Here’s a switch.
Of the top four prospects in the Edmonton Oilers organization, none were drafted first overall. In fact, one is a deep first-rounder, another from Round 2, and then a fourth- and fifth-rounder — a sign the Oilers are perhaps figuring out how to find players below the No. 1 spot in the NHL Draft.
The Oilers have their building blocks fairly set in the NHL. Now they need to develop some less expensive players to make this thing work in Edmonton. Here is where they sit as the season winds down:
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
On a team that has drafted higher than any other over the past eight years, and subsequently vaulted more teenagers into the NHL than anyone else, at least the Edmonton Oilers can say that right-winger Kailer Yamamoto will turn 20 before the beginning of the 2018-19 season.
On a team built around three highly paid centremen — Connor McDavid ($12.5M), Leon Draisaitl ($8.5M), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($6M) — the Oilers find themselves in need of young, inexpensive draft picks with enough skill and speed to log top-six minutes.
Yamamoto, drafted 22nd overall in 2017, was the first draft pick of assistant GM Keith Gretzky’s Oilers tenure. GM Peter Chiarelli has really had three drafts at the helm — he was hired a month before the 2015 draft — so only now are we reaching the point where we can fairly judge the Oilers’ draft performance in the Chiarelli era.
Since playing for Team USA at the world junior championship, Yamamoto went 19-33-52 at WHL Spokane with a plus-24 rating in 27 games. He scored the OT winner Saturday in Portland that extended the Chiefs series with the Winterhawks to a sixth game. That series is now going seven. If Spokane can’t get past Portland, the Oilers will send Yamamoto to AHL Bakersfield for their remaining games in April, assuming he is in good health.
Yamamoto can skate well enough, and the NHL game has reached a place where players his size (five foot eight and 154 pounds) can thrive. Yamamoto was expected to return to Spokane this season to be a driver, producer and an all-around leader, and he has done exactly that with 64 points in 40 games.
Next fall, there will be three spots open in Edmonton’s top six for players who can compliment high-pedigree players like McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers lacked speed on the wings this season, and Yamamoto can scoot. Scouts also like the way he thinks the game, and marvel at how a guy his size operates in the tough areas of the rink.
Yamamoto can pass or score, just like the three aforementioned Oilers. He’s a right-handed shot, while all of those centres are lefties. A nice add to the mix, perhaps as soon as next fall.
Getting in an uninterrupted season for oft-injured Benson did him as much good mentally as physically, logging 58 games after a late start to the season after playing just 63 combined over the previous two seasons. In short, it looks like Benson can play — when he can play.
Benson had 27-42-69 in 58 games, and will turn pro next season with an eye to bringing a well-rounded game to the AHL. With all of his injuries over his junior career, it’s difficult to remember the player who was the best bantam player Alberta had perhaps ever seen.
A six-foot-two right-winger, Maksimov has another year left in OHL Niagara. He checks all the boxes: one-times a puck from the Ovechkin spot on the power play; plays with an edge; has a solid, pro body with big legs and a strong core; scouts say he uses those tools to play a hard game.
Maksimov is a fifth-round pick, as is current Oiler Ethan Bear. Signs of life in the Oilers pipeline.
Could be the Oilers’ most intriguing prospect: a six-foot-five, left-shot right-winger, with a heavy shot. He has to learn how to play the pro game, and since he was drafted out of Europe, Safin can go to the AHL as a 19-year-old next season if the Oilers see fit.
Euro prospects like this can go either way. At 19, Safin could be the perfect test for the Oilers developmental system. There is a ton of player here, if Edmonton can mine it properly.