Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Can Dillon Simpson leverage his intelligent, dependable game into an NHL roster spot?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 79 LD Dillon Simpson

One of the difficulties in dealing with prospects is that people feel compelled to hedge their bets. It’s an understandable impulse; young players can be unpredictable, and the right combination of circumstances and personal growth can lead to rapid development, even from players who were undrafted or taken late in the draft or who have been cast off by one or more NHL teams.

The reason this is a difficulty is that NHL clubs don’t have the luxury of deferring decisions. Every year at the entry draft, their scouting groups rank the world’s best 18-year-old players, assigning values to them and drafting accordingly. Every year going forward, those teams continue to make decisions—whether to offer a contract, whether to make a trade, whether to prioritize development. They don’t get to default to “don’t write him off, he’s still young.”

Each of those decisions requires a choice, but few are more important for non-blue chip prospects than the one teams make entering those players’ fourth professional season, a milestone which Dillon Simpson has now reached.

That’s the point at which waiver exemption ends for most prospects:

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For Simpson, and others like him (in the Oilers organization, Jujhar Khaira is probably the most notable prospect at the same mark) this is the point where a prospect either a) opens the season on the roster of the team that drafted him, b) is claimed on waivers and starts with another NHL team or c) clears waivers, with 31 teams determining that he isn’t an NHL-calibre player in his mid-20’s.

Simpson is probably looking at outcome (c).

Hard Pass

It isn’t that Simpson is a bad player. Entering 2016-17, AHL coach Gerry Fleming had a lot of positive things to say about his performance:

Dillon Simpson I thought [was] overall probably our most consistent d-man all year long. I don’t know where to being; there are so many improvements in his game that have happened not only this year but last year as well. He doesn’t make many mistakes, he’s low maintenance, a good leader; he’s assumed that responsibility this year. I think more [AHL] time for Dillon and hopefully he gets some games up and down next year to see where he’s at. He was great for us all year long.

What that generally positive summary lacks is a list of standout qualities, which is always a bad sign for a second-tier prospect. Sometimes a team looking for a specific ingredient—speed, toughness, offensive ability—will overlook the weaknesses of a Keith Aulie or Brad Hunt in the name of adding the thing they’re great at. Simspon isn’t great at things; he’s just pretty good at a lot of stuff.

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Simpson isn’t incompetent with the puck, but neither is he an assertive puckmover, and his offensive game is practically nonexistent even at the AHL level. He isn’t small, listed 6’2” and 197 pounds, but he isn’t big and certainly isn’t a bruising physical presence. He doesn’t skate like David Musil, but neither is he a plus skater.

He is smart. That comes across in Fleming’s statement; it’s also reflected in Simpson’s ability to shift between the left side and the right side of the defence as needed. It has allowed Simpson to become a strong AHL defenceman without being particularly big, fast or skilled; it even got him into a three-game NHL cameo last season.

Sam Gagner talks about his future

Simpson wasn’t bad over those three games, spent mostly on the third pairing with Matt Benning. He’s clearly a high-level AHL player, and he can fill-in at the NHL level. But he didn’t show anything that’s likely to make the Oilers worry about him being claimed if he’s placed on the waiver wire.

What separates Simpson from a lot of players in this sort of situation is that he’s still somewhat useful to the organization in the AHL. Smart, versatile, low-maintenance defenders with experience can be valuable to their coaches and younger teammates, filling in where needed and stabilizing a less-experienced partner. That Simpson can also be recalled and step into the Oilers lineup when needed adds to his value.

Bottom line: No hockey playing kid dreams of growing up to be NHL organizational depth, but every team needs a couple of players like Simpson in the system. He should continue to help Bakersfield, as well as compete for major-league minutes in training camp and over the course of the season.

Previous year-end reviews: