For the first time in franchise history the Edmonton Oilers have legitimate prospects at forward, defence and in goal. Even in the Stanley Cup days of the 1980s Edmonton rarely had legitimate prospects at all three positions developing at the same time in the American League.
It is long overdue, but it looks like Edmonton finally has a pipeline of young players in the AHL who will become solid NHL contributors in the future.
Even with the unfortunate news that Dylan Holloway needs a second surgery on his wrist and will be out for three months, the Oilers depth chart is the deepest I’ve seen in decades. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will all be in the NHL. Far from it, but you need close to 10 solid prospects in the AHL in a season with the hope that half of them will develop into NHL players down the road.
A quick look at who will be on the AHL roster this season, and it seems very likely you will see five or six of them in the NHL down the road.
Stuart Skinner, Ilya Konovalov and Olivier Rodrigue. Rodrigue likely will start the season in the ECHL, and play 50+ games. The ECHL is a good place for goalies to develop. Jordan Binnington, Louis Domingue, Devan Dubnyk, Philipp Grubauer, Anton Khudobin, James Reimer, Skinner, Jonathon Quick, Vitek Vanecek, and Skinner all played 25+ games their first seasons as pros in the ECHL.
And many other current, and former, NHL goalies played some games in the ECHL. Rodrigue might start there, but he is is playing great and if Konovalov struggles they could switch spots. Edmonton needs one of these three to become at least a regular NHL backup in the future.
Philip Broberg, Dmitri Samorukov, Markus Niemelainen, Michael Kesselring, and Phil Kemp.
Edmonton has made it a priority to draft mobile, long, big defencemen. All of them are at least 6’3″ with Kesselring and Niemelainen standing 6’5″.
Vincent Desharnais is 6’7″, 230 pounds, but isn’t at the rookie camp. He is 23 and will be at main camp, but the seventh rounder in 2016 really improved last season.
Oilers assistant general manager Keith Gretzky manages Bakersfield and he watched the players up close more than anyone in management last year and I asked him for some quick thoughts on a few of the young defenders.
Gretzky: I really like the way he thinks. He has to learn how to defend harder and they worked with him on that at the end of last year. I saw him yesterday and he looks bigger and stronger. He will take some time, and he has to stay positive and realize he will have some ups and downs during his time in Bakersfield.
Can you expand on how he has to defend harder?
Gretzky: Just use his body more. He was really just using his arms and not his legs for his core strength. He was reaching and grabbing. Those are things he has to learn and I expect he will do that this season.
Gretzky: I think it will take him some time to adapt to the North American game. He is older and has more experience so I think he should be able to handle himself. He knows how to defend.
Gretzky: I really like his physical play. I thought his conditioning got better as the season went along. I didn’t think he was in great shape as he could have been. We talked about it, he trained differently, but in the wrong way, but he got better during the season.
Gretzky: I thought he took a huge jump from training camp to the end of the season where he was playing a lot of minutes. He learned how to take advantage of his size.
I asked about those specifically because they likely won’t be on the Oilers roster this season. Broberg and Samorukov would be the front runners to get a recall, and I suspect we will see them often in preseason games.
Holloway, Rapheal Lavoie, Tyler Tullio, Kirill Maksimov, Carter Savoie and Xavier Bourgault. Savoie is in the NCAA, and not allowed to partake in camp, but I did ask Gretzky about some of the other prospects.
Gretzky: He has gotten stronger and thicker. I like how he plays physical, that was one part of his game I didn’t know about. He needs to improve his core strength and then get away from his junior habits of turning the puck over and circling away from his checks. It was good for him to play some games last season in Bakersfield.
Gretzky: He was just named captain (Oshawa in OHL). He is a hard working kid. Nothing has been handed to him, and he’s worked for everything. He is going to be one of those players who is like a dog on a bone (relentless) and he can chip in because he has really good offensive skills.
Gretzky: He has lots of skill. I think he has to learn to play hard every game and compete hard every shift like some other young players. That is one thing we as an organization talked with him about, and hopefully he learns that in his last season in Quebec before he will join us for playoffs in Bakersfield.
Tullio and Bourgault will play junior this season, while Savoie is in the NCAA. I’m curious to see if Maksimov has improved his work ethic. He played in the KHL last season, but two years ago he struggled with a consistent work ethic.
Many of these young players will take a year or more before they truly compete for a spot on the Oilers, but often the changes can come quickly. Gretzky used Ryan McLeod as an example. “I thought he had an okay rookie year (In AHL), but he came in last year and dominated. The coaches can help (develop) by showing confidence in them, but sometimes players can take a larger step than you’d expect. There is no set development path.
I asked Gretzky about Benson, who comes to training camp in a battle for the fourth line left wing spot with Brandon Perlini and Devin Shore.
“I thought he did a very good job on the penalty kill last year,” said Gretzky. “But mainly he learned how to play without the puck and defend. I thought he did a really good job of that. Everyone talks about his skating, but I think his skating has come a long way.”
If Benson is going to crack the Oilers lineup it will be in a bottom six role and on the PK. Despite being a scorer in the AHL, I don’t see him in that role in the NHL. It is very difficult to be a top-six forward in the NHL. Benson thinks the game at an NHL level. He is good on the boards and dependable. It will come down to can he be a solid penalty killer and most importantly can he skate at the NHL level.
I’m curious to see Matvei Petrov. He has a great wrist shot, I’m told. He scored 22 goals in 58 games last season in Russia’s junior league (MHL). Edmonton could use a sharpshooting winger. I’m not saying he will become one, but he’s an offensive player and if he can fill out his 6’2″ frame in the next few seasons and continue to improve his skating maybe he will be a late round pick who pans out. The Oilers haven’t had a late-round forward pick pan out since Kyle Brodziak was taken in the seventh round in 2003.
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