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LOOK BACK: Oilers 2015 Draft Class

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

When you look back at the Edmonton Oilers 2015 NHL Draft class, what sticks out the most is — obviously —winning the lottery and taking Connor McDavid first overall. McDavid was so NHL ready that he skipped right past player development and into the League. As for the other five players taken by the Oilers in the 2015 draft, they have spent the last year under the watchful eye of the organization’s player development department.

Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere spends the year watching the club’s prospects progress. Carriere and the player development department stay with the prospects until they reach the NHL. One year in, the class of 2015 has already shown some signs of progress. The jury is still out on the very young players, but Carriere has some interesting observations on the five in the system.

After a few trades, Edmonton selected Caleb Jones 117th overall in the fourth round of the draft. The American blueliner was entering his first season in the Western Hockey League. He was expected to take on a big role in year one. Jones settled into that role as the season progressed, but there was a definite learning curve.

“Caleb came into the WHL as a rookie in Portland, and I think he underestimated the calibre of play,” said Carriere. “But as he adapted more to the players and the league and the intensity I thought his game really improved. His development path grew exponentially over the season.”

Jones finished his first WHL season with 55 points (10-45-55) in 72 games for the Winterhawks. Defensively, however, is where Jones showed the most improvement as the months rolled along. 

“As he started to understand the intensity and how hard he had to play his game improved,” said Carriere. “He was a good skater coming in, but he’s moving the puck better. He transitions the puck very effectively. When he gets the puck on a turnover in the neutral zone, he turns it up and makes a play. The area I saw a lot of growth in was his defensive game. With his rush reads, he was a lot more patient, he had a better stick, good body position and he was able to keep things to the outside. His defensive game really improved throughout the year.”

Carriere said Portland Head Coach Jamie Kompon did a good job feeling out who Caleb was as a player, and easing him into a bigger role with the club.

“(Kompon) showed a lot of confidence in him and he gave him the opportunity to play in all situations. I think that helped Caleb rise up into that top pairing.”

Jones needs to continue to work on his defensive game, and the Oilers are expecting their second-year prospect to build on his offence, as well as develop into a leader.

Jones was the first of four defencemen taken by Edmonton in 2015. The second was Ethan Bear (124th overall) of the Seattle Thunderbirds, and he had about as good a season as the Oilers could have hoped.

“No kidding,” said Carriere.

Bear developed into an offensive force from Seattle’s blueline. The 18-year-old had 65 points (19-46-65) in 69 games.

“He brings so much offence, but I think a lot of it is related to how he can shoot the puck,” said Carriere. “His game evolves around his ability to shoot. He creates a lot of offence and he keeps defensive teams honest in their end of the rink because they’ve got to be weary of his shot from the blueline. But it opens up passing lanes, it opens up other opportunities for him to get offence.

“He thinks the game well offensively and I wouldn’t have expected this from Ethan at the start of the year, but I think as the year got going you saw him in an offensive role on defence in Seattle and they kept playing him in those situations. The games I saw he played virtually two minutes on the power play, and he was the trigger back there.”

Similar to Jones, Carriere saw a need in Bear to improve defensively. Bear got better as the year went on, specifically down low in his own end. His stick work in the corners and out in front progressed nicely.

Ethan Bear skates in a game. Photo by Getty Images.

Skating is one thing the Oilers are expecting Bear to work on, and the prospect has already begun putting time in with the organization’s skating coach — David Pelletier — this off-season. It’s not so much speed going forward and backward with Bear as it is pivoting, turning, transitioning and accelerating through those moves.

John Marino, a Harvard commit, won the USHL Championship in his first season in the league. The 6-foot-2 defenceman, taken 154th overall, had 30 points (5-25-30) in 56 games for the Tri-City Storm.

Like Jones, he needed to adjust to his new team and league but developed as the season went along.

“I think John came in very confident and there was a bit of an awakening that happened as the year got started and there were some struggles early, but he took it upon himself to simplify his game and to work on some very specific habits with his puck movement and his checking skills,” said Carriere. “His game started to improve to the point where he became their go-to guy. I know down the stretch run, going into the playoffs, talking to their coaches that he’s the guy they wanted on the ice at all times against the other teams’ best players. That’s a testament to John’s improvement over the course of the year.”

Marino could use to pack on some weight, per Carriere. But he’s a “tenacious checker” and has a passion for the game that bodes well for improvement overall.

“He brings that every shift,” said Carriere. “He has this enthusiasm, this look about him every time he’s on the ice. He gets involved and he works as hard as he can every single play. That’s what’s going to help him get to the next level.”

Edmonton went overseas for their next two picks, first selecting Czech goalie Miroslav Svoboda 208th overall in the seventh round. After being loaned to the second tier of the Czech league, Svoboda was able to further develop his game with more starts under his belt. He was tied for eighth in that league in save percentage (.924) in 21 games. The Oilers were able to get a better look at the 6-foot-3 goaltender when he came to North America following his season.

“We saw him here in Bakersfield this year at the end of the year,” said Carriere. “Sylvain Rodrigue — our goalie coach for prospects and AHL goalies — had him in and was able to work with him for a couple of weeks. I was able to actually sit down and talk to the player. I think he was pretty happy with how his game progressed over the year. He didn’t start out very well on his team. It was hard to get him enough starts. Then after he moved to the next tier, he ended up getting more games and he got some confidence with his game.”

Ziyat Paigin shoots the puck. Photo by Getty Images.

Carriere says, in speaking with his Czech goalie coach, that Svoboda improved “quite a bit” this year. In Bakersfield, the staff worked with him on lateral movement and positioning things and were pleased with how quickly he was able to grasp the coaching.

“He’s another one of those guys who has a real lean body to him. He’s got to mature into his body a little more,” said Carriere.

The last of the Oilers picks may turn out to be one of the most interesting ones. Edmonton went back to the blueline, selecting Ziyat Paigin 209th overall from Kazan Ak-Bars of the KHL. The hulking Russian defender stands at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds.

He had 27 points (9-18-27) in 37 games, leading his team’s defence in scoring. He was also named to the 2016 KHL All-Star Game.

Oilers Sr. Vice President of Hockey Operations Craig MacTavish went over to see Paigin play a couple of times this season. The reports back to Carriere are very positive.

“Very impressed with his size and mobility,” said Carriere. “He shoots the puck hard and brings some offence from the back end. You’re always looking for that. You can teach the defensive stuff, but you’d like to have guys who can think the game offensively and make plays with the puck on their stick, not turn it over or give up possession easily. It sounds like he’s that type of player. He’s a good puck-possession guy and he brings some mobility and a good shot.”

Carriere and the Oilers would like to see Paigin add more weight to his tall frame, but the size and offensive instincts are exciting to the club. Although Paigin is a seventh-round pick, with time and development, he could possibly leap-frog other defensive prospects when he comes to North America.

“I think so,” said Carriere. “You look at the guys we had in junior here and we’ve got some pretty good guys coming up here. But somebody like Paigin plays at a higher level, comes in a little more ready to play the pro game, more mature that way probably. When we see the whites of his eyes will be the day he probably moves ahead of some other guys in the organization prospect wise.”

Paigin is not expected to attend the Oilers Development Camp this off-season.

The Oilers used some assets in the 2015 NHL Draft to trade for more veteran players like Cam Talbot and Griffin Reinhart. However, they also chose six players. One is already in the NHL, heading into a promising second season and bright future. The other five are embedded in the Oilers player development program, making progress and working toward pushing the players ahead of them from below.

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