The Oilers serious prospect list grew by one over Christmas, as a sixth round draft pick in 2016 — Finn Aapeli Rasanen — became a key player on Finland’s world junior entry.
The list of deep picks from Europe who end up enjoying long NHL careers is long enough, but nowhere near as lengthy as the list of guys whose names you barely ever hear after Draft Day. Rasanen enters the realm of “possible player” after his performance in Buffalo, where the Oilers had mixed results from their prospects.
This month we’ll break down the Oilers prospects by league. We’ll start out west:
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Cameron Hebig, 20, RW/C, Regina Pats
Signed: Dec. 28, 2017
We toss Hebig into our prospects list because he’s an interesting signing, inked to a three-year entry-level deal after he missed the 2016-17 season with an injury. Back in the WHL this season, Hebig had 30-28-58 in 40 games with the Saskatoon Blades before being dealt to Regina at Wednesday’s deadline, where the Pats will be hosting the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup.
He’s not that big (5-foot-10, 185 pounds), but he can really skate and has plenty of skill. You don’t always have to be drafted to be an NHL star, and if Hebig turns out to be a player it’ll speak towards a constant improvement in Edmonton’s ability to draft and develop under GM Peter Chiarelli.
Kailer Yamamoto, 19, RW, Spokane Chiefs
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall, 2017
After struggling during the period between his return to the Spokane Chiefs from Edmonton and the beginning of the world juniors in Buffalo, we’d have to say Yamamoto’s production at the WJC was average: 2-2-4 in seven games. He only had 12 shots on goal (compared to teammate Kieffer Bellows’ 38), but the best way to judge a player is often how his coach uses him.
Yamamoto was a go-to player for Team USA coach Bob Motzko, and was on the ice whenever the Americans were desperate for a goal. Yamamoto played a ton at a very high pace with excellent players, and to his credit, we’ve seldom seen a player who stands 5-foot-8 spend as much time down low in the dirty areas as he does.
One thing: Yamamoto left the WJC semi-final after a wicked slash to the knee late in the game from a Swedish opponent, and did not play in his first game back in Spokane Tuesday. We await an official statement on his health.
Tyler Benson, 19, LW, Vancouver Giants
Drafted: Second round, 32nd overall, 2016
We’ve talked about Benson before: He had season totals of 30 and 33 games the previous two seasons due to serious injuries that weren’t always hockey related. The good news? After starting the season late due to rehab he’s played 31 games already (17-24-41), and Benson is a huge part of why the Vancouver Giants weren’t the seller they were supposed to be at Wednesday’s trading deadline.
Like every young player Benson has to get faster, but at 5-foot-11 and 202 pounds, a guy with his hands and skill still has an excellent chance to play in the NHL. He didn’t quite make Team Canada, but likely didn’t need a bunch of high-tempo games in a short window anyhow. Health and growth are his biggest needs right now — and it appears the Giants will get him some playoff games in his final junior season after all.
Dmitri Samorukov, 18, D, Guelph Storm
Drafted: Round 3, 84th overall, 2017
Samorukov became that rare skater to play for Team Russia at the WJC that plays in North America and is not 19 yet. He played all five games for Russia and had just an assist, but showed he can move the puck well and defend decently for an 18-year-old at the U20s.
He’s got 6-12-18 totals with the Guelph Storm this season, and will almost certainly take over a more prominent role on Team Russia next Christmas. He forecasts as a middle-pairing defenceman today, but you know defencemen: They can go either way as they head toward their mid-20s.
Ostap Safin, 18, RW, Saint John Sea Dogs
Drafted: Round 4, 115th overall, 2017
How quiet was Safin for Team Czech Republic in Buffalo? So quiet that if you missed the first half of the Czechs’ quarter-final win over Finland, you did not see him play that day. He spent the rest of that game — and the shootout — on the Czech bench.
OK, so an 18-year-old’s first world junior was a (cough) learning experience. Safin is a 6-foot-4, 191-pound, left-shooting right-winger whose tools still make scouts salivate. Like all young Euros, he has to learn how to play without the puck over here. How to defend; how to get the puck back once you’ve lost it. He had 1-2-3 in seven games in Buffalo, and has 14-19-33 in 34 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs, where he is also a minus-8.
Play without the puck. Teach Safin that, and you might have a player here.
Aapeli Rasanen, 19, C, Boston College
Drafted: Sixth round, 153rd overall, 2016
Rasanen’s four goals led Team Finland in Buffalo, and he was also used to take meaningful draws late in important games. He played with the goalie pulled, and was the first shooter in the fateful shootout loss to the Czechs in the quarter-finals.
Oilers fans will remember a Swede named Anton Lander. This player, at this time, reminds us very much of Lander — a very good AHL player who never found a way to have an impact in the NHL.
Rasanen is a freshman at Boston College, where he has 3-7-10 in 18 games and is a steady plus-7. He still must pick up his skating pace, find some acceleration and speed through neutral zone. Generally, the NCAA is a perfect place to develop those skills.