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FEATURE: Pro-ready defence headlines Oilers rookie roster

A group of pro-ready defenders, including three from the class of 2015, headlines Oilers rookie roster

by Chris Wescott / Head Writer

As the Oilers rookies head to Penticton, BC for the 2017 Young Stars Classic, most eyes will be on Kailer Yamamoto - the offensively dynamic 22nd-overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

However, it's the promising youth on the blueline that demands some attention as well.

The Oilers roster includes nine defenders, five of which are draft picks, one free-agent signing and three invites. The crop doesn't necessarily contain very high draft picks - the highest being 2017 third-round pick Dmitri Samorukov - however, it does have promise.

Take the trio of blueliners from the Class of 2015 for example, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear and Ziyat Paigin, as well as free-agent signing Ryan Mantha. Each player is different in their physical attributes and playing style, and all are gearing up for a jump to the North American pro game.

"The jump to pro hockey is a big one from junior, but they're all in the same age group of 19-20 and they're going to get their feet wet," said Oilers VP of Player Development Scott Howson. "They had very strong showings last year, each of the (players) you mentioned, and were very good in their leagues. So we are excited about what they can do, but we acknowledge that it's a big jump. The American League is a very good league, if that's where they end up."

Jones, selected 117th overall in the fourth round, is a native of Texas and younger brother of Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Seth Jones. Caleb stands at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, and exhibited high-end offensive ability with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL).

Jones recorded nine goals and 53 assists in 63 games for Portland this past season, following in his brother's footsteps. Seth had a similar season for Portland in 2012-13, scoring 14 goals and adding 42 assists in 61 games.

The 20 year-old is highly decorated at the junior level, winning gold medals for Team USA at the U-17 World Hockey Championships in 2013-14, the U-18 World Juniors in 2014-15 and World Juniors in 2016-17.

Jones has continued to develop each season, and now sets his sights on making the jump to the professional ranks this year. But he knows he'll have competition this year, beginning in Penticton.

"This year it looks like we have a lot of young, good rookies going up there," said Jones. "I think that's a big strength of our team this year. In the past, I know that hasn't been something you guys have been able to say and it's really starting to change here. It's going to be exciting to see what we can do there."

Jones' good friend and fellow 2015 selection Bear has also enjoyed a lot of success in the WHL.

Bear stands shorter than Jones at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, but he packs quite the offensive punch from the back end.

For the Seattle Thunderbirds, Bear finished junior career with 66 goals and 126 assists in the last four seasons. In 2016-17 alone, Bear was named to the WHL West First All-Star Team, won the WHL Championship and finished the WHL Playoffs with the most assists (20). He was also awarded the Bill Hunter Trophy as the WHL's Top Defenceman.

After quite the junior resume, Bear looks to transition to the pros in 2017-18. Howson singled Bear out for his good shot and power-play ability.

Paigin is an intriguing prospect, having played overseas in the KHL. The Russian defenceman towers at 6-foot-6 and 209 pounds. His physical presence alone makes for a great development project, after being selected in the seventh round, 209th overall, in 2015.

He had a superb 2015-16 season for HK Sochi, scoring nine goals and adding 18 assists for 27 points in 37 games. He was named to the KHL All-Star Game. In 2016-17, after being traded back to Ak Bars Kazan his playing time dipped and an injury hurt his production. However, there are tools to work with.

"I have a good shot, a good one-timer and I like playing in the offensive zone and on the blueline," said Paigin. "I like playing on the D, it's my job. With my style, I'm not saying I don't hit guys but I pass more… I'm more offensive, a little bit."

The Oilers see that knack for offence too.

Video: CAMP RAW | Ryan Mantha

"The adjustment to the American League is going to take some time," said Howson. "Thankfully, he had a little bit of a period last year in Bakersfield so he's seen what that's like. He's a big, rangy guy. He's got a bomb of a shot so there's potential power-play ability there.

"It'll be whether he can adapt to the structure and tighten up his defensive game."

Mantha is another player making the leap to the professional ranks. The Niagara IceDogs captain posted 17 goals and 41 points last season in the Ontario Hockey League.

His 6-foot-5 frame and good shot make him stick out amongst the blueline prospects. Howson also mentioned Mantha's power-play potential as a big positive. Mantha had a short stint in Bakersfield at the end of last season and understands what it will take to play in the AHL.

"I know what to expect coming into this year now," said Mantha. "It's a lot different than junior hockey, so having that perspective of what I need to work on and get better at was huge for me going into the summer."

Bear, Jones, Mantha and Paigin are just four of the nine defencemen in camp to watch. This group, overall, provides good competition this weekend in Penticton.

"We are (excited)," said Howson.

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