Welcome to Prospect Profile, my eight part series looking at the players in the Oilers system. Over the course of the summer, I will present a new group of players each week, leading into the prospect camp this September. For the purpose of these features, my definition for a player to be deemed a prospect is less than 100 NHL games, and no older than 25 years old.
Part One will focus on five players that I feel have the most legitimate shot of making the opening night roster this season, although there may be one or two players exempt from this grouping, based on upcoming Profiles.
The Oilers have had 1st Overall picks before. The excitement generated in 2010 when Taylor Hall became the very first Number 1 in Oilers history is something I remember very well. But this year was something different altogether. Over the last two seasons, everyone in the hockey world has been privy to the knowledge that Connor McDavid was going to be a superstar at the level of Sidney Crosby. But as the 2014-15 Oilers season began, the team and the fans were at a level of optimism that they hadn’t been at for some time. While everyone agreed it would be nice to somehow end up with that 1st pick, no one expected it. Fast forward to the NHL Draft Lottery, and the hockey gods smiled upon Oil Country that day.
Connor McDavid is now property of the Oilers, having officially signed his ELC during development camp. Already, the atmosphere in the city is electric. McDavid is hands down playing, and excelling in Edmonton this season. He could, and should, finally be the catalyst to break the Oilers out of the perennial funk they’ve found themselves in.
While he didn’t finish his OHL career with either a Memorial Cup or even an OHL Championship, McDavid’s accomplishments last year alone are astounding. The highlight being finally helping Canada reclaim World Junior supremacy, McDavid also walked away with a bevy of individual awards, most notably his second CHL Scholastic Player of the Year, which he also won in 2014, and the CHL Player of the Year award.
As good as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been, and continues to be, Connor McDavid is the new top center for the Oilers. Already on social media, fans are dreaming up fantasy line ups, discussing who to play with McDavid. He’s changed the entire dynamic of the team without playing a game, and given a long suffering fan base something they need and deserve; hope.
Picked 7th in 2013, Darnell Nurse looks to be poised to crack the Oilers roster heading into this season. Nurse had an absolutely tremendous year with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL, proving that sending him back to junior after making the Oilers out of camp was a very wise decision. Nurse dominated all season, leading his Soo Greyhounds into the OHL playoffs, and an extremely entertaining series against Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters. Prior to that, Nurse was on the same Canadian junior team as McDavid, and was a pivotal member of that blue line, taking on more of a shut down role playing against the top players in the world.
As I mentioned earlier, Nurse did make the Oilers out of camp last season, albeit for two games before returning to junior. However, that was a defense corps that looked very different from the one Peter Chiarelli has assembled this offseason. The additions of Andrej Sekera and Eric Gryba this summer brings in two more experienced NHL players. That, along with added competition in Griffin Reinhart and the recently re-signed Brandon Davidson is going to make the Oilers a very hard team to make on the back end, although there could still be moves made before the start of the season that may open a spot or two. I’m hoping if it comes down to Nurse and say, Davidson for that seventh spot, Davidson gets it. Nurse is only going to benefit from playing. I would much rather see Darnell Nurse as a staple on the blue line in Bakersfield, eating huge minutes in all situations, instead of healthy scratched most of the year.
That being said, as beneficial as starting the year in the AHL would be for Nurse, I don’t expect him to be there long, and definitely not after Christmas. He’s ready for the NHL now, and I expect he’s going to be a key figure for the Oilers for many, many years.
This is a player who, I feel, the Oilers handled in all the wrong ways last season. My personal feeling is Draisaitl should not have played one NHL game last season, let alone 37. That’s not a knock against him in anyway. I think given some time to develop and adjust to the pro game in the AHL, Draisaitl is going to evolve into a very, very good NHL player. He has the size and he thinks the game well. But he’s lacking speed. And that was something that should have been evident last year in training camp. Unfortunately, Craig MacTavish felt comfortable with what he had down the middle, and ended up burning the 1st year of Draisaitl’s ELC.
Now, I understand the situation the Oilers found themselves in, not wanting to send Draisaitl to a Prince Albert team that was going to be at the bottom of the WHL. I’m of the opinion that a trade could have been worked out earlier, even if it meant Draisaitl playing a few months with the PA Raiders. Also, I don’t recall Jordan Eberle suffering that much playing for a non-playoff team in Regina. The story also eventually came out that it was the Oilers who determined Draisaitl would not be representing Germany at the World Juniors last season. Again, a situation in which there may or may not have been a large amount of success to be had, but representing his country again would have at least given Draisaitl some confidence. And it’s not as though he was making a difference for the Oilers at the time.
But, be that as it may, Draisaitl excelled once he finally did make it back to the WHL, with the Kelowna Rockets. He helped the Rockets secure a berth in the Memorial Cup by capturing the WHL Championship, being named playoff MVP in the process. And although he came up short in the Memorial Cup championship game, Draisaitl walked away from the tournament with both the Ed Chynoweth Trophy as the leading scorer of the tournament, but also Memorial Cup MVP.
Much like Nurse, there is a very good chance Draisaitl makes the Oilers out of camp this year again. Also like Nurse, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him starting the year in Bakersfield. With both McDavid and Mark Letestu filling in the middle along with Nugent-Hopkins and Anton Lander, there’s been talk of moving Draisaitl to the wing, which I think would be a very beneficial move.
The battle of the goalies at training camp should be interesting. Ben Scrivens was not good last year, and Viktor Fasth has moved on to the KHL. This off season saw Chiarelli bring in Cam Talbot, who many are pegging as the new number one. If that is the case, then the back up position is going to be between Scrivens, and Anders Nilsson, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, and quickly signed a one-way deal with the Oilers. However, Nilsson signing a one-way deal makes me wonder if Scrivens is being shopped. Nilsson looks to be a capable back up to Talbot, having posted some very nice numbers last year with Kazan Ak-Bars of the KHL.
That being said, last season was the only year he posted a GAA under 2.00, seeing previous action with the Bridgeport Tigers of the AHL, and a handful of games with the Islanders, who drafted him in 2009. This could be the restart he needs. My thought is he was brought in by Chiarelli fully expecting to be the back up to Talbot. Sending him down to the minors doesn’t benefit Nilsson at all, and if anything, hampers the development of Laurent Brossoit, who should be the starter in Bakersfield next year.
My opinion is that this is Pitlick’s last chance to prove he belongs with the big club. Although he’s suffered through injuries, he looked to be on the right track last year, scoring a couple of goals before injuries ended his season. Pitlick brings just what the Oilers need in their bottom six, which is physicality and an ability to chip in some goals. His 62 points in his only year of junior hockey with Medicine Hat is proof of that.
Pitlick could be in tough to secure a spot in the bottom six. Rob Klinkhammer and Matt Hendricks are both stalwarts for the Oilers, and the addition of Lauri Korpikoski accounts for 3 of the 4 winger positions available. Factor in that the Oilers will have to find a spot for top six players like Teddy Purcell and Nail Yakupov, and the log jam gets even worse. For Pitlick though, he may be able to come into camp, and impress enough to force out a Luke Gazdic, or at least secure some playing time as an interchangeable 13th forward.
The biggest struggle for Pitlick is going to be staying healthy. A knee injury in the 2013-14 season limited him to 49 games split between the Oilers and the Oklahoma City Barons, while a lacerated spleen resulted in Pitlick missing all but a combined 31 games. When healthy though, Pitlick has shown he can be an effective player at the AHL level. That’s something he’ll need to try and carry over to the NHL level.