Dating back to 2007 when the Edmonton Oilers drafted Sam Gagner sixth overall, the team has selected numerous players in the first round that didn’t work out for one reason or another. From Alex Plante, Riley Nash, Magnus Paarjarvi, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov, their potential was sold to everyone as high, but each was eventually ousted to different organizations.
For years, the Oilers were the laughingstock of the NHL. They had a plethora of first-round draft picks, yet iced a non-competitive team that found themselves near the bottom of the standings. But that’s not the case anymore. The Oilers are 9-1 and are off to their best start in franchise history. For once, their first-round draft picks are finally living up to their potential and clicking simultaneously. Let’s take a look at seven of Edmonton’s homegrown first-round draft picks and how they’re contributing to the team’s early success.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Drafted First-Overall in 2011
Drafted first overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, Nugent-Hopkins was the team’s first-line centre for the first five years of his career. Despite his skill and ability, Nugent-Hopkins was often over his head when taking on the bigger centremen in his division earlier in his career. To stop his team from bleeding goals, No. 93 focused on his two-way game and sacrificed offense to become better defensively.
With the emergence of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins was able to quietly settle into a supportive role. Over the last few years, he’s interchanged from a centre to a winger, which increased his point production. His highest points-per-game (P/G) so far in his career is 0.94 (P/G), but this season, he’s taken his game to another level.
He has 14 assists in 10 games, and he’s putting on an absolute passing clinic and finding his teammates in prime scoring chances. He’s seventh in the league in points, and his nine power-play points put him second in the league, only behind McDavid. He’s an integral part of the Oilers’ special teams, playing on both power-play and penalty-killing units. In addition, No. 93’s versatility to play both wing and centre allows the team to vary their attacks by having McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line or on separate lines. The Oilers lead the league with a 50 percent power-play efficiency, and as Nugent-Hopkins is an important cog on the man advantage, it’s only a matter of time before he starts putting the puck in the net.
Darnell Nurse, Drafted 7th Overall in 2013
Born into a family of professional athletes, it’s no surprise Darnell Nurse has developed into one of the NHL’s premier defensemen. His combination of size, speed, agility and toughness are the reasons the Oilers drafted Nurse seventh overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. He became a full-time NHL player in the 2015-2016 season, playing in 69 games, and he’s progressed in each season since.
Nurse took a big step in his development last season when he registered 16 goals, 20 assists for 36 points in 56 games. He was +27 and averaged 25:38 time on ice (TOI). In Game 4 against the Winnipeg Jets, the game went into triple overtime, and he logged an astonishing 62:07 TOI, third-most in NHL history. His 16 goals ranked second among all defensemen, and he finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting. After signing two prior bridge deals after his entry-level contract, Nurse cashed in and signed an eight-year, $74-million contract last summer.
Nurse has picked up where he left off last season, leading all Oilers defensemen, averaging 25:44 TOI. He has eight assists in 10 games and leads the team with 50 hits. No. 25 plays in all situations, including the penalty kill and the Oilers’ second power-play unit. He hasn’t fought this season, yet his toughness allows the team to play a foot taller when he’s on the ice. While he signed a very lucrative contract in the offseason, he’s earning his paycheque and playing like a true number one defenseman.
Leon Draisaitl, Drafted 3rd Overall in 2014
The Oilers drafted Leon Draisaitl third overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. It’s been an exciting journey for Draisaitl, from playing 37 games in his rookie season and being sent back down to junior to becoming one of the most dominant players in the NHL.
The native of Cologne, Germany, has a 50-goal season, Art Ross Trophy, Ted Lindsay Trophy and a Hart Trophy under his belt. He’s finished top-five in scoring the last three seasons, and he’s currently in a neck-in-neck race with McDavid for the NHL scoring lead.
This season, he leads the entire NHL in points, and he’s on pace for a whopping 188 points and finds himself in a tie for first place in goals (10) with Alex Ovechkin. On Friday night, Draisaitl scored the game-winning goal in overtime in a thriller against the New York Rangers, and with his third point on the night, he joined some elite company. With his sixth three-point night of the season, only Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky have recorded more three-point nights (7) in their first 10 games.
The Oilers are off to a historic start, and Draisaitl has been a big part of that. He’s been a workhorse with his 22:41 TOI and 57.1 faceoff percentage (FO%). With him and McDavid pushing each other in the scoring race, it’s healthy competition that will have a trickle-down effect on all of their teammates.
Connor McDavid, Drafted First Overall in 2015
Drafted first overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, this man has taken the hockey world by storm. In seven seasons, McDavid has three Art Ross Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Trophies, and two Hart Memorial Trophies to his name. The scary thing is that he continues to get better. In the shortened season last year, he registered 105 points in 56 games, putting him on pace for 153 points in an 82-game season.
With 22 points in 10 games this season, he’s on pace for a 180-point year. That might sound absurd, but if there’s anyone in the NHL that can achieve the feat, it’s him. This season, he’s taken his play to an even higher level — he’s shooting more (2nd in the league in shots), and he’s worked on his one-timer to add another threat to the Oilers’ number one ranked power play.
This season’s version of McDavid has a killer instinct. Last Friday night against the New York Rangers, with a packed Rogers Place and Oilers’ alumni in the house for Kevin Lowe’s jersey retirement, No. 97 rose to the occasion.
The Oilers were down a goal with three minutes left in the game, and the captain took charge. He faced four Rangers players head-on and completely dismantled them for a miraculous goal. He’s scored many highlight-reel goals in his career, but none as clutch as the one against the Rangers. Special players rise to the occasion in special moments, and if McDavid has found the ability to take over with the game on the line, the Oilers may be a force in this season’s playoffs.
Jesse Puljujarvi, Drafted 4th Overall in 2016
Jesse Puljujarvi’s journey is exactly why a team shouldn’t give up on highly touted prospects too early. Drafted fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, it seemed like a blessing when the Columbus Blue Jackets decided to pass on Puljujarvi and instead selected Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall.
His first three seasons with the team were subpar, and he played 139 games and registered only 37 points. He left for Finland to find his game and for the Oilers to find a suitable trading partner. General manager Ken Holland played the waiting game and convinced the big winger to come back to the NHL. Last season, he produced an admirable 25 points in 55 games and finished the year on the first line with McDavid.
He’s taken even greater strides this season. In 10 games, he’s netted five goals, seven assists and 12 points, and he’s showcasing his wide array of skills that got him selected so high in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Puljujarvi has been scoring in tight in front of the net, but against the Rangers, he accepted a rifled Nugent-Hopkins pass on the fly, streaked down the wing and wired the puck past goaltender Alexander Georgiev. Knowing that he can score goals from beyond a couple of feet of the blue paint will be a boost of confidence for the young Finnish player. He’s a big, mobile man that’s become a mainstay on the first line, averaging 17:34 TOI a game. He doesn’t kill penalties, and he mainly sees ice time at the tail end of the power play, but his energy alone has a positive effect throughout the team.
Kailer Yamamoto, Drafted 22nd Overall in 2017
The Oilers drafted Yamamoto with the 22nd pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He’s considered small by NHL standards at 5-foot-7, but he left an impression with then Oiler general manager Peter Chiarelli. During the interview session, he said, “You have to draft me, or else I’ll come back and haunt you” (from “Edmonton Oilers Fans Itching to Declare Yam City For Kailer Yamamoto,” Edmonton Journal, 9/7/17).
The Oilers winger had a slow start to this season points-wise, but he’s scored two goals in the last three games. He’s not producing points at the exceptional rate the rest of the top six forwards are, but he’s tenacious on the forecheck and dogged on the puck. He makes up for his small stature with his effort and willingness to engage in board battles. As a result, he leads the team with six penalties drawn in 10 games.
The question still remains if Yamamoto is a legitimate top-six forward, but nonetheless, he is a very effective NHL player that kills and draws penalties. In the last two games, he’s played alongside Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman, and the trio has been a very effective second line. Despite a slow start, and in a contract year, expect Yamamoto’s efforts to start reflecting more on the scoresheet.
Evan Bouchard, Drafted 10th Overall in 2018
Holland had the approach with the Detroit Red Wings to “over-ripen” prospects until you can’t hold them off the team any longer. He applied that approach with the 10th overall pick from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Evan Bouchard.
Known for his offense and bolstering point shot, Bouchard wasn’t given a full-time opportunity until this season. Last season he spent time on the taxi squad and only suited up for 14 games. Fortunately for Bouchard, Ethan Bear’s departure from the club opened a roster spot for him, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. In 10 games, he has one goal, five assists for six points while playing 21:12 TOI. He leads the defenseman with 25 shots on goal and leads the team with 20 blocked shots.
Bouchard started the season in a third-pairing role, but as the season’s progressed, we’ve seen him line up alongside Nurse on the top pair. His calling card has been as an offensive threat, but he also ranks second in defensemen on the team in penalty killing minutes. Although it was a long road to becoming a full-time NHL player, so far this season, he’s already exceeding expectations.
For years, the Oilers were the brunt of many jokes around the NHL. First-round pick after first-round pick, the Oilers could not be taken seriously because they failed to ice a competitive team. This season, there is a new energy, and those first-round draft picks can be seen smiling and laughing after every goal they score. Having said that, the team will continue to get better, with Philip Broberg (eighth overall in 2019), Dylan Holloway (14th overall in 2020) and Xavier Bourgault (22nd overall in 2021) all on the way.
He’s the first ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – He’s been featured on CBC Radio providing hockey analysis for the Edmonton Oilers – He’s a freelance writer and Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.