There’s a reason Kailer Yamamoto is getting so much attention in Edmonton, beyond the fact that it’s August and he was a first-round pick. The truth is that the Oilers don’t have many other forward prospects worth getting excited about.
Certainly the AHL level is a bit of a wasteland. Of the team’s top-five scorers last season, two (Anton Lander and Taylor Beck) are gone, two (Ryan Hamilton and Josh Currie) are on AHL-only deals and the lone prospect is 25-year-old converted defenceman Joey Laleggia, who was taken late in the 2012 Draft as an overage player and managed 38 points last season.
The exceptions, Jesse Puljujarvi and Jujhar Khaira, come a little further down the list thanks to limited games played totals in the AHL.
Puljujarvi is absolutely still a blue chip prospect, though it’s fair to be a little worried about his offensive game. Even if the offence doesn’t come in at hoped-for levels, he’s a 6’4” winger with brains and speed, and those kinds of players can have an impact in multiple roles. Khaira has less upside but should be a cheap and competent bottom-six guy. Both players should make the jump this year, though. Once they do, there won’t be any forward prospects of significance in Edmonton’s AHL system, and only 2-3 of the non-longshot variety in the system at all.
Yamamoto is the best of the lot, though this speculation he might make the Oilers out of training camp seems, well, let’s just call it incredibly premature. Very few late first-round picks are ready so soon, especially not ones who weighed less than 150 pounds at the draft combine. Even David Pastrnak, the bluest of blue-sky comparables, was more than 20 pounds heavier than Yamamoto at the same point in his draft season.
Tyler Benson is the other forward picked relatively early by Edmonton. He fell to 32nd overall a little over a year ago, with a serious draft year injury scaring teams off despite his obvious talent. A summer later, it’s not clear whether the Oilers should be pleased or dissatisfied with his development; his offensive numbers improved markedly but once again he was limited to fewer than 40 games played.
If I were to add a third player to this list of interesting prospects in the system, it would be Joe Gambardella. The 23-year-old college free agent put up big numbers last season and at least as importantly brings a reputation for defensive ability. Having said that, Gambardella fell outside SBN’s top 100 college prospects list and a lot of top UMass-Lowell scorers have had rocky pro debuts, so I’d advise caution before labeling him the next Scott Wilson.
Outside of those players, Edmonton’s forward pipeline is all lovable longshots – players like Aapeli Rasanen and Ostap Safin and Tyler Vesel and Kirill Maksimov. Like any good prospect watcher, I can give you reasons to believe in these players. However, also like any good prospect watcher, I can tell you the odds do not favour individual selections made outside the top 100.
This is a problem for Edmonton, though one that it’s possible to overstate.
As everyone knows, the salary cap favours teams that have a perpetually regenerating supply of cheap, capable young forwards. But there are ways around it, ways the Oilers have already demonstrated. If a team can go out and sign a Jussi Jokinen to a cheap deal every year (and recent NHL history suggests this is a viable strategy) that somewhat mitigates not having the next Anton Slepyshev. Teams with limited prospect depth also tend to do better when courting free agents like Drake Caggiula. A combination of veteran and undrafted free agents can cover some problems.
Still, there’s a need to draft players at this position and do so in volume, because even a pile of good prospects only produces so many actual players.
Excluding top 10 selections, between 2009 and 2013 Edmonton took 14 forwards with top-100 picks. That group produced two depth guys who have since moved on (Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick) and two other players who might still have careers with the Oilers (Khaira, Slepyshev).
Between 2014 and 2017, the Oilers have taken just two forwards between picks No. 10 and No. 100 (Yamamoto and Benson). That’s not enough to restock the cupboard at a time where Edmonton is likely to need both a) cheap forwards to play with their impact guys and b) prospects to deal for veterans at the trade deadline.
In between doing the other things needed to turn Edmonton into a championship team, GM Peter Chiarelli needs to find a way to restock a nearly depleted system. Otherwise, he risks not having the resources necessary to put the team over the top when the time comes to add trade deadline reinforcements over the next few seasons.