Behind Yakupov, defensemen are the strength of Edmonton Oilers Top 20

By Kady Hobbins

Justin Schultz - Edmonton Oilers

Photo: Offensive-minded defenseman Justin Schultz leads a deep and talented defensive pipeline for the Edmonton Oilers (courtesy of Perry Nelson/Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers organization underwent some changes during the off-season with new general manager Craig MacTavish making some big moves at the 2013 NHL Draft as well as during the free agent frenzy. Many of the signings were already at the NHL level hence why there was not a great influx of new prospects here, but you can be sure that things will continue to be shaken up as we head into the 2013-14 season.

Unlike the Oilers management, the fall preliminary Top 20 did not change drastically from the spring rankings, save for the addition of some new draft acquisitions and the removal of ineligible players. The top 10 includes some great up-and-comers, many of whom are on the brink of success as they head into an important Oilers training camp. It is also very defenseman heavy with the likes of Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin, and David Musil to name a few.

The bottom 10 features some great talents who are in various stages of working their way up the depth charts to NHL readiness. There are a few dark horses in there, such as NCAA-turned-WHL prospect Jujhar Khaira, as well as some that are high on everyone’s radar, like 2012 31st overall pick Mitchell Moroz and Dillon Simpson, son of former-Oiler Craig Simpson.

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

Nail Yakupov remains at the top of the Oilers Top 20 list heading into the 2013-14 season. He finished the year with 17 goals and 14 assists, appearing in every one of the 48 games in the shortened season. He capped off his season with a hat trick in the Oilers’ final game against Vancouver and finished as the number four rookie in point standings for the 2012-13 season. His shot percentage was an impressive 21-percent.

Yakupov looks better and better every time he hits the ice and shows no signs of slowing down heading into the 2013-14 season. If new head coach Dallas Eakins can find a line combination that highlights Yakupov’s scoring talent but can still provide enough support in their own end (an area of Yakupov’s play that can still use some improvement), it is not unrealistic to predict that Yakupov will reach a point-per-game rate in 2013-14.

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

Justin Schultz had an impressive start to the 2012-13 season, logging five points in his first four games with the Oilers. His point production continued at a consistent pace until about mid-March, where he seemed to hit a bit of a wall and managed only two points in 13 games. While touted as a two-way defenseman, he sometimes appears a bit lost in his own end. He ran into trouble with this on a few occasions and because of the Oilers’ lack of defensive depth, he was often placed in situations that a more defensively sound team would leave for their veteran guys.

Schultz was a top contributor on the powerplay for the first half of the year, but his performance trailed off near the end of the shortened season. The Oilers’ recent off-season acquisitions of big, shutdown-style defensemen should help augment his quarterback style and give him the needed support in his defensive game while allowing him to shine offensively.

3. (NR) Darnell Nurse, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 7th overall, 2013

Darnell Nurse is the complete package – he is a tough shutdown-style defenseman that can also put the puck in the net and create good scoring chances night after night. He played top minutes with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and his stats are impressive: he racked up 41 points in 68 games with a plus-15 rating, capped off with 116 penalty minutes.

At this point, Nurse has signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers, but will likely play a year or two in the AHL, depending on how well he continues to develop. At this stage, Nurse shows plenty of potential to become a top defenseman at the NHL level. Unlike previous years in which the Oilers’ top picks made the jump straight to the big club following the draft, the Oilers now have the luxury of a relatively deep talent pool ahead of him so there is no need to fast-track his development and risk a burnout.

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

After playing two full seasons of professional European hockey, Oscar Klefbom suffered an ill-timed shoulder injury in October of the 2012-13 season while still in Europe. 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.

After undergoing shoulder surgery and spending the rest of the 2012-13 season recovering, Klefbom made the trip to Edmonton to skate with the club. This talented defensive prospect is likely to be an integral part of the Oilers organization, so it is crucial that his development is handled tactfully. He is expected to attend training camp in September 2013.

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

Martin Marincin is coming off of a solid first pro season with the Oklahoma City Barons, chalking up 30 points in 69 games with a plus-20 rating. He also logged seven points in 17 playoff games during a deep run with the Barons.

Marincin sees the ice well and is a great puck mover. After the Oilers opted not to extend offers to Colten Teubert, Alex Plante, and Theo Peckham, this created a window of opportunity for Marincin to step up to the plate and show that he is worthy of a look as an NHL-caliber defenseman. He will play another season with the Barons of the AHL. If he remains consistent and does not fall victim to the sophomore slump, he may just get his first cup of coffee at the NHL level.

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

David Musil finished his final junior season with the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2012-13 after being traded from the Vancouver Giants, logging a total of nine goals and 22 assists in 62 games. He often plays big minutes and is a strong, aggressive player who digs deep into tough areas. While Musil is firstly a stay-at-home defenseman, it is clear that he is also an apt playmaker who is able to help generate some offense, finishing the year with a plus-29 rating.

While the Oilers currently have some holes in their defense at the NHL level, they have a rich pool of prospects coming down the pipeline with the likes of Klefbom and 2013 draft acquisition Nurse, making it a steeper path to NHL success for Musil. He will play his first pro season in 2013-14, which will be a good indicator of how well he will be able to transition to a quicker pace and more physical brand of hockey, but at this current time he looks poised to make an NHL appearance in a few years.

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

Roy finished the 2012-13 season splitting time between the AHL and the ECHL, mostly filling the slot as the number-two goaltender in Oklahoma City. While he did not have an overwhelmingly successful season, he is still one of the most consistent goaltending prospects in the Oilers’ system. He played 22 games for the Barons and nine with the Stockton Thunder, logging a .902 and .961 save percentage, respectively.

Injury trouble at the NHL level and a large number of goaltending prospects resulted in some shuffling for Roy this season, but he handled it well, stepping up and successfully filling the starting role in Oklahoma in some tough games while Yann Danis was called up to the big club. His coaches are generally pleased with his development thus far, but have noted one that his shortcomings include rebound control. He is a very positionally sound goaltender and seems to be maintaining consistent performances, which is more than can be said for goaltender Tyler Bunz, who is often compared to Roy in regards to their development curve.

8. (NR) Marc-Olivier Roy, C/RW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2013

Centerman Marc-Olivier Roy had a tremendous 2012-13 season, nearly doubling his point production. He scored 29 goals with 38 assists in 65 games in the regular season with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, capped off by 19 points in 15 playoff games. He is a hard worker that gets into tough battles in the corners and along the boards and obviously has a great offensive upside.

Roy is a quick skater, has good two-way vision, and can power through traffic in the neutral zone quite easily. He has a decent shot from the slot and is often a major contributor to the Armada’s powerplay unit. He does not bring a lot of physicality to his game, which can become a factor once you reach the NHL level. He still has a ton of time left before he is ready to be considered at that level, but he would do well to add a bit of muscle to his hard-working attitude and quick skating.

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

Martin Gernat finished his second season with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL after missing the beginning of the 2012-13 season with a shoulder injury. He made a strong return, capped off by a solid performance during a deep playoff run.

Gernat has an intriguing offensive flair to his game, but is not overly physical which is a point of contention that will be closely examined once he reaches the pro level. He is not without some valuable qualities, however: he has great on-ice vision and moves the puck very well. The rangy blueliner was signed by the Oilers in April and could be in Oklahoma City in 2013-14, although an overage season with the Oil Kings before turning towards the pro ranks is not out of the question. In that time, he will look to increase his size or physical presence, preferably both.

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

Zharkov played two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Belleville Bulls before signing a two-year contract with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the Kontinental Hockey League (Russia). While making a departure to Russia is not always a positive aspect in a prospect’s development, Zharkov’s departure seems to be in the best interest for all involved. While the Oilers will not have the luxury of having him as close to home as some of the other prospects, he will get the opportunity to play a very high level of hockey early on in his career and still seems to have the NHL as his end goal rather than remaining in Europe.

Zharkov has a lot going for him as he begins his professional career – he is big, skates well, and can put the puck in the net. Unfortunately, he can fall victim to bouts of inconsistency and does not always use his big frame to the best of his abilities. Hopefully his time in the KHL will help him develop a stronger work ethic and he can find the offensive production that matches his raw talent.

11. (15) 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 CHL caliber junior hockey in Canada. He played a strong first year with Michigan Tech, but surrendered his NCAA eligibility by signing an entry-level contract with the Oilers, thus transferring to the Everett Silvertips for the 2013-14 season. He is also expected to attend training camp with the Oilers in September, to at the very least try to continue to hold the attention of the Oilers brass.

Khaira’s development curve seems to have gone nowhere but up since his draft year. His transition from the NCAA to junior hockey should be a seamless one for the big, hard-hitting winger with an intriguing offensive upside. Jujhar Khaira will be one to watch, especially as he approaches the professional level.

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

After being selected 32nd overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, all eyes were on Moroz to have a strong post-draft season. While he did not light it up offensively, he managed 34 points in 69 games, as well as two goals and five assists in 22 playoff games. While some feel that his numbers need to be higher to justify his high draft position, being a pure goal-scorer is not really Moroz’s calling card. He is an intriguing mix of size and skill, with good hands, a tough physical playing style and a deadly left hook. He never backs down from a fight, but his talent does not end in his fists. He needs to find a way to capitalize on his strength, skating, and scoring ability and put it all together in what will likely be his last junior season before graduating to pro hockey.

13. (12) Taylor Fedun. D, 6.5C
Acquired via free agent signing, March 8, 2011

After suffering a broken femur early in the 2011-12 season, Taylor Fedun found himself at a major setback, delaying his professional debut until his 24-year-old year. He made an impressive return from what was a catastrophic injury, which was not made any easier with the addition of a number of NHL players taking up most of the top minutes in Oklahome City during the lockout.

His puck movement and has outstanding hockey sense are among his best attributes and if he can manage to stay healthy and continue to impress in the next season, he may have a shot at an NHL future, but there is no question that the clock is ticking for this 25-year-old defenseman.

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

Simpson will play his final year with the University of North Dakota this upcoming season. His ice time and responsibility level has been steadily increased since he arrived in the NCAA, and he seems to be taking it all in stride. He succeeds in all roles he is assigned, whether it is the top defensive pairing or as part of the team’s special teams. He is racking up an impressive hockey resume at a young age and looks to have the high level skill that could see him become at least a third defensive pairing at the NHL level, although perhaps not first with the Oilers squad, depending on how the large number of defensive prospects above him on the list fare.

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

Joey LaLeggia is an undersized defender with a strong offensive game. He is a great playmaker and can create scoring chances from nothing, but is often out-muscled in the tough battles in his own end, partly due to his small stature. He is quick to the puck and can speed through traffic easily. He is an integral part of his team’s powerplay unit at the University of Denver.

LaLeggia will play his junior season at the NCAA level this upcoming season. His hockey sense is good, but his positioning in his own end will need to be near-perfect to make up for the size difference that he will undoubtedly come up against once he reaches the pro level.

16. (NR) Andrew Miller, C, 7.0D
Acquired via free agent signing, April 17, 2013

Andrew Miller was acquired this spring via a college free agent signing. As the former captain of the Yale Bulldogs, Miller is a high-energy, aggressive centerman that moves the puck extremely well and also spends some time out on the wing, making him pretty versatile. He racked up 41 points in 37 games for Yale in his senior year, and went on to lead the team to their first National Title.

He is not a big guy at only 5’9 and around 180 pounds, but he makes up for it with his tremendous hockey sense and puckhandling skills. He is a very cerebral player who always knows where he is on the ice, skates fast, and positions himself well to avoid getting creamed by some of the coke-machine-sized players. Miller will play the 2013-14 season with the Oklahoma City Barons, which will quickly measure how he will fare in a more fast-paced, physical environment.

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

After spending two years in the SM-liiga, Rajala made the trip back across the pond to play North American pro hockey. Since returning, his point production has skyrocketed, logging 45 points in 46 games with the Oklahoma City Barons. Whether or not Rajala has turned a corner or has merely just had a hot streak will remain to be seen, but at this point, he is putting up impressive numbers compared to many of the Oilers’ forward prospects. He is creative with the puck, shoots often and on-target, and is quick on his feet.

Rajala’s size is a major point of contention for him – being 5’10 and 163 pounds does not usually bode well for NHL success. It is possible that he may end up in a bottom-six role for the Oilers at some point, but with their abundance of smallish goal-scorers in their current lineup, it makes it that much harder for Rajala to reach that level with this team.

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

Erik Gustafsson is currently under contract with the Swedish Frolunda club through the 2014-15 season, at which time he may look to make the jump to North American pro hockey. He is another smallish, offensive defenseman with good puck-moving skills and relatively strong offensive production. He finished last season with 23 points in 49 games with Djurgardens. However, he has not yet played in North America, so how his ability will translate if and when he makes the trip across the pond remains to be seen.

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

Curtis Hamilton is at a crossroads. While originally a highly-touted offensive talent at the time of his draft, he has failed to produce in his first two professional seasons. Last year, he logged only nine points in 61 outings with a minus-10 rating in Oklahoma City. Hamilton will play a third year of professional hockey, where he will need to find the offensive skill that he had at the WHL level with the Regina Pats. If he continues on this downward slide, his chance at an NHL future will fall further out of reach for Hamilton.

20. (NR) John McCarron, RW, 6.0C
Drafted 6th round, 153rd overall, 2012

John McCarron will play his junior season with Cornell University in 2013-14 after a solid sophomore season with the NCAA squad. While he is not producing top offensive numbers, he is a big physical forward who may be a bit of a late bloomer. He will definitely look to improve upon his scoring in his junior season to avoid falling off the radar as he approaches his professional career. McCarron is a longshot at best right now, but has ample opportunity ahead of him to continue to develop his game.