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Oilers' last five first-round picks paying dividends

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
With endless back-and-forth banter heating up about who the Oilers should take with the prestigious first overall selection Friday, looking back on the team’s past success at the podium appropriately sets the stage for what promises to an exciting evening at Xcel Energy Center.

Edmonton has made six first-round selections since 2007, and all but one (Riley Nash) remain with the organization in prominent roles. Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Taylor Hall have all made immediate impacts, while Alex Plante continues develop his game, preaching patience through quiet improvement on the farm.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Oilers Director of Player Development, Mike Sillinger, to discuss the progress of the club’s prized choices.

Selected 6th overall, 2007

Although Edmonton held the sixth overall pick, Sam Gagner was likely not the team’s target. The Oilers even attempted to move up via trade, but circumstances aligned and the creatively skilled centre dropped to the copper and blue at No. 6.

Following a dazzling rookie campaign that saw Gagner record 13 goals and 49 points, many in the latter portion of the 2007-08 season, his numbers have yet to improve. Since then, he has produced 41, 41 and 42 points respectively.

Much of that could be credited to an increased devotion to defensive awareness, despite his concerning -17 rating last year.

"Sam had great success on the offensive side of the puck at a young age, and what he's starting to see now is how important it is to play on both sides of the puck," Sillinger explained. "That's not to say he never did. It's just a real big asset to have."

While plus-minus is hardly the quintessential end of statistical analysis, Gagner’s numbers appeared to improve in his sophomore season when he concluded the year with a respectable -1 mark. Finding consistency is the next step; something that Sillinger agrees is a natural part of a player’s development curve.

And we must remember that this four-season veteran is only 21-years-old.

"I watched him play all year and saw [Head Coach Tom Renney] use him in all situations. Sam is really starting to work on becoming a complete player. Having those years of experience at such a young age is an amazing accomplishment. There aren't many players like that.

"It's an important part of the game to not only be on the power-play, but to be put in a penalty killing role as well. Sam is getting these chances because of hard work."

Selected 15th overall, 2007

Although Sam Gagner was able to amass immediate NHL success, Alex Plante is working along another path. The 6’3", 225-pound blueliner scored eight goals and 45 points in only 68 games with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen before being selected by Edmonton 15th overall in 2007.

Plante’s offensive game has struggled to emerge at the professional level so far, but he’s beginning to carve a role as a gritty, tough-as-nails defenceman in the minors. His work has helped earn him two separate call-ups to Edmonton, appearing in seven NHL contests to this point in his career.

As Sillinger explains, there’s no shortage of try. It’s a matter of overcoming his body to master a seemingly correctable issue.

"The big thing with Alex is mobility. He’s got to handle the speed of the game, both with and without the puck. When he’s got it, he needs to make good decisions with it; smart decisions based on simplicity.

"Alex is beginning to understand that less is more. You’ve got to have real good composure, not panic with the puck and make the simple play. Defensively, he’s never struggled. It’s more about it improving his foot-speed so that he can be as good as possible in other areas."

Even with the challenges associated with foot-speed in full view, Sillinger was eager to propose a compliment to Plante’s sometimes dominating defensive talent.

"Alex is a big, strong guy that plays physical all the time," he stated. "Defence is probably the most challenging position in the National Hockey League, so to be that good at the AHL level is a positive sign. But sometimes there’s more running around from everyone in the minors, so we need to be cautious when evaluating his skill."

Selected 22nd overall, 2008

Oilers play-by-play man Jack Michaels summed up Jordan Eberle’s grand entrance to the NHL with this stunning call on October 7, 2010:

"Jordan Eberle, wow!"

Before the 22-year-old winger could astound Rexall Place, his road to Edmonton was loaded with other, equally as thrilling moments as Canada’s all-time leading goal-scorer at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.

For the WHL’s Regina Pats, he scored 50 goals and 106 points in only 57 games in his final season. Following that, he produced six goals and 14 points in an 11-game audition with Edmonton’s previous AHL farm club.

His resume was impressive. Even that is an understatement, considering all that he's been able to accomplish. And like Sam Gagner, he’s only 22.

"All three rookies were very, very average this season," Sillinger laughed when referencing the Oilers’ young stars. "But seriously, they were all incredible.

"Eberle was a guy I got to watch lots in Regina. What always amazes me about him, and I usually compare him to a guy like Ray Whitney, is every time he goes into the corner, even though he's a smaller guy, he comes out with the puck. That's because of his compete and hockey sense. He always seems to get it done."

Eberle ultimately presents a lethal concoction. The aforementioned qualities go hand-in-hand with a supreme skill-set. The goal now, something that Eberle took on as the year progressed, is to develop a well-rounded two-way style to complement his slick hands and vision.

"He has amazing skill with the puck and he knows how to make great plays," Sillinger stated. "I think his thing this year was really learning how to play in the 'D' zone. You're playing with bigger, stronger guys and you've got to battle and compete along the boards hard to get the puck out.

"In the WHL, I think he may have gotten away with cheating a bit more. When I say that, I mean that he was able to concentrate purely on on scoring goals. But he’s learning and doing an excellent job so far."

Given that he ended the year as Edmonton’s leading point-producer, that seems about right.

Selected 10th overall, 2009

Magnus Paajarvi came into the 2010-11 season with an advantage over his fellow rookie teammates. Unlike Eberle and Hall, the 21-year-old winger had played three complete seasons in Sweden’s Elitserien with Timra IK. In doing so, he played with men in a professional league, scoring impressive numbers as a teenager.

"Magnus is a guy that has explosive speed," Sillinger said. "When I watched this guy play early on, I thought he had Pavel Bure speed; he knew how to hit the holes. It seemed that whenever he got the puck, he was going at full speed. That's what Bure did."

With speed complementing his creative side, there was little doubt Paajarvi would adapt to the NHL style with ease. He’s done that, but he now needs to buckle down and concentrate on certain areas so he can reach the next level, says Sillinger.

"He needs to work a little bit on his scoring touch. He shoots the puck very, very well. He creates so many chances because of his speed, but he's got to start cashing on those."

Before coming to Edmonton, Paajarvi played in three IIHF World Hockey Championship tournaments where he showcased that dynamite array of skill to Oilers fans everywhere. In 2010, he accumulated nine points in nine games, leading Team Sweden to a bronze medal outing. All that came in addition to his World Junior success.

Finding consistency is the next step. Sillinger adds that this will come in due time.

"He had games where he played 20 minutes and others where he played five. He’s learning and this is all part of the development process. Magnus is coming along really well.

"Overall, he had a very successful year. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do next season."

Selected 1st overall, 2010

Taylor Hall had a pretty good season, right?

He scored 22 goals and 42 points, many of which came during a 40-game mid-season run. His exceptional talent was on display nightly, and the fans that packed Rexall Place were treated to something special for each contest.

He scored, hit, fought, and battled with the league’s best. All that happened in only 65 games.

"You can’t say enough about Taylor’s complete," Sillinger said. "It doesn’t matter where the puck is, Taylor hunts it down and usually wins the battle."

Coming into the NHL as an 18-year-old is challenging enough, but a short summer season helped him develop at an accelerated rate. There was almost no time to prepare.

Just go out and play, kid.

"He may have underestimated the challenge of playing against men, but he was always the top player wherever he played, so his goal is to be the best in the NHL, too."

The adaptation period was short-lived, mind you. Hall found his way, excelling under immense pressure as the NHL’s top selection and Edmonton’s young savior.

"Once he realized how hard he really had to drive the net and understood the coaches' systems, he was incredible. When you're playing against men versus playing against teenagers, that's a big step. He performed admirably."

What does he have planned for his sophomore season? Only time will tell.

Author: Ryan Dittrick |
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