The Oilers rookie camp opened today with medicals and fitness training. They will play three games starting Sunday in Calgary versus the Flames rookies, Tuesday at Rogers Place versus a NAIT/MacEwan all-star team and then Wednesday in Red Deer against the Flames rookies.
You can make a strong argument this is the deepest rookie group the Oilers have had in a decade. They don’t have #1 picks like Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but of the 27 players (15 forwards, nine D-men and three goalies) who will participate, this group has many players who should be skating for the Oilers in the near future.
Stuart Skinner (third round, 2017), Oliver Rodrigue (second, 2018) and Dylan Wells (fifth, 2016) are the goalies. Rodrique will go back to junior while Skinner and Wells are eligible to return to junior, but most likely will start in the ECHL this season. Skinner and Rodrigue had very good seasons, but goalies are extremely difficult to project so I’ll just go with what goalie scouts have told me. One said he would rank them Rodrique, Skinner, Wells, and that both Rodrigue and Skinner have potential to be NHL goalies down the road, but it would be unlikely to see either for at least three seasons, especially Rodrigue, who is only 18. He said Rodrigue’s technique is very good.
On defence, Evan Bouchard (first, 2018), Ethan Bear (fifth, 2015), Caleb Jones (fourth, 2017), William Lagesson (fourth, 2014) and Dmitri Samorukov (third, 2017) are the best prospects. Many eyes will be on Bouchard, who lit up the OHL last season. He comes in as a highly-touted offensive player. Most believe it is a matter of when, not if, he plays in the NHL. I expect he will return to junior this season. No point rushing him, but he will get some NHL exhibition games and maybe the odd regular season one as well.
Bear played 18 NHL games and 37 AHL games in his first season as a pro. He had a good first season, but I expect he will need more time in the AHL, at least I hope he does. The time of rushing young prospects should be over for the Oilers. Bear has NHL skill, he just needs to improve his defensive zone play. It is the biggest challenge for young defenders, so that isn’t a knock on him. I’m curious to see how he responds if he starts the season in the AHL. I hope he is excited about the opportunity for big minutes at EV and on the PP.
Jones had a tough rookie season. He had some off-ice challenges and I hope for his sake they are in the rearview mirror. He played 58 games in the AHL, three more pro games than Bear, and he learned a lot. Jones isn’t as flashy offensively as Bear, but the scouting reports I’ve received suggest his overall steadiness in both ends is what could earn him an NHL spot in the future.
Lagesson is the most intriguing player for me at this camp. I know his coaches and management loved him in Djurgardens (Sweden) last season. They liked him on and off the ice and were hoping he’d play another season with them. Lagesson played in the USHL in 2015, then spent two years at Umass-Amherst in the NCAA before turning pro last year. He is very competitive. He isn’t as mean as Adam Larsson, but plays a similar style. He doesn’t have the same offensive ability as Larsson, but I’m told he can move the puck. He projects as a steady PK and EV defender, but you likely need to pair him with a good puck mover.
Samorukov will play his third season in the OHL this year. He needs to keep filling it out, but they are happy with his progression. He went from 20 points to 34 last year and with Garrett McFayden graduating from the OHL I’d expect Samorukov to get even more ice time.
The other four defenders in camp all have AHL contracts. Logan Day, Jared Wilson, Jake Kulevich and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin. Wilson and Day finished their NCAA careers last season, while Kulevich spent most of last season in the AHL (Winnipeg) and Crevier-Morin played in the ECHL. These four will be battling to earn a spot in Bakersfield.
The Oilers have some young skilled forwards, and they project to be in different NHL roles, if they continue to improve.
Kailer Yamamoto (first, 2017) enters his second camp with the Oilers. The Oilers RW depth chart is wide open and Yamamoto will be aiming to earn a spot. He is extremely skilled. He has excellent hockey sense and is ultra competitive. He just needs more time to add strength to his small frame. I’d start him in the AHL and play him a lot on the first line and first PP unit. He will get a long look in training camp and I expect him to be one of the most noticeable players in the rookie games.
Cooper Marody (acquired in trade from Philly) turns 22 in December. The only reason the Flyers traded him was because he wasn’t going to sign with them. He should be the first line centre in Bakersfield to start the season, and I won’t be surprised if he gets a few NHL games this year. He projects as a bottom six centre. He had an excellent final season at Michigan scoring 16-35-51 in 40 games. He is physically ready for the rigours of pro hockey.
Tyler Benson (second, 2016) is finally healthy. He had the best summer training of his young career and I could see him playing with Marody and Yamamoto. Benson’s best asset is his work ethic. I watched him skate at Perry Pearn’s camp in late August and his skating has improved. Hip injuries and surgeries limited his opportunities to get quicker the past few summers, but he had a great summer of conditioning. I could see him having a year or two in the AHL, but if he stays healthy, I see him as an NHL player in the future. I’m not sure he will be a big point producer, but he could be solid third line player with the skills to play on your second line as his career develops.
Kirill Maksimov (fifth, 2017) is an intriguing prospect. The Oilers desperately need a late round pick to emerge and produce for them in the future, and I think Maksimov could be that player. He has great speed, a good shot and could fill a top-six RW spot in the future. He jumped from 38 to 80 points last year and if he and Akil Thomas play together again this year, I could see him producing 90+ points in Niagara (OHL) this season. He is a big body who can skate and has a good right-handed shot. If the Oilers can remain patient with him, he might become the late-round boom every team hopes for.
Ostap Safin (fourth, 2017) is eligible to play in the AHL at 19 this season, but I see no reason to do that. He’s only played one season in the CHL, and I’d let him gain confidence and continue to improve his game in junior. He produced 26 goals and 58 points in 61 games on a bad Saint John team. He is huge at 6’5″ and will add some more weight and strength in the coming years. I’d be ultra-cautious with him because of his frame. It takes longer for most big players to gain the strength needed to maximize the advantage of their big body. I see no reason to play him limited minutes in the AHL. I’d much rather see him play a lot in the QMJHL.
Ryan McLeod (second, 2018), like Bouchard, has a late birthday and is entering his 19-year-old season. He has excellent speed and became a much more consistent player last season. They hope he can continue to improve in that aspect. He can play both centre and wing and that will become valuable when he turns pro, most likely next season. He has progressed nicely the past few seasons. In 2017 he produced 42 points in 68 games, but then scored 20 points in 20 playoff games. He followed that up with 26-44-70 in 68 games last year in the OHL. If he has a great rookie camp he could get into an NHL preseason game or two before heading back to junior.
The rest of the forward group consists of some older players, UFA signings and a few young guys on AHL deals.
Joseph Gambardella (2017 UFA signing) had 13 goals in 50 AHL games last year. It took him a while to adjust to the AHL after four years in college. He turns 25 in December and will be one of the more veteran forwards in Bakersfield.
Nolan Vesey (trade from Toronto) is another NCAA player the Oilers hope can develop. He was drafted by the Leafs in 2014 and is 23 years old. He projects as a fourth line NHL player. He is a big body at 6’2, 210 pounds and they like his tenaciousness.
Colin Larkin (2018 UFA signing) just finished up four years at Umass-Boston. He had a great senior campaign, producing 24-22-46 in 27 games. He turns 25 in November and will need to produce right away if he wants to earn another contract. He signed a one-year deal.
Cameron Hebig (2017 UFA signing) finished up his WHL career in style with 41-49-90 points in 66 games split between Saskatoon and Regina. He is very skilled, competitive and has played PK and PP. A scout said, “He likely projects only as an AHL player, but he will be a very good AHL player which is really helpful for your young prospects. His drive and desire might earn him some NHL games.”
Tyler Vesel (sixth, 2014) finished his NCAA career in March and played 11 games for Bakersfield, producing a respectable 3-3-6. He isn’t very big, 5’10, 180, but is a smart player. At 24 years old he has strength and experience that should help him at the AHL level. He will have a good chance of being in Bakersfield’s top-six to start the season. He could be an unexpected wildcard in the development chart of the Oilers the next two seasons.
David Gust, Ryan Van Stralen and Evan Polie, from Wetaskiwin, have AHL contracts and will use this camp to impress Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft in the hopes of staying there rather than playing in the ECHL. Polie is a beast of a young man at 6’1, 228 pounds. He is tough and physical and has deceptively good hands in close. Luke Esposito is in camp on a tryout after splitting last season between the AHL and ECHL.
It is funny how this rookie camp doesn’t have one player who seems like a lock to make the NHL roster, but I think Oilers fans should be more excited about the overall talent pool of this group than in previous years. The Oilers should be past the point of having a rookie come in and be a big difference maker. Of course you want to add young players who can contribute, and having a rookie surprise everyone is great, but good teams aren’t relying on a young rookie to play a large role.
This group is mainly about the future and adding depth to the Oilers lineup, something they haven’t done from within for years.
I think Oilersnation can be excited about the skill in this group, but knowing that you likely won’t see it at the NHL level for another season or two.