and he is even having a hard time staying on the fourth line in Springfield. If he pulls it together, he could be a solid third line center with energy and face-off prowess.
Ryan Potulny is another skilled center who will play one of the top two lines in Springfield. He was a huge scorer in college, but projects as a third or fourth liner in the NHL. The other centers in their minor league system are Geoff Paukovich, Tyler Spurgeon, Ryan Huddy, and Tim Sestito. Spurgeon, a fiery checker with heart and face-off acumen, is the most likely of the group to see time in the NHL.
Hopes are high for college centers, Riley Nash and Chris Vande Velde. Nash starred for Cornell last season, winning several awards and justifying the Oilers faith in him as a first-round selection. He has the potential to be a solid, all around second line center and will be a contender for a spot on the Canadian WJC squad this winter. Vande Valde has made huge improvements since he was drafted and has caught the attention of many with his power forward game. Robby Dee is another collegian in the system, but he has not been anywhere near the offensive catalyst he was in high school, and is unlikely to be in the Oilers plans.
Milan Kytnar has been given a bigger offensive role since he was traded from Kelowna to Saskatoon, and after only 14 games is already halfway to his total from all of last year. Even with the increase in offense, he is seen as more of a defensive specialist and, unlike the stereotypical European, has been known to drop the gloves on occasion.
Mikhail Zhukov has done little since being taken in the third round of the 2003 draft, leaving Teemu Hartikainen as the only legitimate center prospect in Europe. He is a big and skilled, but needs to work on his skating.
The Oilers have some interesting options at left wing, a nice mixture of size and unfulfilled skill. The best combination of the two is Slava Trukhno. He had a slow start to his pro career last year, but his inspired play in the second half has carried over into the new season. He needs to improve his skating to really take his game to the next level. Jean-Francois Jacques has always been an intriguing combination of size and speed, but his AHL numbers haven’t translated to the NHL. He underwent surgery to repair a nagging injury and is out until at least January.
The first player drafted by the Oilers in the new millennium, Alexei Mikhnov, has yet to make an impact. He is running out of time as a prospect, and if he ever does come back to the NHL, it will most likely be with another team. One European player that the Oilers would like to see here next year is the highly skilled Linus Omark. An exciting, high-energy winger who seems to be able to score from anywhere, he is only 5’9 and could use some muscle.
Liam Reddox and Bryan Lerg are two more offensive weapons on the farm. Reddox was the surprise of last year, a nice mixture of skill and grit, while Lerg was a pure sniper in college. Other left wingers in the system are Garet Hunt, William Quist, Matt Glasser, and Philippe Cornet, who was one of the surprises of training camp and is off to an impressive start with the Rimouski Oceanic.
Right wing is the position that could use the biggest infusion of quality prospects. Jordan Eberle, the Oilers first pick in this year’s draft, is the only prospect who could be labelled an impact prospect. He is one of the best pure scorers in the organization, and was great at the World Under 18 championship. Eberle will get a long look for Canada’s Junior team this year. He has a wicked wrist shot and impressive stickhandling skills, but his smallish stature and a lack of breakaway speed are his biggest flaws.
Another skilled right winger is Alexander Bumagin of Russia. The speedy winger is off to a better start this year (10 points in 17 KHL games), after a couple of lackluster seasons. He has, thus far, been difficult in contract negotiations with Edmonton, but if he does decide to venture to North America, could be a dark horse in the future. Also in the system are Stephane Goulet, Colin McDonald, David Rohlfs, and free-agent college signing, Jamie Bates. They all have good size and untapped offensive skills, but are unlikely to be major contributors in the NHL.
The Oilers realize the importance of the transition game, and have done a nice job building a stable of fleet-footed, puckmoving defensemen. Jeff Petry, Taylor Chorney, Cody Wild, Josef Hrabel, and Sebastien Bisaillon can all be classified as offensive defensemen, while Theo Peckham and the rapidly improving Alex Plante are showing that they have more than just size going for them.
Lowe and his scouts were ecstatic they were able to land Jeff Petry in the second round of the 2006 draft. He has size, speed, a willingness to take the body, and is expected to have a huge year for Michigan State of the NCAA. Taylor Chorney and Cody Wild are former college stars entering their first full years as pros. They both have world class speed, but Chorney is the more well rounded and NHL ready of the two. He can play either the left or right side and has great leadership qualities, having captained both the U.S. junior squad and his college team at North Dakota.
Injuries have wreaked havoc on the organization over the last couple of seasons, and it wasn’t long into this new season before the toll began to rise. Hrabel went down with an injury in the first exhibition game, and is expected to be out until sometime in 2009. He is an intriguing prospect who plays a steady, all-around game. Bisaillon, recovered from the injury that cost him a major portion of last season, has a cannon for a shot and offensive upside.
Peckham has seen his stock increase significantly since he was drafted in 2006. He is a feared hitter who can fight and score goals – a lethal combination that won’t keep him in Springfield for long. Undoubtedly, the most pleasant surprise and biggest turnaround in the early part of the season, is the play of Plante. Injuries left last season as pretty much a write off, but he has rebounded with a great start with the Calgary Hitmen. He’s a big, defensive defenseman who can make some pretty passes and quarterback the power play with his intimidating slapshot. Other defensemen in the system are stay-at-homers Bryan Young, Jordan Bendfeld, and Johan Motin of Sweden.
With the graduation of Jeff Deslauriers to the NHL, Devan Dubnyk becomes the undisputed top goaltending prospect in the system. He has intimidating size at 6’6 and is a great team guy, but still battles inconsistency. This is an important year in his development into a big league goaltender, and the talent is there to do it. Glenn Fisher is Dubnyk’s backup in Springfield, but he is no longer under contract.
Bryan Pitton and Andrew Perugini are the other two goaltenders under contract. They were both standouts last season in the OHL and it will be interesting to see how they fare in Stockton. The Oilers haven’t used a draft pick on a goaltender in the last couple of years, a trend that will likely come to an end at the next draft.
Although they could use a top goaltending prospect and more quality depth on the wings, the Oilers are stocked with legitimate prospects throughout the various leagues. The quality of youth in the system will make it easier to offshoot the loss of any impending free agents and help keep the team competitive for years.