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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.