Entering Oilers Rookie Camp, almost all eyes were on 2015 first-overall pick Connor McDavid, as well as fellow recent high picks Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl. However, there was another name on the roster that stuck out. A relatively unknown, but promising prospect in the Oilers system making his camp debut was Anton Slepyshev.
The 21-year-old Russian winger had yet to play in North America and the Oilers were eager to get an up-close look at the young man they chose 88th overall back in 2013.
“This is the first time I’ve seen him,” Oilers Director of Player Personnel Bob Green said at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C. “He’s pretty exciting. He’s got all the skills that you would expect a Russian to have. He can really skate, handle the puck and shoot so it’s going to be really fun watching him play.”
Fast forward a couple of weeks to the NHL pre-season and Slepyshev has moved from unknown to the spotlight.
Slepyshev was given a chance to play with a pair of highly talented forwards on Saturday night in Saskatoon, skating on the wing with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, arguably the Oilers most effective trio in the team’s 3-0 win over Minnesota.
“I liked what I saw from that group,” Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan said after the game. “I think Slepyshev is getting better night after night. He’s really starting to open our eyes up to what he’s capable of doing. Leon, on his backhand on the right side, I think if he’s going to play wing that may be the best place for him. As we move forward, we’ll continue to experiment a little bit but they were our most dangerous line tonight.”
Slepyshev’s one-timer at 18:10 of the first period opened the scoring. It was the finish to a beautiful play that included nice passes from both Draisaitl and McDavid. It was also the second time in as many nights that Slepyshev put the biscuit in the basket.
On Friday night, the winger potted the game-winning goal in overtime to cap off a come-from-behind victory over the Winnipeg Jets. That will get you noticed. Follow it up with another strong night, and there’s no hiding.
“He’s an elite scorer,” said McDavid. “He’s used to finding those soft spots and getting open and getting away quick. He’s pretty good with that.”
Hearing McDavid, an impressive talent of his own, calling another player an "elite" anything makes your ears perk up. The rookie centre likes what he sees in Slepyshev.
“He’s a big body, obviously,” said McDavid. “He’s got a great shot and he can skate. That combination of size and skill is pretty dangerous. Obviously, he’s a pretty elite player.”
Heading into this off-season, Slepyshev was coming off a nice year in the KHL, where he recorded a career-high 15 goals and 25 points for Ufa Salavat Yulayev. He reached the point in his development where he was ready for the next step, so the Oilers signed him to his three-year entry level contract on May 27. That signaled his impending arrival to North America.
The scouting report on Slepyshev heading into this off-season was that he is a very skilled and very talented winger who is adept at beating the goalie. The hope was he’d come in and flash those abilities, then mature in the American Hockey League this season. Part of that stay in the minors would be to grow his game, but also to get acclimated to the language and the culture here in North America.
Bakersfield Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming had his first encounter with the winger in Penticton and, although there is a language barrier with Slepyshev knowing little English, he was impressed with the young prospect’s character and willingness to absorb information.
“Really good hands, really quick, really a nice, personable guy,” said Fleming. “A little bit of language barrier there obviously. He’s asked good questions on the ice, he seems engaging and he put in a lot of energy out there... We’ll see how it goes as camp goes on here.”
As camp and pre-season has gone on, Slepyshev continues to make a good impression.
“I worked really hard in training camp and games. I’m trying to improve game by game,” Slepyshev said, as translated by Nail Yakupov. “I’m trying to listen and (learn more English). I try to be focused every game and get ready for the next game.”
Playing with McDavid was a treat for Slepyshev, but also a challenge.
“You have to always be focused with Connor because he can always give you the puck,” said Slepyshev. “You have to be 100% ready all the time because you never know what he’s going to do. He’s trying to find everyone so you just have to be (ready).”
Slepyshev was ready in the first period against the Wild.
McLellan likes the winger’s ability to play up and down the lineup. That’s the kind of trait that can earn a player a roster spot sooner than later. It’s an additional positive aspect of Slepyshev’s game.
“He has the ability to play a hard, heavy game and use his frame. He has a good shot. He’s been able to play with speed and grinders," the head coach said. "I think he’s getting better day after day and we’re excited about having him in the organization.”
His performance so far in the pre-season is no doubt an intriguing storyline, but is Slepyshev NHL-ready today?
“Right now, I think he’s pushing people and that’s all we can ask for,” said McLellan.