BUFFALO, NY - The majority of the Oilers talk heading into the 2016 NHL Draft centred around what their general manager was going to do on the trade front. Their pursuit for a top-end, right-shot defenceman was perhaps overshadowing the picks themselves. That all seemed to change when Jesse Puljujarvi became available at fourth overall, and the Oilers didn’t hesitate to take him.
Although the Oilers didn’t end up executing a trade at the Draft, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli says talks were productive and are on-going. They didn’t add a veteran defenceman, but Chiarelli and the Oilers did select a total of nine players; four forwards, four defencemen and a goalie.
It all started with Puljujarvi becoming available at four on Friday. Expected to go third overall, Columbus instead took Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Oilers had been discussing moves both up and down the draft board, but when they began to receive information the Blue Jackets may go a different route than Puljujarvi, those talks screeched to a halt and they held their ground at four.
Edmonton took the 6-foot-4, 204-pound Finnish winger with no hesitation. They received several calls from teams looking to acquire the fourth pick after Columbus made theirs, but they didn’t want to move. The Oilers also had one trade offer that included the pick, which “became very real” but the Oilers hung onto it.
Had Puljujarvi not been there at four, Chiarelli says Edmonton gave “a lot” of consideration to drafting a defenceman. However, Puljujarvi is the type of talent Edmonton didn’t want to pass on.
“We’re fortunate,” said Chiarelli. “He’s a big, strong kid, a smart player who can shoot the puck. Happy to get him.”
As the first round began to wind down there was talk of jumping back into the first with a player they liked still untaken.
Chiarelli all but confirmed that player was Tyler Benson, who they ended up taking 32nd overall on day two of the draft, saying, “that might have been the guy we would have moved up on.”
To see the Vancouver Giants forward, and Edmonton native, still sitting there at the end of the first round was a sigh of relief for the Oil, but Toronto was still ahead of them at 31.
“It was exciting,” said Oilers Director of Player Personnel Bob Green. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I wasn’t sure (we’d get him), he was sitting right there and sometimes that doesn’t work for you.”
The Oilers, according to Green, did discuss whether waiting for day two was the smart play or not.
“We looked at it, but it’s just a tough thing to do,” Green said of moving up. “We thought he might be (there) and were relatively confident but you never know. We had other guys we would have taken there (if he wasn’t at 32).”
The Oilers did in fact get him at 32, and are very happy with that selection. Benson broke the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League record for most points in a season with 146 (57-89-146) in 33 games in Edmonton. He went on to play in the WHL with Vancouver, but has been plagued by injuries. Now he’s healthy with no worries about the injuries holding him back. Edmonton hopes he continues to progress into becoming the prospect he once showed he could be.
“Happy,” Chiarelli said of acquiring Benson. “(There were) some questions, at least publicly, with his injury but we’ve poked and prodded him at length and we’re very happy with that pick.”
Green says he believes if Benson was healthy for a full season this year he wouldn’t have lasted to the 32nd pick.
Next up was another player who could have easily went higher in the Draft. Edmonton selected Saginaw defenceman Markus Niemelainen 63rd overall. He was the first of three Oilers picks in the third round.
Niemelainen is a big defender at 6-foot-6 and shows a lot of promise.
Tyler Benson celebrates his selection with family. Photo by Getty Images.
“He’s big, he can skate, he can move the puck,” said Green. “He likes to play the game with a little bit of offensive flare. I don’t think his numbers this year are indicative of his talent level. There’s more there than just a 6-foot-6 shutdown guy.”
Some pre-draft analysis and conversation had Niemelainen as a potential second, or even first-rounder. Green says the Oilers were surprised to see him at 63.
Edmonton took another defenceman with their second third-round pick, 84th overall, selecting Matthew Cairns from the OJHL’s Georgetown Raiders. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound left-shot blueliner had 33 points (9-24-33) in 46 games. The Cornell University commit (2017-18) also had 19 points (3-16-19) in 22 playoff games for Georgetown.
“Big kid, good puck-mover, good hockey sense,” said Green. “A little bit raw maybe but big guy that can skate and move the puck.”
For their third-straight pick, Edmonton selected defence at 91st overall. The Oilers picked up Filip Berglund. The defenceman played in Sweden’s junior league this past season, and ranked 33rd on NHL Central Scouting’s list of European Skaters. He had 41 points (19-22-41) in 43 games.
“He’s a big, right-shot defenceman who can really move the puck,” said Green. “He’s got good hockey sense, put up good numbers this year in the Swedish Junior League. We just really like his upside and the puck-moving ability that he has.”
With no picks in the fourth, Edmonton took a chance on a goalie in the fifth round. The Oilers selected Peterborough backstop Dylan Wells 123rd overall. While the Oilers admit the numbers weren’t the best this year for Wells, they see something in him they can try to develop. By taking a flyer on Wells, they add another goalie to the system and it’s a hard position to predict.
“The pedigree is there,” said Green. “He didn’t have a great year. He played behind a good goalie, and we understand that. He was the top goalie at Hlinka, had a great tournament there and great prospects game.”
Despite a 4.59 goals-against average and .871 save percentage in the OHL this past season, Wells was excellent for Team Canada at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament and posted a .971 save percentage.
The Oilers 2016 NHL Draft table. Photo by Getty Images.
“We like the athleticism and the technical part of his game but we just want him to be a little more consistent,” said Green. “There’s a lot there, and in the fifth round it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Then came an interesting pick at 149th overall. Edmonton took Graham McPhee, son of former NHLer George McPhee. What makes this pick interesting is McPhee’s background and what Chiarelli and Green had to say about the pick.
“When we saw him he had good viewings,” said Chiarelli. “He’s got really good skill and he plays with an edge. He’s got to develop, he’s got to get bigger and stronger. He’s got a real good shot and release. He’s a smart player. And if you remember George when he played he’s got the heart of a lion. So that helped us in selecting him.”
“We thought he was hidden in that (US National Development) program a little bit… He’s a real hard-nosed kid. Good skater, good skills, and he’s going to Boston College right away so that was nice.”
McPhee’s father also went on to become the general manager of the Washington Capitals and Graham basically grew up in the locker room. Alex Ovechkin lived with the McPhee family during his rookie season. McPhee would be one of the runners at the Draft when he was a kid, and this time around he was one of the players being selected.
At the top of the sixth round, with the 153rd-overall pick, the Oilers selected centre Aapeli Rasanen from Finland. The Oilers Finnish scout was pretty high on Rasanen and convinced the Oilers to stay interested.
“We’ve got a really good Finnish scout and he was really eyeing this kid,” said Green. “(He told us) get on this guy, make sure you stay on this guy. There’s something there. He’s just a really good, solid hockey player.
“All the Finns work hard, they’re good kids and they play the game probably more of a North American style and he’s a good guy to take a chance on.”
Rasanen, who won a gold medal with Puljujarvi at the 2016 World U-18 Championship, expects to play in the USHL next season.
With their final pick, the Oilers went defence again. Edmonton selected Vincent Desharnais from Providence College. Desharnais is a 6-foot-6, right-shot defenceman. He had two points (1-1-2) in 19 games as a college freshman. He is another tall project defenceman the Oilers can add to their growing stable.
With the 2016 NHL Draft closed, the Oilers get a pleasant surprise in the first, a hometown kid in the second and a few defenceman and more to add to their prospect pool. Next up for Chiarelli will be on-going talks to add defence, the free agency shopping period and free agency itself starting on July 1.