Year after year for the past decade, the Edmonton Oilers have added top talents via the draft. Rather than building an enviable prospect pool, the team has only succeeded in constructing unbalanced rosters that finish near the bottom of the league standings. Still, the 2015 Draft gifted the Oilers one of the world’s best players, and several other young men who have learned the NHL game the hard way are coming into the primes of their careers. Will the supporting cast be enough to change the script in 2016-17? Only time will tell, but the Hockey’s Future prospect awards for 2015-16 serve to highlight some of the more encouraging signs from a mostly disappointing campaign.
From his days as an NCAA standout with Western Michigan University to playing a collective 23 games in Oilers silks, defensive prospect Jordan Oesterle has certainly worked hard to get to where he is. A slightly undersized left-shot defenseman (something that’s not high on the Oilers’ current wish list), Oesterle has relied on his keen hockey sense, great footspeed and unmatched work ethic to propel him above his defensive counterparts who may look a little better on paper, or have a stronger hockey pedigree.
In his NHL appearances thus far, he seems to have fared well, easily keeping up with the pace of the game and rarely looking like the inexperienced defenseman that he actually is. He was able to fill gaps on an already patchy blueline for the Oilers, and likely will continue to do so in 2016-17, depending on free agent signings over the summer, injuries and otherwise.
Hardest Shot: Bogdan Yakimov, C, Bakersfield Condors (AHL)
In recent years, the perennial winner of this award was Oilers forward prospect Tyler Pitlick. Unfortunately, Pitlick has also found himself to be the repeat winner of the unofficial most often injured prospect award, and tough break after tough break has effectively eliminated him from conversation when it comes to a future in Edmonton. Filling his shoes now is 6’5 Russian winger Bogdan Yakimov, who is back on North American ice after a stint in the KHL for part of the 2015-16 season.
Yakimov certainly has size on his side, and when he puts his weight behind a shot from the point, it certainly has some heat on it. Although Yakimov’s season was somewhat piecemeal between re-assignments to Russia and injuries, his confidence looks to be steadily improving – he drives to the net more regularly, and isn’t afraid to unload on the puck on a more frequent basis.
Best Defensive Prospect: Griffin Reinhart, D, Bakersfield Condors (AHL)
It seems that the jury is still out on whether or not the Edmonton Oilers emerged as the winners in their acquisition of Griffin Reinhart from the New York Islanders, but the rearguard was still able to emerge as the top blueline prospect in Bakersfield this season. Reinhart also played a handful of games at the NHL level, but was unable to maintain the quality of game required to remain up, and instead shuttled between Edmonton and California.
Reinhart is undoubtedly a top-quality prospect with good hockey sense, solid puck movement and sound positioning, but it still seems like the Oilers are waiting for him to take that next step and really emerge as a dominant force among his AHL comrades. Prospects like Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson – both of whom graduated during the course of the season – beat him out for NHL roles. A reasonably strong crop of prospects behind him combined with the Oilers’ appetite to make some free agency blueline moves this summer will certainly put the pressure on Reinhart to make an impact next season.
Fastest Skater: Anton Slepyshev, LW, Bakersfield Condors (AHL)
Anton Slepyshev has been a naturally skilled skater and puck mover since he was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2013. He has had bright spots on his development curve: most notably, making the Oilers roster out of training camp in 2015. Unfortunately, he has also had his share of scoring droughts in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors.
This cycle of ups and downs is not entirely unexpected, nor is it particularly troubling, but Slepyshev will need make use of his high-level skillset in 2016-17 and start putting together a more complete game to earn himself another look. He has shown in past that he has all the tools to be a legitimate NHL contender and boasts the necessary speed to keep up with the pace at that level. It seems likely that he will be back in Oilers silks at some point in 2016-17.
Prospect of the Year: Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers (NHL)
Although a bit painfully obvious at this point, Hockey’s Future would be remiss not to extend the Prospect of the Year award to Connor McDavid. Right out of the gate, McDavid was the elite, generational talent he was purported to be throughout the summer. Even after suffering a broken collarbone and missing almost half of the season, McDavid did not miss a beat in his post-All Star break return, where he continued to produce at a more than point-per-game pace.
At current, McDavid is a Calder Trophy finalist, and at the center of a fierce debate over the trophy criteria. The top rookie scorer, Artemi Panarin, had a brilliant campaign but is also 24 years old, with five full seasons of prior experience in a major professional league, the KHL. McDavid will await the results of the award but, more importantly, looks poised to blow the doors off of the brand new Rogers Place arena in Edmonton, come September.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Ziyat Paygin, D, HK Sochi/Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
Ziyat Paygin went from virtual unknown to the hottest name among Oilers prospect discussions in a matter of mere months. The Russian prospect was a seventh round selection in 2015, and went from a fringe pro player to playing upwards of 20 minutes per night with his KHL club, HK Sochi. He finished out the 2015-16 season with 27 points in 37 games – an impressive feat for any young professional, let alone a defenseman.
Of course, there are still many unknowns with the young Russian blueliner, who has yet to play a North American game. But at the very least, he looks to be a diamond in the rough and an absolute bargain as a late round prospect. The Oilers will likely begin 2016-17 with a much closer eye on Paygin.
Another late round prospect that has been showing exceptionally well for the Edmonton Oilers is Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Ethan Bear. Selected 124th overall in 2015, Bear has continued to quietly hone his game in the WHL, culminating with an impressive playoff performance where he logged 22 points in 18 games to cap off his 65 points in 69 regular season appearances. He’s likely in the mix for an entry-level contract in the very near future. The right shot defenseman certainly won’t be the solution to the Oilers’ defensive woes anytime soon, but he certainly will be one to watch as he continues his development towards his professional debut.
Overachiever: Jujhar Khaira, LW, Bakersfield Condors (AHL)
Jujhar Khaira has been on the upward climb since being drafted by the Oilers in 2012 out of the British Columbia Hockey League. Khaira’s hard work paid off in November 2015 as he received his first opportunity to suit up for the Oilers in an NHL contest. He played 12 games with the big club between November and January, slotting in in a bottom-six role and – while not making much of an impact on the scoring charts – having some promising outings and undoubtedly gaining valuable experience.
This was most clearly illustrated in his AHL production, post-NHL appearance. He more than doubled his points-per-game pace from under .5 to nearly a point per game. He looked quicker, more dominant, and read the play at a faster rate than he appeared to before joining the Oilers. In late February, Khaira was recalled to Edmonton again. He finished out his NHL stints in 2015-16 with two assists in 15 games, but for a mid-round pick that was largely an unknown at the time of his selection four years ago, Khaira seems to be trending in the right direction. Notably, he was taken 31 picks after his counterpart, Mitch Moroz, who has yet to suit up for the Oilers or make much of an impact at the AHL level. It remains to be seen if Khaira can take the next step and become a consistent producer at the NHL level, but he seems to be playing shoulders above his AHL peers right now.
There’s a common theme among goaltending prospects when it comes to their development curves: they are extremely unpredictable. Oilers goaltending prospect Keven Bouchard is no exception to that. The QMJHL netminder has struggled to earn a solid starting role in his junior career thus far, plagued by inconsistencies and frankly, being outperformed by younger prospects at times.
After being traded in the offseason to the Baie-Comeau Drakkar who are in the midst of a rebuild, Bouchard landed with the Moncton Wildcats where he put up rather pedestrian numbers of 0.833 save percentage and a 3.35 goals-against average. Bouchard was able to turn things around to some degree in his playoff run with the Wildcats, bumping his save percentage up to a .904. While Bouchard was certainly a project at the time he was drafted, he has not shown signs of being the answer to the Oilers’ goaltending question – not by a long shot.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Mitchell Moroz, RW, Bakersfield Condors (AHL)
Drafted 32nd overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, Mitchell Moroz has had the spotlight on him since day one. It’s been mentioned time and time again that his selection was a bit of a reach for the Oilers, and now names like Shayne Gostisbehere and Colton Parayko are making waves in the NHL, despite being drafted many positions below Moroz. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and there’s no reason to declare Moroz a bust, just yet. He is certainly a niche player, fitting in well in a bottom-six, enforcer role for the majority of his professional career thus far. He showed during his time with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL that he does have an intriguing offensive upside, but seems to need the support of some high-caliber talent around him in order to maximize his offensive production, which is an argument that could be made for many players that produce at a mediocre or below-average level.
Moroz will need to find an extra edge that sets him apart from the slough of players similar to him, and it might need to extend beyond his fists. He plays a similar game to many who tended to be late bloomers in their NHL careers, and at 22, still has some time to come into his own and give the Oilers the reward they were hoping for when they selected him. As he enters his third professional season and the final year on his entry level contract, the spotlight will undoubtedly be back on Moroz once again.
Prospect of the Month
As mentioned above, it was a breakout season for Ethan Bear. That also meant a strong playoffs for his Seattle Thunderbirds, who swept a strong Kelowna Rockets squad in the Western finals, before falling to the powerhouse Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL Championship. Bear finished second to Mathew Barzal in points, and was first on the Thunderbirds in post-season goals. While a fourth season in the junior ranks might seem a bit redundant, Bear is still just 18 until June and has some fine-tuning to do with regard to his overall game.