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PRINCIPE: No Rush for Rookies

by Gene Principe / Edmonton Oilers

It became clear to me watching the 2013 Young Stars Tournament in Penticton that there is a big difference between being a #1 pick and being a pick elsewhere in round 1. I think Edmonton fans have become spoiled or, maybe better put, accustomed to seeing their top picks bypass any minor league action and go straight to the NHL. Taylor Hall did it, so did Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. There is a reason they went #1 and in the case of Hall and RNH the only reason they played in the AHL was because of the lockout. It takes a special talent to make the jump.

Photo by Jeff Vinnick

It isn't easy. The proof, prior to Hall, RNH and Yakupov, was evident in that the Oilers went from 1993 to 2007 without their #1 pick making a direct jump from junior to the NHL. 20 years ago Edmonton selected Jason Arnott 7th overall from Oshawa. He proceeded to have 33 goals, 35 assists for a 68-point season. He nearly won the Calder Trophy only to finish behind some goalie named Martin Brodeur. Arnott still holds the team record for rookie goals. Fast forward 14 years and along came Sam Gagner. Coming off a 118-point season with London and 6th overall selection he slid into a job with the Oilers. Gagner dazzled with his shootout skills and cobbled together an impressive 49-point first campaign. It isn't impossible but it's also not expected. You have to be a special talent and the situation has to be right for the team.

When Hall, Yakupov, RNH and subsequently Jordan Eberle, who only played 20 games in the minors prior to his AHL lockout assignment, made the team they did so because they were good enough. The Oilers also were in desparate need of transitioning past the post-2006 near-Cup-win hangover. It was clear it was time to rebuild not just retool. They were the right players at the right time. Now times are different as the mode is more about retooling than rebuilding. Edmonton has a lot of pieces in place and it's about adding a few more over a few seasons to reach elite level status in the NHL.

This brings me back to where the topic of this article started and that's the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton. The two prime players that Edmonton had at the event were 2011 19th overall pick Oscar Klefbom and 2013 7th-overall selection Darnell Nurse. Every team's management and fan base is always particularly interested in seeing the first rounders. No difference this time around with Klefbom and Nurse. However the difference is these players aren't ready for the NHL just yet. Klefbom might have been if he hadn't washed away almost an entire calendar year of development because of a shoulder problem. However you could see how much better he was from game 1 to game 2. Oklahoma City is a likely destination spot but if I'm Oscar, I'm renting a place not buying because he shouldn't be there long.

Then there's Nurse who 29 seconds into his first game took a penalty. He took a couple more penalties in game 2. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance for a player who had 116 penalty minutes last season in the OHL. It's part of his game and as he grows into his 6'3 frame it will be part of his intimidation. His first on-ice experience wearing an Oiler uniform was proof this young man needs some time. I don't know if it's 2, 3 or 4 years but when he arrives look out. Edmonton does not have a defenceman with his size, who can skate, who has offensive upside (Nurse went from 10 pts to 41 pts in Sault Ste. Marie) and most notably a mean streak. I wouldn't want to get him mad when he ends up being 220 pounds of muscle. His upside is very easy to see. Nurse, like a few other Oiler draftees, need some time. Edmonton doesn't have to push him or anyone else along too quickly. The Oilers have time so they may as well use it and not rush any rookies to the NHL.

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