It is an arduous process, recovering from years of poor drafting and development. The Edmonton Oilers will attest to that, as will Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and a host of other teams that got it wrong for several years in a row.
When the real prospects begin to arrive, however, the contrast is stark. Now two drafts into his role as the Oilers’ assistant general manager, Keith Gretzky is earning the confidence of a highly skeptical Oilers fan base, one that has waited patiently for their team to have success with picks that aren’t No. 1 overall. Rounds 2 through 7 are supposed to deliver the odd player as well.
As it stands, the Oilers’ top two prospects were both first-rounders — Evan Bouchard, 10th overall in 2018 and Kailer Yamamoto, 22nd overall in 2017. But below that are a host of guys picked outside Round 1 who elicit a definite belief that they will one day play in the NHL.
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s Top 5 Prospect List, spread across three different leagues.
Evan Bouchard, RD
Currently on his nine-game NHL tryout window, Bouchard has two things going for him when it comes to avoiding a demotion back to OHL London.
One – The Oilers defence lacks puck movers and guys who can spark offence, particularly on the right side. Two — The combination of Bouchard having accomplished pretty much everything he can in junior, and the apparent ability to survive fairly well on the third pairing has us leaning towards him getting an apartment in Edmonton sooner than later.
In a win over Boston last Thursday where the Oilers lost a defenceman early, Bouchard went minus-2 in just 13:17., and he was minus-2 again in Saturday’s tough matchup with Nashville, but played a season-high 14:36. A bit rough, sure. But he also shows grace and patience with the puck, and has an NHL shot. Here’s betting he can learn the defensive ropes faster under assistant coach Trent Yawney in Edmonton, rather than returning to play 28 minutes a night in the OHL.
Kailer Yamamoto, RW
The difference between Yamamoto and Bouchard is, Yamamoto can go to AHL Bakersfield to hone his skills if he can’t cut it at the NHL level. The similarity? Like Bouchard, Yamamoto plays a position that is an area of weakness in Edmonton.
Yamamoto scored his first career NHL goal in that Boston game, and his first point of the season as well. He began the season on Leon Draisaitl’s right side, then moved to the third line with Ryan Strome and Milan Lucic, but has been promoted to the top line with Connor McDavid following Ty Rattie’s injury.
The margins are smaller for Yamamoto. He’s an offensive player, and if he can’t produce numbers in the NHL, at age 20 he’ll be tasked with going to Bakersfield and dominating there.
Ryan McLeod, C
Six-foot-three, 208 pounds, skates exceptionally well, head on a swivel as a playmaker — There was everything to like about the centreman McLeod when he hung around at Oilers training camp for a week longer than anyone had expected him to.
The 2018 second round pick (40th overall) is back at OHL Mississauga now, and had two goals and 13 points in his first 10 games this season, his fourth year playing Major Junior hockey. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl tied up long-term in the 1C and 2C spots in Edmonton, the jury is out whether McLeod makes his way as an NHL centre or moves to the left side the way Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has this season.
But it definitely looks like he’ll play, and depending on how fast second-rounder Tyler Benson progresses, McLeod could be the first Oilers second-rounder to pan out since Tyler Pitlick in 2010.
Ethan Bear, RD
Ethan Bear would have made the Oilers out of training camp had Bouchard not been junior-aged. The team can retrieve Bear from Bakersfield whenever they want, while sending Bouchard back to London meant he could not return to Edmonton until next season.
So Bear’s time on the farm will hinge on whether or not Bouchard stays past his nine-game audition. But Bear, a Tyson Barrie protégé, is still one of the top defencemen in the system and could be called up when injuries hit.
He is offensive-oriented, can walk the line on the power play to get a shot through and, as is the cliché du jour, Bear makes a great first pass. Like Bouchard, if he can learn to defend, he’ll have a good NHL career ahead of him.
Tyler Benson, LW
Benson could one day become an elite distributor. His gift is the ability to make plays on either forehand or backhand, and he begins this year on Bakersfield’s top line with Cam Hebig and Cooper Marody.
Benson has five points in five games, but is a minus-4, and nothing keeps a young, offensive-minded player in the minors like the inability to keep the puck out of his own goal. That’s why the good Lord invented the minor leagues — so guys like Benson have somewhere to figure it all out.
When you think Tyler Benson, think Tanner Pearson. He’s very smart, but could pick up a half step if he’s going to challenge for an NHL job. Benson is one of those rare talents whose body needs only to catch up to his head. Like the rest of the Oilers’ best crop, he is a first-year pro at age 20.
If they can survive until this group gets there, the Oilers might finally have something.