As a faithful Copper & Blue reader, doubtless you're aware of the Oilers signing of Finnish wünderkind Teemu Hartikainen to an entry-level pact. It's a lot of money for a former sixth-round pick, but worth it if only for the innumerable shirtless photographs Derek will lavish on us until Hartikainen has assumed what Derek may think is already his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
However, in a remarkable upset Teemu Hartikainen made Edmonton Oilers history during his very first day on the job. The very instant his pen caressed paper and his signing was made official, the Edmonton Oilers had done something they have never done before. They had signed their entire 2008 draft class, and it was the first time a full draft year for the Oilers had ever come to professional terms with the team
The 2008 entry draft is shaping up to be improbably strong. Jordan Bendfeld... well, everybody makes mistakes (although Bendfeld actually had a pretty nice season in ECHL Stockton and scored a playoff goal). But Philippe Cornet came to terms a couple of weeks ago as part of what I can only assume is his career-long goal to stick it to me just because I said he could never possibly make the NHL and it must be granted he's trending the right way. Johan Motin signed last summer and became the first member of the Class of 2008 to play an NHL game. Jordan Eberle also signed last year and is, of course, the modern Mike Bossy.
Yeah, the Oilers only drafted five guys in 2008. But still. A first is a first.
The Oilers have had some pretty good draft classes. Their very first draft was in 1979, and in addition to the obvious trio of Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, and Glenn Anderson the Oilers also signed and squeezed three NHL games out of a centre named Mike Toal, who had the twin career-killing problems of playing for five junior teams in four seasons and being named "Mike Toal". Right wing Blair Barnes also played an NHL game, but the Oilers passed him by without an entry-level contract and he made his bones as a Los Angeles King.
Four signings per draft was the early benchmark for the Oilers. The 1980 draft yielded Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Andy Moog, and of course the iconic Walt Poddubny, who played only four games for the Oilers before moving to a successful career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, and Quebec Nordiques. The Oilers actually signed seven out of nine players in 1981, although there was only one Grant Fuhr and an awful lot of Todd Struebys and Miroslav Horavas (who waited eight years in limbo before signing with the New York Rangers) in that mix.
For their first three drafts, when the Oilers signed a draft pick, they tended to see at least a cup of coffee in the NHL. Dwayne Boettger, a defenseman picked 104th overall in 1982, was an early exception, playing almost three hundred minor league games including 134 in Cape Breton but never tasting NHL air. The Oilers signed a remarkable nine out of twelve that year, including St. Albert Saint and long-time WHL head coach Dean Clark. Of these, very few made an impact on the minor leagues, to say nothing of the NHL as the Oilers scattershot approach to signing almost everyone in sight earned them nothing but debt. The Oilers did not aspire to such lofty heights again: the 1983 draft was a return to form with five out of eleven players drafted agreeing to Edmonton contracts.
For the rest of the decade, the Oilers would not sign fewer than five players in a draft, although they would also did not draft fewer than nine times and once got only six contracts out of thirteen picks, six of which were in the fifth round or earlier, in 1988. In 1990 the Oilers hit their nadir: none of the eleven men drafted played a single NHL game and only first round pick Scott Allison and goaltender Greg Louder ever got contracts from the Oilers.
In spite of Edmonton's famous mediocre drafting in the 1990s, there was a close call on signing an entire draft class. Only tenth-round pick Oleg Maltsev prevented the 1993 draft of eleven players from being a perfect list as Kevin Paden, Alex Zhurik, and Martin Bakula all played in the American Hockey League for the Oilers system without ever seeing an NHL game. The next nearest chance was in 2001, which produced an avalanche of strictly minor league players - Eddie Caron, Kenny Smith, and Dan Baum - as well as journeyman pros like Doug Lynch, Kari Haakana, and Ales Pisa, but missed Jake Brenk, Mikael Svensk, and Shay Stephenson (who has since played two NHL games in Los Angeles).
Merely drafting only a few players is no guarantee of success, either. In 2006 the Oilers picked only five times, and signed Jeff Petry, Theo Peckham, Bryan Pitton, and Cody Wild. The mistake? Sixth-round pick Alexander Bumagin, who had once been expected to be a first-round pick and had a terrific 2006 in the old Russian Super League before fading into European obscurity.
It's still possible for the 2007 draft to wind up perfect, as well: Sam Gagner, Alex Plante, Milan Kytnar and Linus Omark signed while Riley Nash and William Quist are still Oiler property but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that last one.
So the 2008 draft is a positive first for an Oilers team that hasn't had many positive landmarks the last couple years. Even better, it's possible that all five of those guys will be NHL regulars some day - Eberle is God, Motin is young and reliable, Cornet looks better than I'd have thought, Hartikainen we've talked about and Bendfeld, well, if Wade Belak could have an NHL career anyone could do it. It's not much hope, but it's more than we had.