Speed Size and Grit: Oilers 2002 Draft Review

By John Christie

By: John Christie
Hockey’s Future Oilers Writer
Brampton, Ontario

Many scouts said that the 2002 draft was weak and didn’t have much depth. Oilers GM Kevin Lowe also said that the 2002 draft class lacked the same class as the 2001 draft. That being said, the Oilers went into this years draft with one thing on their mind: change.

The first change occurred on June 18 as Kevin Lowe acquired centre Jiri Dopita from the Philadelphia Flyers for a 2003 3rd round pick and a conditional 5th round pick in 2004 if Dopita resigns with Edmonton. Dopita is a big centre with loads of talent and Lowe has slated him for the 2nd line centre position. The Oilers tried many players on the 2nd line and as the season wore on, the Oilers couldn’t find the centre internally. Dopita will be playing on the 2nd line with Mike York and possibly, Ales Hemsky or Jani Rita as an opening occurred with the Jochen Hecht deal.

The Oilers primary need at the draft was goal scoring. They wanted to draft a forward who would provide offense for them. Kevin Lowe tried to trade up in the draft. He coveted one of Jay Bouwmeester, Joffrey Lupul or Scottie Upshall (all native Edmontonians). All three Edmontonians were gone in the first seven picks. The City of Edmonton would have rejoiced if the Oilers got their hands on one of the Albertans. Unfortunately, the asking price was too high and Kevin Lowe admitted he offered Atlanta what they wanted but it didn’t work out.

The Oilers and Canadiens switched draft positions as the Habs gave the Oilers an 8th round pick for switching draft positions. The Oilers picked 15 in the 2002 Entry draft. The Oilers first round selection was centre iceman Jesse Niinimaki from Finland. The reaction from the Air Canada crowd was “who”, “wow”, “risky”, “why”. I asked myself “where did this kid” come from and “did the Oilers know something that the rest of the NHL didn’t”. The Oilers have had great success drafting Finnish players but a kid rated as the 50th best European and rated 85th by the Hockey News, why would they draft him very early? Remo Halmelanian, former NHL player told Shane Malloy of Hockey’s Future that “the kid could be the best player to come out of Finland”. With stars like Jari Kurri (the best of all Finn’s), Esa Tikannen, Temmu Selanne, Saku Koivu, and this kid could be better then all of them. Remo also said the “kid is a very talented hockey player”. One NHL scout told me that another team would have drafted him late in the first round.

Jessi Niinimaki profile

  • plays with Ilves in the Finnish Elite league as a 19 year old
  • 6’2 and 185 pounds centre
  • good size and plays a gritty game
  • Describes his game as Peter Forsberg type

All the Oilers scouts saw him play and were unanimous. Oilers European scouts Frank Musil and Kent Nilson saw him play three times. He is already ahead of CHL players because he is playing against men in the tough Finnish Elite League and will play in various tournaments next year like the World Junior Championships, European Junior Championships and Finnish National team. In 1991, the Flyers took a kid named Peter Fosberg and he was rated the 6th best European. Flyers GM Russ Farwell (GM from 1990-1992) took Forsberg 6th overall in the 1991 draft and and he was supposed to be a 2nd rounder but he turned out to be a franchise player in the NHL.

Kevin Lowe and Oilers vice president of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast said that the Oilers rated Niinimaki as the top centre in the draft and were happy he was available at 15. Prendergast said he is two years away from the NHL, and will let him develop in the Finnish Elite league.

The Oilers had three 2nd round draft selections to start round two as the Oilers trade winger Jochen Hecht to Buffalo for the 31st and 36th picks. Many were surprised that the Oilers traded Hecht after one year but Kevin Lowe knew he had to trade Hecht because he didn’t want to be in Edmonton after he was dealt and was a very inconsistent player last season. Hecht was used in a lot of key situations but he didn’t get more then 40 points last year with increased playing time.

With the first pick in the 2nd round, the Oilers drafted QMJHL goalie Jeff-Droin Deslauriers. Many were surprised he lasted until the 2nd round. He was the top rated North American goalie and a sure fire first round pick. Deslauriers was scouted by Kevin Prendergast, John Stevenson (Oilers goalie scout) and possibly Pete Peeters (Oilers goalie coach).

Deslauriers Profile

  • Plays for Chicoutimi of QMJHL
  • 6’4 176 lbs. Goalie
  • Very hard worker and good character player
  • One and half years experience in junior

Kevin Lowe said that the Oilers didn’t have any young up and coming goalies. With the 31st pick, the Oilers took care of that and have an asset to build around in a few years. The Oilers expect Deslauriers to be playing junior for another two years and one season of professional hockey in the American Hockey League before joining the big club. The Oilers have Tommy Salo signed until 2004 and have two option years after the 2004 season.

Deslauriers is described as a butterfly style goalie and he is big and likes to play the same style at Patrick Roy. He needs to fill out more (most draft players need to) and needs a year of professional hockey but he has quick reflexes and covers the net well and is a very hard worker. The Oilers are very high on him and expect him to the goalie of the future for the Oilers. The Oilers are lucky that they can be very patient with him since they have Salo and Markennen and have Conklin developing in Hamilton.

With the 36th pick, the Oilers took Kootney Ice centre Jarret Stoll. The Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs badly wanted to take Stoll. Calgary was upset because he was their prospect and wanted to re-draft him but the Oilers beat their provincial rivals to Stoll. One scout told me that Toronto and Colorado were contemplating taking Stoll in the first round but the Oilers got a steal at 36 and lucky to get him.

Jarret Stoll is a gritty two-way player with excellent leadership qualities (captain of Memorial Cup Champions and captain of Team Canada at WJC). He has decent size (6’1 and 200 lbs.) that is a very responsible player defensively. He is slated to be a 3rd liner in the NHL and could be NHL ready since he was re-drafted as a 20-year-old. Stoll is excited to remain in Western Canada and excited to be playing with old Ice teammate Mike Comrie. They formed a dynamic duo together in the WHL. Kevin Prendergast said that Stoll will b heading to Hamilton this year and may make the lineup next year or middle of this season. Some have described him as another Mike Peca because of his defensive game. He needs to increase his foot speed and the Oilers will ensure his speed is up to par.

The Oilers finished the second round by drafting Green Bay defensemen Matt Greene. He is described as a tough as nails defenseman who punishes people and stands up for his teammates. He is heading to Notre Dame College this coming season and will learn a lot playing for former NHL defensive forward Dave Poulin.

The Oilers had a terrific weekend last week. They drafted players with grit, good size and character. Kevin Lowe summed it up as saying, “building more assets”. It would have been great if the Oilers could have landed one of the Albertans but they came out with more assets and are building a great team for 2004 and beyond.