Oilers getting it right with farm system as big club struggles

HC at Noon discussion on what has to happen this offseason for the Edmonton Oilers, and why keeping their franchise player, Connor McDavid happy, should be the most important task going forward.

OK. So let’s stop ripping on the Edmonton Oilers for a moment, shall we?

In fact, there is one element of Peter Chiarelli’s reign that wasn’t riddled with error, where talent evaluation was mostly accurate and the organization tangibly improved. It was the amateur side of the Edmonton Oilers — the farm system.

Evan Bouchard and third-rounder Dmitri Samorukov — the top defencemen on the London Knights and Guelph Storm, respectively — are both six-foot-two, stud D-men with high offensive upside who turn pro next season. Their teams meet in a second round OHL playoff series that opens on Friday in London.

In Bakersfield, the American Hockey League affiliate will not only make the playoffs for the first time in its four seasons in Northern California, but it has the third-highest winning percentage in the AHL with first place in the Pacific Division virtually wrapped up. And they’re not doing it with a bunch of 27- and 28-year-olds.

Leading scorer Tyler Benson (14-48-62 in 63 games) is 20 years old. Second-leading scorer Cooper Marody (19-39-58, 53 games) is 21 and also a first-year pro. On the blue line, their top 3 — Caleb Jones (21), Ethan Bear (21) and William Lagesson (22) — are all players that independent scouts say have a better-than-average chance at NHL careers.

"Number one is, we have good players — regardless of their ages," said Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft. "We have a good mix here: A couple of veterans. A couple of guys in their second and third years of their pro careers, and a few good first-year pros as well.

"They’ve done something that hasn’t been done in Bakersfield since they’ve been in the league.

"And the big thing is, this is merit-based. While everyone is excited that Benson, Marody, Lagesson and Jones are getting the ice time, they’re earning it. Nothing is being given to them."

With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both natural centres in Edmonton, the organization needs to grow some wingers. Unfortunately, the knock on Benson and Marody is that they are both average skaters at best. Kailer Yamamoto is the quickest of the three, but his maiden AHL season (10-8-18 in 27 games) has been injury-riddled.

"Benson is a smart two-way player who lacks size and speed, but makes up for it with hockey sense and hands. He can finish," one pro scout assessed. "He has the smarts and skills for McDavid and Draisaitl. He will play."

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The trick will be not to rush Benson, considering the paucity of top-6 wingers in Edmonton.

"His vision is good, his strength is good. I have him as a third-line player for sure. A points producer who plays on the second power play," said another scout. "A top-6 winger? I just don’t see it, but you never know. On 80 per cent of other teams in NHL’s he’s third-line, but he could be first-line in Edmonton, if they played all their centres at centre."

Scouts are divided on Marody, even if he’s been their best player at times, because he is a tad slower than Benson. There is every chance Marody becomes no more than a good AHL player, unless he can find a way to pick up a stride in his summertime workouts. However, he’s 22. Players improve.

On the blue line, the Condors have three potential players in Bear, Jones and Lagesson. At worst one will play, and likely two, though none are considered top-3 D-men at this point.

Then there is an out-of-the-blue pick-up from Division III Endicottt College named Logan Day, who has 34 points in his first pro season. You never know…

"He is an instinctual type of guy who gets pucks quickly into forwards’ hands," Woodcroft said. "Forwards like playing with him because he gets them pucks early."

Add six-foot-three centre Ryan McLeod (19-43-62 in 63 OHL games this season), who turns pro next year, six-foot-three, 40-goal OHL winger Kirill Maksimov — plus another top-10 pick this season — and the pipeline, at least, is where it should be in Edmonton.

In fact, there may be enough prospects that the next GM can use a few, or future draft picks, to shore up the NHL roster in the short term.

"The big thing for us is, we want these players to play the game the right way," Woodcroft said. "So they have the tools to succeed when they go up to the NHL — not just for a cup of coffee — but the tools that lead to long, productive careers. The details and nuances in their personal game; the ability to identify small skills that allow players to have long careers. Board work, being able to kill penalties, finding a niche on the power play. Having game management ingrained in them, so that not only are they productive individually, but they help teams win.

"Everybody wants winner. When you do it right, everybody wants you."

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