So, the Edmonton Oilers have the 22nd pick going into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in Chicago later this month. If the Oilers stay in that slot, it’ll mark the third time in franchise history they’ve picked 22nd. The last time was 2008, when they selected Jordan Eberle from the Regina Pats. The first time was back in 2003, when the Oilers took Marc-Antoine Pouliot from the Rimouski Oceanic. Remember that? Of course you do.
Looking back, the 2003 draft in Nashville, at what was then called the Gaylord Entertainment Center, was a blast. Broadway Street was crowded and buzzing. Not the way it’s been during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, but full of booze and people nonetheless. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge was packed. There were line-ups to pose with the Elvis statue just outside the doors to the open-stage hotspot. And the cruises on the riverboats, including one booked by the Oilers post-draft, well, let’s just say a good time was had by all.
There was nothing about the festivities in Music City not to like except the hangover and, as hindsight has clearly shown in the years since, Pouliot, the player the Oilers took after trading down from the 17th slot with the New Jersey Devils. Lou Lamoriello, the GM in New Jersey at the time, should still be sending Kevin Lowe flowers and chocolates at the draft every year for that.
With a bunch of blue-chippers already gone, including Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf and Brent Seabrook, there was still a lot of top-shelf talent available as the Oilers got closer to their pick. After Robert Nilsson went 15th to the New York Islanders and Steve Bernier was taken 16th by the San Jose Sharks, the Oilers were on the clock. Lamoriello and Lowe huddled and it was announced the teams had made a deal. The Devils moved to 17th and the Oilers got a second-round pick to go 22nd. The Devils drafted Zach Parise. Five picks later, the Oilers took Pouliot. Sure.
THE BOOK ON MAP
The book on Pouliot in the minds of the Oilers scouting staff at the time was that he was a talented, character player who’d been the lone bright light on a Rimouski team that was absolutely terrible because the roster had been gutted to ensure they’d get the rights to Sidney Crosby. It worked. Rimouski was 11-58-3 in Pouliot’s draft season and he led the team with 32-41-73.
“He played in a tough situation where he lost 38 games in a row but he showed up to play all the time,” Oilers’ vice-president of hockey operations Kevin Prendergast said of Pouliot. “He finds people when he’s got the puck and he’s a right-handed big centre, something we don’t have.”
Having failed to move into the top 10 to get a shot at one of the blue-chip rearguards in the draft, which Lowe pushed hard to do going in, the Oilers finally opted to move down. Parise’s size, five-foot-11, was a concern — I was told so by more than one member of the scouting staff leading into the draft. The Oilers actually had Pouliot rated slightly higher than Parise.
“We didn’t think there was much difference between the two on puck-handling ability, but Pouliot was bigger,” Prendergast said. “Pouliot has more speed to his game. They both have good hockey sense in terms of getting points. Zach has lots of positives. He’s got a lot of character and plays tough. Marc isn’t that outgoing a player but he doesn’t get pushed around. We just feel Pouliot’s upside is better.”
REELING ON THE RIVER
Of course, hindsight tells us again that Prendergast and the Oilers whiffed big-time on their assessment of Pouliot. He’d play just 176 games with Edmonton, scoring 21-32-53 before making stops with Tampa Bay and Phoenix. What compounds the mistake is who the Oilers could have drafted that day had they not traded down at all and stayed at No. 17. Then, there’s who they could have had with the 22nd pick even after they swapped with the Devils.
The Oilers could have taken Parise at No. 17. They passed on him because of his size, but they also missed two big prospects in Ryan Getzlaf (No. 19 to Anaheim) and Brent Burns (No. 20 to Minnesota), who were on the board there. Even in the No. 22 slot the Oilers could’ve taken Ryan Kesler (No. 23 Vancouver), Mike Richards (No. 24 Philadelphia) or Corey Perry (No. 28 Anaheim). Instead, Pouliot was their guy. The rest we know.
The Oilers booked a riverboat cruise for when the second day of the draft wound down. Draftees who made the trip to Nashville were invited, as were hockey-ops people from the front office, coaching staff and scouting staff, as well as a handful of media people who covered the team – Mark Spector, Jim Matheson and I jumped aboard once our stories were filed.
We had no idea then how things were going to turn out. No inkling that so many of the kids the Oilers passed on would develop to become really good and, in some cases, great NHL players when we set out on the river that sunny afternoon. We certainly didn’t know Marc Pouliot would not be one of them.