When Edmonton Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson announced the firing of GM Peter Chiarelli on Jan. 23, he also discussed the organization’s need to improve the development of its prospects. For all his faults, Chiarelli did build a stronger stable of prospects than the franchise had in years. However, the Oilers continue to make the mistakes that have plagued them for more than a decade by rushing high-end prospects to the NHL before they are ready. That must change for this team to get better.
“We want our younger players to develop more in the American Hockey League,” Nicholson told Oilers TV. “We have some really good prospects. I think we often bring them a little too early in hope that they are going to be ready when they are really close.
“I think we need to leave them down there until they are overripe and that is a change we have to make here. We have sent Kailer Yamamoto down. He’s on the verge of making the team, but he needs to play a lot of minutes. We believe in this player and we have to do that with more of our assets going forward.”
Oilers Development History Repeats Itself
Sure, there are some players that this rule doesn’t apply to. When you draft first overall four times in six years, the expectation is that those players are ready for the best league in the world at 18. I believe all of Edmonton’s first overall picks belonged in the NHL as teenagers except for Nail Yakupov.
Looking back to 2007 when the Oilers first rebuild started, they rushed Sam Gagner (6th overall, 2007) in a top-six role after a stellar showing in his first NHL training camp. Gagner finished with 49 points as a rookie, but never matched that total during his following six seasons in Edmonton.
The Oilers allowed Jordan Eberle (22nd overall, 2008) to spend two additional seasons in the WHL before giving him a roster spot, but probably brought Magnus Paajarvi (10th overall, 2009) over to North America a season early. Like Gagner, Pujujarvi’s rookie season was his best in Oilers silks.
Edmonton took their time with Darnell Nurse (7th overall, 2013), but the real problem is with rushing forwards into featured role. And that’s exactly what they did with Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall, 2014) before sending him back to junior halfway through his rookie season.
Then, Jesse Puljujarvi (4th overall, 2016), Kailer Yamamoto (22nd overall, 2017) and Evan Bouchard (10th overall, 2018) all saw time in the NHL as 18-year-olds. Thankfully, Yamamoto and Bouchard were sent back without burning a year on their entry-level deals. But both players were only with the big club because they lacked capable veterans on the roster.
Bouchard has the potential to be a future top-pairing defenceman, but the book is still out on Puljujarvi and Yamamoto. Both players are still just 20, so it’s too soon to write either of them off, but there hasn’t been a clear development plan for either of them during their time in Edmonton.
The Oilers are surely feeling a sense of urgency to become a contending team quickly with Connor McDavid approaching his prime scoring years. That said, they cannot afford to stunt the growth of their top prospects by asking them to play a role they are not ready for.
Jets Development Should Be Oilers Template
To paraphrase Steve Jobs – good organizations copy, great organizations steal. If the Oilers want to steal a draft and development model from around the league, they should look at the Winnipeg Jets. Like the Oilers, the Jets made just one playoff appearance from 2010-11 through 2016-17 before making a run to the conference final last season.
But unlike the Oilers, the Jets built one of the best prospect pools in the NHL during tough tough years. The Jets drafted skilled players, did not inject them into the lineup until they were ready and are now reaping the benefits.
Edmonton has some quality 19 and 20-year-old forward prospects playing in the CHL and AHL, including Tyler Benson, Ryan McLeod and Kirill Maksimov, but the organization still has a lot of work ahead of them to catch up to Winnipeg.
Related – Oilers 2018 NHL Draft Review
During his presser, Nicholson also assured the fanbase that interim GM Keith Gretzky will not move the 2019 first-round pick for a rental player. The Oilers are still recovering from the disastrous draft floor deal in the summer of 2015 when Chiarelli sent the 16th and 33rd overall picks to the New York Islanders for Griffin Reinhart.
Reinhart played just 29 games for the Oilers before he was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights, while the Islanders got NHL all-star Mathew Barzal with the 16th pick. How good would Barzal look on McDavid’s wing?
The strength of the Oilers’ pipeline is on defence, so drafting forwards (particularity wingers) with skill, speed and hockey sense should be the top priority at the 2019 NHL Draft. Identify the right players who can help you win in the modern game and give the necessary time to grow their offensive confidence.
The last thing Oilers fans want to have preached to them is patience, but that really is the best option.
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.