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Oilers add depth and competition to provide prospects time to develop

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Rick Carriere speaks with Leon Draisaitl at Orientation Camp. Photo by Oilers TV.
With all of the recent additions to the Edmonton Oilers via free agency, trades and the draft, possibly the most important transformation in terms of the future of the organization is being overshadowed.

There is little doubt that the future of the Edmonton Oilers has all the signs of success.

Their core group of star players are all under 24 and are either entering their prime or flirting with it. Their prospect pool is swimming with talented defencemen and bigger, skilled forwards. All of that bodes well for the future, but developing those assets properly is just as important as acquiring them.

That’s why the Oilers management staff has made a point to place emphasis on development by acquiring the necessary depth to give them the luxury of patience. Being able to let the prospects dictate the timeline of their graduation to the NHL and not having to throw them in the deep end on their first day of swim class is a huge development.

“Ultimately, your actions have to be congruent with what you’re talking about and speaking about,” Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish said on July 1, following the opening day of free agency. “We’ve talked about these players having time to develop and doing the best thing for those players, not what’s necessarily best for the hockey club based on our personal selfish needs. I think we’ve got to have a longer term view of this on how we develop players and we’ve got to be in a position as an organization and we haven’t been. We have been so undermanned and undermined and now we’re in a position where we’re getting more and more depth so we’re able to let the players decide whether they’re ready to play and that’s an important step.”

This philosophy was on display this past season with players like Oscar Klefbom (19th overall pick in 2011) being able to log significant time in the American Hockey League before getting just a small taste of the NHL towards the end of the year. Darnell Nurse (seventh overall pick in 2013) was able to return to the OHL for another season, develop and eventually take his talents to Oklahoma City for a handful of games, giving him the professional experience.

It’s not just the first-round guys who will benefit from the extra time.

“If you look at other players that have graduated from the National Hockey League from other organizations, a guy like Tomas Tatar (Detroit Red Wings, 60th overall in 2009) had 265 games in Grand Rapids,” Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson said. “If you look at our team, guys like Curtis Hamilton (48th overall in 2010) or Tyler Pitlick (31st overall in 2010), over the three years they have only played about 145 (games). It does take time. It’s always a different path for everybody and we want to accelerate that but do it the right way so they can help the big club succeed in the future.”

There are exceptions. Some players are ready to face the NHL grind and overcome their growing pains immediately, but most could use the extra time. The Oilers hope to provide opportunity for the latter, which gives them time to introduce prospects to their Individual Development Plans (IDP).

Oscar Klefbom played 48 games for the Barons last season. Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons.

“I think that really plays in to what we’re trying to do,” Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere said. “It gives us an opportunity to get players through our development program and get them on their Individual Development Plan for two or three years before they even have to step into the NHL. It gives them a chance to finish whether they’re playing in junior or college and then spend a year or two in Oklahoma City or even go to Bakersfield and learn the professional game from some very qualified people that we have there. It’s all part of the organization and it’s all part of the plan.”

This plan is why it was very important for the Oilers to add established NHL defencemen like Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne via free agency. The added depth will not only disperse the minutes better amongst the current defencemen, but it gives players like Klefbom and Nurse more time to develop in Oklahoma City and junior, or even gives them the ability to ease into the NHL with a lesser workload.

It is also the reason why MacTavish says the team could still add more pieces before the start of the season, particularly a centre.

Now that more depth is in place, it’s up to the prospects to earn their spots rather than have them handed to them due to lack of competition.

“There needs to be competition,” Head Coach Dallas Eakins said. “We don’t want to be handing spots in an NHL lineup to players who haven’t earned it and by default. They need to battle. The other thing is that they need to be ready. I think when you rush players in you’re setting them up for failure and we don’t want to do that.”

Eakins added, “There are great examples around the league of players that maybe should have been sent back to junior and there’s lots of players out there who weren’t sent back to junior and had unbelievable careers. In the end, all of this gets settled at training camp.”

For players, the goal of reaching the NHL is ultimate and patience is not always a virtue they possess. The postponed leap to the NHL can be a tough pill for some players to swallow.

“First off, it’s a big jump from junior to pro,” Nelson said. “I see a lot of first-year players coming to us and they think they’re going to take the league by storm and they kind of get a rude awakening in the first couple of months. But they learn, they adapt and it’s a cycle that we see every year. I expect the same thing to happen this year. That’s the goal is to get these guys ready for the big club and do it the best way possible. If they play three seasons, four seasons for us in Oklahoma City and they mature it is only going to help the big club in the long run.”

The Oilers are hoping to create more pressure from underneath in their system. The more time the prospects have, the better they’ll get. Perhaps this year, more than in recent years, there will be fiery competition amongst prospects and pros.

“These players are very young, they’re inexperienced and we want to protect them right now and at least we can give them a fair shake in training camp,” Eakins said. “If they’re not ready then they’ll go back, if they’re ready they will stay. It’s that simple.”

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