Between the Penticton Young Stars tournament and the early results of the preseason, Edmonton fans have been treated to some surprisingly good performances from players in Oilers sweaters.
Among the best of those performances has been that of Bogdan Yakimov. The 6’5”, 232 pound Russian hasn’t looked like a player struggling to adapt to North America, and between his massive size and his ability with and without the puck he’s managed to get some fans thinking about the possibility of him playing NHL minutes in 2014-15.
It’s certainly possible he makes the jump later in the year, but it is exceedingly unlikely that he makes the team out of camp and for good reason.
The Cautionary Tale
The problem with giving a player a job based on preseason merit is that it can often represent the triumph of the small picture over the larger picture. We’ve talked previously about how to fit training camp performance into the career information we already have of a player, but with a prospect there are additional factors to consider.
In Edmonton, Anton Lander is the shorthand for this. In the fall of 2011 he was the best of the Oilers centre options for their fourth line job. A struggling Gilbert Brule played his way off the team and other prospects (Chris VandeVelde, Ryan O’Marra) were outshined by the kid from Sweden. Lander made the team, mostly playing on a little-used fourth line between Lennart Petrell and Ben Eager and on the penalty kill.
After playing 56 major league games, Lander was sent to the minors, where it took him most of two seasons to find the offensive game that he’d shown in Sweden and then in training camp. We can’t definitively know that Edmonton’s decision to elevate him wrecked his development, but what we do know is that instead of playing in all situations down on the farm and polishing all areas of his game he got cast as a dump-and-chase fourth-liner and he’s looked like exactly that in every trip he’s made to the NHL since.
My belief is that player and organization alike would have been best served by sending the first-year North American to the AHL to play in all situations and then to have promoted him to the majors for the first time once he’d established good, balanced habits.
While we tend to think about training camp as being about the NHL team, it’s also about the farm club. Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson and his staff are in town watching all these performances; in some of the games they’re even the guys behind the bench. If Yakimov does go down to the minors he’s going to come in as a player who has already proven his offensive bona fides in high-level hockey, which means he’s probably going to get major minutes out of the gate. Assuming that Lander sticks with the Oilers this year he might even be the Barons’ first line centre.
That means major even-strength minutes. It probably means time with the man advantage on a very good Barons’ power play unit. Nelson used the penalty kill as a teaching tool for some players – notably Tyler Pitlick – last year, and Yakimov might even get minutes in those situations.
There should be very little doubt that from a development standpoint the experience would be excellent for Yakimov: he’d get to be a workhorse and a difference-maker and he’d have a lot more latitude to make some mistakes while learning on the job than he would get in the majors.
It also makes sense from a team perspective. The Oilers are already running two guys with less than 50 games of NHL experience at centre, and they’re behind a first line centre (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) who has yet to prove that he can excel in that extremely demanding role for a full NHL campaign. One of those inexperienced centres (Mark Arcobello) has paid his dues and looked promising in the majors and will be extremely difficult to cut. The other guy is a third overall pick who is lost to the team for the entire season if he gets sent down out of camp. The Oilers could get around the roster crunch by bumping Arcobello to the Gordon line and going with Draisaitl-Yakimov at centre, but that’s a terrifying depth chart.
Yakimov is still just 19 years old. He’s never played in North America. The choice isn’t between keeping him or sending him off to the KHL; it’s between keeping him and sending him to a development team where he’ll be one of the top priorities of a very good coach who answers to Edmonton. If Yakimov shows he’s simply too good for the minors, the Oilers can make the decision to recall him at any time.
This isn’t a hard choice. As unfair as it may sound, even if Yakimov plays as well as he has to date the best thing for both the player and team is almost certainly that he plays in Oklahoma City.
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