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Sizing up the system

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers Orientation Camp this year is taking place in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Jasper. And when you walk into Jasper Arena during a practice you might notice the mountainous players on the ice as well.

The Oilers are looking to gain some traction in the NHL’s Western Conference and to do so they need an injection of size and competitiveness. It’s something they have worked towards under General Manager Craig MacTavish these last two years.

The fruits of MacTavish’s labour are still in the early stages of their development, not yet fully ready to become impact players in the NHL. However, the influx of size in the prospect pool is very visible.

Hulking above nearly all of the other prospects on the ice in Jasper is Bogdan Yakimov. The Russian centre is 6-foot-5, 202 pounds and was drafted in the third round last year (83rd overall). The Oilers player development department will get a front row seat to his continued development as he has left the KHL to begin his North American hockey career in the team’s system.

“I came to play here because this is my dream,” Yakimov said. “In my head it’s NHL, NHL, NHL.”

Yakimov will get an opportunity to impress in camp and with that kind of size it will be hard not to pull him out of a lineup.

On defence, last year’s sixth-round choice Ben Betker is the biggest blueliner at Orientation Camp this week. He’s 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds.

But who could forget the jewel of that defensive group, the seventh-overall pick in 2013 - Darnell Nurse. The 6-foot-4, 205 pound talented and tough defenceman figures to make the jump to the NHL very soon.

MacTavish also added size last season with fourth round pick Aidan Muir, who will attend Western Michigan starting this season.

This year, MacTavish secured the services of a big, strong and skilled centre in Leon Draisaitl, at the price of the third overall pick.

Leon Draisaitl looks on at Orientation Camp. Photo by Oilers TV.

“We all know how difficult big centres are to obtain,” MacTavish said. “You’re going to have to draft big centres to get them because they’re very hard to come by. Leon really fits that build for us. We play in a very difficult conference, a very difficult division and we feel Leon’s skill set fits in incredibly well for us in Edmonton. There will be a lineup of wingers that will be ready to play with Leon when he gets to Edmonton.”

Draisaitl and Nurse might be the centrepieces of these bigger prospects, but there’s more on the list.

Jujhar Khaira is before MacTavish’s time but he is another prospect with impressive size. The centre was selected in the third round (63rd overall) in 2012. Looking at him this summer, he is all of 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. He got a taste of professional hockey at the end of last season with the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League and by all reports, he’s trending up.

Mitch Moroz was drafted in the same year as Khaira (second round, 32nd overall). He’s 6-foot-3, 214 pounds and skilled. He fits that power forward role, which is something the Oilers could use.

“I think the last few years that has kind of been brought up and tossed around,” Moroz said. “Now it is kind of time to turn that corner and make the most of the opportunity. The spot for a big power forward is there so I don’t want to let that slip away. You want to come in and try to play that role.”

He’ll compete for a role with the Oilers and if he falls short of that, he could be an impact player with the Barons.

Darnell Nurse listens in on a lesson at Orientation Camp. Photo by Oilers TV.

The size in the system hasn’t always been there. Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson has been a figurehead in the Oilers players development program since 2010. As the bench boss in Oklahoma City, he has witnessed the additions made by MacTavish and company over the past couple of years and the infusion of size and skill is prevalent.

“That’s the biggest difference since I’ve been here,” Nelson said. “You look from my first year to now and the size of the players that we have now is drastically different than the first year. We have a lot of big bodies here and that’s what the organization needs moving forward. We have to mix that size with skill and it’s good to see these big bodies and by no means are these guys not skilled. They have skill. It’s a good combination to have moving forward.”

Oilers Sr. Director of Player Development Rick Carriere is in charge of providing the organization’s prospects with their own “Individual Development Plans” and he works with each player personally throughout their journey to the NHL. Carriere says the latest draft picks have given the organization pieces that not only come with size but have the attitudes it takes to create a culture.

“I think what is impressive is that we’ve got some big guys that can play and they can move around the ice very well,” Carriere said. “They have good skills and the biggest thing I think that everyone will tell you is the attitudes have been very positive about everything. The guys come in, they’re very coachable, they’re sponges for information, they’re always looking for more and that’s part of the culture we want to create. We want guys that want to get better and want more to get them better.”

The Oilers play in a very tough conference full of big forwards and defencemen who make you work for every inch you get on the ice. Adding size to their prospect pool will eventually help the big club when these players are ready to contribute.

“You saw in the Western Conference how heavy the teams are and how heavy they play,” Nelson said. “We have to move in that direction. It’s good to see these guys come here (to camp) and they’re all in great shape and they’re all really put together. I think it’s a positive moving forward with the organization.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day and player development doesn’t happen over night. These big players will need time to grow as all young players do. They may not be NHL-ready, (Draisaitl and Nurse may be the closest) but the added size is a welcomed addition to an Oilers organization that wants to compete in this conference, not just now but for years to come.

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