Edmonton Oilers maintain a skilled, balanced pipeline in Top 20 update

By Kady Hobbins
Nail Yakupov - Edmonton Oilers

Photo: Nail Yakupov, shown here celebrating a late game-tying goal against Los Angeles in January, takes over the top spot in the Oilers mid-season Top 20 ranking (courtesy of Chris Austin/Icon SMI)

The Edmonton Oilers Spring Top 20 saw very little movement in the top 10 ranks while the bottom 10 prospects were shuffled more drastically. The top 10 features a number of highly skilled prospects who are either currently filling regular spots on the Oilers' roster such as Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz or are looking slated to do so in the future.

The bottom 10 is slightly less cut and dried: While all of these players possess great hockey talent and a strong skillset, most have at least one questionable factor standing between them and NHL success, whether it's age, inconsistency, size or otherwise. There are a few new names to crack the Top 20 this time around that are surely ones to watch in the near future, such as underdog NCAA prospect Jujhar Khaira and Swedish defenseman Erik Gustafsson.

1. (2) Nail Yakupov, RW, 9.0C
Drafted 1st round, 1st overall, 2012

After coming second to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (who has since graduated from prospect status) in last fall's ranking, Nail Yakupov now takes over the top spot on the Oilers Top 20 list. After being drafted first overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Yakupov waited out the lockout in Russia, playing for HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. He came back to join Edmonton immediately after the new CBA agreement was reached and despite their team losing the season-opener in a rather dismal performance against the San Jose Sharks, he scored a highlight-reel first career goal.

Since then, his performance has been respectable for a young rookie on a team that is somewhat short on veterans and leaders to help mentor its high number of young players. While no one can question that Yakupov's heart is in the game and his intensity level is high, his lack of experience is sometimes evident in high-pressure situations but his quick foot speed and explosive style indicate promising talent for the future.

2. (3) Justin Schultz, D, 8.0B
Acquired via free agent signing, July 1, 2012

Justin Schultz was acquired in the off-season prior to the 2012-13 season as a free agent signing. He was originally drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, but failed to come to a contract agreement. He has been a solid contributor for the Oilers on the blue line, logging six goals and 14 assists over 36 games.

His offensive skill and great puck movement make him a valuable addition to any team and his consistent play has earned him a spot as a top defenseman in the Oilers lineup. Although in most aspects Schultz is wise beyond his years in terms of his hockey sense, his inexperience shows sometimes in his own end when up against the league's top scorers. If he continues on the trajectory that he is currently on and if the Oilers are able to acquire a top defenseman in the off-season to provide a bit of leadership, Schultz's game should continue to develop at an exponential rate.

3. (4) Oscar Klefbom, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2011

At only 19, Oscar Klefbom is one of the Oilers' top defensive prospects and has already played two full seasons of professional European hockey. He was gearing up to play a third in 2012-13 and looked poised to continue his development in an increasingly important role. Unfortunately, Klefbom suffered an ill-timed shoulder injury in October of the 2012-13 season which is a disappointing interruption in his development. Many believed that if Klefbom had maintained his strong performance in the Swedish Elite League that he would make the trip across the pond to perhaps join the Oilers squad in 2013-14. At the time of his injury, Klefbom was playing top minutes as a defenseman and was putting up a strong consistent effort on a nightly basis

Although an injury is never good for a prospect's development, Klefbom's raw talent and natural ability should be able to see him through. While his ticket on the NHL-direct expressway for 2013-14 has likely been revoked at this point, he is still one of the frontrunners to potentially crack the Oilers' defensive roster.

4. (5) Teemu Hartikainen, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2008

After being drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft, Hartikainen worked his way up slowly from his junior squad in Finland through the AHL, eventually finding himself in a supporting role on the Oilers' roster. He has improved exponentially since the draft and is a valuable addition to the Oilers organization. He is a big, physical forward that also possesses the high level of skill and puck handling that is necessary to succeed at the NHL level. Even with a bit of a shaky start to the shortened season, Hartikainen was consistent and demonstrated his hard-working attitude night in and night out, often battling deep in the corners and chalking up some points for the Oilers.

Hartikainen sustained a shoulder injury in February and spent some time out of the lineup. Some line changes and roster movements necessitated a trip back down to the AHL, but he was recently recalled back to Edmonton. The heavy minutes that he played with the Oklahoma City Barons gave Hartikainen the chance to work on developing his speed and high level skill, which should help him make an impact in the Edmonton lineup.

5. (6) Martin Marincin, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2010

Marincin is playing in his first professional season with the Oklahoma City Barons in 2012-13 and is getting quite a bit of ice time for his experience level. He has six goals and 22 assists through 66 games thus far and sits at an impressive plus-20 rating. Marincin has good vision and has improved steadily with his defensive positioning and decision-making. His consistency is sometimes called into question as he is a bit of a streaky player who has spent some time in the press box this season, but his strong talent is unquestionable. If he stays healthy and continues to gain experience at the AHL level, he will continue to remain on the radar as an NHL-level defensive prospect.

6. (9) Anton Lander, C, 6.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 40th overall, 2009

Lander started the 2012-13 season with Oklahoma City during the lockout and despite getting off to a slow start, he was called up to join the Oilers' lineup at the start of the shortened season. He played in four games for the Oilers until he suffered a broken foot after blocking a shot in February. He has since recovered from his injury, but was reassigned to Oklahoma City temporarily before being recalled to the Oilers again in early April. As a prospect with 60 NHL games under his belt, Lander is clearly capable of filling a third or fourth line role for the club and teeters on the edge of prospect graduation status. While Lander lacks the high level skill and numbers to become a top-line centerman at this point in his development, he is a valuable supporting member of a team that lacks depth at center.

7. (7) David Musil, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2011

David Musil is currently playing in his third and final junior season with the Edmonton Oil Kings. As the Oil Kings continue to light up the Western Hockey League, some wonder how greatly that success has factored into the statistics of their players, but after watching Musil in the regular season, his natural talent with or without the Oil Kings inflation is apparent. He plays a strong physical game and often battles deep into the corners and along the boards. While he does not bring a high amount of offense with only seven goals, 23 points through 48 regular season games, his defensive positioning is strong and he boasts a plus-29 rating. As a truly defensive rearguard, Musil brings toughness and size where the Oilers need it most. If he is able to improve upon his offensive production to some degree, he should continue on course to finish out at the NHL level.

8. (11) Olivier Roy, G, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2009

Since his pro debut in the 2011-12 season, Olivier Roy has been making the slow and steady climb through the ranks and consistently outperforming Oilers goaltending prospect Tyler Bunz, who finished the regular season with a 3.35 goals against average and .886 save percentage with the Stockton Thunder. Roy has been bouncing back and forth between the ECHL's Thunder and the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. He has played 22 games for the Barons, logging a 2.77 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. Roy has took the reins in Stockton during their playoff series, helping the team to a 4-3 victory in their first round series against the Las Vegas Wranglers, earning a 3.04 goals against and .891 save percentage.

The Oilers organization owns the rights to eight goalies and the NHL club has run into some injury trouble with Nikolai Khabibulin this season, resulting in goaltenders being shuffled around more than usual. Roy appears to be taking it all in stride – on occasions that starting Oklahoma City goaltender Yann Danis has been called up to back up Devan Dubnyk, Roy has assumed the starting role in Oklahoma and has performed well. Bunz is noticeably absent on the Spring Top 20 for the Oilers after a disappointing season in Stockton, where he was often outplayed by his undrafted goaltending counterpart, Cody Reichard.

9. (17) Mitchell Moroz, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2012

Like Musil, Moroz is a member of the WHL-dominating Edmonton Oil Kings club. He logged 34 points in 69 games during the regular season in 2012-13, building on his point production from the 2011-12 season. Moroz plays a tough physical game and uses his size to his advantage. He is a major contributor to the Oil Kings' checking line and spends a good deal of time in the box, but also possesses strong skating and puck-handling skills. He boasts all of the attributes that the Oilers are looking for in a power forward-type player. With the Oil Kings vying for the WHL Championship and a berth at the Memorial Cup for the second year in a row, Moroz should get the valuable experience that he needs before eventually looking to sign an entry-level deal with the Oilers and graduating to the pro ranks.

10. (12) Martin Gernat, D, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 122nd overall, 2011

The third and final Oil Kings member in the Oilers Top 20 is Martin Gernat, a Slovakian defenseman who is in his second season with the Edmonton WHL club. He missed the beginning of the 2012-13 season with a shoulder injury, but has made a strong return to the lineup, chalking up 13 points in 23 games. At 6'5 and 187 pounds, Martin is a tall, but not overly large defenseman, and some question if he has the level of physicality that is needed to play at the NHL level. He is however more of an offensive specialist than a stay-at-home defenseman, similar to Justin Schultz who is currently in the lineup for the Oilers and sits at number two on this list. He sees the ice well and is a solid puck-mover, which may make up for his lack of strength and physical play.

11. (14) Daniil Zharkov, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2012

After a bit of a lackluster North American debut, Zharkov is working to improve upon his offensive ability and general consistency. He is a bit of a streaky player, as his sometimes impressive scoring talent is often followed by a bit of a drought. He is still young at only 19 however, so consistency may be something that comes with experience for Zharkov.

He has strong natural talent and his size and physicality make him a valuable addition to the OHL's Belleville Bulls. He appears to be on an upward climb in terms of his defensive game, something that he struggled with in the past. After finishing his 2010-11 season with a minus-13 rating and his 2011-12 season at -5, he finally managed to keep his plus/minus in the black at plus-18 in the 2012-13 regular season. Zharkov has also added four goals and five assists in his 10 playoff games for Belleville.

12. (NR) Taylor Fedun, D, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 8, 2011

At age 24, Taylor Fedun is one of the oldest draft prospects to crack the Top 20. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He impressed many at the Oilers training camp in 2011 and earned himself a ticket to Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken femur early in the season and missed the rest of 2011-12. He has since returned for 2012-13 and logged eight goals and 19 assists over 66 games, which is impressive for a return from such a major injury that came at a very unfortunate time in the young defenseman's development.

He possesses good puck movement and has outstanding hockey sense, making him a valuable contributor to the OKC Barons on a nightly basis. He possesses the skill to perhaps fill a role as a bottom-end defenseman at the NHL level, but with his injury setback, his battle for a position with the Oilers is becoming increasingly difficult. This season and next will be crucial for the rearguard as he will need to separate himself from the likes of Marincin, Musil, and Klefbom in order to make a bid for the NHL.

13. (15) Dillon Simpson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2011

Currently playing in his third season the University of North Dakota, Dillon Simpson is a solid contributor to the NCAA team despite being one of the youngest at age 20. The 6'2 defender, who is also the son of ex-Oiler Craig Simpson, scored five goals and 19 assists in 42 games this year, improving on his totals from last season. He is also a key member of the squad's special teams and many of his points come from his powerplay minutes.

Simpson’s high level of experience in the NCAA and young age should bode well for him as he makes the transition to pro hockey in a few seasons. As long as he continues to develop his offense and foot speed with North Dakota, he should make an easy transition to the professional level.

14. (NR) Joey LaLeggia, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2012

Like Simpson, LaLeggia is another young defensive prospect that is a bit of a project for the Oilers. He is also playing at the college hockey level for the University of Denver in the WCHA. He logged 29 points in 39 games this season and while a bit undersized, he possesses a high level of skill and good hockey sense. He moves the puck well and contributes to a large number of scoring chances for Denver.

The most obvious setback for LaLeggia is his size. At only 5'10, he does not bring much physical presence to the ice and is often out-muscled in the tough battles in his own end. He still has two more seasons with the University of Denver where he will need to look at increasing his size and defensive play in his own end.

15. (NR) Jujhar Khaira, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2012

Jujhar Khaira has slowly made his way from a virtual unknown to a name that is being mentioned frequently in Oilers prospect talks. He was drafted out of the BCHL Junior 'A' league, which is a level below major junior caliber hockey in Canada. Since then, he made his college hockey debut with Michigan Tech and scored six goals and 19 assists in 37 games as a freshman. He has all the makings of a strong power forward and brings a tough, mean, physical game.

At this point, Khaira's biggest hurdle to overcome is simply how far away he is from the NHL level from a development curve standpoint. He is only in his freshman year at Michigan Tech and while that leaves him with lots of chance to continue to develop his game, it also opens the door for injuries, plateaus, and slumps. Khaira is an intriguing talent, but only time will tell if he can manage to capitalize on his natural skill and put it all together.

16. (NR) Toni Rajala, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 101st overall, 2009

Finnish native Toni Rajala was drafted by the Oilers in 2009 and since has been shuffled around between Finland and North America. He played a year in the WHL but was a bit disappointing in terms of offensive numbers, so ended up returning to Finland. He has since come back across the pond and Stockton, where he excelled. He made the step to the AHL level and has performed well, racking up 41 points in 42 games in the 2012-13 season.       

Rajala is a small skill forward who has shown promising flairs of offensive talent, but with the Oilers being a team that is ripe with that sort of player (think Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Yakupov) cracking the lineup at the NHL level will be unlikely for Rajala.

17. (NR) Erik Gustafsson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2012

Not to be confused with Erik Gustafsson of the Philadelphia Flyers, the Oilers' pick Erik Gustafsson is a 21-year-old Swedish defenseman who skated with Djurgarden in the Allsvenskan in 2012-13. He is another smallish offensive defenseman with good puck-moving skills and relatively strong offensive production. He registered 23 points in 49 games in the 2012-13 season in Sweden’s second tier league, but will make his return to the Elitserien in 2013-14. Gustafsson signed a two-year contract with Frolunda and will have an opportunity in those two seasons to develop against Sweden’s best.

18. (19) Colten Teubert, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Los Angeles, February 28, 2011

Colten Teubert was acquired in the Dustin Penner trade with LA in 2011. As a 23-year-old defenseman, he is reaching what should be the peak of his development curve, but seems to be falling short of NHL-level talent and production. He logged just four goals and five assists in 59 games for the Oklahoma City Barons in 2012-13 and was a minus-14 rating. Although he was never touted as a point-getting defenseman and plays a more stay-at-home shut down game, he has often been caught out of position and his lack of foot speed is often exploited, even at the AHL level. While it is possible that Teubert could make a late push as a role-player on Edmonton's fourth line, as it stands, Teubert does not look poised to crack the Oilers roster, which is unfortunate given the high hopes that many had for this prospect.      

19. (20) Kyle Bigos , D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2009

Like Teubert, Bigos is another stay-at-home tough defenseman in the Oilers prospect pool. Bigos played in his last season with Merrimack College in the 2012-13 season. At 6'5 and 240 pounds, Bigos is a force in the blue line and possesses the physicality to compete against the toughest NHL enforcers out there. However, many wonder if he has the high-level skill to complement his size. In today's game, fourth line grinders are a dime-a-dozen and the Oilers are not lacking in this department, most recently highlighted by Darcy Hordichuk clearing waivers and being reassigned to Oklahoma. Fourth line grinders that also have a bit of puck moving skills and offensive ability on the other hand are in demand. If Bigos can prove that he has what it takes to separate himself from the masses of big, slow, penalty-taking goons, he may have a shot as a role-player for the Oilers.

20. (16) Curtis Hamilton, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2010

Although Curtis Hamilton is a left winger, he has put up nearly the same numbers as defensive prospect Colten Teubert in almost the same amount of games, logging only nine points in 58 outings with a minus-11 rating with Oklahoma City in 2012-13. Also similar to Teubert, Hamilton was a high draft pick with strong potential as an NHL-caliber prospect. While Hamilton is only 21 and has some time to figure out where his deficiencies lie, he will need to turn his game around and find the offensive skill that he had at the WHL level with the Regina Pats.