Projecting prospects is difficult, but I’m a glutton for punishment so I’ll wade into the murky waters.
The harsh truth about watching prospects in rookie camp, or main camp, is that only a handful of them will become regular NHLers. In the 20 years I’ve been watching rookie/training camps there were some obvious choices like Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi. At the time I didn’t know what level of NHL success they’d have, but playing regularly in The Show seemed a guarantee.
But they were all top picks and highly touted. They’d fall more into the “Captain Obvious” camp when projecting their futures. But outside of them, for many years the Oilers didn’t have an abundance of prospects who were “can’t miss” prospects.
When I saw Eberle at his first camp in 2008, three months after being drafted 22nd overall, you knew he wasn’t ready for the NHL right then, but you saw the high-end potential. He would need to fill out and get stronger and faster, but his offensive skills were obvious. On the other end, I’ve seen many players, especially now that teams have expanded rookie camps to 25 players, who had no chance of ever being an NHLer.
Then there is a larger group in the middle, that has varying degrees of “potential to play.” In this group, the potential to play can vary significantly from when you see them at their first camp, usually three months after being drafted, to when you see them at camp when they are 20 or 21. Many players change a lot during those two or three years. Some players are physically developed at 18 or 19, while others are still filling out when they are 20 and 21.
I’ll use some current players in camp as examples of who I view being in the middle group of “potential to play.”
To simplify things, I’ll use a grading of 1-10 as far as chances to play in the NHL.
Right now I have Tyler Tullio and Michael Kesselring as fours. Tullio’s offensive skills are obvious. He makes smart plays with the puck. His biggest challenge will be his foot speed. He needs to get quicker. Kesselring is a lanky 6’4″, 190 pound D-man. He needs to get stronger. Oilers GM Keith Gretzky had a good scouting report on Kesselring you can read here. But Kesselring’s size combined with his puck skills make him an attractive defender. And he shoots right — teams are always searching for more right-shot defenders. The good news is players can improve these areas, but only to a point.
I remember one summer I was at a charity golf tournament in Saskatchewan and ran into Jarret Stoll. The night before the tournament was a big gala. He was out with everyone there. The next morning in the hotel, I’m walking down the hallway to get breakfast, and Stoll is in the hallway with one of those long workout ladders, working on foot speed. He told me he knew he had to get quicker, so he worked on different patterns every day. He would take days off from lifting weights, but never from the ladder.
The concern about Stoll when he was drafted was his foot speed. The improvement in his first three steps from 2002 to 2006 was significant. He became a solid NHL skater. He was never an elite skater, but he improved his foot speed enough to become a solid NHLer. Every player who is drafted needs to get stronger or quicker, or both, but there is only so much room a player can improve. If they have a naturally slight build, they can’t magically add a lot of weight. You can’t change the DNA makeup of their fast twitch muscles. There is a physical limit to how much strength, speed and quickness a player can add, but the goal is to maximize their natural ability.
You can slot in Xavier Bourgault and Rapheal Lavoie as six to seven. Bourgault has the skills to play in the league, he just needs more consistency shift-to-shift. He will play another year in junior before turning pro next season. He will compete for a spot on the World Junior team this year. Next year his ranking could be higher as Edmonton will present him with a plan on areas of his game to focus on in the QMJHL this season. Hearing precise direction from an NHL team can do wonders for young players. I’m sure he will play an exhibition game this year and get a taste of the speed and strength of NHL players.
Lavoie is a very intriguing prospect. He’s big (6’4″), with a great shot, was comfortable playing in traffic in junior and he’s a solid skater. He doesn’t move like Zack Kassian, but he’s quicker than Patrick Maroon. Lavoie split his time between Sweden and Bakersfield last year. He led Vasby in goals (23) and points (45) in 51 games and then scored 5-5-10 in 19 games for Bakersfield. He also chipped in 1-3-4 in six playoff games. He reminds me of James Neal. A bigger body, with good hands and a nasty side to his game. I asked him about bringing that style to the pro level.
“It will be hard to do with bigger and stronger guys, but I have to find a way to do it. That is how I play hockey and hopefully I can be successful with it,” he said. He also benefitted from playing in two very different leagues. “I got hit a lot more in the AHL than in Sweden,” he said. “The American League is a tough league, it’s a physical league, and that was something different for me. But I got used to it. It’s going to be harder to do with bigger guys and stronger guys, but I have to find a way to do it. That’s my game and that’s how I play hockey. Hopefully, I can be successful with it.”
You can’t teach size, and skilled size is a gift many NHL teams want. I believe Lavoie will play in the NHL. How many games and how productive is still to be determined, but I see him having a legit chance to be a top-nine forward.
I have two players ranked as eights to make it: Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov. The interesting thing is they will be battling each other for ice time as they both play left defence. Both have played RD, so either could move over, but ideally teams want lefties playing the left side. Competition is great, and it will only make them better, and unlike when Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom broke in, the Oilers don’t have to rush Broberg and Samorukov to the NHL.
Both defenders are 6’3″ and above average skaters. They stood out as in a tier of their own at rookie camp. I saw Broberg live last August in the bubble and his fluid skating really impressed me. He looks the same now, just a bit stronger. I hadn’t seen Samorukov since 2019, and the difference in his overall and his physical stature really caught my eye. He looked very powerful among the other rookies. He can move, he has a good shot. He looks like an NHL D-man. However, I need to see him against NHL players to get a better indication of how close he is, and how he reacts in games. In drills his skill stood out, but I need to see his quick decision making skills in a game. He also has some pretty sweet hockey locks going right now, so he looks the part.
I’ll be watching these two the closest when the preseason begins on September 26th in Calgary. I think they will push Kris Russell, Slater Koekkoek and William Lagesson for the third pairing LD spot. I’d be in favour of them starting in the AHL, as having two rookies (Evan Bouchard is the other) in your top-six D is not ideal, but as the season progresses I believe we will see one of them this year and both of them before the end of the 2022/2023 seasons.
The change in Samorukov really stood out to me yesterday. He is the prospect I’m most intrigued with and I’ll be watching him closely.
HARD ASPECT TO SCOUT…
“I’ve met and seen many players who want to be NHL players, but don’t want to put in the consistent work to do it,” a former player and current scout told me in casual conversation a few weeks ago. It resonated with me, because that is how many of us are in real life. Many see people in a certain job (or title) and they want that, but are they willing to do all the work and sacrifice to get there? Many aren’t. And hockey players are no different.
It is extremely difficult to know if players will put in the work to become a full-time NHLer. You want to believe they will, but when no one is watching, will they? It is a year round job. The constant push to be in the gym, stretching, eating right and getting the proper amount of sleep is constant And now many players are on the ice in the off-season working on shooting, passing and more. It is intense.
Teams hope their players will put in the work, and the good organizations monitor them and communicate with them during the summer. But they can’t babysit them. They won’t force a player to do it. Much of the speed, strength and balance improvements come from the player’s internal drive.
And we haven’t even discussed the mental side.
Many of these players were the best player on their teams growing up. They played a lot and most were on the ice at the most crucial time. No one knows for certain how they will deal with adversity. How will they handle not scoring as often when they turn pro? Or playing a smaller role? And for many highly skilled players, will they accept playing a more defensive role, commit to blocking shots and not turning away from their checks? It sounds easy, but to commit to it fully and become a solid bottom-six forward is difficult for many offensive players who didn’t have to focus on that in junior because their offensive skills were elite. It is a major adjustment and for some players the biggest hurdle is their inner voice.
The players know this. It is discussed with sports psychologists and more, but until a player has to deal with it, no one knows how they will react. It is the massive wildcard in scouting and development.
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