Young Stars Making Decisions Difficult for the Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers finished up the 2016 Young Stars and Rookie Tournament on Wednesday with a victory over the University of Alberta Golden Bears. It was a fantastic showing as the Oilers’ rookies swept the week to come away victorious in all four games. Perhaps more impressive than the team victories, were the individual displays of talent and skill among some of the Oilers’ finest prospects. Oilers’ fans should be excited. Not only for how Edmonton prospects fared compared to their Western Canadian counterparts; but for what’s ahead in Oil Country — years of skill and a flair for offense.

The Oilers have been making moves and adding depth this summer in what looks like a plan to give certain prospects time in other leagues before tossing them into the NHL. A couple prospects may be throwing a wrench into those plans.

Edmonton’s Next Great Finnish Right-Winger?

Jesse Puljujarvi
Finland’s own Jesse Puljujarvi (courtesy Finnish Ice Hockey Federation)

Edmonton invited one of its deepest prospect pools in years to this year’s prospect camp. The closest thing to a superstar at the tournament was 2016 fourth-overall draft selection Jesse Puljujarvi, who not only lived up to the hype but exceeded almost every expectation.

For many Oilers fans, the Young Stars and Rookie Tournament was the first close-up glimpse at Puljujarvi as he’d missed skating at this seasons’ orientation camp. The Oilers chose to exclude him from on-ice orientation sessions thanks to a previous injury management determined could use a bit more rest. It was a little disappointing for fans eager to see what Puljujarvi could do, but it was a wise play to make the cautious decision.

The reality is, Puljujarvi is completely healthy and when word came that he’d be a part of the active roster at the Young Stars Tournament, nearly all of the focus shifted to how well he’d fare. With six points in two games, followed up by two primary assists in the Golden Bears game, Puljujarvi was the MVP of the tournament by a mile. There’s a growing sentiment that Puljujarvi should see time in the AHL before getting his feet wet with the Oilers, but if he plays in pre-season the way he did at this camp, I just don’t see him being denied.

His skill, speed, and poise with the puck placed second place only to his ability to wow the crowd with dynamic plays. He’s now got everyone talking and suggesting that not only is he NHL ready, he’s ready to make an immediate impact in the NHL. His skill on the power play was especially advanced. He offered multiple looks and a variety of weapons and Edmonton could use that kind of fire-power.

Revisiting History?

Really, the story almost writes itself. Back in the 80’s, Oiler fans were treated to years of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri amazing spectators with their displays of hockey magic. An eastern Canadian superstar center teaming up with a Finnish elite-level right-winger made headlines during a time that saw the Oilers win four Stanely Cups. It was a special time in Oilers’ history.

It’s way too early to make similar comparisons, but even the slimmest of chances that Oilers fans could be on the verge of witnessing magic like that again has people buzzing. A Connor McDavid and Puljujarvi duo have the makings of a wonderful tale of revisionist history — another Eastern Canadian superstar center teaming with an elite Finnish right-winger. It’s just too good a story and nearly impossible not to connect the dots.

Is Caggiula Ready?

Drake Caggiula
UND Forward Drake Caggiula (Eric Classen / UND Athletics)

It’s not hard to see why the Edmonton Oilers have high hopes for Drake Caggiula. Word is that the Oilers think highly enough of Caggiula that he has a legitimate shot to make the opening night NHL roster. His performance at the Young Stars Tournament may be showing how correct the Oilers are in their assessment.

Caggiula scored two goals in the Golden Bears game. He was one of, if not the best player on the ice. This came after a goal and an assist in a 4-1 Edmonton victory over the Winnipeg Jets rookies and an assist in a 4-1 win over the Canucks rookies. A total of five points in three games, and as the games went on, Caggiula’s performances seemed to get better and better.

In the Calgary game (the first of his three appearances), Caggiula seemed a bit shaky to start. Part of what Caggiula will have to overcome is the change of pace that comes with going from college hockey to the AHL and eventually the NHL. The way he’s picked up his pace of play in just three games and against higher caliber players bodes well for his ability to think about the game at a more advanced level.

Caggiula slotted in at both the center and wing positions in this tournament and didn’t seem one step out of place. He was tenacious, extremely fast and found holes in the open ice when an opportunity presented itself. He’s not a large player in physical stature, but he plays a larger game.

Caggiula doesn’t plan to make keeping him off the Oilers team an easy decision for management. Should he continue to progress at Oilers camp and in pre-season, he’s going to get every opportunity to open this season with the big club. With less of a need at his position, he’ll be in tougher to do so than Puljujarvi will, but Caggiula has faced similar obstacles his entire hockey career. If anyone is game for the challenge, it’s likely him.

There were a number of good showings by prospects at this year’s Young Stars and Rookie Camp. Among those that opened some eyes were Oilers goaltending prospect Nick Ellis, who started the tournament with a fantastic performance against the Canucks rookies. As impressive was forward prospect Joey Benik, who led the Oilers team in goals and points throughout the week.

That said, the Young Stars and Rookie Tournament in 2016 was clearly the Puljujarvi and Caggiula show. So much so, in fact, Edmonton will be watching both players closely as Oilers’ main camp roles along and Edmonton gets ready to welcome pre-season hockey. Both Caggiula and Puljujarvi are likely prepared to start the season in the AHL, but both intend to make a strong case for not doing so. The decision to keep them away from the NHL to start the season may not be easy, but it’s a great problem to have if you’re Oilers-GM Peter Chiarelli.