It usually takes five years after a draft for NHL teams to really know what they have in a player. Sure, there are superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, who have an immediate impact at the NHL level. But most prospects need additional time to hone their craft in junior, college, or the minor leagues before stepping into an NHL lineup.
We are three years removed from the 2016 NHL Draft. Enough time has passed to get a sense of the direction in which those draftees are trending. However, most of these players are still just 21, and they could either blossom or drop off the team’s radar as legitimate prospects in the next two seasons. Here’s an update on the Edmonton Oilers’ nine 2016 draftees.
RW – Jesse Puljujarvi (4th Overall)
After finishing one point out of last place in the league in 2015-16, the Oilers gave themselves good odds of selecting first-overall for an unprecedented fifth time since 2010. Despite losing all three lottery draws, then-general manager Peter Chiarelli was pleasantly surprised when the consensus top-three prospect, Jesse Puljujarvi fell to the Oilers with the fourth pick.
Unfortunately, his development was mishandled from the start. Like many high picks before him by the Oilers, Puljujarvi was rushed into the NHL as an 18-year-old, and was later sent down to the Bakersfield Condors after staying with the big club past the 40-game mark. Now, three years after the Oilers called his name at the draft, Puljujarvi is still trying to get a foothold in the NHL.
Puljujarvi has 17 goals and 37 points in 139 career NHL games. Not sparkling numbers for a former fourth-overall pick, but he’s not going to produce many points playing under 12 minutes a night with lesser skilled linemates. The 6-foot-4, 201-pound winger should have spent an additional season playing pro hockey in Finland, followed by two seasons in the AHL. Instead, the Oilers burned through his entry-level contract, which means he cannot be sent down to Bakersfield in 2019-20 without clearing waivers, and he would surely be claimed.
The 21-year-old underwent successful surgery on both his hips on Mar. 4 in New York, and is now back in Edmonton training for next season. Puljujarvi has all the tools to be a productive NHL player, but he needs stability from the organization to grow. Despite his recent trade request, I think new GM, Ken Holland should try to repair the relationship between the two. The Oilers are desperate for skilled wingers and Puljujarvi likely won’t find a better opportunity around the league.
LW – Tyler Benson (32nd Overall)
Coming into his draft year, Benson was viewed as a potential top-15 pick, but his stock dipped after he was sidelined for 42 games while recovering from surgery to remove a cyst on his spine and an inflammation of the pelvis. After the Oilers drafted him in the summer of 2016, Benson missed 53 games over the next two seasons due to injury, which slowed his development. However, he produced well when healthy, putting up 111 points in the final 91 games of his WHL career.
The Edmonton native turned pro with the Condors in 2018-19, where he finished tied for third in the AHL in assists (51) and eighth in points (66) in 68 games and was named to the 2018-19 AHL All-Rookie Team. While the Oilers are surely pleased with his production as a rookie, just staying healthy for a full season was a major positive.
Many Oilers observers believe he should start the 2019-20 season in the AHL, but if Benson plays well in training camp, then he deserves an opportunity with the big club. The Oilers won’t ask him to take on more than he can handle as a rookie, but he might already be better than most of the wingers on their NHL roster. I think Benson is a safer bet to score 30 or more points next season than Milan Lucic, Jujhar Khaira, or Joakim Nygard.
D – Markus Niemelainen (63rd Overall)
After putting up 27 points in 65 games as an OHL rookie in 2015-16, Markus Niemelainen took a major step back offensively the following season with just nine points. However, he did improve his plus-minus rating from minus-23 to minus-5. Niemelainen then chose to return to his native Finland and play in Liiga in 2017-18 instead of playing out his final season of OHL eligibility. He appears to be a long shot to make the NHL at this point.
D – Matthew Cairns (84th Overall)
After playing in the OJHL, USHL and BCHL between 2014-15 and 2016-17, Matthew Cairns made the jump to the college ranks with the Cornell University Big Red in 2017-18. He was in-and-out of the lineup as a freshman and even moved up to play forward on occasion. The Mississauga, Ontario native became a regular in the lineup in 2018-19, tallying two goals and four points in 32 games. Cairns is likely two years away from a chance to make the Condors.
D – Filip Berglund (91st Overall)
Filip Berglund might be Edmonton’s most underrated defensive prospect. Drafted as an overage player in 2016, he has already played parts of four seasons in the SHL. He isn’t a big point producer and his skating needs work, but he has great size and can make a strong outlet pass. The next step is to bring him over to North America and see if he can develop like fellow Swede William Lagesson in the AHL.
G – Dylan Wells (123rd Overall)
Dylan Wells was the first of three goalies taken by the Oilers in three straight drafts. While Stuart Skinner (78th overall in 2017) and Olivier Rodrigue (62nd overall in 2018) are generally considered to have higher ceilings than Wells, he should at least be able to carve out a career for himself as a minor-league starter. Wells was decent in the ECHL in 2017-18 and might have the inside track on the backup job in Bakersfield next season.
LW – Graham McPhee (149th Overall)
Graham McPhee has quietly put together a decent NCAA career with the Boston College Eagles. After taking a solid leap forward as a sophomore in 2017-18 with 24 points in 36 games, his totals dipped to just nine points in 29 games last season. Still, he was one of the more impressive forwards at the 2018 Oilers Development Camp. The Bethesda, Maryland native might have a future as a depth forward in the NHL.
C – Aapeli Rasanen (153rd Overall)
Aapeli Rasanen showed his desire for an NHL career by leaving his native Finland at 18 years old to play junior hockey in the United States. After a positive rookie season in the USHL, he played for Boston College with fellow Oilers prospect McPhee. Rasanen continued to progress in Boston with 16 points in 32 games as a freshman, but had just seven points in 33 games last season. However, he played well for Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2017 and 2018. The Tampere, Finland native won’t be a scorer at the NHL level, but he could find work as a fourth-line centre.
D – Vincent Desharnais (183rd Overall)
With their final pick in 2016, the Oilers took a seventh-round gamble on 20-year-old Vincent Desharnais from the Providence College Friars. The 6-foot-6, 210-pound defender has a massive frame, plays a physical style and has good leadership abilities. However, the Oilers have started to move away from stay-at-home players like Desharnais in an effort to bring in more puck movers. The Oilers have until Aug. 15 to sign him or he will become a free agent.
Teams generally aim to pull two NHL regulars out of each draft class. If you get three, you did really well. If you get four, you did great. Puljujarvi has already played more than 100 career NHL games, so count him as one. He might never live up to his draft pedigree, but he’s shown he has NHL skill.
Benson is close to NHL ready, and will hopefully play seven to 10 seasons in Edmonton on a scoring line. Beyond that, there aren’t any locks in this group to make it to the highest level. Wells could have the best odds of playing in the NHL after Benson, but overall this was the weakest of the Oilers last four drafts.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.