Behind Khaira, the Oilers have virtually no forward prospect depth

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Although
well-stocked on the blue line and in net, the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL system is critically low on forwards who project as anything more than fourth-liners at
the NHL level. There’s Jujhar Khaira, and little else. 

There also
isn’t much on the way.

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Of course, looking back two years many of the same concerns applied to Khaira himself.

Khaira’s career path at the amateur level was odd and I’ve
always wondered how much he was hurt by bouncing around so much in his
formative years. He was a smart pick out of the BCHL, one of the few Oilers
selections out of that league in recent years who combined good offensive
production (79 points in 54 games) with legitimate upside (as an August
birthday, he wasn’t even 18 when Edmonton drafted him). He didn’t get to stay
there long, though, going to Michigan Tech (NCAA) the next season and then to
Everett (WHL) the year after that.

When Todd Nelson was promoted to an NHL job midway through
2014-15, Khaira was on his fifth different head coach in a span of just four
seasons across four different leagues.

He didn’t score at all as a rookie pro, really, posting just
10 points in 51 games. The next season (last year), he put up 27 points in 49
AHL contests, earning a 15-game NHL recall in the process. So far this season
he has seven points in six games and is by far the brightest light of the
Oilers’ forward prospects. 

What Khaira has had in his favour all down the line, though,
is age. He’s only just 22 now, and a 6’3”, 214-pound 22-year-old who can anchor
a scoring line in the minors is nicely on-track for an NHL career. Older
prospects that can’t score have much less time to figure things out.

If we set our cut-off to forwards under age 25 currently
with the Bakersfield Condors , we find nobody close to Khaira’s current level of production, despite the fact that he’s one of the younger prospects on the farm:

  • Jujhar Khaira, age 22 (six games, seven points, 1.17
    points/game).
  • Josh Currie, age 24 (11 games, four points, 0.36
    points/game). Undersized, undrafted forward worked his way up from the ECHL
    last season and was rewarded with an AHL contract. Like Josh Winquist last year,
    he isn’t actually signed by the Oilers.
  • Joey Benik, age 24 (10 games, three points, 0.30
    points/game). Another undersized, undrafted forward on an AHL contract. Benik
    scored at better than a point-per-game pace in college last season. He turns 25
    in January.
  • Mitch Moroz, age 22 (12 games, three points, 0.25
    points/game). A second-round pick in the 2012 Draft, Moroz is now in the final
    season of his entry-level deal. He’s on pace to match last year’s career-high
    in scoring, when he put up 10 points in 40 games.
  • Patrick Russell, age 23 (12 games, three points, 0.25
    points/game). The undrafted Russell signed a two-year ELC with the Oilers after
    hitting the point-per-game mark in college last year. He turns 24 in January
    and has size but not speed on his side.
  • Kyle Platzer, age 21 (11 games, two points, 0.18
    points/game). Platzer is the player I hold out the most hope for on this list.
    He’s well off last season’s pace (17 points in 48 games), so we know he can
    deliver more than he has so far this season. He’s also one of the younger
    players in this group.
  • Braden Christoffer, age 22 (12 games, two points, 0.17
    points/game). Another undrafted forward, Christoffer earned an ELC with
    Edmonton last year after impressing in training camp. He’s gritty and competitive,
    but lacks size and never put up big numbers over his junior career.
  • Greg Chase, age 21 (six games, zero points, 0.00
    points/game). Chase and Christoffer are similar players in some ways, though
    Chase was always the better junior scorer and was drafted in the seventh round
    in his first year of eligibility. He should have more upside but can’t seem to
    get traction in the minors.

There isn’t much else on the way to help, either. We’re well
into Edmonton’s 2012 and 2013 picks, though college man Aidan Muir appears to
be off to a good start this season and may yet have a career. Another college
guy with a spotty track record, Tyler Vesel, is the only reinforcement on the
way from the 2014 or 2015 drafts.

The next wave of forwards entering the Oilers’ system comes
from the 2016 Draft, and it’s a small one. Tyler Benson is a real prospect,
while Graham McPhee and Aapeli Rasanen were both taken late in the draft and
will need to overachieve to have NHL careers.

This is most definitely a weakness in the system. I wonder
at some point if we don’t see a defenceman-for-forward prospect trade or two. 

Failing that, “opportunity” should be the first word out of the mouth of any
Oilers recruiter when talking to top college free agents, because that’s the
one thing Edmonton has in abundance. Russell hasn’t been able to do much with it, but Drake Caggiula certainly has, going straight from college to the majors.  

  • @Hallsy4

    Fist of all, the Oilers likely should have taken Debrinkat rather than Benson, although I think Benson will eventually turn out to be a decent 3rd or 4th liner.

      • @Hallsy4

        Lol, yeah pretty weak. However, I note that Debrinkat already has more goals this year, than Benson has ever scored in a single WHL season. My worry with him is he peaked in Bantam… but like I said, hopefully he turns into a good 3rd or 4th liner, been a while since we’ve drafted one of those.

        • Joy S. Lee

          This is in response to both your statement, common misconceptions, and Willis sounding the alarms over an organizational weakness. How is it that you’re so sure Benson won’t be a first liner? By his play, I mean; forgetting any numbers of any sort. What kind of criteria are you using to determine Debrinkat is better, besides any numerical determination?

          I guess what I’m asking is whether you’ve been watching either of them play the games. Indications are that Benson did himself well in the Canada-Russia series, and may get an invite to Canada’s world junior camp in the next few weeks. I’m hoping he makes it, so I can see why you’re so certain he’s incapable of being a top 6 NHLer, since I’ve been getting vibes that he shows many of the high-end skills NHL teams are on the lookout for.

          I mean, no one has a crystal ball. Any kids’ development is dependent on many factors, most of them under their own control. Skill is often natural, so Debrinkat may show an edge there, but the NHL is a man’s league. Which of the two will be able to translate their skill while enduring the rigors of today’s game? I know Benson is a stocky type, and maybe that’s why you’re quick to say he’s destined for the bottom half of a depth chart. But scouts also say he’s tremendously heady, smart, efficient. Ask all of the GM’s in the league, and most will suggest “hockey sense” as a very high priority.

          I do it – I make my guesses, too, and it seems I’m pretty darned good at it from how players I’ve salivated over have developed into NHLers. All that being said, it’s a crapshoot, ain’t it? I mean, this kid Benson, in particular, has missed about a season and a half of development time, but he had shown the potential to be considered in a very elite group before all of that. But when someone says things as being definitive – that 18 yr old kids are known commodities – I think we have reason to question from where such assertions are being made. As much as things have changed, maybe they have – or haven’t – changed as much as we think. I’d have to see him play some more, that’s why I want to see him make the WJC. Maybe DeBrinkat will, too, and we can compare notes. But the games – and the skills these players bring to them – are diverse. Is a sniper like Eberle more valuable than a power forward like Lucic? I guess that depends on what you need. Either one can play in the top 6. A power forward can often play better in a bottom 6 defensive role than the sniper. Their diversity may be more valuable to some. So many factors… and it’s two kids’ futures you are presuming certainty over. Good luck with that. One never knows, it could happen, look no further than the two kids carrying the Oilers first line right now. I’d love to see Benson on the second line next year. More options.

          Which is to suggest that while the Oilers are low on high-end forward skill in the system, it is their strength at the NHL level. And their high-end defensive skill in the system is strong, while their NHL level has been questionable for years. Seems like they’ve struck at least a little bit of balance, to me. Beats the hell out of the lack of depth at all positions they had in the system only a few years ago. And Chiarelli’s managed to add much of that balance in about a year and a half. How do the results look so far? I think we can give them a little benefit for getting it back to respectability. Let’s at least allow them the room to continue building upon their foundation of balance.

          (BTW, I like what little I’ve seen from Debrinkat, a lot. Depends what you’re looking for though, doesn’t it?)

    • @Hallsy4

      On second thought, I’m fine with Benson. Would be awesome if he turned out to be Brodziak/Stoll/Chimera etc. My issue is the drafting prior to and during the decade of despair. How could it possibly be that bad. Mickey Mouse.

  • positivebrontefan

    Yikes.
    I guess that’s what happens when you pick in the top 3-4 overall every year, they make it to the majors real soon or they aren’t gonna make it at all. Shows you how hard it is to pick high end talent after the first round, with out a bit of luck, it’s tough sledding.

  • baxwar_580

    Lander cleared waivers so he must be considered a depth player in the system correct? As well once Iro comes back someone else is going to the farm and that’s likely another depth player. I know Iro and Lander don’t fall below your 25 age cutoff but they are both 25 I believe.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        Imagine having mighty Matt in our system plus 2nd rounder RD Brandon Carlo, who made the Bruins this season, and it makes the Reinhart deal feel even worse!

        • MacT's Neglected Helmet

          Imagine we didn’t win the draft lottery. Then we’d have someone like Noah Hanifin instead of Connor McDavid.

          My advice would be to not imagine hypotheticals. Did we lose the Griffin Reinhart trade? No doubt. Would we have picked Kyle Connor or Matt Barzal? Maybe? Who knows.

          • HardBoiledOil 1.0

            i mention it because Oiler fans all over the net keep mentioning it. also a lot have convinced themselves that Barzal was the guy the Oilers would have taken because he was “the BPA” when in reality it could have been up to 5 players the Oilers were eyeballing at #16.

  • Spydyr

    “Although well-stocked on the blue line and in net, the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL system is critically low on forwards who project as anything more than fourth-liners at the NHL level. ”

    The left left side of the defence perhaps. The right side of the defence looks pretty weak to me depth wise.

    • Joy S. Lee

      Hmm. BENNING, Oesterle, Musil, LaLeggia, and from around the world and in junior… BERGLUND, BEAR, Marino and Cairns. I dunno. To me, that’s a healthy prospect pool for ONE side of the defense. And, now that we have one – an NHL defense, I mean – in addition to having access to free agents and more draft picks, it means we don’t have to rush them into the NHL. It’s an actual developmental model you’re seeing now. Woohoo!

      (CAPS indicate higher-end potential)

  • Spydyr

    The reason the forwards have no depth is because all the high first round picks are rushed into the NHL. Then the Oilers have either traded away second and third round picks or have been very weak drafting outside the first round in the last decade or more.

  • giddy

    I was wondering what was happening with Khaira after his nice stint last year in the NHL. Love his playing style and for a guy with zero NHL experience he didn’t look all that out of place.

    I can definitely see him becoming a Zack Kassian type, plays a big, gritty mean game but also still has some hands and touch. Lets just hope that when he does begin to crack into the roster regularly, he puts up more than Kassian’s 12 pt in 52 games with the Oil though.

  • OilCan2

    There is Iiro and Lander to get us through this season. We might be buyers in the spring. That would be major fun.

    Benson looks like he may be a prospect of note for the ’17 camp. I guess we may have a shot at another college kid then too.

    Hopefully our first rounder is #31.

  • CMG30

    It’s disgraceful that after 10 years of ‘building through the draft’ we don’t have any forward depth to speak of. This is the truest indictment of the (former?) regime possible. They didn’t even accomplish what they set out to do.

    How did it happen?
    1. Poor drafting.
    2. Rushing talent into the show before they were ready only to flush them when they inevitably failed. Rinse and repeat, and here we are today.