Last week I wrote about how youth and speed are taking over today’s NHL and also how important it is for teams to develop that talent themselves.
The Oilers have a decent amount of high-end young talent when you look at Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and when you consider Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, they could be adding two more legitimate top-six options in the next few seasons.
The biggest problem for the Oilers will be finding cheap options or players on their entry-level contracts who can both contribute and give them cap relief.
The Oilers actually do have a wave of forwards hitting Bakersfield next season and although I wouldn’t call it a tsunami-like wave, there are some interesting names.
TYLER BENSON – 32nd overall – 2016
When I spoke to Benson back in January, he said that his goal for 2018-19 was to play professional hockey and it’s looking like he will reach that goal, even if it’s not in the NHL.
The 20-year-old could technically return to the WHL for another season but after back-to-back point per game campaigns, all signs point to Benson moving on, which is great news for Oilers’ fans.
While I wouldn’t call Benson an ‘A’ level prospect, he’s a solid ‘B’. Someone who I think will be an NHLer someday, but likely as a middle-six forward. The Edmonton product thinks the game at a very high level and was able to use that to his advantage in the WHL. He has some solid offensive instincts as well, he was six points away from being a point per game player across his whole junior career.
He got a taste of AHL action towards the end of this season and posted three assists in five games. That experience, along with being healthy enough to train hard this offseason will make next year very interesting for Benson.
KAILER YAMAMOTO – 22nd overall – 2017
I mentioned him as a possibility at the NHL level, but there’s an equal chance that the 2017 first rounder ends up in the AHL, at least to start the 2018-19 season.
One reason I would be hesitant to put a skilled winger in the AHL is that I always worry that their development might be stunted by not getting used to playing with skill. That might be a ridiculous concern, but I believe there is some merit to it.
I think some time in the AHL would be really good for Yamamoto and with a centre like Benson, and I feel there’s a chance for him to develop well and get used to playing with skill.
OSTAP SAFIN – 115th overall – 2017
The 6’5 Czech winger was signed to his entry-level contract in March after a strong year with the Saint John Sea Dogs which saw him score 26 goals and add 32 assists in 61 games.
Like Benson, Safin got a cup of coffee in Bakersfield towards the end of the year but scored just once in nine games. Even without the numbers, the experience was good for Safin, who will be more prepared should he make the jump to pro hockey next year.
Despite being only 19-years-old, Safin is eligible to play in the AHL as a teenager because he was drafted from a European team and then went to the CHL after.
Scouts describe him as a big, skilled, straight line player which leads me to believe his potential is as a good complimentary winger, something the Oilers could desperately use.
COOPER MARODY – ACQUIRED VIA TRADE
A 6th round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015, Marody was never signed by the team and was acquired by the Oilers in March for the same third-round pick the team got for Patrick Maroon.
A veteran of 80 games in the NCAA, Marody finally found offensive success in his third season scoring 16 goals and 35 assists in 40 games. The forward impressed the Oilers enough to earn an entry-level deal and a short stint in the AHL, where he grabbed three points in three games.
College players can be tricky, but Marody showed well in a very brief trial in Bakersfield, it will be interesting to see how he handles his first full season as a pro.
CAMERON HEBIG – Undrafted Free Agent
The Oilers inked Hebig to an ELC in December when he was with the Saskatoon Blades. The overage forward finished the season with Regina and combined for 90 points in 66 games between the two teams, his second straight year with more than a point per game.
He’s a long shot to become an NHLer, but it’s clear that he knows how to score and might just be a late bloomer. It will be very interesting to see how he adjusts to pro hockey.
Oilers fans will get a great look at him with the host Regina Pats at the upcoming Memorial Cup.
TYLER VESEL – 153rd overall – 2014
After spending four full seasons with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and wearing the ‘C’ on his jersey in his final season, Vesel finally got a one-year entry-level deal from the Oilers last month.
He will be with Bakersfield next year, but on a one-year contract, he’ll have to make a strong first impression. He never stood out statistically, although 35 points in his junior year is nothing to scoff at, but scouting reports suggest he could be a good depth player. He can kill penalties and has been praised for his two-way play.
Grayson Downing and Colin Larkin could both be in the AHL next season and could be interesting. There’s also Kirill Maksimov, who has to play at least one more year with Niagra in the OHL. JD Dudek was acquired from the Devils and the trade deadline, but it sounds like he could head back to college for one more year.
Out of the players I named, I would say Yamamoto and Benson are the surest bets to one day be NHL players while Safin and Marody might be sleepers. Hebig and Vessel both look like long shots at this point.
A player’s first year as a pro can tell you a lot, so next year will be very important to these young men as they look to carve out pro hockey careers.
Like I said off the top, it’s not a huge wave for the Oilers, but it’s encouraging for there to be multiple decent prospects looking to play pro hockey for the organization. Hopefully, 2018-19 is the beginning of a strong wave of supporting players coming through the system for Edmonton, because they desperately need it.