Oilers face tough decisions around which prospects to promote

Shawn McKenzie along with NHL insider Chris Johnston discuss the Edmonton Oilers expectations heading into this season, after a disappointing 2017-18 campaign.

EDMONTON — When you have a Top 6 that includes Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you should have the makings of a team that can score enough to make the playoffs, no? If Milan Lucic reverts to his mean, even better.

The Pittsburgh Penguins showed the hockey world that there is another element required however, other than drafting high and watching the Crosbys and Malkins hoist the Stanley Cup.

And so the Edmonton Oilers set out this fall, in search of their own Jake Guentzel, their own Conor Sheary. Their own Bryan Rust.

When main camp opens next Thursday, McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins will inhabit the top line with right winger Ty Rattie, an $800,000 reclamation project who enters his third consecutive season on a one-year contract.

Draisaitl will likely get Lucic to begin the season as his left winger. But on the right side, well, that’s where the Oilers need a Guentzel to appear.

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Is it one of two third-year pros in Jesse Puljujarvi or Drake Caggiula? Is it 20-year-old Kailer Yamamoto, whose professional journey begins in earnest this season? Is it the reclaimed Tobias Rieder, once cast off by the Oilers now returning on a one-year contract?

There is loads of potential here, to be sure. But you know what they say about potential: it means you haven’t done anything, yet.

“With a Kailer Yamamoto, you can see that there might be some room on the wings, and it is probably an area where we could use some scoring,” admits Scott Howson, the Oilers V.P. of Player Development. “But if he doesn’t make it right away it’s not going to hurt him to go to the American League.”

This is the tug of war the Oilers find themselves in today. As an organization that always seems to have holes, they’ve pushed young players into the NHL too quickly over the years. It’s a trend you’d like to break.

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At the same time, with McDavid, Draisaitl, Cam Talbot at age 31, and a big free agent investment in Lucic, the responsibility for GM Peter Chiarelli is to try to win now. Not years from now.

So as the Oilers opened rookie camp this week, they were hopeful that someone among the group of youngsters that includes Yamamoto, Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard might step up and make the decision to keep them an easy one.

“You earn what you get,” Howson stated. “But, this league is trending younger and younger. If a young player is ready to play, there will be room for him. If a young player is ready to play, then they’ll be on the team.”

Bouchard, 18, was born on Oct. 20. According to Howson that means he only has one potential season with the London Knights left before he turns pro. He’ll get a long look here, almost certainly pushing towards the nine-game maximum before going back to junior, where he led all CHL defencemen in points last season with 87.

“One theory goes, is the player too good for junior?” outlined Howson. “(If he is) you could have this year as a development year, and you can play him, and sit him at times. Really, what happens with these young players is … they have to prove it’s the best thing for them and the team.”

Problems often occur, however, once the heat of the battle begins. Often the head coach is in on the decision to bring a young player along, until the team loses a few games and a bad start to the season looms. Then, those young players seldom play, and the decision to keep them can go sideways.

“You certainly don’t want Evan Bouchard sitting here ‘til Christmas, playing eight games,” Howson admits.

For their part, all the kids said the things you’d expect them to say upon arrival. All are confident in their chances, yet willing to do whatever the organization feels is best for them.

The opportunity is clear for Yamamoto, who was close to making the club last season. The Oilers are undoubtedly light on the right side, and he’ll get a long look.

As for Bouchard, two factors are in play: The loss of injured Andrej Sekera (Achilles injury), and the development of offensive defenceman Ethan Bear, who played 18 games in Edmonton last season.

Those two right-shot defencemen will almost certainly play together in Edmonton for many years. It’s hard to believe, however, that Bear (21) and Bouchard will make up one-third of the Oilers’ blue-line corps this season, so if Bear is ready, it would likely green-light Bouchard back to junior.

Bear knows he’s close, and that the Oilers badly need the offensive qualities he brings. But also realizes what he has to improve on.

“Defence,” Bear said. “Closing gaps, reading players’ speeds, limiting their time and space. Make sure I’m on them all the time and make sure I’m not giving them time to make plays.

“I want to sharpen up the defence a little bit. That’s what I’ve been working on.”

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