Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023 — No. 3: Prospect playing time

Photo credit:Zach Laing
Bruce Curlock
6 months ago
One story that I covered a bunch this year was the challenges Edmonton Oilers prospects had in getting meaningful minutes playing in Bakersfield. There is no question that there is always a balancing act in terms of how to deploy minutes to help your player’s development. As an organization, you want to ensure the player is put into the best position to succeed. Sometimes, this leads to fewer minutes played by a young player until he adjusts and learns whatever he needs to be successful.
With the Oilers, it seems to be a bit more than just that. The Bakersfield Condors had for the two seasons that cover the 2023 year a veteran laden team. I don’t have a big issue with this overall. It is good to have players who can mentor young prospects in the ways of being a professional hockey player. This is both on the ice and off. It is also good to have some veteran experience in the AHL because it is a very challenging league for prospects. The teams are filled with bigger, stronger and faster players. There is also some questionable officiating, so the games can get out of control quickly. Having vets to weather these storms is a good idea.
However, the Condors’ reliance on these vets seemed over the top this last year. Indeed, it was so heavy this year that the team actually ran up against the rule that limits the number of AHL vets that can play each game several times. It isn’t even the sheer number of the vets playing that is problematic. It is their deployment. These players were routinely getting the bulk of the playing time while young prospects sat and watched. In addition, the vets would get the cherry minutes, like powerplay time, instead of the young, high-draft selections. While I don’t have any way of knowing the thinking of the inner circle of OEG, it sure appears the Condors were more concerned with winning games than developing prospects.
Now, before you yell at me, yes, a winning environment is important for the development of a prospect. That is an absolute certainty. However, it is how a team creates a winning environment that matters. If the kids are stapled to the bench while the vets win the games, that helps nobody but the AHL team who sell tickets and market the team.
Important for sure, but it does not supersede the ultimate goal which is to develop players for the NHL team to utilize. So, for instance, this year, the Condors have been running a first powerplay of Greg McKegg, Lane Pederson, Seth Griffith, Raphael Lavoie and Cam Dineen. So no Xavier Bourgault, Tyler Tullio or Matvey Petrov was spotted in the top powerplay.
Those players would often form the bulk of a second powerplay that might see the ice for 25-30 seconds at the end of a powerplay and usually with a two defenceman set up on the back-end focused on defending and not attacking. This would all be fine except the powerplay isn’t any good. It is currently 26th out of 32 teams at 15.6 percent. So on top of not playing the kids on the first powerplay, it isn’t even very good.
Another example of the reliance on vets was the tale of the 2022/23 season. The first half of the season was atrocious for the team with a record on December 31 of 11-17-1. What was more exasperating was the prospects were not being played. Savoie and Tullio were health scratched in the first half. Lavoie and Bourgault were getting low-end minutes with fewer skilled players. Then a strange thing happened. The coaching staff started to play the kids and play them a lot. Lavoie and Tullio formed a great tandem. Lavoie scored 38 of his 45 points after January 1, 2023. Noah Philp had 31 of his 37 points after New Year’s Eve. The list goes on and on. Bougault had 19 of 34. Tullio scored 18 of his 26 after the break. Why did this happen? For me, it was because the kids played. Played a lot and play in critical situations. Did it always work, of course not. However, here is the weird thing. When the team started to play its young prospects heavier minutes in more important roles, the team went on a streak. The team went 26-14-3 and snuck into the playoffs. The kids can help win!
I would have expected this season to be entirely different given the way the prior year ended. Instead, with the exception of Raphael Lavoie and Maximus Wanner, the first half has seen a return to the reliance on veteran players. Even if OEG discounts the last half of 2022-23, they should look at their own player development to see what works.
Under Jay Woodcroft, Vinny Desharnais and James Hamblin played a lot. Where are they now? What about Michael Kesselring? Dave Manson was fantastic with that player and even under the Chaulk regime, he played a lot and blossomed. Where is he now? Playing 13 minutes a night in Arizona.
I’m empathetic to the desire for the local team to do well to fill the stands. No question. That’s a better environment for everyone. However, at the end of the day, the AHL is a development league. It’s primary goal is to develop players for the AHL. Let’s see in 2024 how OEG looks at that goal. There are a lot of young kids on the farm that are relying on a positive answer.

Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023

Check out these posts...