Here’s the biggest issue with the Edmonton Oilers pipeline: There isn’t a forward in AHL Bakersfield who looks like he’ll help the big team long-term, with their best forward prospects still junior- and college-aged.
So it’s a good thing they have three very solid blue-line prospects on the farm, names that make up three of the club’s Top 5 prospects. Here’s a look at the slow rebuild of a farm system that was neglected for too long, in order of prospect pedigree:
1. Kailer Yamamoto, 19, RW
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall, 2017
Season To Date: 22 GP | 10 G | 26 A | 36 P | +5
Fresh off a world junior appearance for Team USA, Yamamoto returned to the Spokane Chiefs and piled up 10 points in four games last week. In an organization that will spend its summer seeking fast wingers, Yamamoto is already in-house in a hockey environment that is trending towards the small, speedy Spokane native’s game.
Since returning from Buffalo he has shown the motivation and pace the team has been looking for, after enduring that always-rocky transition back to junior when he was sent there from the NHL in November. He’s small, but in today’s game players with Yamamoto’s speed and hands can contribute. It’s hard to contemplate a scenario where Yamamoto isn’t a top-six NHL winger.
2. Ethan Bear, 20, D
Drafted: Fifth round, 124th overall, 2015
Season To Date: 27 GP | 3 G | 8 A | 11 P | -6
Bear is that smaller offensive defenceman — 5-foot-11, 200 pounds — who simply has to learn how to defend in order to make the next step into the NHL. He’s less the end-to-end rush type, and more the guy who passes it out of the defensive zone, then follows the play to pitch in at the other end. Think Kevin Shattenkirk, not Drew Doughty.
Quite possibly a steal in the fifth round, Bear runs a nice power play, can one-time a puck, and can skate and pass — no problem. What Bear has to improve are his defensive gaps, be stronger working corners in his own zone and get a better stick defensively. He’s made a lot of strides already in his first pro season. Between Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha, the Oilers are hoping that two of them turn into everyday NHL defencemen.
3. Caleb Jones, 20, D
Drafted: Fourth round, 117th overall, 2015
Season To Date: 40 GP | 1 G | 12 A | 13 P | -17
Popeye Jones’ boy is behind Bear’s developmental curve today, but could be a better, more dynamic player when all is said and done. He’s a puck transporter who can take it the length of the ice, with offensive instincts that earn him some power play time.
Jones’ issue? He’s got to learn when to jump, when to dump the puck and hit the brakes, and once he does find himself deep he has to get a better feel for when he should hang around for some offence and when the time is to get back into his defensive position on the blue line.
The minus-17 is a tell that his offensive instincts are being exploited by opponents. But you can teach a young defenceman when to stay home. It’s a lot harder to teach the offensive instincts that come naturally to Jones.
4. Tyler Benson, 19, LW
Drafted: Second round, 32nd overall, 2016
Season To Date: 38 GP | 19 G | 29 A | 48 P | 3
Benson is going to be an intriguing prospect, because he’s a points guy. Lots of skill, excellent awareness, nice shot, and a guy scouts say passes the puck hard and on the tape more than a lot of 19-year-olds. Offensively he’s on the right track, playing on a Vancouver Giants line with Ty Ronning.
Like all young offensive forwards, however, defensive awareness is something to work on. Also, Benson needs to find that next gear through the neutral zone, which means some long summers working on skating mechanics. If he gets that half-stride he is likely a top-six left winger. He’ll need time in Bakersfield next season.
5. Ryan Mantha, 21, D
Drafted: Fourth round, 104th overall, 2014 (Rangers)
Season To Date: 41 GP | 3 G | 7 A | 10 P | 0
Mantha is a nice complement in Bakersfield to the Oilers’ other two prospects on defence, a bigger (6-foot-5), heavier style of defenceman who possesses an NHL caliber blast from the point. He shoots right and is mobile for a man his size. He’s a bit of a surprise, going unsigned by the Rangers out of the 2014 draft.
His chore is to play as physically as a defenceman of his size is expected to play. Mantha needs to command the defensive zone a bit more, which is a lot to ask of a 21-year-old in the AHL. But he’s getting better faster than people thought. A nice dark horse here.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Aapeli Rasanen, 19, C
Drafted: Sixth round, 153rd overall, 2016
Season To Date: 22 GP | 3 G | 9 A | 12 P | +7
Rasanen projects as a third-line checking centre who wins key faceoffs and kills penalties. Think Sami Pahlsson or Antoine Vermette. He’s in his first season in North America and trying to find ice time as a freshman on a Boston College team that is 13-5 and in first place in Hockey East.
Like any 19-year-old Finn who is half a world away from home, he has to work on becoming a pro. That means nutrition, leg strength, getting lean and thick. All of those things can happen with some good old-fashioned training, however. Could be another deep pick for the Oilers who adds depth down the road.