A glance at the current Oilers depth chart tells us a lot about the future. Up front, this team is loaded with tremendous potential. The list of young forwards (Gagner, Cogliano, Brule with the big league team; Hall, MPS, Eberle, Omark, Hartikainen, Lander, Vande Velde) is long, deep and varied; I dare say the only time this team has enjoyed such a large list of potential quality forwards was 79-81 (although the mid-90’s had a large and impressive group).
The goaltending has two young NHLers (JDD, DD) trying to establish themselves along with two prospects bubbling under (Olivier Roy might be very good; Tyler Bunz is the new hire).
The problem area is the Blue. Only Ladislav Smid (24) is young and established, and there is no "complete" talent among the prospects. This was brought into view on the Oilers one-hour pre-draft show (which I enjoyed, as a draft junkie) Oil Change. At one point Stu (Magnificent Bastard) MacGregor asks the room "do we have an Erik Gudbranson?" and the answer from the scouts is in the negative.
I think the Oilers have to be very aggressive in the next 12 months. They might end up using the 2011 lottery pick on a stud D prospect, they may end up dealing one of the high end veteran wingers (Hemsky & Penner) and they may try to sign some European and college free agents. Here is a quick list of the current AHL "bubbling under" group, the kids most likely to play this season if one of the current 6 (Whitney-Gilbert; Smid-Foster; Vandeermeer-Strudwick) suffers an injury.
- D Theo Peckham: Sometimes in life opportunity knocks and man I hope this kid answers the door. When healthy and fit, he’s a strong, tough defender with a mean streak and a willingness to drop the gloves. Tom Renney has mentioned him as a player he’s excited about seeing at training camp in the fall. Injury and conditioning issues have been a problem, but the Oilers badly need developing defenseman and he is the best of the group.
- D Alex Plante: Made big strides this season and is certainly part of the future. His pro debut was the most impressive in the entire system. Injuries and callups forced Plante up the depth chart and he played well, so well in fact the club rewarded him with a call to the show (4gp, +1) last season. He’s in a position now to play well in Okla City and be one of the first callups when injuries occur. Alex Plante is not an NHL defenseman yet, but the light has turned on and he’s trending well. Also important to consider: anecdotal evidence that Plante was playing against some of the tougher opposition in the AHL (as a rookie) last season. It’s a strong tell.
- D Jeff Petry: His NHLE (82gp, 4-22-26) makes him (once again) the strongest offensive defenseman in the system and his wider range of skills gives us some hope for a more complete defender than someone like Chorney (Petry is 4 inches and 20 pounds bigger than Chorney). Impressed with skating and wingspan at this week’s Oilers camp, he is the one player on this list with a wide range of skills.
- D Taylor Chorney: A fine skater who has some holes defensively. I think there is probably concern in the Oilers organization about this player. He was drafted right after the lockout, when NHL teams believed puck movers would rule the earth. He is not strong enough to win puck battles and is miles from being able to anchor a big league pairing. Of all the top level draft picks on defense, this player will probably benefit the most from the added AHL veteran group (Petiot, Taylor, etc) in Okla City.
- D Johan Motin: Motin made his pro debut and performed well. His numbers (he’s not an offensive defender) are rock solid in the AHL (55gp, 1-5-6 -5 on a terrible team) and he would rank higher if there was any evidence he played against tough competition in the minors. I think he is the type of player who will improve over the next couple of seasons as he adjusts to the length of the season and the physical wear and tear. He is exactly the player-type this organization needs at this time, but something tells me he’s a fair distance from Plante in terms of NHL readiness. It’ll take some time.
History tells us that at least a couple of these players will not develop as hoped, due to injury and ineffectiveness. The top pro prospects at the AHL level 10 years ago were Chris Hajt and Alex Henry; neither developed as a big league regular (although the list above is far superior).
Defensemen take a long time to develop. They tend to be effective deeper into their 30’s (once they establish themselves), so Oiler fans can take heart in the fact that Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney are signed long term. We should expect a high draft pick to be spent on a defenseman next summer and an aggressive attempt by the procurement department to uncover gems through free agency.