How do you become a team that has three No. 1 overall draft picks in a row? You have to do very poorly with all your other picks, and fail on the development side as well, as the Oilers did before revamping their organization under general manager Peter Chiarelli.
The Oilers system was notoriously bereft of talent as the team missed the playoffs for an NHL record 10 years in a row. That has changed with Chiarelli, who brought in Keith Gretzky from the Boston Bruins to head up his amateur side, and then pilfered Vaclav Burda from Ottawa to become Edmonton’s head of European scouting.
It takes years to recover from five or six bad drafts, as the Vancouver Canucks are learning, and Edmonton is only now beginning to show some depth in its system, much of which is just turning pro now.
Here’s a look into Edmonton’s system:
1. Kailer Yamamoto, 19, RW
Drafted: First round, 22nd overall, 2017
At five-foot-eight and 154 pounds, Kailer Yamamoto was supposed to make a quick introduction at Oilers camp this fall, then return to Spokane to try to turn last season’s 99 points into a triple digit season.
Then camp began, and the little Spokane native notched five pre-season goals, which left him at the very top of the entire NHL for most of pre-season. He’ll get some NHL games to start the season, but odds are that Yamamoto will end up back in Spokane before playing his 10th NHL game.
He is small, yes. He’s also extremely quick, elusive and brave. He’ll play in the NHL sooner than anybody thought he would.
2. Jesse Puljujarvi, 19, RW
Drafted: First round, 4th overall, 2016
Puljujarvi is the complete opposite of Yamamoto: A six-foot-four, 203-pound shooter who is taking longer than fans hoped to arrive in Edmonton. The fact is, he’s not even five months older than Yamamoto and has plenty of developmental time left on a club that doesn’t have to rush prospects anymore.
Big players always take longer, especially ones coming from Europe. Puljujarvi reminds of Mikko Rantanen in Colorado. He’ll need to learn to use his considerable size to free up some pucks from opposing players, stop and start more and find the soft spots that could still make him a formidable triggerman for Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
Puljujarvi doesn’t turn 20 until May. We suspect he’ll find some AHL time between now and then.
3. Caleb Jones, 20, D
Drafted: Fourth round, 117th overall, 2015
The son of former NBA star Popeye Jones, and younger brother of Columbus defenceman Seth, Caleb Jones turns pro this season after 55- and 62-point seasons on the Portland Winterhawks’ blue line. He is emblematic of a once-depleted Oilers farm system that is being slowly rebuilt under Chiarelli, richest today in young defencemen, but still with work to do at the forward ranks.
Jones has excellent athletic bloodlines, quick feet, adequate size and a true understanding of what it takes to become a pro. All he requires now is time. He’ll get as much ice time as he needs in Bakersfield, starting this season.
4. Ethan Bear, 20, D
Drafted: Fifth round, 124th overall, 2015
Bear is a First Nations kid from Ochapowace, Sask., who really shone as a nimble offensive defenceman for the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds last season. He had 28-42-70 in his fourth WHL season, then chipped in another 6-20-26 as the Thunderbirds made it all the way to the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
He may run an NHL powerplay one day, perhaps next to Jones, in Chiarelli’s wildest dreams. The Oilers don’t have another blue line prospect with Bear’s offensive bent, but as he turns pro this fall in Bakersfield he’ll have to gain strength and quickness to turn junior success into numbers at the AHL and NHL level.
5. Tyler Benson, 19, LW
Drafted: Second round, 32nd overall, 2016
Benson was a prodigal player as a bantam, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WHL bantam draft but has had his junior career derailed by mostly freak injuries.
Two years ago he required surgery to remove a cyst on his spine, and then he missed more time with osteitis pubis, a groin issue that doctors suspect was caused by the cyst. This past April he also had surgery to correct a sports hernia — not small ailments.
As a result, Benson has played just 30 and 33 games in the past two seasons with WHL Vancouver, still managing 28- and 42-point seasons. He missed the opening of this Giants’ season but is expected to join the team in October. The Oilers hope he gets dealt to a contender, like Memorial Cup hosts Regina, and that he’s healthy enough to get into 80 or 90 games this season. He just needs to play hockey.
6. Dylan Wells, 19, G
Drafted: Fifth round, 123rd overall, 2016
The Oilers will look like geniuses if this kid plays, drafting him after he’d posted an .871 saves percentage with Peterborough in 2015-16. He put it together last season (3.07 GAA, .916%) and showed very well at the Penticton rookie tournament.
Wells returns as the Petes’ No. 1 after a confidence-building camp with Edmonton. He’s six-foot-two with a decent-sized frame. You never know with young goalies, but so far, it looks like the Oilers might have a ‘tender here.
7. Ryan Mantha, 21, D
Drafted: Fourth round, 104th overall, 2014 (Rangers)
Mantha is that late blooming, six-foot-five defenceman whom the Rangers did not sign. The Oilers gave him an Entry Level Contract after a breakout 20-year-old season in Niagara, where Mantha more than doubled his previous numbers with a 17-41-58 campaign.
He’s a right shot defenceman with a true cannon and size that makes this a worthwhile project. The nephew of 656-game NHL defenceman Moe Mantha, Ryan has every tool that is required. Could be a sleeper here.
8. Ziyat Paigin, 22, D
Drafted: Seventh round, 209th overall, 2015
This player is a total wildcard, which is okay in a system that has enough defensive prospects to test drive a six-foot-six, 209-pound, late-round Russian.
Paigin had parts of three seasons in the KHL but arrives in North America with a game that is very raw. That’s what AHL Bakersfield is for, right? He’ll spend at least one season there working on gaps, physical play and learning the smaller ice surface.
9. Stuart Skinner, 18, G
Drafted: Round 3, 78th overall, 2017
Skinner is an Edmonton kid, the youngest of nine kids born to Sam and Sue whose names all start with the letter S. “My dad said if he we had another kid, we’d call him Stop,” joked Stuart.
The S-word the Oilers liked best in Penticton this September was “shutout,” which Skinner posted in a 3-0 win over Winnipeg’s prospects. Skinner and Wells are in the mix to back up Carter Hart on Canada’s World Junior team. He’s in his fourth season at WHL Lethbridge, and again, part of a decent crop of goaltending prospects in Edmonton’s improving farm system.
10. Dillon Simpson, 24, D
Drafted: Fourth round, 92nd overall, 2011
Craig’s son has developed nicely and might just be NHL ready. With Andrej Sekera injured, he was hopeful to stick in Edmonton, but instead cleared waivers on his way down to Bakersfield.
Simpson is big enough (six-foot-two, 200 lbs.), but probably pans out as a Matt Greene-type defenceman who will get some NHL time if injury strikes in Edmonton. He needs to get quicker, a tall order at 24 years old, but not impossible.