Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023 — No. 1: The first round pick conundrum

Photo credit:Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
6 months ago
In the four years since Ken Holland was hired as the General Manager, the Edmonton Oilers have picked four times in the first round. The summary of those picks are as follows:
YearNameDraft PositionGames PlayedPoint Totals
2019Philip Broberg8th7911
2020Dylan Holloway14th6510
2021Xavier Bourgault21st00
2022Reid Schaeffer32nd00
The 2023 first-round pick was dealt to Nashville along with the rights to Reid Schaeffer for Mattias Ekholm. So, the Holland era has only three first-round picks in the organization. The table above does not paint a very flattering picture of the Edmonton Oilers. For a team that has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, against the salary cap limit, the developmental success of first-round picks is a necessity. Those picks should be able to provide material contributions to a team at a minimum salary cap impact.
Now before we get into an analysis, it is important to note, I am not talking about the drafting of a particular player. None of these players listed above were “off the board” picks that shocked the league. Reid Schaeffer is likely the closest to this, but if we look at TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s final ranking report, he is listed 37th. This list is usually a combination of data inputs from league executives and is regarded as the closest to how the league views the top group of prospects.
While it is always great to look back at who should have been taken, to do so without focusing on how a particular team’s development focus would impact that pick versus another team is irresponsible. The only data we truly have is how the team who drafted the player handled their development.
On the development front, the Edmonton Oilers have managed to get only 144 games and 21 total points from their first-rounders still in the organization. To more thoroughly understand the situation, let’s review each pick briefly.

Philip Broberg

Philip Broberg has been a developmental disaster in my opinion. The player bears some modest responsibility, but this, for the most part, is on the organization and injuries. The last part needs to be emphasized. Broberg played in Sweden with injuries to his knee and his shoulder in 2021. He then had an upper body injury in 2022 that sidelined him to start the season. He also missed two weeks with an ankle injury later that same season. All of this has caused him a lot of missed playing time, which certainly hurts the development process.
For Broberg though, the team has really bungled this player’s process. The biggest piece to this is asking Broberg to play his right side. As a general rule, I have zero issues with a defender playing his off-side. While I think there are reasons not to ask players to play their off-side, it is not the massive issue it is sometimes made out to be. With Broberg, there was some history of him playing the right side. Unfortunately, that was all in the SHL playing on a much bigger ice surface. This allowed him more time and space to make plays. However, when Broberg came to North America, he played exclusively on his strong side except on very rare occasions. Indeed, he and Vinny Desharnais formed a very dominant pairing in the 2021/22 season. This is despite the fact the Condors often ran 7 defences in games. Broberg and Desharnais stayed together for the most part with the rotation happening amongst the other five defencemen,
With this backdrop, the Edmonton Oilers decided to play him on his right side. Not always for certain, but more than enough to raise concerns. Perhaps the player was comfortable with trying, but I am certain that having Broberg play significant minutes in the AHL doing this would have been a better choice. It’s also interesting to note that during his current stint in the AHL, Broberg continues to play his left side. He is performing well, but again if he returns to Edmonton, I don’t really understand where Broberg plays on the left side.
The other major part of the development part is not playing minutes. If the player is with the team, you have to play him. I understand mistakes will happen. He will likely cost his team goals and maybe even some games. However, you need to be patient and accept those results. Broberg’s career numbers are around 11 minutes, which is not horrible, but this year, he was averaging nine minutes. Simply not sure that is enough time to build the player’s confidence.
Finally, the last part is the yo-yo effective of bringing a player up and down. In three seasons, Broberg has been called up and sent down multiple times in the last two seasons. Understandably, some of this relates to injuries and playoffs, but some of it has been a desire to get the player into the line-up. For a general manager who talks about over-ripening, I would argue this has not been the case with Broberg.

Dylan Holloway

Holloway’s story is very similar to Broberg’s. Injuries have had a massive impact on his development cycle. The player has shown tremendous flashes in the NHL, however, injuries have derailed him to date. A combination of wrist, shoulder, concussion and knee issues has cost the player a lot of development time on the ice. In addition, he has been subject to limited minutes as well. In his career, he is averaging less than 10 minutes per game. That simply is not enough minutes for a young player trying to navigate his way in the NHL.
The team has been pretty disciplined about positional development, leaving him on the left wing for the most part. Woodcroft tested him at center a little, which there is history with the player, but overall they have been good about trying to work him as a winger. Given McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and McLeod are all available at the center, it makes sense.
The next step for the team is to deploy him with skilled players and let him flourish. Holloway’s scoring totals are not good enough, no question. However, the limited minutes and his line deployment are certainly a big part of these results. However that looks, and whoever is on the line, Holloway needs to play bigger minutes with those players, or he needs to go back to Bakersfield for the remainder of the season and develop there in a first-line role.

Xavier Bourgault

Bourgault has not had the issues of Broberg and Holloway. He’s yet to play his first NHL game. He’s spent all of his professional career in the minors. He’s also been relatively healthy in his time, with the exception of one concussion-like injury that happened last season. Bourgault has also consistently played right wing although he has dabbled on the left side occasionally.  Where the concerns lay with Bourgault in terms of his playing time, line deployment and specialty teams. I’ve long expressed my concerns about the handling of these young, skilled players in the organization. Bourgault would be the archetype of this issue. Early in his professional career, Bourgault would get shorted ice if he made mistakes. Bourgault also had inconsistent minutes with skill players as well. Finally, while he saw some time on the first powerplay, he was moved off of it as the year went on. The only good that could be said was the fact he actually played some quality penalty kill minutes. This year, he is getting far more minutes and his deployment is good in terms of skill players. It still befuddles me that a player so skilled doesn’t play on the first powerplay. He slots where Seth Griffith plays, so I understand the consternation, but Seth Griffith is not an option for the Edmonton Oilers. Bourgault is and that should be part of the plan. Bourgault has also lost his penalty-kill role for the most part as well.
For me, Bourgault is a player the team has invested the most capital in – a first-round pick. I remain confused about how the organization can ever really get a read on the player if they refuse to maximize the situations he plays in. Certainly, I have heard the critique that the team needs to win. However, I would only point to last season when this team was rock bottom of league standings at Christmas only to go on a massive run to make the playoffs all because the young prospects started to play lots of minutes in all situations with good linemates.
If you think it’s unfair to give a player those minutes, well I cannot help you. If the Oilers need these assets even just to trade for roster help in Edmonton, how can you up your bargaining position if the young players’ other teams might look at are not even being played? I see very little downside to committing to these young men in every conceivable way even if it means the scoreboard might be lopsided on nights against Bakersfield.

How Do The Oilers Compare?

Any analysis of the Oilers’ development of first-rounders would be incomplete (and incompetent, frankly) without trying to benchmark against other Stanley Cup contenders. So using the 2019 draft as a starting point, here is a list of select teams, the number of first-rounders and the number of games and points accumulated.
TeamNumber of 1st RoundersGames PlayedPoints Totaled
Los Angeles426875
Tampa Bay2197
It’s an interesting list and probably should give some caution to my theory about ensuring the development of first-rounders. Colorado certainly stands out of course, but their situation came about due to a massive trade win that yielded them the fourth overall pick and Bowen Byram with it. Los Angeles benefitted from multiple higher draft picks due to poor regular season play that yielded them Quinton Byfield and Tobias Bjornfot. Vegas is closely aligned with the Oilers based on the play of one player who is no longer with the team. Peyton Krebs. Krebs was part of the haul yielded by Buffalo in the Eichel trade, so that worked well for Vegas. Dallas is the other notable one because it is a team that has made good picks and spent considerable development time on them. Wyatt Johnson and Thomas Harley are likely to be cornerstone pieces for that team for a long time just when players such as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and others lose the battle against Father Time.
So does that mean the Oilers should not pursue developmental excellence with their first-rounders? Of course not. What it does mean is that there is an opportunity to be better than these organizations in this area. In a salary-cap league, if a team can excel in an area where there is no cap, it can only help their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. For the Oilers, the process of developing their first-rounders has been uneven. Fortunately, other Cup contenders have faced similar challenges.  Hopefully, a reinvigorated development process under Jeff Jackson will yield positive results for the Oiler first-rounders currently in the organization and the ones to come in future years.

Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023


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