In Depth: Oilers Prospect Development since 2007

By now, we’re all aware of how awful the Oilers have been since making the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. During that span, a popular narrative has been that the Oilers tend to ruin their prospects by rushing them into the NHL too soon. Here we are in 2018, and we’re talking about how the Oilers have ruined 2016 4th overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi. We also have decisions looming on 20-year old Kailer Yamamoto (who is playing on the top line with McDavid), and 19-year old defenceman Evan Bouchard. I wanted to take a look back at recent Oilers history to see if the narrative behind the organization ruining prospects by rushing them is a valid one or if it is simply hysteria created by all of the losing.

For the purpose of this article, I will define a player being rushed into the NHL too soon as a player that had to be sent down to either the CHL or the AHL after playing more than 9 NHL games in his first opportunity to start a season in the NHL.

Sam Gagner jumped into the NHL as an 18-year old immediately after being drafted 6th overall in 2007. He got 49 points in 79 games in the 2007-08. That production signified that he was NHL ready. That success as a rookie inflated his expectations in the eyes of Oilers fans. Unfortunately, he was never able to repeat that level of production until 2 seasons ago when he was a major surprise in Columbus, where he got 50 points. I don’t think the Oilers ruined Sam Gagner as a player simply because he never turned out to be an elite talent. He was consistently in the 40’s for points totals in his career, save his last two seasons as an Oiler where he got 38 and 37 points respectively in 2012-13 and 2013-14. That is reasonable production as a complimentary top 6 forward. The Oilers get a passing grade on Gagner.

Jordan Eberle was drafted 22nd overall in 2008. He went on to have a successful World Jr career. He scored a memorable goal to tie the game late against Russia in the semi-final in Ottawa in 2009 before getting the shootout winner that same game, and he got 2 goals in the 3rd period of the gold medal game against the US in 2010 before John Carlson eventually scored the winning goal in OT. Team Canada folklore aside, the Oilers took the patient approach with Eberle because he was a small forward that needed to bulk up to play in a big man’s game at the time. He didn’t make his Oilers debut until 2010. He did so in spectacular fashion by scoring a short-handed goal on a sliding toe drag against Calgary. He went on to score 43 points in 69 games that season. He exploded for 76 points the next season, but couldn’t catch that same level of fire ever again. He did consistently produced like a first line winger though. The Oilers get a passing grade on Eberle too.

Magnus Paajarvi was taken 9th overall in 2009. There were big expectations for this big, skilled Swedish winger. The Oilers sent him back to Sweden for the next season, which was a good move. He debuted in 2010, at the same time as Eberle and Taylor Hall. He got 34 points in 80 games. That was not a bad rookie season. However, year 2 was considerably worse: 8 points in 41 games before being sent down to the AHL. He got one more stint as an Oiler in his 3rd pro season, but was traded away in 2013. He has been nothing more than a fringe NHLer since then. The Oilers receive a failing grade on Paajarvi, despite them taking the patient approach by sending him to Sweden in his draft +1 year.

The Oilers went with another Swedish forward in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft: Anton Lander. The Oilers took the patient approach again with Lander by letting him play in Sweden for 2 years before coming to the NHL. He played 56 games as an Oiler before being sent down to the AHL. By my definition, this was a player that was in the NHL too soon. He went up and down a bunch of times before eventually signing in the KHL prior to last season. The Oilers get a failing grade on Lander as well despite their best efforts to be patient with him.

Taylor Hall was taken 1st overall in the 2010 draft. He was chosen to be the face of the new rebuild at the time. I won’t go too deep into how well Hall did to spare bitter Oilers fans the pain, but Hall was a kid who was NHL ready out of the draft. The Oilers did not rush him into the line-up too soon. Passing grade.

The Oilers took Tyler Pitlick in the 2nd round in 2010. He received a call-up in 2013-14 where he played 10 games. He started the next season in the AHL again, and he got called up a second time. He played all of the 2015-16 in the AHL before finally cracking the Oilers roster for good in 2016-17. The Oilers moved on from him after that season simply because they didn’t have room for him. It’s a trade that hasn’t aged well in my opinion. He did go up and down between the AHL and the NHL for a couple of seasons, but he hasn’t gone down since he was given the opportunity to start a season in the NHL full-time. The Oilers receive a passing grade on Pitlick.

The Oilers got another 1st overall pick in 2011 by the name of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He was great in his rookie year, scoring 52 points in 62 games. Once again, this prospect was not rushed into the NHL too soon. He has been a fairly consistent point producer since his rookie year, although he has never reached that same level offensively since. Once again, passing grade.

The Oilers had two picks in the first round of the 2011 draft as a result of the Dustin Penner trade. The other pick was Oscar Klefbom. He played in Sweden for 2 years before coming over here in 2013-14, where he played in the AHL. He played well enough there to get 17 NHL games at the end of that season. He made the Oilers the next season. He did play in the AHL briefly for 9 games at the end of the 2014-15 season, but that was to get him more games once the Oilers season was done. That was not due to poor play. The Oilers get a passing grade on Klefbom.

The Oilers got to pick 1st overall again in 2012. This time, they took Nail Yakupov. Once again, he was great in his rookie season. He got 31 points in 48 games during the lock-out shortened 2012-13 season. That would suggest that he wasn’t rushed in too soon. He even had the benefit of playing half of a season in the KHL before he played in the NHL because of the lock-out. After his rookie season, he couldn’t figure out the NHL game. He produced like a bottom six forward on the Oilers for three more seasons before being traded to St. Louis. He was also utilized in that fashion while he was here. He didn’t catch on in St. Louis either. He had another opportunity in Colorado. He didn’t catch on there either. Now he’s playing in the KHL and doing quite well, having scored 12 points in 15 games so far this season. By my definition, the Oilers get a pass on Yakupov because he did not play in the AHL at all after playing in the NHL. He couldn’t catch on with two other NHL teams, so I think the failure of Yakupov is more on himself than it is on the Oilers as an organization. The Oilers get a passing grade on Yakupov.

Jujhar Khaira was also drafted in 2012 (3rd Round). He didn’t see an NHL game until 2015-16, when he was called up after playing 49 games in the AHL. This was an injury call-up. He did not get “thrown” into the line-up at the start of the season. I’m qualifying this because he played 15 NHL games in 2015-16, only to start the next season in the AHL. He did not start a season with the Oilers until last year, when he had 21 points in 65 games. He is a rare prospect that wasn’t taken in the first round to become a consistent NHLer for the Oilers. I’m giving the Oilers a passing grade on Khaira.

The Oilers drafted Darnell Nurse in 2013. He got 2 NHL games at the end of the 2014-15 season once his OHL season was done. He didn’t play in the NHL consistently until 2015-16. He hasn’t gone down since, and he has steadily been improving every year. The Oilers get a passing grade on Nurse.

Anton Slepyshev was also taken in 2013 (3rd Round). Once again, the Oilers were patient with him. He played for 2 years in the KHL before starting the 2015-16 season in Edmonton. He played 11 games and then got sent down to the AHL. He started the 2016-17 season in Edmonton as well, only to be sent down again after 41 games. Last season, he was injured to start the year. Upon becoming healthy, he played a game in the AHL and then spent the rest of the season with the Oilers. His performance was underwhelming. The Oilers chose not to give him a qualifying offer this past summer. The Oilers get a failing grade on Slepyshev.

Leon Draisaitl was the 3rd overall pick in 2014. He got 9 points in 37 games in his rookie season before being sent down to the WHL, where he went on to play in the Memorial Cup. He started the 2015-16 season in the AHL, where he played 6 games before coming up to Edmonton. He has stuck around ever since. By my definition, he was rushed into the NHL too soon. He should not have been in Edmonton for 37 games in his rookie year. Therefore, the Oilers receive a failing grade on Draisaitl.

Connor McDavid jumped into the NHL right away after being drafted 1st overall in 2015. That was an easy decision. The Oilers obviously get a passing grade on him.

Jesse Puljujarvi was drafted 4th overall in 2016. He got 8 points in 28 games before finally being sent to Bakersfield. He started last season there as well before earning a call-up to Edmonton. He got 20 points in 65 games last season. He was a healthy scratch on Thursday against Washington. TSN’s Jason Gregor has suggested that Puljujarvi should be sent down to the AHL again. That is a distinct possibility. The Oilers receive a failing grade on Puljujarvi.

By my count, there have been 15 Oilers draft picks that have been given extended chances in the NHL by the Oilers since 2007. Of those 15, I have given the organization a failing grade on 5 of them (33.3%) based on how they handled the development of the prospect by the definition I outlined earlier.

Here’s the funny part: 3 of those 5 prospects played overseas for at least a season after they were drafted! The Oilers were actually patient with the majority of the prospects that they have failed to handle properly. One could argue that Paajarvi, Lander, and Slepyshev simply were not elite NHL talents. Paajarvi is the only one playing in the NHL still, and he has 0 points in 8 games with Ottawa this year. The same could be argued of Yakupov, who was a clear miss with the 1st overall pick in 2012. Is it the organization’s fault that these players didn’t turn out? The Oilers have to take some of the blame, but the players themselves are the most responsible for their own failures.

If you take that into consideration, the Oilers have only really mishandled Draisaitl and Puljujarvi. That’s 2 out of 15 (13.3%). So, where is the idea that the Oilers always rush players into the NHL too soon really coming from?

It’s because the Oilers have had a large volume of young players on their roster since 2010. Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi were rock stars in Edmonton prior to the 2010-11 season. The Oilers had basically torn it down and hoisted these three prospects into the spotlight. They were expected to lead the charge offensively. While the three all proved to be NHL ready in their rookie seasons, the problem was that they were given too big of roles too early. The Oilers had Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth (came back in 2011-12), and Dustin Penner on the roster as well. Horcoff and Hemsky were past their glory days by that time. On paper, Horcoff and Hemsky looked like the veterans that could insulate and guide the rookies, but THAT is not the way it turned out.

Why did it turn out that way? Kevin Lowe decided to swing for the fences in the 2005-06 season. Prior to that season, the Oilers were that blue collar, hard working team whose best-case scenario was clawing their way into one of the last playoff spots and losing in the first or second round. Simply put, the core of Smyth, Hemsky, and Horcoff was not good enough to win on its own. Lowe brought in Chris Pronger and Michael Peca at the start of that season. He added Dwayne Roloson and Sergei Samsonov at the trade deadline, and the Oilers were still the 8th seed in the Western Conference that year. The rest is history. Fernando Pisani had that incredible run, Progner was dominant, and Roloson stood on his head that spring to propel the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals.

That was one hell of a ride, but swinging for the fences with that core was the worst decision that the Oilers could have made for the long-term good of the franchise. Expectations were sky-high after making the Cup Finals. The Oilers lost 11 players via trades and free agency that summer. Those expectations were unrealistic based on the amount of roster turnover they had. Hell, those expectations were unrealistic while the Cup Finals run was happening! That turned into 4 seasons of chasing free agents hoping to re-kindle the magic from that spring, which led to futility. The Oilers started rebuild #1 in 2010, which was about five years too late. If I was the GM in 2005, and I had the option to swing for the fences or start a rebuild, I honestly would have started the rebuild at that point because I had watched the team scratch and claw for what little it got in the late 90s and early 2000s.

That core wasn’t good enough to win in its prime. The strategy the Oilers took into the rebuild in 2010 was to hope that the veterans from that core would be able to produce enough offence and guide the rookies. Horcoff had his best season BY FAR in 2005-06. Hemsky was able to produce at a fairly high level until the 2011-12 season, but the problem was that he couldn’t stay healthy. Ryan Smyth came back in 2011-12, and he wasn’t able to produce at an elite level either. Nobody else could handle the tough match-ups, so the rookies ended up having to do it.

The reason that the Oilers were so terrible over the last decade is not because the organization has rushed prospects along. It is because the organization has simply failed to be able to bring in any sort of competent veteran supporting cast for the young players. The best example of why this was a problem is Justin Schultz. He was not an Oilers draft pick, but he signed as a free agent before having ever played an NHL game. He was drafted in 2008. He didn’t play an NHL game until 2012-13, and that was directly after having played in the AHL for half of a season during the lock-out. It’s not as if he was thrown into the fire immediately after the draft. He had a lot of time to develop. However, he was thrown on to the top pairing immediately. That was the case because the Oilers simply didn’t have anyone else that could do the job. THAT was the problem with how the Oilers handled Schultz.

They did not have the proper players to insulate the young stars through the rebuild. The Canucks had the elite line of Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, and Bredan Morrison to take on the big minutes while the Sedin twins were developing. The Red Wings had Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, and Brendan Shanahan while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were cutting their teeth at the NHL level. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov had Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth and Dustin Penner to learn from. I’m sure they took some valuable things from those players, but the Oilers rookies did not have the same luxuries that the Sedins, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg did. The Oilers’ rebuild would have been exponentially faster had they pulled the trigger in 2005 instead of 2010. That way, young kids could have learned from Horcoff, Hemsky and Smyth in their best days instead of while they struggled.

Other factors like the piss-poor defence and the awful goaltending didn’t help the Oilers either. That further speaks to the organization’s inability to find veterans capable of producing during that period. The result has been a prolonged waiting period for the prospect group to develop into a group of productive leaders. Yes, the Oilers have had a lot of top prospects roll through their doors recently. Yes, the team has struggled recently. The Oilers’ handling of the prospects themselves hasn’t been the problem. The idea that the Oilers ruin prospects by rushing them into the line-up too early all of the time is an absolute fallacy. 9 of 14 have been handled properly, and all but Yakupov turned out to be good players. He’s not the first bust from the top of the draft, and he won’t be the last. The Oilers used the right strategy by being patient with 3 prospects that didn’t turn out to be players. That happens to every team. Leon Draisaitl is a good player that was kept up just a little too long in his first year. Minor mistake. Jesse Puljujarvi has been mishandled so far, but the jury is still out on how that story will end.

Fast forward to today, and the Oilers have decisions to make on Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard. We are also dealing with the ongoing saga that Puljujarvi has turned into. If you look at the depth chart at right wing, the rookies are at the top. Ty Rattie is inexperienced in the NHL, but he is a veteran at the professional level. Once he is back, Yamamoto and Puljujarvi will be the 2nd and 3rd line RWs (presumably). At first glimpse, it looks as if the Oilers are making the same mistakes again. It’s deceiving because McDavid and Draisaitl are young stars that are leading the way and producing at a high level. Nugent-Hopkins was one of the young players from the original rebuild that suffered through all of the losing, but he’s now a young veteran producing at a high level for the Oilers. Milan Lucic is a Stanley Cup champion that is still in his prime (although his recent production may indicate otherwise). Ryan Strome is a young veteran that is playing well on the third line (despite his lack of production offensively this season and his getting walked by Crosby in OT the other night). Puljujarvi isn’t being relied on to lead the way for the Oilers. Niether is Yamamoto. They are merely expected to chip in. That is why the Oilers are not making the same mistakes as they have in the past with these two young right-wingers.

Defensively, they are led by young veterans Klefbom and Adam Larsson. Nurse has developed into a solid top 4 defenceman despite his young age. Evan Bouchard is not expected to be on the top pairing right this second, so the Oilers would not be making the same mistake that they made with Schultz in the past if he were to stay with the Oilers this season.

The narrative that the Oilers have ruined all of their prospects by rushing them needs to be put to rest. It is a fallacy that has been sensationalized by all of the losing. We will see what happens with Yamamoto and Bouchard in the coming weeks; but if they stay, any comment that suggests the Oilers are going to ruin them like they have done so many times in the past is invalid in my opinion after looking into how the Oilers have handled their prospects in the last 10 years.

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