There have been few bright spots for the Oilers organization over the last 12-18 months, but what’s been going on in sunny Bakersfield, California is definitely something to be happy about. There is a whole slew of players who have become impactful players early on in their pro hockey careers and another handful of players who have not only been wildly successful at the AHL but have also gotten a taste of NHL action.
The success of some young players and the continued development of some older prospects has led a lot of Oilers fans to wonder, which players will be in contention for NHL jobs next September when camp opens? Here are some candidates:
Tyler Benson: He just turned 21 a few days ago and is in the final stretch of a very good season that could earn him Rookie of the Year honours in the AHL (he’s third in rookie scoring). He’s been riding on the Condors top line and has been a solid source of offence. He’s a smart player with good offensive instincts, both of those were evident in his juniors days. I was impressed at just how quickly he adapted to the pro game and I think that is a testament to just how good of a hockey brain he has. The fact he’s stayed healthy all season is a tremendous sign for the former second-round pick. He could inject some life into the Oilers bottom six.
Cooper Marody: His first pro season is coming to a close and it’s been a good one. Not only is he over a point per game in the AHL, but he got some quick looks in the NHL as well. He’ll need to work on playing a little bit quicker and that was evident in his time with the big club, but he could be a cheap bottom six option.
Joseph Gambardella: In his second pro season, he more than doubled his offensive output from his rookie year. He might only be 5’10, but he doesn’t play a small game and in today’s NHL, players can overcome a size difference. We’ve seen him get into the Oilers lineup a few times this season but he’s been largely ineffective if I’m being honest. At the same time, he’s never played more than nine minutes in an NHL game, so that might be why he hasn’t been able to make a bigger impact. He’ll turn 26-years-old next season so if the NHL is going to happen for him, it will have to be sooner rather than later.
Josh Currie: After scoring 24 goals and adding 13 assists in 49 games with the Condors, he got the call to the NHL and quickly became one of the best stories of the NHL season. The 26-year-old has scored twice and added two assists in 14 NHL games while almost exclusively playing with Milan Lucic & Colby Cave. His 60% GF at 5v5 is impressive as well. He’s under contract next year for 650k so he could be a nice option lower in the lineup or as the 13th forward.
Kailer Yamamoto: He battled injuries at the AHL level and that hurt his ability to be a consistent impact player, but he has looked better since getting put on the team’s top line. His offensive production is good for an undersized rookie (10-7-17 in 26 gp), but he isn’t ripping the league apart which is what you would like to see from a first round pick before you graduate them to the NHL. Still, Yamamoto has gotten the benefit of the doubt from the organization on a few occasions so I think he’ll stick around long into training camp next year. I would like to see him go back to Bakersfield and become a dominant player before coming up to the NHL.
Patrick Russell: Russell has seen his point total jump from 17 to 26 and then to 36 this year at the AHL level. He also got a cup of coffee with the Oilers this year. The organization likes him, but he’s 26 years old now. With three pro seasons under his belt as well, he needs to prove he’s an NHLer next year or he might not get another shot.
Brad Malone: I think the Oilers would be comfortable with Malone as their 13th forward next year. He can play centre or wing and he hasn’t looked awful at the NHL level over the past few seasons. The only thing I’ll say is that he doesn’t really have an upside. If you have Currie, Benson, Marody, or even Gambardella in the NHL next year, you might be surprised with them. I don’t think that possibility exists with Malone who turns 30 in a few days.
Caleb Jones: His great start to the season earned him 17 games with the Oilers. He looked good at first but when the team started playing him over his head, the issues in his game became glaring. I have no doubt that he will be an NHLer for a long time, I’m just not sure if he’ll crack the team next year. A lot can change over the course of one summer and he does have a lot of potential. Definitely the top option in the Oilers pipeline as of right now. If they move on from someone like Matt Benning, he could slide in as a cost-effective third-pairing option.
Ethan Bear: At the end of 2017/18, fans and media were very high on Bear but he’s struggled at points this year and that’s resulted in Jones passing him on the depth chart. He has good offensive instincts, but he needs to round out his game if he wants to be a full-time NHLer. The fact that the organization has Evan Bouchard and Joel Persson as well and they’ll give Bear some tough competition on the right side. I doubt he plays very many NHL games next year because of that.
William Lagesson: In his first season of pro hockey in North America, Lageson has done alright for himself. It’s not enough for him to have passed Jones on the left side of the depth chart, but I’ll be interested to see how he continues to grow next year assuming he stays in Bakersfield. Next year isn’t make or break for him, but the 2020-21 season might be when he makes a legitimate push into the NHL lineup.
Shane Starrett is really the only goalie in the organization with any sort of shot at making the NHL roster next year, and it’s not a good one. He’s been lights out in Bakersfield with a 28-4-4-1 record to go with a 0.921 save percentage (4th in AHL) and a 2.22 GAA (1st in AHL). He’ll turn 25-years-old this summer, so he should probably stay in the AHL for another year anyways to see if he can have another dominant season. The fact that the Oilers have an inexperienced NHL starter in Mikko Koskinen won’t help his case either. They need a more established backup for a few years at the NHL level.
ALL IN ALL
I would like to see them go slow with guys like Benson, Yamamoto, Jones, and Bear since they are still very young and could benefit from a chance to dominate at the AHL level. That being said, if they come into camp and dominate, where’s the harm in keeping them around for a few games at the beginning of the year? If they start to struggle, you can just send them right back since they’re all waiver exempt.
When it comes to guys like Marody, Gambardella, and Currie, who are players who project as bottom-six options, I think you could give them honest chances to be bottom six players. They could inject some energy into the teams bottom six next year, which needs some speed and youthfulness in my opinion, and the best part is that they’re all cheap. The team needs all the cap relief they can get.
What say you? Which players do you think could jump from the farm into the NHL lineup next year?