EDMONTON — Pipelines and Alberta aren’t the best of friends these days. But ironically while the boys in the oil patch can’t get their product to market the way they’d like, the Edmonton Oilers pipeline hasn’t functioned this well in ages.
Kailer Yamamoto, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones… It’s an actual functional farm system in Edmonton these days, with legit prospects like Evan Bouchard and Ryan McLeod ready for their second year of pro hockey and likely to help the big team sooner than later.
Let’s look at the five most “interesting” prospects here, which omits guys like Bouchard who has the size, the physical skills and the shot to get there. It’s just a matter of time.
This is about players with bigger question marks. Players who would fill needs in Edmonton, but aren’t sure things to get there.
Here we go: the five most interesting players in the Edmonton Oilers pipeline
RW, 6-4, 201 lbs., 21 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 4th, 2016
2019-20 team: Karpat (Liiga)
GP: 56 | G: 24 | A: 29 | P: 53
Can Puljujarvi still be considered an “interesting prospect?” Well, he turns 22 in May and he just led the top team in the Finnish Liiga in scoring with 24-29-53 in 56 games. At six-foot-four, with excellent speed and an above-average shot, you can bet that Oilers general manager Ken Holland looks at Puljujarvi as one of his top prospects — not simply the bust that others in the game make this No. 4 overall draft pick out to be.
Puljujarvi took his talents to Finland and flexed his superior skills against inferior competition — and very average goaltending. But it wasn’t Puljujarvi’s wrist shot, skating or ability to score that he struggled with while in the NHL. His issues were thinking the game, work ethic, a consistent effort game in game out, and understanding how to work with teammates within a system.
Did he fix those problems in Finland? Kuka tietää? (Finnish for, who knows?)
The issue will be to get Puljujarvi to give Edmonton one more try, after he and agent Markus Lehto have both publicly stated they would prefer a trade. Puljujarvi was to showcase his talents at the World Championships this May, but with the cancellation of that tournament there is a good chance that Holland’s ask will not be met on the trade market, since the uncertainty of what a good season for Oulun Karpat really means remains intact.
Best case scenario is that the Oilers sign Puljujarvi to a one-year deal with the promise of a trade if things don’t work out, and he returns to Edmonton to earn NHL money and show his game to the 30 other NHL GMs on a nightly basis. There is so much opportunity on Edmonton’s right wing, with two world class centremen in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid — not to mention a new GM and coach since Puljujarvi left Edmonton — it seems crazy for the Puljujarvi camp not to realize the opportunity Edmonton represents as a re-entry point to the NHL.
LHD, 6-3, 203 lbs., 18 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 8th, 2019
2019-20 team: Skelleftea (SHL)
GP: 45 | G: 1 | A: 7 | P: 8
What kind of defenceman will Broberg, the eighth overall pick in 2019, turn out to be?
He has the tools, one would think, that simply can not fail. Quite likely the smoothest skating defenceman in his draft class, he has a stride that should buy him 1,000 National Hockey League games, when one considers where the game is going. For a defenceman, if you can get to “the spot” before your opponent, on a consistent basis, you can defend forever, regardless of your offensive contributions. Think Jay Bouwmeester.
At six-foot-three, Broberg has ample size to compete defensively. He’s also very smart (and well-spoken), typical of the young men churned out by the Swedish system. Size, smarts and speed — we would literally quit our job if this kid doesn’t enjoy a long NHL career. But what kind of player will he be?
In his first year in the Swedish Hockey League this past season — an 18-year-old playing against men — Broberg had a goal and seven assists in 45 games, with an even plus-minus rating while averaging 13:59 of ice time per game. If he wishes to spend a second season in Skelleftea next season, Oilers GM Ken Holland will be fine with that, due mostly to Swedish hockey’s history of producing D-men.
Will Broberg’s game turn out to mirror Niklas Hjalmarsson, the tough-as-nails shot blocker who was the heart and soul of those great Blackhawks clubs? Or will he have more offence, and become a stellar defender who chips in 45 points a season, like Oliver Ekman-Larsson? Will he become the steady-Eddie minute muncher that Bouwmeester was through 1,239 NHL games, with lots of minutes but not many points?
At this point, nobody truly knows.
C/RW, 6-4, 198 lbs., 19 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 38th, 2019
2019-20 teams: Halifax, Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
GP: 55 | G: 38 | A: 44 | P: 82
The Oilers may have a stockpile of young defencemen between their NHL and AHL rosters. What they do not have, however, are many prospects at forward — specifically wingers — who could grow into Top 6 NHL players.
With Tyler Benson trending towards being a third-line left winger who can move up in a pinch, a one-shot scorer like Lavoie gives the Oilers some hope that they have a sniper who can find his way on to the right-wing of one of their premier centremen. He is six-foot-four with a junior pedigree that includes 30 goals in each of his last three seasons in the QMJHL. He’ll turn pro in Bakersfield next season, which means he is at least a year away from Edmonton — probably two.
Lavoie is like so many others — goals have come easily in junior. He scored like a sure-fire pro, with an even 100 goals in his final three seasons (185 games) in the QMJHL. But so did Robbie Schremp (154 goals in 247 OHL games), Nail Yakupov (80 goals in 107 OHL games) and Marc-Antoine Pouliot (111 goals in 205 QMJHL games). And none of them truly panned out.
When Lavoie turns pro this coming season he will, like a young Leon Draisaitl, need to find a half a stride so he can have the scoring room as a pro that had as a junior.
“Leg strength, core strength, power,” assessed Oilers Director of Player Development Scott Howson. “There’s nothing wrong with his stride. It’s just power and strength. His separation isn’t what it’s going to need to be once he gets to the NHL.”
Lavoie would be wise to emulate Ethan Bear, who shunned his usual summers at home and came to Edmonton to train last year. That new level of commitment turned Bear into a Top 4 defenceman.
RW, 6-3, 194 lbs., 20 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 146th, 2017
2019-20 team: Bakersfield (AHL)
GP: 53 | G: 5 | A: 8 | P: 13
All that stuff we just said about Lavoie being the tonic the Oilers so dearly need? Ditto for Maksimov, who last season brought considerable scoring pedigree with him from the OHL, where he had 74 goals over his last two seasons in Niagara.
But then, along came that stern teacher that is the AHL. And it hit Maksimov with the proverbial ruler across the knuckles.
The Muscovite’s English is excellent — he came to Toronto at age 12 — but the move from junior to pro is complex. Living without a billet family. Cooking. Paying bills. Mandatory gym time. Finding one’s place on a team, when you’re not the go-to guy on the powerplay — or you’re not on the powerplay at all. You’re not the biggest guy anymore, playing against 16- and 17-year-olds. Re-learning shift length, because 75-second shifts are no longer acceptable.
“Kirill is a long-bodied guy and a competitive person,” said Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft. “He got better along the wall, better with his game management skills. He left some scoring on the table, and he’ll improve in those areas. But he found himself in those positions to score as the year went on. Now it’s time to find a way to convert against AHL goaltenders who are bigger, stronger and quicker. And, you have less time to get your shot off.”
This is why they have the AHL, for players like Maksimov (a fifth-rounder in ’17) to figure out how to be a pro. He had 5-8-13 in 53 games. That leaves plenty of room for improvement.
Filip Berglund and Markus Niemelainen
Berglund: RD, 6-2, 209 lbs., 22 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 91st, 2016
2019-20 team: Skelleftea (SHL)
GP: 52 | G: 5 | A: 15 | P: 20
Niemelainen: LD, 6-5, 196 lbs., 21 years old
Draft: Edmonton, 63rd, 2016
2019-20 team: Assat (Liiga)
GP: 55 | G: 1 | A: 6 | P: 7
Two defencemen: A six-foot-two, RHD Swede who plays on the same Skelleftea team as Broberg, often as his defensive partner. And a six-foot-five Finn who plays in the same Liiga that Puljujarvi dominated last season.
These are two survivors from the Oilers’ Class of 2016 that, right now, has delivered only Tyler Benson to the Oilers system, with Puljujarvi gone AWOL. Both third-rounders, the Oilers would be ecstatic if either one of Niemelainen (63rd overall) and Berglund (91st) became an NHL player.
Berglund reminds of Joel Persson, who ended up in Anaheim at the deadline, except Berglund is three inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. He doesn’t have much offence to his game, but reports are he’s mobile and has the skills required to be an NHL defenceman one day.
Niemelainen sounds like a Finnish William Lagesson. He’s big, skates just fine, and works well with a lefty partner who can do the bulk of the puck-moving. He needs to get into pro shape and figure out how to be a physical D-man on the smaller NHL sheet.
Both guys would do well in Bakersfield with Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson, who have outdone themselves with players like Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones. Both also need to be signed by June 1 and Holland hopes to have each of them in Bakersfield next season.