Oilers finally reaping rewards of homegrown players

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EDMONTON — Riding along near the top of the Pacific Division all season long should tell you that the Edmonton Oilers are finally getting it right as an organization. That success, however, is not the true barometer of organizational health.

This is: Of the 18 skaters expected to suit up for Edmonton Friday night against the Minnesota Wild, seven were full-time members of the Oilers’ American Hockey League farm team within the last calendar year.

Ethan Bear and Kailer Yamamoto have taken on leading roles in Edmonton this season, two bona fide NHL players who have likely played their last AHL game.

Caleb Jones is somewhere just below that, as his game rises to the point where only contracts or waiver eligibility could work against him staying here for good. Tyler Benson and William Lagesson have shown they can play at this level, and that they just need some time for their games to adjust.

Meanwhile, depth forwards like Colby Cave and Patrick Russell are plug-and-play depth guys who help you win.

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It’s something that has not been seen in Edmonton in seemingly forever, and a true sign of an organization with depth that is both drafting and developing properly — finally.

"It’s cool to look around and see six or seven guys who have been down there at one point, playing together," said Jones after Friday’s morning skate. "When you see one guy go up and have success, it gives the next guy even more belief that he can have success too when he goes up."

An example would be 20-year-old defenceman Evan Bouchard, who is in Edmonton as insurance after injuries to Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell. Bouchard won’t play Friday night, and may or may not get a look during this stint, depending on the health of the roster.

"In the past they might have needed to rush a guy like him," said Jones. "But you have Bearsy now, a right-shot D who has been in the ‘A’ for a couple of years. He comes in ready to go this year, and now you can push Bouchard back a little, which allows him to get better. He’ll come in some time next year and be fully ready to go. An impact guy right away.

"That’s how a healthy organization works."

Yamamoto has 18 points in 19 NHL games since his call-up and is a plus-11. On a line with Leon Draisaitl, the five-eight, 153-pound Yamamoto is seeing top-pairing defencemen like Zdeno Chara and Ryan Suter these days, and he’s surviving just fine.

"There were instances in the (Boston) game where they were side by side," head coach Dave Tippett said of Yamamoto and Chara, who is six-nine, 250 pounds. "I give Yamo credit — he’s not backing down from anybody. Even Chara. It’s a size mismatch, but I like the way Yamo handled it."

Yamamoto looks across the room at Bear, who walked into Edmonton as a fifth-round draft pick and assumed a top-four role at age 22.

"Just watching him now, this is just the beginning of his career," Yamamoto said of Bear. "He’s an unbelievable hockey player, and he has so much more in his bag, from practice. I can’t wait for him to show it."

There isn’t much left on the farm in Bakersfield with all these call-ups, other than 20-year-old centreman Ryan McLeod, the last man left in a big house all the players rented together.

"He moved into my room," Yamamoto reports. "I think he has three beds to choose from."

Lagesson is a depth defenceman who isn’t flashy. But every team needs a couple of those, and it’s about time the Oilers developed a few of their own. Now he walks into an Edmonton dressing room where he knows a few people.

"It makes you more comfortable. You know the guys, and you have a group to communicate with and take care of you. It’s been good," Lagesson said. "The team has been winning, and lots of these guys were in Bakersfield last year. You’re going to get your chance, and you’ve just got to prove that you’re ready."

In The Crease — No Connor McDavid in the Oilers lineup Friday night. We’d expect him to play Sunday in Los Angeles … Mikko Koskinen gets the start in goal for Edmonton, against Alex Stalock for the Wild … Bouchard is the team’s seventh defenceman, which means he’ll likely stay around until Russell (concussion) or Klefbom (shoulder) return. Russell is skating with the team but his timeline is unknown, Tippett said. Klefbom should be another two weeks or so.

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