Cleaning out my office the other day, I stumbled upon an old copy of The Hockey News – the publication’s 2002 Draft Preview edition. It didn’t take much reading to see that NHL hockey in Edmonton had changed dramatically over the decade since it came out.
Long Term Need
(Twid/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)
My favourite part of Rob Tychowski’s preview piece was under the heading “Long Term Need.” Here’s the quote:
As one of the youngest teams in the NHL, the Oilers aren’t in any danger of losing their depth to retirement or attrition. Defenseman Eric Brewer just turned 23 while Janne Niinimaa, the elder statesman on defense, is 27. Up front, offensive anchor Mike Comrie is 21, Mike York is 24, Ryan Smyth is 25 and Anson Carter 27. [Jussi] Markkanen, 27, gives them more depth in net than they’ve had in a decade. The problem will be finding the money to keep these young guns in Edmonton. If Brewer and Comrie keep improving at their current rate, they could soon be demanding the kind of money Edmonton simply doesn’t have.
The last line in particular was a nice reminder of what life used to be like in Edmonton. Some undoubtedly will suggest the ownership of Daryl Katz as the turning point – and there’s no question that in Katz, the Oilers have deeper pockets behind them than they ever have before – but the change started before that, with the last collective bargaining agreement. Brewer and York, mentioned above, were swapped coming into the new order of things for high-priced stars Chris Pronger and Michael Peca, respectively, and while Peca didn’t turn out that was the summer that Edmonton stopped worrying so much about affording players and showed that it could pay for talent.
True to Tychowski’s fears, there were more pains to go through before that happened, though. Anson Carter would be gone in less than a year, dealt to New York for the cheaper Radek Dvorak. Niinimaa too would depart, dealt to the New York Islanders in exchange for younger help in Brad Isbister and Raffi Torres. Mike Comrie had one more season in him before demanding a trade; a deal with Anaheim for Corey Perry would be kyboshed after the Oilers ridiculously insisted that Comrie refund bonus monies the team had paid to him.
Most painful of all was the departure of Smyth, over a reported difference of just $100,000 after the team left his signing to the last minute. Smyth would be dealt for a collection of magic beans (in order of NHL impact so far: Robert Nilsson, Ryan O’Marra, and the pick that became Alex Plante) before hitting it big on the free agent market. He returned to the Oilers last season, still highly competent but a shadow of what he once was.
Today, the Oilers core of young players – people like Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, Petry, Smid, and Schultz – is better than it was in 2002, and there aren’t any fears of the team being unable to retain them. Hall and Eberle have linked long-term pacts, and anxiety over Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov is highly limited.
The Prospect List
Also included in the Draft Preview was a top-five list of current Oilers prospects. Here’s how THN ranked them:
- Jani Rita
- Alexei Semenov
- Ales Hemsky
- Jason Chimera
- Tony Salmelainen
At the time, that top-three looked awfully impressive, with Chimera a good prospect with a lower ceiling (and, if I remember correctly, the first case of people cursing a prospect with the “he’s like Todd Marchant, but with hands!” description).
It’s interesting to note that Rita – a goal-scoring forward with size and the 13th overall pick in 1999 – as well as Semenov – a 6’6” monster who had been a point-per-game OHL defenceman while recording more than 100 penalty minutes, as well as the 36th overall pick in 1999 – were both on the list on merit. Both players were as highly regarded as guys like Oscar Klefbom and Teemu Hartikainen (only more so, in Rita’s case) are now. Neither made the grade, and it just goes to show that no matter how can’t-miss a prospect looks that final hurdle to the NHL is a big one.
Looking at the Oilers’ current prospect riches – guys like Schultz and Klefbom and Gernat and Marincin and Rieder and Pitlick – it’s hard to tell which players will make the grade and which ones will fall along the way. The only thing we can know with certainty is that they aren’t all going to pan out.
On the other hand, there are prospects like Ales Hemsky. Undersized, too prone to passing over shooting, and far away from being a complete player, Hemsky eventually evolved into a power-vs.-power winger who could flash and dash with the best of them. Injuries have chipped away at his career, and after a poor season it’s not hard to find fans willing to write the guy off, but he’s been a superb player for a long time and he’s carried the load on a lot of nights for some terrible teams. He was a major win and if there’s a prospect or two in the system with his sort of potential (beyond Yakupov, of course) than the Oilers can smile.