As part of edmontonoilers.com's countdown to 2016-17, we will be publishing a 5-on-5 series. For the five weeks leading up to rookie camp, we tackle five questions for this Oilers team heading into the new season. The series ends September 15, as the Oilers rookies report for duty and our pre-season coverage begins.
1. What kind of impact will the Oilers prospects have this year?
Every Fall, an NHL club's training camp offers a series of unspoken questions to its prospects.
Can you handle the pressure? How hard did you work over the summer to earn a spot? And the ultimate question: Will they or won't they make the cut?
It's a bit of a mind game, really. No matter the sport, the higher the level of competition an athlete faces, the more they are challenged mentally and physically.
Each year, a combination of young players fresh off the draft floor, signed in free agency or having toiled in the minors or college will try their best to break into the NHL.
By doing so, these players will have confirmed one thing: with hard work comes great reward. However, getting the call to the big show is just part of the journey and it's difficult for younger players to make an immediate impact in what is referred to as a 'man's league.' But don't underestimate youth in your system.
Last season, fans were exposed to a few new faces in the Oilers lineup.
Anton Slepyshev was one of the most talked about prospects coming out of training camp and pre-season. Selected in round three of the 2013 NHL Draft (88th overall), Slepyshev had a big adjustment to make moving from the KHL - where he recorded 25 points (15G, 10A) in 58 games with Ufa Salavat Yulayev - to the NHL.
He earned a spot on the team right out of camp, playing 11 games of the regular season before finishing out the year with the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate Bakersfield Condors, recording 13 goals and eight assists for 21 points in 49 games. His strong camp last year and his upside could place him in the organization's crosshairs when it comes to potential contributors.
Defensive prospect Jordan Oesterle and forward prospect Jujhar Khaira each had a healthy run with the Edmonton club throughout the 2015-16 season. Oesterle - having played in only 6 games with the club in 2014-15 - increased his play to 17 games with the Oilers, recording five assists. Khaira - who made his NHL debut this year - played 15 games, recording two assists.
This year there are new faces the Oilers have welcomed into the prospect mix, who are tapping on that invisible barrier with hopes of making enough of a mark that will see them break through it.
Newly inked prospects Drake Caggiula and Patrick Russell, highly regarded NCAA free agents that each signed two-year entry level contracts with the Oilers in early May, were players to watch at Oilers Orientation Camp in Jasper this year.
Caggiula, 21, played four years at the University of North Dakota, scoring 25 goals and adding 26 assists as a senior this year and finishing second in team scoring behind Vancouver Canucks prospect Brock Boeser. The Pickering, ON native helped UND capture the NCAA title, scoring two goals in their 5-1 national championship win over Quinnipiac. He has the organization excited, having chose Edmonton over several suitors.
Russell, 23, appeared in 81 games with the St. Cloud State Huskies in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), posting 66 points (30G, 36A). He set career highs in goals (20), assists (21) and points (41) in his second season with the Huskies. Russell received several accolades in his time with St. Cloud State, including being named to the 2015 All-NCHC Academic Team and to the 2015 All-NCHC Rookie Team.
The two college signings are like having additional draft picks added to the system. And Matthew Benning, a right-shot defenceman from Northeastern, was also signed by the club and has a chance to work his way into the Oilers picture this season.
But no expectations are higher than perhaps the ones for Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 Draft. Although he has spent the summer recovering from minor knee surgery, Puljujarvi is a top prospect and expects to be fully healthy for camp.
There's no doubt the young right winger has a list of achievements to support his talent. The 2016 World Juniors MVP - having led all players with 17 points - and World Under-18 gold medalist has both an impressive stride and incredible playmaking ability that saw him record 28 points (13G, 15A) in 50 regular season games, and nine points (4G, 5A) in 10 post-season games, with Kärpät in Liiga.
"We've done our homework video-wise and through the scouting staff and the words that I keep hearing are 'complete player,'" said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan at Rookie Orientation Camp.
"He plays a full, 200-foot game and has an energy and a passion level that is real strong and high and a skill set to go with it. We feel that he has the opportunity to compete for a spot this season. We need to get him healthy here and get him up and running. But once that happens the rest will be up to him and his teammates to make sure that he feels comfortable and I hope that he can challenge for a spot and make our team out of camp, but that's yet to be seen."
A team goes through injuries and needs to dip into the prospect pool throughout the course of the season. In addition to those call-ups of necessity, competition from the bottom up can force a club's hand. Competition from below is also key to success. It keeps those in the NHL on their toes and it keeps the prospects who are close pushing for promotion.
What kind of impact will the Oilers young prospects have this season? Who will get the call? Only time will tell, but these fresh and familiar faces make an intriguing mix to watch, with hopes that one day they won't be knocking on the door to the NHL, but will be smashing it down.