The 2020 NHL Entry Draft is now over. The Edmonton Oilers picked Dylan Holloway in the first round, Carter Savoie in the fourth, Tyler Tullio and Maksim Berezkin in the fifth, Filip Engaras in the sixth and Jeremias Lindwall in the seventh. They were without picks in Rounds 2 and 3.
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Edmonton has had tremendous success at the Entry Draft, just not consistently. Six of the seven Oilers Hockey Hall of Fame players were original draftees by the team in its early years. In 1979, they drafted Kevin Lowe (#21), Mark Messier (#48), and Glenn Anderson (#69); in 1980, Paul Coffey (#6) and Jari Kurri (#69); and in 1981, Grant Fuhr (#8).
The greatest Oiler Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretzky, of course, was never drafted, having jumped directly to the renegade World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1978 at a time when the WHA was signing underage players who weren’t eligible for the NHL’s draft. When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, Gretzky slid over protected by the Edmonton Oilers in the league-merger rules, bypassing the entry draft completely.
The Best “Draft” Versus the Best “Drafting”
It will be a few years until we find out how well the Oilers scouting staff did with their 2020 picks. What we can debate is which year the Oilers scouting staff did their best work. By this, I don’t mean which draft year they got the best players. I mean the years the Oilers got the best overall value for the rounds their draft picks were made in. I’m not talking about the best “draft,” but the best “drafting.”
To illustrate the point, let’s compare the draft number and team statistics of two Hall of Fame defencemen, Chris Pronger and Nicklas Lidstrom. For our purposes, because we are judging the value the drafting team got in drafting the player, we will consider only the years they played with their original drafting team.
Pronger was drafted second overall in 1993 by the Hartford Whalers. He played only two seasons for the Whalers, scoring 44 points in 124 games before being traded to the St. Louis Blues for Brendan Shanahan. In both seasons, the Whalers lost in the first round of the playoffs. He won no awards during that time.
Lidstrom was drafted #53 by the Detroit Red Wings in 1989. He played two decades for the Red Wings, scoring 1,142 points in 1,564 games. From 1991, when he started playing for the Red Wings, until 2011, when he retired, the team made the playoffs every year except for the 2004-05 lockout season. He helped the Red Wings to four Stanley Cups, scoring 183 points in 263 playoff games. While with the Red Wings, Lidstrom won the James Norris best defenceman trophy seven times and the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP once.
There’s a legitimate debate over whether Pronger or Lidstrom is the better player, but picking Lidstrom 53rd gave more value than picking Pronger second overall. It was better “drafting.”
2015: The Oilers Best “Drafting” Year
Both 1979 and 1980 are usually identified as the Oilers’ best draft years. It is hard to argue with picks like Lowe, Messier, Anderson, Coffey and Kurri.
However, it was in 2015 that the team got the most value from its draft picks. Picking Connor McDavid first overall will do that. But it was in rounds four and later where the Oilers’ picks rang off the crossbar bar-down like a Shinto bell resonating on New Year’s Eve. That’s where the real value to teams lies, and why teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning are so successful.
Rounds 1, 2 and 3
Picking McDavid in Round 1 of 2015 is probably enough on its own to call this the best draft the Oilers have ever had. To date, he has scored 469 points in 351 games, and has already won Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lyndsay Awards, with more sure to come.
Yes, picking McDavid first overall was the obvious consensus choice, but so was Nail Yakupov in 2012 and we all know how that turned out. First-overall draft choices can and do go wrong. Oilers scouts reportedly voted 9-2 multiple times in internal meetings to pick Ryan Murray over Yakupov but somehow, “The Edmonton Oilers are so proud to select, from the Sarnia Sting, Nail Yakupov,” were the words that came out of Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini’s mouth that day.
In 2012, the Oilers got it wrong. In 2015, they got it right. Very right. They had to. They had already traded away their picks in rounds two and three to other teams.
Rounds 4, 5 and 6
Even taking out McDavid, 2015 is still the best value Oiler drafting ever. In Round 4, they picked Caleb Jones; Round 5, Ethan Bear; and Round 6, John Marino. All three are defencemen, the hardest position to predict development in. All three have already made the NHL and all three look like solid NHL defencemen for years to come. Bear, in particular, had a spectacular rookie season for a fifth-round choice. Getting three solid NHL defencemen in Rounds 4-6 of the same year goes beyond good drafting. It is extraordinary.
Drafted #117 overall, Jones made the jump to the NHL in 2018-19. After starting in the American Hockey League in 2019-20, he finished the season in the NHL, establishing himself as a solid third-pairing defenceman with lots of upside and already the target of other teams in numerous trade rumours.
Being the younger brother of the Columbus Blue Jackets Seth Jones shows his further potential.
Just seven picks after Jones, at #124, the Oilers scouting staff did it again, picking Bear in the fifth round. All Bear did was make the NHL in 2017-18, went down to the AHL like Jones, then took off in 2019-20, where he was a regular in the Oilers’ top-four defencemen, scoring 21 points in 71 games and averaging 21:58 of ice time per game over the season.
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To put that into perspective, that is more than McDavid’s ice time of 21:52 over the same period of time, and more than Calder Trophy-winner Cale Makar’s 21:01, all with minimal power-play time. It is also more than any other rookie in 2019-20. The performance earned Bear 10th place voting in this year’s Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year.
A native Cree from the Ochapowace Nation in southern Saskatchewan, Bear is enormously popular and, along with Kailer Yamamoto, was a breakout player for the Oilers this season.
Drafted #154 overall, in the sixth round, Marino chose not to sign with the Oilers after being drafted by them. Facing the loss of an asset, Edmonton traded him to Pittsburgh for a 2021 sixth-round pick. Marino made the Penguins in 2019-20, the year after finishing his Eastern College Athletic Conference season with Harvard University, scoring 26 points in 56 regular season games, averaging 20:15 of ice time. Marino placed eighth in Calder voting this year.
2015: A Remarkable Draft Year
Choosing the best player in the world and what look to be three solid NHL defencemen far down the draft order made the 2015 Entry Draft the best value draft ever for the Oilers. With almost identical draft slots this year —Rounds 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 — will the 2020 choices of Dylan Holloway, Carter Savoie, Tyler Tullio, Maksim Berezkin, Filip Engaras and Jeremias Lindewall challenge the record of foresight and acumen the Oilers scouting staff showed in 2015 (leaving McDavid aside)?
Darvin Babiuk has worked as a dishwasher, janitor, paper boy, grocery clerk, researcher, historical interpreter, oil and gas trainer and university lecturer. He covers the Edmonton Oilers for The Hockey Writers. Friends and relatives say he has never been the same after the tragic incident at the Moosomin 47th annual Dmitro Petrycyshyn Pickerel and Perogies Cribbage tournament. He has lived more places than Sinbad the Sailor.