While plans are certainly not set in stone, the Bakersfield Condors could find themselves with a very intriguing – and potentially complete – line of forwards with European flair.
All three players are likely to get along looks from the Edmonton Oilers when training camp gets underway, but it’s more than probable that Bogdan Yakimov, Anton Slepyshev, and Iiro Pakarinen will all, at the very least, start the season with the AHL affiliate. Pakarinen might have a shot at staying with the big club, but much of that will not only depend on his performance in camp but that of longtime roster hopeful Tyler Pitlick, and whether the Oilers plan on utilizing Matt Hendricks on right wing or at center.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Yakimov and Slepyshev were chosen by the Oilers five picks apart in the 2013 Entry Draft (Yakimov 83rd overall, and Slepyshev 88th overall). Their paths diverged at that point.
Yakimov spent one season in the KHL, netting 12 points in 33 games, made a one-game debut with the Oilers at the start of last season, and then marched into Oklahoma City and racked up 28 points including 12 goals in 57 games.
Slepyshev, who was the first overall pick in the 2011 KHL Junior Draft, was traded during his NHL draft season, and has spent the last two seasons with the KHL’s Ufa Salavat. His initial pro seasons were almost complete write-offs including a mere eight points in 36 games in 2013-14. A small bright light that year was his play at the World Juniors when he picked up seven points in seven games for the bronze-medal winning Russians (a second straight third-place finish at the event). Last season, though, he gained some traction suiting up for 58 games and netting 15 goals and 25 points.
It might be a bit surprising to find out that Corey Pronman, a highly regarded ESPN Insider especially when it comes to up-and-coming talent, has Slepyshev ranked as the fourth-highest Oilers prospect:
He’s a highly skilled playmaker with good speed whose all-around game and ability to win battles have been issues.
The more intriguing prospect is Yakimov primarily because he’s a big center with some skills – an element that seems to have been missing for eons in the Oiler lineup. It would be far too early to expect Yakimov to see significant time in Edmonton just yet. He’ll turn 21 just before the regular season begins with only year of North American hockey under his belt – and it was a year cut short by injury that precluded him from being part of the Barons’ playoff lineup.
Yakimov is a huge, powerful young player who is a monster on the ice. He has strong hockey sense and good positional play, which makes up for his sub-par skating skills. Despite a lack of foot speed he has impressive hands and good offensive skills. After spending two seasons playing at the men’s level as a teenager in Russia, Yakimov’s game is a bit more mature than most 20-year-olds, though he will likely need time to adapt to the smaller rinks and tighter checking in North America.
Pakarinen appeared in 17 games with the Oilers last season which makes him the strongest candidate of the three to stick around Edmonton. His stint with the big club yielded only three points, but it’s Pakarinen’s feisty nature and willingness to get into the greasy areas that have him pegged for prime time. The Oilers haven’t had much in the way of ornery players over the past several seasons, but with mindsets changing in Katzville that agitating approach of players like Pakarinen fits in much better than before.
The former Florida draft pick is sizeable at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and has shown flashes of offensive abilities, picking up 20 goals and 30 points in his final season in the Finnish Elite League before moving to North America and joining the Oklahoma City Barons last year. With the Barons, he finished sixth in goals but that was top amongst the prospects as every player ahead of him was a minor-league veteran. Points-wise, only Anton Lander was ahead of Pakarinen who was tied with Yakimov at 28.
A large winger shooting from his right … An energetic player with good skating and a nice frame … Possesses a good, sharp wrist shot and is a solid finisher … A hard worker and versatile player.
-Matias Strozyk, Elite Prospects
WHAT’S TO COME
As with every pre-training camp story regarding a top farm team, it’s all going to depend on who stays and who comes down from the big club.
The trio of Yakimov between Slepyshev and Pakarinen could come down intact and create a top line for the Condors. If Leon Draisaitl heads to Bakersfield, he could benefit from sliding between two veteran hands in Ryan Hamilton and Andrew Miller. That’s a pretty decent 1-2 punch at the AHL level. Should Draisaitl stay in Edmonton, the all-Euro line could very well stay together with Hamilton and Miller flanking either rookie Kyle Platzer or Jujhar Khaira, who could really benefit from a rebound campaign. Khaira was a third-round pick just like Yakimov and Slepyshev only a year earlier in 2012, but he seems to be regressing.
The Oilers need Yakimov to succeed. They don’t have to be desperate and rush him but they do need him to have a good year with the Condors. With a stronger surrounding cast, it’s not unreasonable to expect a significant increase in his output from a year ago:
Long-term it is envisioned that he can one day be a power forward with the ability to go into the corners and in front of the net — supplementing the fast-skating and highly-skilled forwards currently in the Edmonton lineup. Yakimov’s size makes him a menace in his own end and hard to knock off of the puck in the offensive zone, but it is unclear whether he has the top level skill to earn him a top-six spot at the NHL level.
With Slepyshev, expectations are likely to be a bit lower considering he will need some time to adapt to a drastic change of scenery. He might already be 21, but Slepyshev, who signed a three-year entry-level deal in May, is basically a raw rookie especially when it comes to the North American game. So much so, that he’ll most likely be in the lineup when the Oiler prospects hit Penticton for the Young Stars Tournament. That said, a big first pro season in Bakersfield is a reachable goal.
As with several talented young forwards from Russia in recent years there is some concern about his willingness to play in North America and how he will adapt to the NHL’s smaller rinks and tighter checking game. Talent-wise his high skill level and skating ability suggest he can fit in well with some of the high profile young forwards currently on the Edmonton roster.
If Yakimov and Pakarinen both notched 28 points last season with a lesser club than what the Condors are likely to have, you’d have to expect that Slepyshev could put up 30 or more.
Of the three, Pakarinen, who is entering the second year of a two-year, two-way deal, is certainly the closest to full-time NHL employment. In fact it’s probably only 60/40 he comes down and if he does it might not be for long. He’s got a lot of what the Oilers need.
Oilers’ Finnish scout Matti Virmanen pushed hard for Pakarinen who played for the silver-medal winning Finns and their GM Jari Kurri at the WHC (World Hockey Championship).
-Bob Stauffer, Oilers Radio Network
CONDORS NEST: It was announced on Sept. 2 that the Condors will play the Stockton Heat (Calgary) in the Golden State Hockey Rush – an outdoor game taking place at Raley Field in Sacramento. The stadium, which is home to the Sacramento River Cats, is a top-drawer Triple-A baseball park (home of the San Francisco Giants’ farm team) and it will be the Heat’s home game that night. It’s the eighth outdoor game in AHL history and the first for the league in California.
*Turns out the Condors and San Jose Barracuda are going to be part of three AHL/NHL same-building doubleheaders this season at the SAP Center:
Saturday, Dec. 5 @ 1:30 p.m. – Condors vs. Barracuda; @ 7:30 p.m. – Sharks vs. Lightning
Monday, Jan. 18 @ 1:15 p.m. – Condors vs. Barracuda; @ 7:30 p.m. – Sharks vs. Senators
Saturday, Mar. 5 @ 1:15 p.m. – Condors vs. Barracuda; @ 7 p.m. – Sharks vs. Canucks
*If Oiler fans are interested in making a trip to California during the chilly months and want to catch some hockey, there are a couple of noteworthy scheduling quirks:
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, the Oilers are in Anaheim and on the same night, the Condors are playing the Ducks’ affiliate, the San Diego Gulls, about two hours away. Better yet, the Oilers play the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, Feb. 25, and one night later a jaunt up I-5 and Hwy. 99 will lead you to Bakersfield where the Condors host the San Jose Barracuda.