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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Developing NHL Forwards

The NHL has shifted to a league that’s run by fast, skilled as opposed to the big, strong teams we saw win Stanley Cups over the better part of the last decade.

Just look at the teams still alive in the playoffs, all of them play quick hockey that allows them to score in a multitude of ways and with the exception of Vegas, they’re doing it with cores that they developed in their own systems.

Winnipeg has Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers, and Connor. The Lightning have Johnson, Palat, Gourde and Point to go along with Stamkos and Kucherov. Washington has Kuznetsov and Wilson in their top six along with veterans Ovechkin and Backstrom, who were both drafted and developed by the organization.

In a cap world, it’s well known that growing young talent and having them contribute at the NHL level is very important and that’s something the Oilers are going to have to get better at.

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Right now their forward group features big talents like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and not much else. So just how far away are the Oilers from having an elite forward core that can matchup with the likes of Winnipeg or Nashville in the west?

Dec 16, 2017; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi (98) scores in the third period against Minnesota Wild goalie Alex Stalock (32) at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse Puljujarvi is clearly still developing and the reviews are mixed on him. Some think he’d be better served as trade bait while others, like myself, think he’s not very far away from being an impact top-six winger.

The example I like to use is Mikko Rantanen, who spent his 19-year-old season in the AHL, put up 38 points in 78 games as a 20-year-old before exploding for 84 points this past season as a 21-year-old.

You can also look at Nikolaj Ehlers who was sent back to junior his first year after being drafted, scored 38 points in his rookie year and has now posted back-to-back 60 point seasons in his 20 and 21-year-old years.

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Puljujarvi hasn’t spent a full season in the AHL, but the Oilers have been very careful with how they’ve deployed him at the NHL level. Apart from some short stints with McDavid and Draisaitl, the Finnish winger was essentially only used on the third line and against the oppositions third pairing.

If that changes next season and he clicks with either of the Oilers top centres, I think we could see a more mature and confident Puljujarvi hit the 50 point mark, or better.

Kailer Yamamoto is the only other high-end forward prospect that the Oilers have. After being taken 22nd, he surprisingly got a nine-game trial at the beginning of the year and he looked like the type of player who can keep up with the likes of Connor McDavid.

He wasn’t very consistent at the WHL level this year, but I still think Yamamoto will be a top-six winger when he reaches his potential, it’s a matter of “when” not “if” in my eyes.

Many automatically want Yamamoto to spend an entire year in Bakersfield because he’s an undersized late-round pick and conventional development says that he needs to learn the game in the minors.

I have a problem with applying blanket statement like that to a prospect like Yamamoto. I’m not sure if being in the AHL would definitely be the best for him. I think he has the potential to be a good complimentary top-six winger for the Oilers and for him to reach that, he needs to be surrounded by skill and continue learning how to play with skill, that doesn’t always happen in the AHL.

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Bakersfield Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft.

Now things are changing and the Oilers are going to have more young talent in Bakersfield next year than they have in years past. They’ll also have Jay Woodcroft who will be closer with McLellan than Gerry Fleming was, so maybe AHL time for Yamamoto will be good, I just don’t think we should jump to any conclusions with him before we go through training camp.

Apart from these two, the Oilers don’t have any high-end prospects but they have some players that look to be developing into solid depth players.

Jujhar Khaira was a very pleasant surprise this year, and if he continues developing at this rate, he could be a really strong third line winger on this team for a long time. He skates well, he can play down the middle or on the wing, and he brings a good physical presence.

Drake Caggiula is a “love him or hate him” guy around Oilersnation. Some view him as an overrated AHL player who is simply a “tweener” that benefits from a coach that loves to play him. Others see him as a young, energy player who can compete and bring a little offence at the NHL level. There’s no doubt he’s still developing, but I think he can develop into a good bottom-six winger as long as Todd McLellan isn’t playing him over his head.

That’s really it as far as young, homegrown players who could contribute for the 2018-19 Oilers.

They have three elite-level young players that are already established, two players with high-end potential and a pair of low ceiling forwards. If all four of them hit their ceiling this coming season, then the Oilers will have a strong top-nine with potentially seven young, homegrown talents. But that’s very unlikely.

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Long-term, it’s clear that the margin for error is nonexistent when it comes to developing forwards. The Oilers need to have their current group reach their potential and add more young prospects to the current pool if they want to have any chance of competing with the likes of Winnipeg and Nashville in the Western Conference.


  • V88

    Why does edmonton always have to play their young guys so early? Why can’t we just take the ahl approach once in a while. It’s kind of annoying. Sign some established, grizzled vets that can produce instead of constantly banking on these kids to produce at an nhl level.
    Definition of insanity – keep trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I still think puljujaarvi should be in the ahl. It’ll help him now, seeing as there is some skill for him to play with down there.

    • kelvjn

      Having money tied up in the stars, Rusell, Fayne and Luccic mean you have very little money left to pay your low echelon guys. With close to league minimum at around 1M, you can have a veteran replacement level guy like Rob Klinkhammer or Gilbert Brule (free agents playing in KHL) taking your roster spot, or you can have Cagulia.

      The Oilers way is to deploy magic Ben’s, see Fayne/Gybra (both veteran RHD)vs Benning(the rookie).

    • Tyler Yaremchuk

      He’s not a candidate to make an impact in the NHL next year IMO. He’ll be talked about in my next piece on players who could impact Bakersfield next year

      • Rob...

        I hope you’re right about Jesse and Kailer being candidates to make an impact in the NHL next year, then. Likewise I hope Jujhar gains that consistency of play his critics correctly say he’s lacking.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      Needs a few years in Bakersfield. He needs to learn how to take an NHL hit.
      (Just watch Buff & Myers… All I gotta say is Tyler would be a board stain if we played him next season) Right now, that skilled kid is made of glass, I’m afraid.
      Seen him play more than a few games in Langley. He is skills for sure, but two seasons in the AHL should show him some NHL like size. Please don’t ruin him and others by putting him in too early, few ever fully recover.

      • Oilman99

        Totally agree,the kid needs to be much stronger before being sent to the NHL,or he is going to be on LTI in no time. Even sending back to the WHL might not be a bad idea, where guaranteed success in a sure bet.

  • OilersBro

    Here’s where I see all of them in the 2019-2020 season:
    Drake: Bottom 6 guy (4LW) but versatile enough to play powerplay, PK, and even be chippy and aggressive on the forecheck. I by no means think he’s a great NHLer but he plays with a tonne of grit and doesn’t take shifts off
    JJ: Eventually a 3C this team could use as a responsible two way forward. This season I noticed him play with a lot of poise when breaking out of his own zone and the fact that he’s both strong and fast will work to his advantage
    Pulu: I think will be a 2RW on Drai’s line. Drai’s one of the best passers of the backhand in the league and I can’t wait to see some winger depth get added. I don’t think Jesse will put up point per game numbers but will eventually be a consistent 60 point guy with most of those being goals.
    Yamo: I may be bullish here but I see an absolute killer line up with yamo playing with Nuge and McDavid. After watching Yamo in the preseason and world juniors, I noticed how well he uses his body to get good positioning despite being 140 lbs. His one-timer is unreal and shiftyness creates space like no-one else. I personally think Yamo is going to be better than Pulu.

    Eventually (best case scenario) Benson develops as well and our top 9 looks like:

    Nuge-McD-Yamo
    Benson-Drai-Pulu
    JJ Strome Lucic

    • Glencontrolurstik

      Yamo, Benson & Pulli aren’t really NHL ready for next season.
      Set them up for success is what the Oilers should do. By developing them to succeed with confidence. Just like Winnipeg and others have done.
      Putting those aforementioned out against the likes of Winnipeg & Nashville etc. is like throwing them to the wolves and showing them that they suck…
      That my friend, is a really tough feeling to break. That feeling of your not good enough to compete. The skill and confidence needs to be there 100% before they play at the NHL level.
      So, some skilled vets are needed to get us through that transition. Like T.O. did with Marleau & Boyle.

  • Moneyball

    When you think about it we re not in bad shape. One veteran on the right wing should do. Maybe a rhd if you do not think Klefbom will be healthy next season. Personally I would package up puljujarvi and get one of the pieces we need rather than take the development risk on him. From what I have seen he is far from a sure thing and right now he has some trade value, next year he could very well be a yakupov type scenario.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      If we treat him like we did Yakapov, Pulli will become Yakapov…
      If we develop him like Ehlers, Pulli will be full of commitment & confidence.
      The Oilers made a huge mistake with Yak. The great thing about that is that most of the same management staff is in place to remember what they did wrong. A learning opportunity, if you will. Yak had skill, no denying that.. Just needed to develop the mentallity and wherewithall abit.

      • OnDaWagon

        Yakapov didn’t do very well in St. Louis. He also didn’t do very well in Colorado. Maybe it’s time people accepted that Yakopov is just not a very good hockey player.

        • Glencontrolurstik

          The Oilers had Yak in the “formative years”… He has all the skill needed to play in the game… In essence, the Oiler’s ruined him by not showing him how to be a professional.

          • Rob...

            Yak was like a very finicky tool. In the right hands ‘Derek Roy’ he performed the job well. In the wrong hands ‘everyone else’ he was too much of a liability. Loved his enthusiasm, and his shot when it was on target, but he needs to be added to the large pile of high draft pics missing at least one of the tools necessary for success.

          • OilerForLife

            Undue influence is what caused the Oilers to acquire Yakupov in a very bad draft year. I don’t think he was ruined by the Oilers, because he may not have developed based just on who he was.

            Pavel Bure my a……!

        • HardBoiledOil 1.0

          Never going to happen with Yakupov because he went 1st overall so there MUST be a scorer in there somewhere if they’d just play him with the top players, you’ll see….LOL

  • WhoreableGuy

    Trading Puljujarvi at this point of his career would be the biggest mistake. He’s shown signs of being an impact Top 6 player. He just needs a little coaching on some aspects of the game and there lies the problem, finding some good people in the organization to develop him properly.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      Like a “life coach”…
      Giving a 20 year old foreigner (from a small Scandinavian town) access to millions of dollars with no supervision & expecting him to perform 80+ games as a top 6 forward with no life coach is just a not thoroughly thought through derision….

      • Moneyball

        Lol. There is always an excuse for puljujarvi. He’s only 20, his English is poor, he misses his mom etc… meanwhile layers like Laine and Tkachuk keep on putting up the points. He does have potential and we should trade him now because another season of this and he has no value.

        • Glencontrolurstik

          Those teams have professional life/media coaches available for their players. Often times insisted on by the team, through the players agent at signing. Not just a rookie, asked to live with an existing player to learn the ropes and the way the world operates. That’s seems to be what the Oiler’s do.
          If you trade him now. Most likely the new team will put him in one of those programs & the Oiler’s will be sorry again… Just saying.

          • Moneyball

            Lmao he needs a life coach! How many more excuses are there going to be for this under producing first rounder? Wtf is wrong with the coach the team currently has? How does the life coach fit in is there a spot for him on the bench? What a joke, how many excuses do we have to make before we come to the conclusion that we should trade him before his value is 0. Let some other team mess around with the excuses and the life coaching. The oilers need players who can put up points not excuses.

        • Big Nuggets

          Schiefle spent his first 2 pro seasons in the AHL and didn’t exactly blow the league up when he finally made it to the NHL. Puljujarvi is really young and has planty of room to grow. He should have been in the AHL this whole time. Blame managements ineptitude in developing players; lessons that should have been learned through the experiences of developing players over the last decade. Puljujarvi still has time but management isn’t doing him any favours by playing him in a league that is still over his head.

          Development time in the AHL seems to have become massively underrated in these parts. The majority of young players would benefit from learning how to play winning hockey in the very competitive AHL rather than learning how to tread water in the ultra compeitive NHL. I see no benefit to skipping this step in development unless the player is truely elite. I would say the evidence also bears this out when you look across the league. Tyler Johnson was in his 20s playing in the AHL with Kucherov figuring things out before breaking into the league, while Yakupov was running around like a tazmanian devil but clearly in over his head. Yzerman knows what he is doing, whoever calls the shots in Edmonton does not.

    • OilerForLife

      I agree with you that it would be far to early to give up on him. I also get the sense that he’s a complex player, with communication and culture complications, and may not become quite the player we all expected, which would suck.

      He really needs to build his North American game in the AHL, where there is less pressure than in Edmonton.

      • Big Nuggets

        I find him a hard prospect to project what he will become. He has a good shot which is a positive, but apparently his scouting report said he was a strong 2 way player and I am not seeing that, which is worrying. I agree he should be in the AHL, should have been there the whole time.

        • Moneyball

          That’s a fair assessment. When it come to asset management I just think the smart money is on dealing him now while he still has value. Comparing him to real outliers which have developed late is not realistic. I hope jp becomes a top 9 winger but the smart money says no. After doing poorly-average in the ahl to being a non factor in the nhl I would rather swap him for someone else that is more blue chip with less upside.

  • Bills Bills

    Trying to chase what other teams are doing to try and be competitive is what got the Oilers into this mess. Big and tough, small and fast etc. Etc. There is no doubt that in order to be successful for the long term you need to develop your own talent. A process the Oilers clearly need to be better at. That starts at the draft table and making a smart pick at #10 this year and not trading it away.

    But don’t expect the Oilers to be Pittsburgh 10 years ago. Sure they won a cup shortly after getting Crosby. But then did next to nothing for another 8 years. If we don’t win a cup in the first three years of McDavids new contract but in the last 5 we win 2 or 3 because we were patient with development then that is what I consider doing it right. Building a dominant team can’t be put on an immediate results timeline. It also can’t be done based in what teams are doing now. Small and skilled, okay so what. In 5 years it could be big and skilled that is winning cups. The dominant teams set the trends, they don’t follow them.

      • Big Nuggets

        You’re missing the point. Pittsburg won the cup when they still had Jordan Staal and all that talent from years of high draft picks. Then that depth left because Pittsburg couldn’t afford to retain everybody. In the following years they did not won a cup when they were forced to fill out their roster with random plugs on $800 000 contracts because of the cap crunch. It wasn’t until they developed a crew of their own players that they finally won again despite having argueably the 2 best players in the world on their team the whole time.

  • OnDaWagon

    I didn’t see any progress in Puljujarvi play this past season. Maybe it’s my eyes, but he didn’t look anywhere near what i’d expect a high 1st rounder to be. He looked slow to me.

    Yamamoto, i think, is going to be a player.

  • Fire Woodcroft!

    This discussion leaves out some context.

    Marody should be in the AHL next season but might get a cup of coffee in the bigs depending on injury. Also as someone above mentioned we have Benson who might get a few games too.

    I wouldn’t want to introduce them to the show this season but Oilers have more depth coming up through the organization:

    Brind’Amour
    Hebig
    Safin
    Maksimov
    Laleggia

    I might be a couple years but I guarantee there’s one or two Khaira’s in that bunch if not even more.

    Then there’s Bogdan Yakimov who I’ve always been intrigued by. (Maybe it’s the name). He had a rough year last season but could always rebound.

    If the point was that we don’t have any immediate answers for the upcoming season in our ranks then yeah – I can agree with that. But if the argument is that there’s a void beyond JP and the Yam-hammer than I’d suggest you go back and do some more homework.

    • The Whispererer

      Brind’amour ? Really ? 10 goals and 14 assists in 52 games in the BCHL in his draft+1 year doesn’t exactly scream NHL prospect. Laleggia will be jumping aboard the Pitlick exit train this summer. Yakimov already tried the AHL and ran back to Russia.
      The author of this article has it right. We have 3 forwards who can be counted on to supply offense, 2 others who appear to have bright future potential and 2 ( i’d be generous and include Strome to make it 3 ) who can be considered NHL caliber with low ceilings. This is precisely why any talk of moving JP for a defenseman is terrifying. Any defenseman needs a forward to pass the puck to, one who knows what to do with it when he receives it; the big 3 aren’t on the ice for 60 minutes a game. The Oilers badly need a 2RD, but subtracting from a very thin forward corps is not the way to get him. Draft and develop, or trade from a position of strength…the LHD.

      • Fire Woodcroft!

        Okay Judgey McJudgerson. If you’re ready to close the book on a prospect after their first year out of the draft then there really isn’t much more I can say.

        Fair enough point about Yakimov. I forgot he had already spent time over here.

  • Gravis82

    “So just how far away are the Oilers from having an elite forward core that can matchup with the likes of Winnipeg or Nashville in the west?“

    How far are we? In a few years how will we compare? Do we need to find more talent now or are we good? What is your stance? Stand pat or go looking?

  • OilerForLife

    My big concern right now is that with all the holes in the lineup, the Oilers may be forced to play some of our kids in the NHL. With Slepy, Pak and Avi all jumping ship it may be real tough trying to find enough cheap, with enough talent to play at the NHL level players, and as a result, few of our prospects actually make the team.

    Our prospects need to develop properly in the minors in order to get the organization back on track.

  • toprightcorner

    Thank MacT and his terrible drafting for the prospects we don’t have. The only prospects we have are ones Chiarelli added and in the next year or 2, there seems to be a lot more promising ones on the way.

    If this is about developing young prospects, the Oilers need to change 2 things.

    1) Stop giving too much ice time to career AHLers and give the prospects impact ice time. The AHL is about developing not icing a lineup that wins games

    2) once they have more prospects playing more ice time, wait until they have good success before calling them up. To many times the Oilers call up a player who hasn’t even completely figured it out in the AHL yet. Lack of prospects is the main culprit, but if you look at JP, Sleppy and Nurse, they all could have benefited from another 50 games of quality AHL ice time before being an NHL regular.

  • toprightcorner

    Regarding Yamamto. I am in the camp of having him start in the AHL. He needs to spend some time learning how to play against strong men that all way 50 lbs more than he does. Let him gain some confidence and if he shows that he can handle the size after 20-30 games and he also shows solid offense, then call him up to the NHL.

    The only way he should make the NHL out of camp is if he shows offense on the 3rd line and very clearly plays his way on the team. I would rather wait 20, 40, 60 games and have him join the club with confidence and professional experience, than struggle, lose confidence, maybe get hurt or have to be sent down.

    99% of people say the JP should have spent his first year in the AHL. He is bigger, stronger, already played against men and was a much higher level of prospect. Not thinking Yamamoto should be doing what JP didn’t, even at 1 year older, is obviously not paying attention. Draisailt is another example. If top 4 picks should wait a year, why wouldn’t you wand a 22 pick to wait 2 years.