Top 5 Oilers prospects: Refining his defence will unlock Broberg's other skills

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Philip Broberg (86) collides with Seattle Kraken center Colin Blackwell (43) during the first period of an NHL hockey game. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers are in a developmental spot that sits somewhere between reaping the dividends of the Decade of Darkness, and falling draft position of a team that could be a Stanley Cup contender sooner than later.

Drafted rookie Evan Bouchard is a full-time Oiler, pushing to take over the powerplay from Tyson Barrie and perhaps making a trade chip of the 30-year-old Barrie in the near future.

Drafted forward Ryan McLeod is almost an everyday NHL player, with a ways to go before he’s an everyday contributor. Drafted goalie Stuart Skinner has served his time in the minors and is becoming a viable NHL backup, at worst. Drafted defenceman Markus Niemelainen suddenly appears to be a long-term answer as a left-side third-pairing defenceman, while fellow Oilers draft Philip Broberg should be ready to work the second pair by the time Duncan Keith’s deal is up after next season.

Dylan Holloway’s wrist injury has robbed him of a key developmental season and his first year of pro hockey. But all signs are that he will play sooner than later — the middle six left winger that the big club dearly needs.

All of those youngsters were drafted in 2017 or later, meaning the Oilers have done OK at the draft table. And with a next wave made up of Matvey Petrov, Luca Munzenberger, Carter Savoie and Tyler Tullio, Edmonton is not poorly stocked overall.

With the help of Edmonton’s director of amateur scouting, Tyler Wright, here’s a look at we deem to be the Edmonton Oilers' top five prospects, all at various stages in their development.

1. Philip Broberg, LD, Bakersfield Condors/Oilers

Age: 20

Size: 6-foot-3, 199 lbs

Drafted: 8th overall, 2019 NHL Draft

NHL stats: 8 GP | G: 0 | A: 1 | PTS: 1

AHL stats: 15 GP | G: 1 | A: 10 | PTS: 11

Broberg is an above-average skater — excellent, by many scouts’ ratings — but showed upon being called up this season that his defensive game still needs some work. That’s fine — it’s a process for young European defencemen, and he has to go through that process for more than a couple of months in AHL Bakersfield.

Broberg will play however, of that there is no doubt. He has 10 assists (one goal) in his first 15 AHL games, a very encouraging sign when one considers how 20-year-old defencemen tend to play in their first 20 AHL games. He just has to find some assertiveness in his defensive game, so that the rest of skills can be put to use on breaking the puck out and joining the play.

2. Dylan Holloway, LW, Bakersfield Condors

Age: 20

Size: 6-foot-1, 203 lbs.

Drafted: 14th overall, 2020 NHL Draft

Holloway came out of NCAA Wisconsin touted as a guy who wouldn’t need much AHL seasoning before being NHL ready. Unfortunately, that was in the spring of 2021, and the wrist injury he suffered in the Badgers playoffs kept him out games last spring and required surgery this summer. He still has not played his first pro game.

If I were the GM, I wouldn’t even consider him as a player for the Oilers until he suits up in Bakersfield (maybe in late January or February), finishes the AHL season and shows up as a Black Ace in the playoffs. But some believe he could play after just a couple of months in the AHL and help the Oilers during this spring’s playoffs.

“That’s the right philosophy,” said Wright of our theory. “But his play and where he’s at in the first month or so of being down there will dictate. We all hope (for sooner than later), but we don’t live in a world of hope. Development is funny. Some guys struggle down there. Others don’t miss a beat.”

3. Xavier Bourgault, C, Shawinigan Cataractes

Age: 19

Size: 6-foot-0, 180 lbs.

Drafted: 22nd overall, 2021 NHL Draft

Bourgault is ripping up the QMJHL in his 19-year-old season with 22-20-42 in just 24 games at Shawinigan. He’ll play for Canada at the World Juniors, an excellent chance for Oilers fans to grade their most recent first-rounder against the best of his peers.

“That was one of our messages to him when we sent him down after camp,” Wright said. “ ‘Go back, take what you learned at training camp, and work on your game. Points are good, but you have to learn how to play the right way, win your 50/50 puck battles, and play physical. All the intangibles.’ He’s taken it back to junior and put himself in a spot to make that World Junior team. Now, you get to evaluate one of your best prospects against the world’s top prospects.”

Bourgault is a shooter, which means his future in Edmonton might just be on the wing. Whatever the case, he is at least one year away from the NHL, likely two, but thus far looks like a nice find at 22nd overall.

4. Markus Niemelainen, LD, Bakersfield Condors/Oilers

Age: 23

Size: 6-foot-5, 205 lbs.

Drafted: 63rd overall, 2016 NHL Draft

Here’s that player who you really never counted on, who now looks like he could be the Oilers’ future third-pairing left defencemen for the next 10 years.

Big, extremely physical, but still in need of some refining where puck skills and defensive acumen are concerned, in an organization full of puck-moving prospects Niemelainen is that rare D-man who makes you much, much harder to play against. Hey — they can’t all be Brobergs and Bouchards.

“It’s rare to see that physical play at a consistent level,” Wright said of Niemelainen, who played two years in OHL Saginaw and then returned to Finland for four pro seasons. “The Finns play really hard — it’s a physical game in that league, and if you’re not physical it can eat you up. He bought into that, and now he’s a throw-back defenceman. He looks to hit and he looks to hurt and play physical. He’s been a pleasant surprise for us.”

5. Dmitri Samorukov, LD, Bakersfield Condors

Age: 22

Size: 6-foot-3, 188 lbs.

Drafted: 84th overall, 2017 NHL Draft

I really like this guy, ever since I saw him running the Russian powerplay at the 2019 World Juniors on a team with Vitali Kravtsov, Klim Kostin, and Canucks draft Vasili Podkolzin. He is the right mix of size, skill, skating ability and Russian creativity — if only he could stay healthy. Samorukov busted up a shoulder in the KHL last season, broke his jaw at camp with Edmonton this past fall, and only has 15 games with Bakersfield this season.

To be honest, with all the young, left-shot defencemen ahead of Samorukov, he has become GM Ken Holland’s best trading chip in any dealing requiring a top prospect going the other way. For me, he could be a second-pairing left-side defenceman for years to come in the NHL, or if he doesn’t find some traction, a guy who plays it out back home with his old club team, CSKA of the KHL.

For now though, his value may be as a trading chip. And Holland will need those, beginning in March.

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