Oilers: Top 20 prospects reranked

By Guy Flaming

Teaser: Top 20 Oiler Prospect list gets revised with input from some of Edmonton’s scouting staff

Now that training camp is over and several junior, European and college leagues have begun their seasons, a fresh updating of the rankings is complete. Conversations with coaches, scouts and the GM have provided input into the new rankings, specifically VP of Hockey Operations Kevin Prendergast, 11-year scout Chris McCarthy. Previous comments made by GM Kevin Lowe, Assistant GM Scott Howson and Head Coach Craig MacTavish were considered as well.

While stressing that this final list is not a replica of any one of their charts, it must also be stated that the rankings were, as one should expect, heavily influenced by what these professionals had to say about their players.

Current Rank – (previous rank) – Name – Position – Age – Current Team

  1. (2) Jeff Deslauriers G – 19 – Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL): Edmonton’s goalie of the future just completed his third camp with the team, including the week-long prospect camp in June, and has gotten consecutively better each time. With one eye on the World Junior Championships (especially if Marc-Andre Fleury is still in Pittsburgh) Deslauriers is once again backstopping a poor Chicoutimi team and will see plenty of rubber this year. The most generous projections have Deslauriers still two years away from possible NHL duty.
  2. (1) Jani Rita LW – 22 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Some touted Rita as a potential candidate for Rookie of the Year in 2002-03. However, after three training camps in Edmonton, Rita has failed to crack the lineup again and as a result his status may have begun to turn slightly from ‘prospect’ to ‘suspect’.
  3. “I still think he’s a really good prospect, I just think he needs to do a little more and bring a little more to the table,” described scout Chris McCarthy.

    “At the end of the day, he didn’t out-play the guys that he had to in order to stay here,” explained Craig MacTavish. “There are a few things that he does better than a lot of the people in this room but there are a few areas where he’s got to improve and then he’ll be here.”

    This will be a very important season for Rita. He has yet to dominate at the AHL level and in fact struggled significantly at times last year. Once he gets to the point where he has shown the AHL holds little benefit for him, then Rita will be ready for a promotion. Until then, the label of ‘first round draft choice’ hangs around his neck like an albatross.

  4. (4) Jarret Stoll C – 21 – Edmonton Oilers (NHL): Stoll had a strong enough training camp to make the big squad but now the question is with how much action he will see this season. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Saskatchewan native will have a long lasting NHL career based on his versatility, his strong defensive play and his leadership skills. Tagged as the player to replace Todd Marchant in Edmonton, Stoll is well on his way to moving beyond the prospect label and to genuine NHL regular. Projected by most to be a third or fourth line pivot that is a penalty killer with an underrated offensive ability.
  5. (3) Raffi Torres LW – 22 – Edmonton Oilers (NHL): Torres is an extremely solid and aggressive power forward that the Oilers have coveted since his draft year. Torres fore-checks exceptionally well and delivers punishing hits in the process. Edmonton acquired Torres because of his style of play citing that it was something lacking in the arsenal of the organization in general. Not only can Torres hammer opponents silly but he can also handle the puck well and has an ability to score too. A very impressive training camp has elevated Torres into a starting position with Edmonton early in this season. Projected to be no less than a dangerous energy line player with potential to see shifts on the team’s top two lines down the road.
  6. (5) Jesse Niinimaki C – 20 – Ilves Tampere (Finland): The gifted Finnish junior star is one of the Oilers’ best candidates to fill the one glaring need they have had for the past several seasons: A center with talent and size to match it. However, for Niinimaki to fit the bill, he’ll first have to bulk up a bit.
  7. “What we like about him is that he’s a big kid,” explained Kevin Prendergast. “He’s 6’3″ and we hope he’ll be about 200 lbs when he’s ready to come over here and play.”

    Niinimaki is an exciting player to watch. He reads the play very well, his skating is so strong that it deceptively appears effortless at times and his puckhandling is world class.

    Edmonton is hoping that Niinimaki continues to develop at his current rate, which may lead to an accelerated timetable to bring the Finn to North America. Niinimaki is projected to be a potential NHL player in as early as the 2005-06 season.

    It should be noted that during the course of compiling this ranking, Niinimaki suffered a possible season ending shoulder injury. The severity of the injury is still undergoing team diagnosis and was not announced at the time of writing.

    “We’ll just have to wait and see how he heals,” Chris McCarthy commented.  “But for now, he’s still a top prospect.”

  8. (6) Marc-Antoine Pouliot C – 18 – Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL): The newest first round draft pick from this past June, Pouliot could become the best Quebec-born Oiler forward ever. There’s not that much of a list before him (Damphousse, Gelinas and Laraque) but Pouliot’s playmaking and puck handling skills might be better than any current Oiler center. His skating is very good, not great but good, and Pouliot will be able to play more physical than he’s shown so far once he grows into his body. That growth will take place in Rimouski in the midst of the team’s rebuilding phase that has included drafting Sidney Crosby to its roster. Projected to be a top two line center, Pouliot is still two or three seasons away from beginning his NHL career.
  9. (7) Alexei Mikhnov LW – 21 – Sibir Novosibirsk (Russia): The mystery player who seemingly dropped off the face of the earth has been rediscovered. Playing in Siberia, Mikhnov appears to have turned the corner on what began as a lackluster post-draft career. Another first round selection the Oilers have in their stable, Mikhnov has matured in body and at last report, is tipping the scales at 6’5″ and 218 lbs. It’s forward size like that which has Oiler scouts very eager to see Mikhnov in North America, a possibility that might not be too far away.
  10. “This kid has come a long way in the past two years and if he continues to go that way then maybe next year, if there’s no lockout, then we’ll try and do something and bring Alexei over to North America,” revealed Prendergast.

    Mikhnov would have made his Edmonton debut back in June at the top prospects camp but his club team refused to take him back if he left them for the week in the summer. That was not going to be the best thing for his development so the Oilers and Mikhnov decided it be best for the big Russian to hold off and play the year out for Novosibirsk. Thus far, Mikhnov has begun the season very strong and Edmonton will have scout Frank Musil watching him often this winter.

  11. (9) Tony Salmelainen LW/RW – 22 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Quite possibly the fastest single player during camp on the NHL’s fastest team, Salmelainen nearly made the squad this year. The diminutive winger began September hampered by a groin injury but steadily improved as the weeks went on. Camp was almost a mini example of the Finn’s previous season in Hamilton. Salmelainen struggled early in the AHL last year but came on strong in the second half and was instrumental in the post season run to the Calder Cup Finals. Salmelainen needs to prove that he’s too good for the AHL before he gets a permanent promotion to the NHL but he could very well be an injury call up for the big team later this year.
  12. “(Salmelainen’s) close and we think he’s going to be here this year at some point,” suggested MacTavish. “He’s a dynamic, offensive player but we want him to play and it’s as simple as that.”

    It’s difficult to project where Salmelainen fits into a team that has been on a mission to improve the size of its forward lines for some time now. If he continues to develop his offensive game, Salmelainen could be a second line player. However, if Salmelainen uses his speed and his surprising physical game to its highest effectiveness, he might look better as a third line checker or and fourth line energy player. A good year with the Toronto Roadrunners will help clear up that picture.

  13. (12) Marc-Andre Bergeron D – 23 – Edmonton Oilers (NHL): Edmonton’s biggest need improvement from last season is its power play, preferably by finding a defenseman who could quarterback it. They found their man from within the organization in undrafted Marc-Andre Bergeron. A brief NHL stint last year was a teaser for fans and management alike. Could Bergeron play as well as he did in those six games over the course of a full NHL schedule? Obviously the Oilers plan on finding out. What Bergeron lacks in physical height he makes up for with his quick decision making, excellent passing and aggressive body checking.
  14. “The play very seldom dies with him, which, in my mind, is a real mark of a great player,” said MacTavish during training camp.

    The coach went on to compare Bergeron to New Jersey’s Brian Rafalski and pointed out that there are impact blueliners already in the league who do not reach the 6-foot bar. There is no sign that reads, “players must be taller than this to play” in the NHL and clearly the Oilers feel that Bergeron brings enough to the table to overcome any shortfalls his height may present.

    Projected to be a fifth or sixth defender who specializes on the power play, Bergeron fills the need the Oilers have after moving Janne Niinimaa last year.

  15. (8) Doug Lynch D – 20 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Self-described as a clone of Jason Smith, Doug Lynch thrives on the physical aspect of his defensive position. Now the veteran of three Oiler training camps, Lynch finally moves from junior to the professional level and will be an intricate part of the Toronto Roadrunners this year. What Lynch lacks in foot speed and agility he tries to make up for with excellent positioning normally with success. Projected to have top four potential, Lynch could be an NHL player as early as next year should he make a quick adjustment to professional hockey in the AHL this season.
  16. (14) Matt Greene D – 20 – University of North Dakota (NCAA): Playing for a school that doesn’t receive a lot of notoriety, Matt Greene may have slipped the minds of a lot of Edmonton fans but he certainly hasn’t eluded the Oiler scouting staff. The 6’3″ 225 lb. Monster plays an exceptional defensive-minded game choosing to concentrate on crushing opposing forwards rather than putting points up on the board.
  17. “He reminds me a little bit of Mark Tinordi in the way that, if you go down his side, you never know what you’re going to get,” described Chris McCarthy. “He could absolutely take your head off, put you in the boards to rub you out or he could just go psycho on you and really hurt you. In front, you don’t battle with him because he’s so big and so strong and he has a tremendous mean streak.”

    Those descriptions also sound a lot like current Oiler captain Jason Smith don’t they?

    “He’s got a lot of Jason Smith in him,” agreed McCarthy. “Gator will get his face cut off to make a play or stand up for a teammate and Greene is really similar to that.”

    Picked by the U.S. Team almost as an after thought, Greene went on to the World Junior Championships of 2000-01 and was one of that team’s best players, especially dominating against the European teams. Projected to be a top four or five defenseman who’ll likely be paired with an offensive minded blueliner, like Bergeron, Greene is poised to make an impact — literally, in the NHL in a couple of years.

  18. (11) Colin McDonald RW – 18 – Providence (NCAA): Edmonton used their second pick, 51st overall, to grab McDonald. The New England (EJHL) leading scorer and MVP compares himself to one time Oiler Bill Guerin but a case could also be made to make parallels to a current Oiler too.
  19. “When Guerin’s hot he just scores goals,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if Colin has that natural knack but I think he might end up scoring more than Isbister when it’s all said and done. He’s everything we look at for an Oiler.”

    Indeed he’s the kind of player that any team would love to have in their talent pool. He big and strong, he skates well, he has talented hands that give him his scoring ability and he likes to play extremely physical too.

    “He’s built in the mode of a power forward in that he likes to bang and crash and win battles for the puck and then take it to the net and he uses his hands to score,” continued McCarthy. “He’s the type of guy you love to have on your team because whatever you ask him to do, he’ll do.”

    While he’s just become a freshman at Providence College, both player and NHL team believe it’s possible that McDonald will turn pro after his second season with the Friars. Ahead for McDonald this year is the possibility of playing in the World Junior Championships as a checker, a penalty killer or a role player power forward. Don’t be surprised if McDonald finishes the tournament higher on the depth chart. He’ll be a top two line player in Providence in his first year and will be counted on for his offense. McDonald is projected to be a scoring power forward at the NHL level.

  20. (13) Bobby Allen D – 25 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): There always seems to be a victim of circumstance every year at Oilers camp. Bobby Allen won that award this year as he missed most of the exhibition schedule due to a slight concussion he suffered in a game against the Calgary Flames. Allen is a very non-descript kind of player because not one part of his game stands out; he simply gets the job done.
  21. When asked to describe Allen, Kevin Prendergast offered one word: “steadiness.”

    Allen is another player who could be plucked from the AHL this season should the need arise in Edmonton for fresh healthy bodies.

    “Bobby can give us those minutes if we run into injuries,” Prendergast confirmed. “We need guys like that who can come up here and be reliable and we think that he can be that type of player.”

    Allen is projected to be a reliable defensive minded fifth to seventh blueliner at best. With the Roadrunners this year, Allen will play a significant role on either the first or second pairing and gain valuable experience.

  22. (10) Brad Winchester LW/C – 20 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Known to his teammates as either “Winnie” or “Chester”, Brad Winchester made his debut at Oiler camp this year. Winchester was in Edmonton in both June and also the main session in September. The Oilers experimented with Winchester at the center position but didn’t think it suited him that well. Overall, it wasn’t a great camp for Winchester.
  23. “I think Brad’s camp was a little disappointing,” Prendergast confessed. “I think he got caught up in everything by trying to do too much rather than just being that big checking type of center that we’re looking for.”

    That said, no one expected him to make the NHL team his first time out and now Winchester has a chance to improve in Toronto. Winchester is coming off a troubling season in Wisconsin where he was the top player on a really bad team. As a freshman and a sophomore, Winchester had the luxury of playing on a line with Dany Heatley. With Heatley gone, all the weight of the team fell to Winchester and he struggled under the load.

    “You can see the skill there and the talent, it’s just a matter of him figuring it out,” said McCarthy. “He’s just got to get some games under his belt at the AHL level and figure out what it takes to be a pro. Once he gets that confidence in his head, he’ll be fine.”

    Winchester is a better player on the wing at the moment, but down the road it wouldn’t be surprising to see a switch to the middle.

    “I’d personally like to see him play wing, learn how to play as a pro and then slowly move him to center and put more responsibility on him as his confidence grows,” McCarthy added. “He could be the big pivot that we really need. We need a guy who’s 6’5″ and can skate, can dish the puck, can play physical and take a beating in front.”

    “When this kid was on the US Under-18 team he went over to the Czech Republic for one of those tournaments and he was absolutely the best player on the ice,” recalled McCarthy. “He dominated against the Europeans and there were some big name guys who are now in the NHL.”

  24. (NR) Kyle Brodziak C – 19 – Moose Jaw Warriors (WHL): When asked to name a player in the organization who is maybe the biggest sleeper in the bunch, Kevin Prendergast immediately pointed out Kyle Brodziak.
  25. Brodziak decided to not opt into the draft in his first year of eligibility after having a completely average year in Moose Jaw. However, Brodziak followed up that season by scoring 32 goals in 2002-03. Initially a find of Oiler scout Lorne Davis, the entire staff feels very fortunate to have snagged Brodziak with a late round draft pick this past June in Nashville.

    “I think we stole this kid late,” declared McCarthy. “Here’s a guy who’s got some size, he can skate very well, he’s got hands and he just scores. Considering where we got him (seventh round) if he turns out to play, it makes the staff look like geniuses!”

    And there is a very good chance that Brodziak will play in the NHL one day. He’s the type of scoring player who seems to work more on instinct and less on having to think with the puck.

    “You can’t overlook guys who just put the puck in the net and just have a natural instinct to score,” the Boston based scout continued. “Instead of getting the puck and then having to think about what to do with it, it’s like he just knows.”

  26. (16) Mishail Joukov C – 18 – HV 71 (Sweden): Joukov has all the ingredients to play in the NHL. He is a great skater, he’s defensively responsible in his own end, good at faceoffs, capable in the corners and can play both centre or on the wing. The talented forward is considered an excellent top prospect currently playing in Sweden. The Russian-born Joukov is likely two to three years away from North America.
  27. (NR) Dwight Helminen C – 22 – University of Michigan (NCAA): Edmonton has had more than its fair share of vertically challenged forwards and has had success with them. Todd Marchant, Mike Comrie, Mike York, Tony Salmelainen are now joined by Dwight Helminen from the Michigan Wolverines.
  28. “He is small but he’s fast and he doesn’t get hit a lot,” reasoned McCarthy. “He has really good offensive skills, he’s very smart and sees the ice well, he has incredible hockey sense, and he doesn’t put himself in bad positions. There’s always room in the league for guys who can skate and can think.”

    “It’s just my opinion but, I think he’s got a chance of being one of the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker award this year,” McCarthy raved.

    Kevin Prendergast agrees that Helminen deserves a spot in the top 20. “He definitely should be in there.”

  29. (NR) Fredrik Johansson C – 19 – Frölunda (Sweden): Scouts are hoping that Johansson is a bit of a late bloomer, not because he hasn’t yet got sufficient skills, but rather because he hasn’t fully grown into his own body yet. At 6’0″ and still under 185 lbs, Johansson needs to fill out more to be able to play in the NHL. On the other hand, the playing ability appears to be right on track.
  30. “In Lake Placid (summer junior tournament) I thought he was the best Swede,” said McCarthy. “His skating got a whole lot better, his legs have gotten stronger, he was using his speed to his advantage as far as taking D-men wide on the big ice and he scored some nice goals. He was a real pleasant surprise.”

  31. (NR) Mikael Svensk D – 20 – Frölunda (Sweden): This was a player Prendergast insisted should be included on the list. By all accounts, Svensk could be brought over to North America as early as next season provided this year goes according to plan in Sweden.
  32. “Our coaches and our entire staff were really impressed with him at the camp in Edmonton after the draft and he’s expressed a strong interest to coming over and playing in North America,” Prendergast confirmed. “He’s one of the kids we’ll have (scout) Kent Nilsson keep a close eye on this year with the possibility that next year we’ll do something with him and if not then the next year probably for sure.

    Svensk moves the puck very well and he’s very physical, more so than typical of most Swedish players.

  33. (NR) Ed Caron LW – 21 – New Hampshire (NCAA): Can a player who has missed slightly more than a year of hockey rebound from the absence and get back on track to the NHL? Second round selection Eddie Caron just might be able to do just that. After transferring between Yale and New Hampshire and being declared ineligible to play last year, Caron is back with UNH for this season.

“He’s on the first or second line at UNH, he’s their biggest guy and he’ll be counted on a lot there as a power forward,” explained McCarthy. “He’s going to get a lot of ice time and power play time and I think he’s poised to have a really big year. People are going to be surprised.”

At one point Caron, who is naturally a big guy to start with, was actually too muscular to play at an acceptable level. He’s toned down some which has enabled Caron to have more agility and quickness.

“He used to be very muscular, almost muscle bound and very robotic, there was no agility to him at all and he’s really changed that,” McCarthy recalled. “I saw him play last weekend and he was very impressive. His skating and his foot speed has improved, he actually looks limber.”

His size makes him a force to be reckoned with along the boards and Caron is able to drive to the net with little difficulty. The time off will obviously have some kind of an effect but Caron still has two more years of eligibility, which he will more than likely use before turning pro.

Just Missed The Cut:

(15) Jean-Francois Jacques LW – 18 – Baie-Comeau (QMJHL): The power forward from Terrebonne, PQ made a good impression at the June mini-camp but often appeared overwhelmed at the main session in September. Time is on the 18-year-old’s side and a return to the top 20 is inevitable.

(19) Peter Sarno C – 24 – Toronto Roadrunners (AHL): Sarno just fell short of his goal of making the NHL out of camp. It was the best camp of his career thus far and he could very well see spot duty in Edmonton this year as an injury call up.

(18) Kenny Smith D – 22 – Harvard (NCAA): Smith has transformed his game to a more defensive style from when he was a freshman at Harvard.

“I think he figured out that he has to be more responsible defensively and that he’s not as skilled as he was as a 17 or 18-year-old at this level to play offensively,” explained McCarthy. “He’s a guy who might surprise some people because fans often forget about guys we drafted four or five years ago and he could come up and make our team in the next two or three years.”

(NR) Ivan Koltsov D – 19 – Severstal (Russia): Kevin Prendergast believes that Koltsov could play in North America as soon as next year but for now, the big mobile defenseman plays in Russia.

“I saw Koltsov when he came over with a Russian team and played in a tournament in Boston a couple years ago.” McCarthy said. “There was something about him that made me keep watching him, it was like every time he was on the ice you had to notice him.”

(NR) Brock Radunske LW – 20 – Michigan State (NCAA): Radunske is going to be counted on to produce for the Spartans of Michigan State this year. The 6’4″ 196 lb winger was in Edmonton for June’s mini-camp and left a positive impression on the organization.

“When we drafted him he was a big gangly kid who was a raw prospect with hands,” McCarthy chuckled in remembrance. “His legs were so skinny he looked a little bit like Bambi out on the ice. This past year he started out slow but then kind of got his feet underneath him and he’s starting to turn into a power forward by using his size to his advantage and going to the net.”

Radunske’s continued growth as a player will in many ways be co-dependent on his growth in a physical sense too.

(NR) Zack Stortini C – 18 – Sudbury Wolves (OHL): The knock on Stortini is his skating but to his credit, he is fully aware of this and made great strides to improve over the summer.

“If his skating keeps improving as much as it did over the summer, he could be a fourth liner with his eight minutes a game who makes sure everyone knows he’s out there by being tough.” McCarthy concluded.

“I honestly wasn’t a big fan of Zack’s initially because of his skating but every time I went back and saw him last year, he grew on me. He’s a pain in the ass to play against. He can fight, he’s heavy weight material, and he gets the odd goals here and there.”

Assistant GM Scott Howson spoke highly of another trait of Stortini’s right after the draft. “The thing that really attracted us to him was that he’s a 17-year-old, he made the draft by only three days, yet he was the Captain in Sudbury. I think that speaks volumes to his character and the type of player he is.”