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FUTURE WATCH: Prospects to watch this season

There were a number of Oilers prospects that left an impression at both Rookie and Main Camp, setting them up for important seasons ahead

by Meg Tilley @MegsTilley /

Video: MINORS MINUTE | Season Opens

It's official, the NHL season is back.

After weeks of waiting out the summer months and satisfying the cravings of hockey withdrawal with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, 30 teams will once again resume the chase for the Stanley Cup.

As fans gear up for the 2016-17 season, ready to see what each team's summer changes will have to offer this fall, another pool of players is eagerly awaiting their chance to dive into deep end.

It's the prospect pool.

A combination of players that have been working - and will continue to work - to one day assert themselves full time in the big show.

"Throughout the year, you watch these players all the time and you see how they're developing and I think the biggest thing is that we all know their skill level and what they can bring to an organization," said Kelly Buchberger, Oilers Vice President of Player Development.

"If a prospect is ready, there's no question they can play."

It sounds simple enough, but there are a number of factors that must be navigated before letting these prospects dive right in.

"For the most part you want to get the kids acclimatized to this level," said Bob Green, Oilers Director of Player Personnel.

"A lot of them haven't played at this level, even though they're coming out of major junior or college, there's still a difference. There's guys that have skated in the American Hockey League last year, some have played games in the NHL, so it's a different level for them. Let them get used to it…to get some confidence and get ready to move forward there."

That's what Rookie Camp and Main Camp are for. 

Whether it's a player like Jesse Puljujarvi, the Oilers selection at number four overall in the 2016 NHL pick, Patrick Russell, a college free agent that signed a two-year entry-level contract with the organization this summer, or Ethan Bear, a prospect who was selected 124th overall at the 2015 NHL Draft and has been honing his craft in the Western Hockey League, they are all players with something to offer.

Each of the Oilers camps offer opportunities for these prospects to show to the coaching staff and management team what they're capable of, how hard they've worked in the off-season and what they're willing to pursue in order to achieve the ultimate position - a roster spot in the NHL.

"For us to have success as a group, everybody has to improve," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. 

Though these prospects are keen to make their big league debuts, for coaches, it becomes a bit of a balancing act, posing questions to which they can only predict answers. Is that prospect ready, can they maintain consistent game-play over the course of the season, are they grasping the system?

This season, there are Oilers prospects that have made many impressions at both camps. Here are just a few that will be followed closely this season. 

1.    Patrick Russell

This summer, the Oilers signed forward Patrick Russell to a two-year entry-level contract. The 23-year-old appeared in 41 games last year with the St. Cloud State Huskies in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, recording career highs in just his second season, accumulating 20 goals and 21 assists for 41 points.

One of four college free agents signed this summer, Russell is on the development track to make an impact, and hopefully his NHL debut, this season. 

"[He's] a little bit older, so [he's] going to adjust a little bit quicker," said Green. "Hopefully, going through college, they're '94s for the most part, so they've been around a little bit, so it should be a quick adjustment for them. But the bottom line is they're good players and have a great chance to play in the National Hockey League." 


2.    Ethan Bear

Bear attended his second NHL camp with Edmonton this year and blossomed as a top pairing defenceman for the Seattle Thunderbirds in his third WHL season, logging large amounts of ice time and ranking among team leaders in assists and points, recording 19 goals and 46 assists for 65 points in 69 games.

He led all Seattle defencemen in scoring and also posted a team-high 12 power-play goals. The 5-foot-11 blueliner has appeared in 197 career WHL games, accumulating 122 points (38G, 84A), 74 penalty minutes and a +16 rating.

Though the Ochapowace, SK native wasn't selected until the fifth round of the 2015 Draft, his impressive surge this past season led to the signing of a three-year entry-level contract with the Oilers this summer.

"Just because you're drafted in the first couple rounds doesn't necessarily guarantee you a job," said Rick Carriere, Oilers Senior Director of Player Development. "It sometimes comes from within the player, and if they're motivated to get better and have that growth mentality then they're going to get better and they're going to pass some guys for jobs."

3.    Nick Ellis 

This summer, the Oilers signed goaltender Nick Ellis to a two-year entry-level contract. The 22-year-old appeared in 36 games last season with Providence College in the Hockey East Conference, posting a 25-7-4 record, 1.80 goals against average, .936 save percentage and four shutouts.

The Millersville, Maryland native accumulated a 30-9-5 record, 1.90 goals against average, .931 save percentage and five shutouts in 48 career NCAA games with Providence.

"He's a wonderful kid, he's got a great compete level," said Dustin Schwartz, Oilers Goaltending Coach. "He never quits on a play. He's got a few things that he's aware of and that we talked about even prior to him coming [to camp] that he wanted to improve on and we were on the same page right away."

4.    Caleb Jones

Jones, like Bear, is another blueline prospect the Oilers signed to three-year entry-level contract in April after his WHL Portland Winterhawks team was knocked out of the playoffs.

Drafted in the fourth round, 117th overall, of the 2015 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old appeared in 72 games with the Winterhawks last season, posting 55 points (10G, 45A). He also recorded two assists and six penalty minutes in four playoff games.

"I think [Bear] and Jones really had good seasons this year," said Carriere over the summer.;   

"[They were] able to contribute offensively, but more than anything else, I think [they] rounded out [their] games away from the puck too, [are] a lot better in the d-zone, checking down low…good corner battles…tough in front of the net, but [their] game's all about the puck and transition."

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