This year marks the fourth time in six years that Edmonton has owned the first-overall pick in the draft. One of the two years in that span in which they did not was 2013. Although they chose seventh overall and not first, the Oilers picked up a player who is expected to make a huge impact on the team’s blueline in the near future. Darnell Nurse highlights a 2013 Oilers draft class that had a few players take big steps forward in their development this past season.
Nurse had quite the whirlwind 2014-15 season, which began with him making his NHL debut for the Oilers on October 14, 2014 against the Los Angeles Kings. After two games, he was sent to join his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A gold-medal performance at the 2015 World Junior Championship with Canada was the next item on his itinerary. He was named Canada’s player of the game after they beat Russia in the final.
Returning to the Greyhounds, Nurse captained them to a first-place finish in the OHL’s Western Conference. He was named Sault Ste. Marie’s Most Valuable Player, despite missing a month with a knee injury. After a playoff exit in the OHL Western Conference Final, Nurse joined the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League in their playoff run.
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“I would say Darnell had a real solid year,” said Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere. “He went back (to junior), with the disappointment of not being in the NHL this year, with some things to improve. He worked really hard on his overall game. The big thing for Darnell was he was going to be more patient defending and not be as impulsive. He made a lot better decisions with his physical game. You never want to take that out of him but now he looked very composed throughout the season this year. His puck movement improved a great deal as well. He wasn’t making little area passes, he was putting hard passes tape to tape consistently.”
Back in junior, Nurse became a minute-eating matchup nightmare for opponents. He finished his junior campaign with 33 points (10-23-33) in 36 games. He added eight points (3-5-8) in 14 playoff games. In the AHL, he didn’t seem to skip a beat playing against men. He jumped up in the rush and played his physical game.
“From the reports I got from the coaches and just watching the games, I’d have to agree that he looked like a solid professional. He looked like a veteran,” said Carriere.
Nurse put on 20 pounds of muscle from the previous year to this past season. It’s something he continues to focus on moving into this upcoming season. The question surrounding the 20-year-old defenceman is whether or not he’s ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL in 2015-16.
“It’s not my decision but the rate of his development and watching him play, I’d say he’s a bonafide contender for an NHL job this year,” said Carriere. “If the Oilers have more depth on the backend then maybe he has to spend a little more time in the minors in Bakersfield just kind of honing his game a bit. But that would be a good thing too.”
Carriere helps oversee the creation and execution of the Individual Development Plan (IDP) for each Oilers prospect. He keeps tabs on the players throughout the year, watching them and communicating with them constantly to ensure they are developing properly.
Here are his observations on the development of some of the other players taken by the Oilers in 2013. Marc-Olivier Roy, taken 56th overall, and Jackson Houck, 94th overall, were not signed to their entry level contracts.
Taken in the third round, 83rd overall, Bogdan Yakimov is a hulking Russian centre who made the jump to North American hockey this season. Yakimov played the entire year for Oklahoma City, and even made his NHL debut for the Oilers, playing one game in October.
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By the reports coming out of OKC, it was a successful rookie season for Yakimov. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound centre recorded 28 points (12-16-28) in 57 games for the Barons. Those numbers aren’t all-star figures, but his second half of the season was more productive than the first. Yakimov had just two goals and eight assists through December (.37 points per game). From the New Year on, Yakimov had 10 goals and eight assists in 30 games (.60 points per game).
Carriere says it took time for Yakimov to adjust to his new life and that’s why the second half of the season was better for him.
“I think he started to acclimate more in the environment,” said Carriere. “There were a lot of big changes for Bogdan. The culture, the language and things like that. The coaches in Oklahoma did a really good job with finding resources for him to start to learn more about the culture. He got into the church there and met some Russian families that helped him along the way with the cultural things. Then he started to get a little more comfortable in his surroundings.”
As for Yakimov’s point total, Carriere says the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“I think on the ice he was always dominant,” said Carriere. “As he started to get more and more acclimated he started to get more confidence. He had a lot of confidence with the puck as we saw in development camp and in the rookie games. He wasn’t afraid to try and stick handle over the blueline or try to go through one or two defenders. There were examples this season in Oklahoma City where he was able to do that just with his sheer size. His foot speed is a little bit deceptive in that you don’t think he’s moving as fast as he is but he’s like a locomotive when he gets going. He does get a step on the defenceman. It’s hard to defend him because he’s so strong and can turn the corner and take the puck to the net.”
Yakimov missed out on OKC’s playoff run, suffering an injury late in the season. His last game was a two-goal outing against Milwaukee on March 17. Considering his development in year one, could that be signs of things to come for the big man?
The Oilers signed Anton Slepyshev to his three-year entry level contract on May 27, signalling his impending arrival to North America. Slepyshev has been playing for Ufa Salavat in the KHL for the past three seasons. The 2014-15 season brought a spike in offensive production.
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“Very skilled. Very talented,” said Carriere. “He can beat the goaltender. He’s good at moving the puck, dishing it up and making plays as well.”
Slepyshev, taken 88th overall in 2013, scored 15 goals this season, which tied him with former Oilers prospect Teemu Hartikainen for third on the team. He added 10 assists for 25 points in 58 games.
He led Ufa in scoring at the Spengler Cup this year with two goals and three assists in five games.
“We didn’t see a lot of Anton because he plays in the KHL. But we did get a glimpse of him at (2014) World Juniors and he was close to making the World Championship team. That would have been a really good platform for him to play at,” said Carriere. “He’s very skilled, a very elusive skater, goes to the tough areas. If he played in the American Hockey League this year it would have been a really good opportunity for him to acclimate. I would say this coming season if all things work out with the paperwork and we do see him here that he’s a guy who could use a little bit of time in the AHL just to sort of acclimate, learn about the culture, learn to speak English and play a little more demanding schedule.”
Slepyshev is expected to go marinate and hone his skills in the AHL with Bakersfield this upcoming season.
Kyle Platzer was chosen in the fourth round, 96th overall, in 2013. The centre crushed his previous career highs with 81 points (34-47-81) in 68 games for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack this season. He finished as the Attack’s leading scorer.
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After being knocked out of the OHL playoffs, Platzer joined the Oklahoma City Barons. He played four regular season games, scoring his first two professional goals and adding an assist. He also played three AHL playoff games.
“He’s deceptive with his size. He’s a very good skater. Mechanically, he skates very well,” said Carriere. “He has really good playmaking ability, he’s developing into a two-way centreman for us. We’re working on his defensive game a little bit more. I don’t think he’s going to be a real prolific offensive dynamo by any stretch. But I think he’s going to be able to contribute offensively. He’d be a good second or third-line centreman one day that can play in different situations.”
Platzer is another player expected to join Bakersfield for his first AHL season. He signed his entry-level deal on April 5.
Aidan Muir is a big-bodied winger who just finished his freshman year at Western Michigan University under former NHL head coach Andy Murray.
Muir, taken 113th overall, potted six goals and added nine assists in 36 games for the Broncos.
“He was good as a freshman this year in the NCAA,” said Carriere. “I thought he had a pretty solid season. He played through some tough injuries and stuff like that; things that would hamper him a bit with his physical game. He’s a big, strong guy, he’s got good mobility, he’s continuing to work on his puck skills, but he’s going to be a big power forward. He’s a very intelligent player but not afraid to go to the hard areas.”
Carriere is excited about Muir, who he believes could develop into an effective power forward.
“I think he’s a very good prospect for the NHL one day,” said Carriere. “In two or three years from now he may be knocking on the door for that. In a couple of years he may need to play in the AHL for a bit but he understands that type of game. He understands that power game. He’s got to be skillful with the puck along with wall or coming out of his end, he’s got to be able to make some plays in the neutral zone and he’s got to be able to make plays from below the other team’s goal line and bring the puck to scoring areas. He works on that.”
Another Oilers prospect in the NCAA, Evan Campbell played his second season at U-Mass Lowell this year. He doubled up his point total from his freshman season, scoring 12 goals and adding 15 assists for 27 points in 34 games.
The winger was taken 128th overall in 2013.
“I see him as another guy that we’ll see in another year or two with NCAA experience,” said Carriere. “Very good skater, good size, needs to improve his defensive game a bit. Overall, he’s got good offensive ability, he can make plays, he’s good on the faceoff and kills penalties well. His focus is the play in his end.”
A good season in the WHL earned Ben Betker a three-year entry level contract on March 26.
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Betker, taken 158th overall, is a hulking blueliner, standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing in around 220 pounds. Betker didn’t take nearly the same amount of penalties this season compared to his first two years in the WHL.
Betker also increased his point total to 31 (6-25-31) from 21 the previous season. Carriere sees him as a potential NHL player with more development.
“He improved a lot this year,” said Carriere. “He’s a big, mobile defenceman. He’s got good footwork for his size and he moves the puck effectively. He keeps the game simple. He’s a very efficient puck-moving defenceman and he’s not afraid to get up on the rush. His skating allows him to do that to support the play. Big, steady two-way defenceman I see him as. He’ll be hard on guys in the corner, it will be hard to get to the net in front of him. As long as he keeps improving and maturing, as a person as well, I think there will be an opportunity for him to play in the NHL one day.”
Greg Chase is another late-round prospect to get excited about. The forward has a lot of skill, probably more than his seventh-round draft status would make you think.
His WHL season had a tumultuous start, including a trade from the Calgary Hitmen to the Victoria Royals.
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“For whatever reason, things didn’t work out for him in Calgary. The move to Victoria, and in particular (Head Coach) Dave Lowry, we thought was an excellent opportunity for him to mature. Dave was good. He kept everyone accountable and I thought brought out the best in Greg’s game,” said Carriere.
The switch to Victoria helped Chase develop even more than he had the previous season. Chase had 44 points (18-26-44) in 46 games for Victoria. He potted seven goals in 11 playoff games before Victoria was bounced by Leon Draisaitl’s Kelowna Rockets.
“As we saw throughout the course of the year, Greg had good offensive ability but wasn’t as invested defensively. The last half of the year he started to get that,” said Carriere. “He started to use his foot speed to come back hard on the back check and be responsible in his defensive zone, to make more low-risk plays and to be a lot more effective. When he went to the AHL at the end of the year, he was a guy who could come in that has a good foundation to his game right now and he can contribute offensively.”
Chase signed his entry level deal on September 13, 2014.