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Pt. 1: Oilers' past six first-round picks

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton, AB - The Edmonton Oilers head into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft holding the No. 1 overall pick for the third consecutive year. While the selections of Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been vital to the club's rebuild in establishing elite-level talent, a variety of recent first-round picks are equally as important to the Oilers' development process.

We had a chance to catch up with the club's player development personnel to discuss the progress of the team's most well-known prospects and budding roster players.

Check back on Thursday, June 14th for Part 2 of the series.


Alex Plante was named an AHL All-Star in 2011-12 (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Alex Plante was chosen by the Oilers 15th overall in 2007. The 23-year-old spent the 2011-11 season with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, potting a goal and 14 points in an abbreviated, 41-game regular season.

Plante added three NHL games (totaling 10) to his pro resume this past season and was selected to play in the American Hockey League's annual All-Star Classic.

2012-13 will be the 6'3", 225-pound defenceman's fourth pro season.

"He made some really good gains this year," said Oilers Senior Director of Player Development Billy Moores. "He made a decision last season to get his weight down and add more muscle, which was a huge help in his play -- it increased his quickness. Unfortunately he got hurt and had a concussion, but he did a good job of making the gains that we thought he was capable of.

"(It was) a good season for him. He took ownership of his own career in a lot of ways and did the things he had to do to be better."

The Oilers went out on a limb in picking Plante as high as they did, leaving Jonathon Blum and others on the board, but Moores isn't concerned with others' thoughts on it. In his and the organization's mind, Plante is developing as they'd hoped and could potentially even push for a roster spot in the fall.

Only time will tell, but that bruising, defensively minded skill-set would certainly be a welcomed addition to the club's burgeoning corps.

"You always hope for players to come along quickly, but the reality -- particularly in that position -- is that it takes time for most guys," Moores explained. "I think his progress is good. All things being equal when you look at the year, we're pleased with where he's at. Now the next part for him is to take the next step, make the same gains he did going into last year and do it again this year.

"He's close. From what I've seen, when he's gone up [to the NHL], he's played increasingly better up there. I think with a good off-season of training here, he's going to be one of those guys that will come into camp and challenge for a spot. It's going to be very competitive, but he knows that. He's a lot further along going into this year than he was last year at this time."

Plante's biggest challenge now is to make those steps quickly. With others in the system creeping up and even passing him on the club's depth chart, he needs to have a strong showing when camp opens in September.


Jordan Eberle was the team's leading point-producer in 2011-12, collecting 76 points in 78 games (Photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC).
The Oilers' Director of Player Development, Mike Sillinger, has a special tie to Jordan Eberle and his rise through the Regina Pats organization en route to the pros. As a Regina native himself (as well a high-scoring Pats alumnus), Sillinger is proud to watch the 22-year-old develop and achieve immediate success at the NHL level.

Chosen 22nd overall in 2008, Eberle is a lone soldier of the Oilers' Big 3 -- unlike Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, No. 14 took a longer path to the NHL.

Eberle spent the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons in Regina; quick, season-ending stints with AHL's Springfield Falcons prepared him well for his big-league debut in Edmonton.

"We were pretty patient with Jordan," Sillinger explained. "Every prospect is unique and we wanted to make sure we handled him in the best way possible. A lot of it comes down to opportunities, like who's hurt and who's not hurt. But Jordan went down and did everything possible with the Falcons -- he was a goal-scorer down there, much like he was in Regina.

"Jordan wanted to prove that he could score goals in every league."

This past season, Eberle became one of the NHL's top point-producers; scoring 34 goals and 76 points in 78 games, an appearance in the NHL All-Star Game helped prove it. So, too, did his invitation to the 2012 World Hockey Championship in Helsinki.

"It's the hunger," Sillinger said. "Not that he wasn't (hungry) in junior hockey, but you see how he plays at the pro level and he doesn't take it for granted that he's a top two-line guy. You see the desperation in his game, game-in and game-out. Where is he scoring all his goals and getting points at the NHL level? He's in the blue paint. He's always around the net. When you combine that with the skill-set he has and the smarts he possesses, there's no telling where his ceiling is."


Magnus Paajarvi had a tough season overall, but ended on a strong note in the post-season (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Without a doubt, Magnus Paajarvi was a victim of the sophomore slump. Through 25 games and only three assists to show for it, he was assigned to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons on Dec. 16, 2011.

The 21-year-old struggled with to regain his form and the confidence that helped him collect 15 goals and 34 points as a rookie a year prior. As such, he bounced back up and down between the Oilers and Barons, adding 16 NHL games (along with two goals and three assists) in the new year before settling back into OKC for the club's post-season run.

"When he was sent down to OKC, he went down willingly," Moores said. "He knew it was the best thing for him and his development. He started a little slow down there and it took him a while to get his game together; it's a good league, it's a tough league.

"When a guy goes down, it's so critical with the attitude he goes down with. If you go down with an attitude and the whole 'it's all about me' thing, it can be very unproductive."

Once he properly bought in to Head Coach Todd Nelson's system, Paajarvi's game began to flourish. He was an integral component in helping OKC wrap up the AHL's Western Conference title -- and that late-season success carried into the playoffs.

"He started to use his outside speed better, he started to get to the net a lot better. He got in on the forecheck more quickly and was the first to loose pucks all over the ice more consistently," Moores said. When you've got that kind of speed, that's the kind of game you've got to play. [The coaches] held him accountable, but still encouraged him to play the type of game he has to play in the NHL.

"Getting the chance to play in three post-season rounds and being a part of that grind was a real eye-opener for him, too. It was a good growth step and he wouldn't have gotten that opportunity if he hadn't gone down. You certainly don't get that opportunity in Europe because they don't have that seven-game series."

Moores added that Paajarvi's taste of playoff hockey at the pro level ought to help him as he aims to (re)capture a roster spot on the Oilers. In addition, the experience of playing meaningful games with awe-inspiring emotion is invaluable as the orange and blue look to soon make a return to the dance.

"I was there at the [2012 World Hockey Championship] with (Oilers Senior VP, Hockey Operations) Craig MacTavish two years ago, and we had Matt Duchene, Evander Kane and Steven Stamkos. You can talk all you want about how hard the playoffs are, but until players actually experience it against other men, they don't know what it's about. You've actually got to go through it.

"Magnus got to learn what it was like to do it and play against the same guys every night," Moores added. "It takes character to play in those situations, and I think it's prepared him so much better heading into next year. Come September when he's competing for a job, competing for ice time, he's now much better prepared for it."

-- Ryan Dittrick, - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
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