The reality of drafting teenagers: All NHL prospects are different

Mark Spector joins Gene Principe to talk about Kailer Yamamoto making the Edmonton Oilers roster.

It is wholly unfair, and you’d think we would learn.

But this week opens with open talk around the National Hockey League about whether Olli Joulevi was a mistake, or if Jesse Puljujarvi is a bust. Will Curtis Lazar ever play? And what about Toronto’s Kasperi Kapanen, the 22nd-overall pick in the 2014 draft?

If Kailer Yamamoto — the 22nd-overall pick in 2017 — can make the Edmonton Oilers, does that mean Sami’s son isn’t ever going to play?

The reality is this is what happens when we draft 18-year-old players. Some turn into Matthew Tkachuk, who made Calgary and had an impactful 18-year-old season, while others are like teammate Sam Bennett, who was drafted higher by the Flames in 2014 and (hopefully) will begin to have a meaningful impact on the Flames roster this winter.

In the 2016 draft, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine were thought to be clearly a level above the rest, and that school of thought has borne itself out. But while No. 3 pick Pierre-Luc Dubois finally appears ready to make Columbus after a shift from centre to left wing, No. 4 pick Puljujarvi was sent to AHL Bakersfield on Sunday by the Oilers.

He’s not a bust. He’s a six-foot-four 19-year-old trying to figure out the game after one season in North America.

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The two stud defencemen in that 2016 draft were Mikhail Sergachev and Joulevi. Today, Joulevi just isn’t ready for NHL prime time in Vancouver, while Sergachev has already been dealt and looks like he’ll play in Tampa this fall.

“We just feel he needs to continue to get stronger,” Canucks GM Jim Benning told the Vancouver Province. “We talked to him about the battles. He’s going to continue to work on those things. We’re going to be patient with him.

“We think he’s going to be the player we drafted — a real good NHL player for a long time. We just have to show patience with him.”

Benning also sent down young hopefuls Nikolay Goldobin, Jordan Subban and Anton Rodin. But lo and behold, Jake Virtanen — much maligned in Vancouver last season — arrived in great shape and looks ready for full-time employment in Vancouver. Sometimes there are lessons that must be learned, maturity that needs to be gained. All kids are different, right?

In Toronto, the Maple Leafs are counting on young players like Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander and Connor Brown. There may even be room on that roster for another sub-21-year-old player, even if the Leafs had one at camp.

In Columbus, Sonny Milano, the 16th-overall pick in the 2014 draft, looks like he’ll break camp with the team. So do Dubois, Gabriel Carlsson (No. 29 in ’15), and the undrafted Markus Hannikainen — all appear to be making the cut on a very good Columbus team.

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But the days of 18-year-olds making the Oilers were supposed to be gone. Well, perhaps no one informed Yamamoto of that.

“He doesn’t change his game,” Oilers head coach Todd McLellan said Monday. “A lot of 18- or 19-year-olds, they bring something to the table, but then they either get too safe or they get too risky. Yamo plays the game the same way night in, night out. He’s very intelligent, so you can trust him, whether it’s penalty kill, power play, in the D-zone.

“Trust is a big thing for young players when they enter the league. The coaching staff, they all have to trust him. I think Yamo has earned that.”

Then there’s Mark Jankowski in Calgary, the long-awaited 21st-overall pick from 2012 — the Jay Feaster era in Calgary. He was drafted as a high schooler, spent four years at Providence College, another year at AHL Stockton, and darned if he doesn’t look like a pretty decent prospect today.

“And he’s right about on schedule,” Flames head scout Tod Button told the Calgary Herald. “We talked it out, and it was a well-thought-out process. [Sean] Monahan was playing right away, then [Sam] Bennett was playing, then last year with [Matthew] Tkachuk. You had to have patience with [Jankowski].

“He wasn’t a guy who you’d just plug-and-play in two or three years. It would be four or five years.”

Of course, then there’s Lazar in Calgary …

Can’t he hurry up a tad?

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