Oilers 2001 draft evaluation

By Guy Flaming

“Best Player Available,” that’s what they always say. Every team apparently has the same policy when it comes to the NHL Entry Draft and that’s to always take the best player still left on the board regardless of position, nationality or favorite color. The term is used so often in fact that many in the business simply refer to it by its code name; ‘BPA’.

“We go with the BPA at least through the first three rounds,” one scout told Hockey’s Future recently. “The problem with drafting for need is that by the time the players you’re drafting are ready, your needs have completely changed.”

In 2001, the Edmonton Oilers high-sticked that theory right in the face with a draft crop that, after the third round, was all about satisfying immediate needs as opposed to planning for the future. They did so out of necessity and in hindsight few could argue that they were unsuccessful with their strategy that year as it paid immediate dividends.

The 11 picks have played 384 regular season NHL games, for an average of 35 games per pick.

Ales Hemsky, RW – 1st round, 13th overall, (Hull Olympiques, QMJHL)
Status: NHL player
NHL games played: 211
DOB: 10-13-1983 HT: 6’0 WT: 192

The first, first round draft pick of the Kevin Lowe and Kevin Prendergast era of Oiler hockey in Edmonton was an absolute homerun. After much deliberation at the draft table by Prendergast who had assumed the head scout job from Barry Fraser since the 2000 draft, the Oilers chose the spindly Czech who had lit up the QMJHL for 100 points in his rookie year.

“Finally after a lot of years of a lot of [first rounders] not fulfilling their potential, we’ve got a guy who has turned into a pretty darn good player,” said 13-year Oiler scout Chris McCarthy. “We knew that he was the guy that we wanted and when he fell to us, well, we knew who we were going to take.”

Of the 12 players drafted ahead of Hemsky that year, only first overall selection Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta has played more games in the NHL and only he and Jason Spezza, drafted second overall, have outscored him.

Hemsky is now playing amongst the top six forwards for the Oilers and he led the club in regular season scoring with 77 points including 19 goals. His vision and passing skills are unmatched on the team and despite his average size, the Czech has been known to have a physical edge to him especially if he has a burr under his saddle. If Hemsky is emotionally involved in the game – big things happen.

Doug Lynch, D – 2nd round, 43rd overall, (Red Deer Rebels, WHL)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 2
DOB: 04-04-1983 HT: 6’03 WT: 210

In the summer of 2001, Edmonton really felt that they needed to address their blue line. In the cupboard they had Alexei Semenov who the team felt was a blue-chipper as well as beefy rearguards like Alex Henry and Chris Hajt.

“At the time, Dougie was kind of a no-brainer,” said McCarthy. “He was having a good career in Red Deer, had showed good defensive skills especially on the power play and he was a guy that we looked at him as someone who would step into our line-up in a few years.”

Although he never really had the time to establish himself in the organization, the team used him as an asset in order to acquire arguably the best defensemen in the game, Chris Pronger.

After an AHL All-Star season in his pro debut with the Toronto Roadrunners, Lynch fell victim to a wrist injury that was not addressed properly over the offseason. The following year with the Edmonton Road Runners was a painful exercise on most nights and the year was largely a write off for his development. It seems that the wrist problems have continued to plague Lynch, now part of the St. Louis Blues organization.

After some time in Peoria of the AHL, Lynch was reassigned to Alaska of the ECHL where he won the Kelly Cup.

Eddie Caron, LW – 2nd round 52nd overall, (New Hampshire, NCAA)
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0
DOB: 04-30-1982 HT: 6’2 WT: 230

Eddie Caron has clearly become the first outright bust of the Lowe/Prendergast regime after his surprise retirement from hockey last August at the age of 23.

“Eddie turned out to have some real personal issues,” said one scout.

The Oilers saw a big kid who could score who had done nothing but play well at all levels previous to his draft year and appeared to be a very solid selection. It is a pick that Boston-based McCarthy takes personally.

“I think Eddie fooled us. Looking back he reminds me of Eddie Hakstol from Leave it to Beaver,” McCarthy stated bluntly. “When he walked into the Cleaver’s house he was all nice as pie to Mrs. Cleaver and then when he walks out the door with the Beav he’s giving everybody [hell]. There was some Jeckyl and Hyde there.”

After he was drafted, Caron left New Hampshire to go play at Yale with his friend Chris Higgins. However, Higgins abruptly left Yale to turn pro leaving Caron without his buddy and a whole lot of regrets over his choice. He opted to go back to New Hampshire but had to sit out a year due to the transfer. With so much time lost, Caron’s career was quickly stagnating.

Caron then turned pro and played a year in Greenville of the ECHL. It was a decent year from a performance point of view but not one that Caron enjoyed. Last summer Caron informed the Oilers that he was retiring from hockey all together and in the process he threw away a contract and a potential career.

“It’s a failure on our part, probably a failure on my part and I’ll take the blame for it because I pushed for Eddie,” McCarthy volunteered. “I’m not going to let Kevin [Prendergast] be the fall guy for that one.”

Kenny Smith, D – 3rd round 84th overall (Harvard, NCAA)
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0
DOB: 12-31-1981 HT: 6’2 WT: 209

Oiler scout Bob Mancini, now GM of the Saginaw Spirit in the OHL, was very familiar with Kenny Smith from their days together with the US Jr. National Team and spoke highly of the young man’s character and personality, two things the Oilers have been drawn to over the years.

Smith has now completed his second year as a pro in the organization and is in search of a new contract. Whether or not he will get one is up in the air as there are those inside and outside the organization who feel that Smith has reached his full potential already as a mediocre minor leaguer.

Smith has played a total of 53 games in the AHL and in that stretch has notched eight points. In 75 games with Greenville the defenseman has collected 13 points. Smith can still have a long and prosperous career as a professional hockey player but at this point, no one is considering him to be a NHL prospect any longer.

Jussi Markkanen, G – 5th round 133rd overall (Tappara Tampere, FNL)
Status: NHL Player
NHL games played: 108
DOB: 05-08-1975 HT: 5’11 WT: 185

Up until that point of the draft Edmonton had picked according to BPA as expected. However, beginning with the fifth round it became clear that the Oilers began making selections with the immediate future very much in mind. Case in point: 24-year-old netminder Jussi Markkanen of Finland.

In 2000-01 Tommy Salo, Joaquin Gage and Dominic Roussel performed the goaltending in Edmonton whereas the year before that had seen Mike Minard and Bill Ranford in a brief return to town. Clearly Edmonton was trying to address the backup position on their NHL roster via the draft.

In the system at the time, Edmonton had Alex Fomitchev and Kristian Antila, two goalies the new regime had zero faith in. Ty Conklin had just been signed as a free agent out of college just two months before the draft but the club desperately needed someone to compete with him for the backup job behind Salo.

The move paid off immediately when in 2001-02 Markkanen played 14 games while Salo carried most of the load in 69 appearances. Since that time, Markkanen has been traded away once only to be brought back into the fold the following season and is now still a backup on the team as it heads into the Stanley Cup Finals against Carolina.

Jake Brenk, C – 5th round 154th overall (Breck High School, MN)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0
DOB: 04-16-1982 HT: 6’3 WT: 200

He was one of the fastest skaters the Oilers had ever drafted and it was that speed alone that made the Oilers think he had the potential to play in the NHL. Well before he graduated from Mankato State though, it had become clear that Brenk just didn’t have the talent need to play at the highest level.

“The guy could absolutely flat out fly and he scored in high school,” recalled McCarthy. “You hope a guy like that develops another asset or two but Jake never really panned out as far as reaching his offensive potential.”

Brenk was given the token invite to Oiler camp once he had graduated from college but a contract was never offered. The speedster from Detroit Lakes, Michigan played in just three ECHL games and made a single appearance in the UHL with Adirondack during 2005-06.

Mikael Svensk, D – 6th round 185th overall (Frolunda, Sweden)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0
DOB: 02-28-1983 HT: 6’3 WT: 210

There are those in the organization who feel that Mikael Svensk would have been better served being a North American. The rough and tumble style of play the tough defender relied on was not conducive to success in Sweden but would have fit in well with the hard-hitting CHL and AHL.

However Svensk never came to North America and instead spent the last five years since being drafted playing for Halmstad, a team in the Swedish version of the American Hockey League. Over the past couple of years there had been some of discussion of bringing Svensk over to play in the AHL but in the end that never happened. On June 1, the Swedish rearguard became an unrestricted free agent when a contract with the Oilers failed to materialize.

It is an unfortunate progression of events that was probably further complicated simply due to lack of room for Svensk at the minor league level, considering the Oilers do not presently have their own AHL affiliate nor an ECHL one.

Dan Baum, C – 7th round 215th overall (Prince George, WHL)
Status: NHL Bust
NHL games played: 0
DOB: 04-06-1983 HT: 6’1 WT: 194

“He was a hard nosed kid that we looked at for that part of the draft and saw with his energy and the way he chipped in a few goals here and there we thought he could turn out to be a fourth liner and an energy guy,” said McCarthy.

Baum has fallen by the wayside more from injury that from lack of effort. There has been room in the organization for an agitating pest, a role Baum relishes, but ongoing headaches and illness have robbed him of his hockey career.

The Biggar, SK native played in less than half a season in each of the last three campaigns and has regressed from the AHL down to the ECHL. With Greenville, Baum only managed six points in 24 games.

“It’s unfortunate because of the way he plays with reckless abandon it may have caught up to him. He’s a great kid and has a lot of character too, the injuries have just derailed him.”

Baum is a hoping to get a new contract offer from the Oilers this offseason, but it is more likely that his days in the organization are quickly coming to a fateful end.

Kari Haakana, D – 8th round 248th overall (Jokerit, Finland)
Status: Former NHL player
NHL games played: 13
DOB: 11-08-1973 HT: 6’2 WT: 229

It’s not every day that a 28-year-old gets drafted, but that’s what happened when the Oilers selected veteran blueliner Kari Haakana in the late stages of the draft. This was another conscious effort to fill a hole in the organization at the pro level.

With numerous depth defensemen being pressed into service at the NHL level, the Oilers were hoping to find an uncovered gem from Europe who could step in and play a third pairing role for them. Haakana played half a dozen games in Hamilton the year after he was drafted then returned to Jokerit. In 2002-03, Haakana split his time between the AHL and the NHL and actually dressed for 13 games with the Oilers.

Although he did not register any points, Haakana fulfilled the role that he was drafted for; that of a temporary fix to provide some veteran leadership to a very young defensive group that consisted of names like Eric Brewer, Tom Poti and Sven Butenschon.

Haakana spent the 2005-06 schedule split between the Espoo Blues in Finland and the Duisburg Foxes in Germany.

Ales Pisa, D – 9th round 272nd overall (Pardubice, CZE)
NHL Status: Former NHL player
DOB: 01-02-1977 HT: 5’11 WT: 183

Further filling their blue line holes, the Oilers then selected 24-year-old rearguard Ales Pisa out of the Czech Republic. The smooth-skating, puck-moving Pisa was a good stop gap in the organization and played a total of 50 games with Edmonton before he was packaged in a trade deadline deal with Anson Carter to the New York Rangers in exchange for Cory Cross and Radek Dvorak.

It appeared that Edmonton knew Pisa’s heart was not set on playing in North America though because the very next year the blueliner signed with Cherepovets and has played in Russia for the past three seasons.

“We needed some older guys who could be ready,” McCarthy said recently. “They [Haakana and Pisa] served their purpose, it’s not like they were busts at all; we went an older route to give us some assets and options with the big club or for trades.”

Statistically they may appear to have been failures but in reality, the older players Edmonton drafted in 2001 were all meant to be short-term fixes and they all worked out to some degree. The Oilers were really short at the AHL level and addressed that deficiency.

Shay Stephenson, LW – 9th round 278th overall (Red Deer Rebels, WHL)
NHL Status: Bust
DOB: 09-13-1983 HT: 6’4 WT: 200

Seeing an extremely big forward that had just won a Memorial Cup in Red Deer still available in the ninth round, the Oilers opted to take a flyer on Shay Stephenson. The product of small town Saskatchewan was enticing for his obvious size, but Stephenson also showed some ability with controlling the puck.

However, by the time it came for the Oilers to either sign him or part ways with Stephenson, they chose the latter and the Rebel forward went back into the draft pool. The Carolina Hurricanes subsequently redrafted him in the seventh round of 2003.

The closest Stephenson has come to playing in the NHL has been six games with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL this past season.

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