Oilers, Paigin & The “Unhappiness” with Player Development

It came out the other week that there was some unhappiness in the Edmonton Oilers organization. This story might be a little late for some fans, but I still thought it was important to touch on this subject. That unhappiness had something to do with how prospects are developing in the AHL. In one of Elliotte Friedman’s recent 31 Thoughts, he discussed the issue and how there’s concern amongst the organization’s brain trust.

There are two non-NHL concerns in Edmonton as well. The first is unhappiness with the way players are developing at AHL Bakersfield. I did not see Ziyat Paigin myself, but there is disappointment that he has asked to go back to Russia, especially after a summer where he stayed to train in Edmonton. Rightly or wrongly, there is a feeling too many of their prospects are not panning out there. – Elliotte Friedman, “31 Thoughts”

Ziyat Paigin is another name to add to the list of Edmonton’s failed attempts to draft and develop prospects from Europe. The Oilers placed Paigin on unconditional waivers and terminated his two-year, $1.85-million contract. He was due to make $925,000, which included a $125,000 bonus, this season. Paigin, 22, was in the first year of his deal and played seven games for the Condors this season.

Paigin the Oilers’ Latest European Failure

Naturally, there was a lot to be desired from a 6-foot-6, 203-pound Russian defenseman who, despite being drafted 209th overall in 2015, a lot of people were high on. People had Paigin pegged as a potential draft-day steal. He played just 12 games in North America and was frequently getting healthy scratched in Bakersfield. The blue-line logjam didn’t help matters either.

It’s a disappointment that Edmonton’s lost another European prospect. The list of Europeans that haven’t panned out in Edmonton’s development system is long. This issue goes back a decade and includes some high-profile picks. Jani Rita (13th, 1999), Alexei Mikhnov (17th, 2000), and Jesse Niinimaki (15th, 2002) highlight the list of first-rounders dating back to 1999.

Ziyat Paigin
Ziyat Paigin (Photo: Sergei Manzheleyev, www.ak-bars.ru)

Anton Lander (40th, 2009), Martin Marincin (46th, 2010), David Musil (31st, 2011), Nail Yakupov (first, 2011), Bogdan Yakimov (83rd, 2013), and now Paigin highlight the ones from more recent history. As David Staples from the Edmonton Journal mentions, that list isn’t reserved to just Europeans. Something is awry and this team needs to overhaul their player development strategy.

Reevaluating the Oilers’ Drafting & Failure to Develop

One of the biggest reasons the Oilers’ system is in a drought is because they aren’t hitting on picks in the middle to late rounds. You can have Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Leon Draisaitl leading the charge up front, but you need to surround those guys. Finding the McDavids, RNHs, and Draisaitls are easy at the top of the draft. What’s hard is finding those Vincent Trochecks (64th, 2011), Jean-Gabriel Pageaus (96th, 2011), and Viktor Arvidssons (112th, 2014).

From 1999-2014, you can count on two hands how many NHL regulars the Oilers found in the heart of the draft. We’re talking Mike Comrie (91st, 1999), Jussi Markkanen (133rd, 2001), Jarret Stoll (36th, 2002), Matt Greene (44th, 2002), and Kyle Brodziak (214th, 2003) in the early years. For the last decade, we’re looking at Brandon Davidson (162nd, 2010), Tobias Rieder (114th, 2011), and Anton Slepyshev (83rd, 2013). Only Slepyshev is still an Oiler. Not that you should expect to hit a home run with every pick, but having a list as short as this one isn’t good.

Anton Slepyshev
Anton Slepyshev (Amy Irvin / THW)

This is an area of weakness, and Peter Chiarelli would be aloof if he didn’t already know that. He reconnected with his buddy from Boston, Keith Gretzky, in August 2016. Gretzky is now Chiarelli’s right-hand guy as assistant general manager. The two worked together with the Boston Bruins from 2013-15 until Chiarelli was fired. During that time, Gretzky served as an amateur scout and eventually became the Director of Amateur Scouting.

Edmonton & the Pursuit of Happiness

It’s worth noting that from 2013-15, while Chiarelli and Gretzky were parts of the Bruins’ brain trust, they yielded a few intriguing players. Peter Cehlarik (90th, 2013), Danton Heinen (116th, 2014) and Anders Bjork (146th, 2014) were all picked while Chiarelli and Gretzky were in Boston. Looking at those mid-draft selections in that short span gives hope for Oiler fans.

Peter Chiarelli
Peter Chiarelli (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Still, an underlying issue might be the charade of musical chairs and trading of hats behind the scenes. If you’re looking for a change, it’s already happened (sort of). Stu MacGregor, who was the Oilers’ head amateur scout, and Morey Gare, the head pro scout, were both fired days before the 2015 NHL Draft. Both were with the organization for over a decade, so the change was a nice refresh for the scouting department.

Since then they’ve already accrued several intriguing prospects. We all know about Caleb Jones (117th, 2015), and Ethan Bear (117th, 2015), who turned pro this year. Tyler Benson (32nd, 2016), Dylan Wells (123rd, 2016), and Aapeli Rasanen (153rd, 2016) can turn pro next year. Dmitri Samorukov (84th, 2017), Ostap Safin (115th, 2017) and Kirill Maksimov (146th, 2017) all look like great players. They’re two years from turning pro.

Edmonton’s Player Development Problem

The problem is we’re in a gap where those players from 2011-2014 didn’t develop. It’s probably because Edmonton didn’t pick the right guys. Outside of Draisaitl, no one from 2014 has played in Bakersfield. Most of the players selected from 2013 are playing depth roles for the Condors, and likely aren’t NHLers. They found Jujhar Khaira (63rd), Erik Gustafsson (93rd), and Joey LaLeggia (123rd) in 2012. Unfortunately, the Oilers didn’t retain Gustafsson’s rights, and LaLeggia has yet to play a game for Edmonton.

In 2011, the Oilers missed on David Musil (31st) and let go of his rights this summer. A pair of goalies in Samu Perhonen (62nd) and Frans Tuohimaa (182nd) were disastrous. Even Travis Ewanyk (74th) and Martin Gernat (122nd) didn’t amount to much success. We could run on for days about all the prospects that didn’t turn out. What we need to be doing is evaluating and figuring out what happened here.

Jujhar Khaira
Jujhar Khaira (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Is this an issue of having someone whisper lousy advice into your ear for a handful of years, which led to some bad decisions? Or is this an issue where everyone involved in player personnel is ruining the future of this organization before their careers even take off? Go back and look at the teams Edmonton has put together at the AHL level; they aren’t pretty.

More Questions Than Answers for the Oilers

In my opinion, there’s probably going to be an overhaul of the Oilers’ development system. It’ll probably happen after the season, but it could involve multiple people being shown the door. I’d imagine a change or two to the scouting department as well, especially in Europe. That’s where Edmonton seemingly can’t hit on anything.

We also need to remember, as I mentioned, that we’re in a gap with prospects. Kailer Yamamoto could make an impact in the next year as well. That’ll give the Oilers some much-needed scoring depth. Things are getting better, but once this next crop makes their way to Bakersfield, something needs to change in their development. Otherwise, the perpetual cycle will continue. Whether that’s the coach or changes in player development, something needs to change.