The Magic Man Disappears

Alexei Mikhnov via view3.picapp.com

I noted on Friday that Kent Nilsson, the Oilers' amateur scout in charge of Europe since 1995-96, has decided to leave the organization.  It seems very likely that his son's rather unceremonious departure - we paid him to leave! - was one of the primary reasons.  Another might be as simple as seeing many long-time employees without a particularly good track record dismissed.

Of course, it's notoriously difficult to pin down how much responsibility an individual scout should get for any one pick.  In a very real way, all of the scouts are responsible for all of the picks.  Most of the players selected are viewed by several people in the organization before they get drafted and "the draft list" is most definitely a group enterprise. If that's the criteria, the Oilers rid themselves of the wrong Nilsson.  Even if you think that the Oilers have been good drafters in the last two or three seasons, those late '90s drafts will more than balance the scales.  

The other way to go about it is by looking at that scout's primary area of responsibility and saying that he must have had a bigger impact there.  Sometimes, this isn't going to be the case.  At least recently, all of the scouts see the major tournaments, so it's possible that a European - particularly a highly-rated European - might be getting the push from a scout based in North America who liked what he saw in limited viewings.  That said, Nilsson's opinion on the players based out of Europe likely carried important weight since he would probably have seen the player more than anybody else.  After the jump, I'll take a look at the players the Oilers have drafted out of Europe since 1996 and try to gauge how dependent the team was on Nilsson's evaluation in making the selection.  Before making the jump, I'll just go ahead and warn you that the article is quite long and that the best information comes from 2005 and beyond once Guy Flaming starts gathering quotes from members of the organization. The quality of the evaluation takes a noticeable bump once Guy is on the scene and I'd like to thank Guy for all of the fine work that he's done with the Oilers' prospects over the last several years.  Guy Flaming continues to write about prospects at Coming Down the Pipe.

1996

No prospects were drafted out of Europe.

 

1997

Michel Riesen was chosen 14th overall out of Switzerland and was, at the time, by far the highest drafted Swiss player ever drafted.  Riesen was on the Swiss U18 EJC (European Junior Championship, the precursor to the U18 World Championships) team in 1994, 1995, and 1997.  The 1997 team won the bronze medal and Riesen scored six goals (seven points) in six games.  Riesen also played in the U20 WJC that year and scored four more goals (six points) in six games.  This is just the situation that I spoke of above where another scout may well have liked Riesen much more than Nilsson did.  Riesen didn't really work out, though he does have a career in Switzerland.  His best season was likely 2006-07 when he scored thirty-seven goals in forty-four games and led the league in goal-scoring by ten.  In 2009-10 he scored twenty-nine points in forty-one games in Switzerland's top league.

The only other European-based player the Oilers selected was Swedish defender Jonas Elofsson, 94th overall.  Elofsson played in both the U18 EJC and the U20 WJC in 1997, so there were again opportunities for other scouts to take a look and give an opinion.  The player never came over from Europe and is currently a strong offensive defenseman in the Norwegian league.

 

1998

The Oilers first pick from Europe was Finnish netminder Kristian Antila,113th overall.  Antila played extremely well in the 1998 U18 EJC, posting a .939 save percentage in five games.  I'm guessing that performance impressed somebody in the organization because nothing else on his resume looks very good.  This pick really could have been pushed by anybody.  Antila never came close to the NHL and seems to be out of professional hockey.

The Oilers' second European selection was Oleg Smirnov.  He didn't play in any of the major tournaments and spent most of his draft year in a secondary Russian league, so this guy was probably a Nilsson find.   Smirnov never left Russia but he did finish eighth in RSL (the Russian Super League, the KHL's predecessor) scoring only two years after being drafted.  He tailed off after that showing, and certainly didn't provide the Oilers with any value, but that performance shows that the player was talented at a young age, and that's what you want to get in the fifth round of the draft.  Smirnov has been playing in secondary Russian leagues for the last several seasons.

 

1999

I was in high school when the Oilers picked Jani Rita and boy was I excited.  He scored an awesome wrist-shot goal in the WJC's earlier that year and I was absolutely convinced that he was going to be a player.  Instead, a valuable lesson was learned.  Rita was taken 13th overall that year after scoring five points in forty-three SM-Liiga games.  He'd played in the U18 EJC in 1998 and the aforementioned U20 WJC's in 1999.  Rita made it to the NHL, but he was a bit less than I had always imagined.  The lesson?  Don't base your evaluation on one play, or game, or tournament, or season.  So thanks, Jani.  Little known fact: both Michel Riesen and Jani Rita led their respective leagues in goal-scoring in 2006-07 (seriously, how weird is that?).  Rita led the SM-Liiga with thirty-two goals in fifty-six games that season and continues to ply his trade with Jokerit in Finland.

The Oilers also drafted another Finn, Tony Salmelainen, 41st overall.  Like Rita, Salmelainen played on Finland's U18 EJC team in 1998 and the U20 WJC team in 1999.  His greatest value to the Oilers is also similar to Rita in that both guys were traded for defensemen in 2006.  Rita netted the Oilers Dick Tarnstrom from Pittsburgh while Salmelainen got them Jaroslav Spacek from Chicago.  As I'm sure you know, the Penguins and Blackhawks have suffered tremendously since those deals failed to work out.  Salmelainen is currently destroying the best league Switzerland has to offer.

The other European selection that year was Tomas Groschl, who was taken 256th overall.  He was drafted out of what looks to be the Hungarian national team, a club he left briefly for a rather unsuccessful stint in the ECHL.  He's now playing for a team called the Budapest Stars of the Hungarian League.  This was not a good suggestion by Kenta.

 

2000

Another year, another European first rounder.  Alexei Mikhnov must have been a hell of a story.  Either that, or the Oilers just didn't like the bottom half of the first round draft class in 2000, a real shame since, unlike 1997 and 1999, there were actually a lot of good players drafted shortly after the Oilers selected.  Mikhnov was taken 17th overall from a Russian third division team.  He'd never played in any major tournaments and his numbers aren't all that impressive from Russia.  Nilsson must have been hanging something over their heads.  Anyway, Mikhnov's become a very good player in the Russian league, so it's not like Nilsson saw talent where there was none, but this pick sticks out as being primarily his, pretty important, and pretty bad.

The other two Russians were Alexander Lyubimov at 83rd overall and Evgeny Muratov at 274th.  Muratov actually looked like the better player in their draft year and has been the better pro.  In the WJC's that year, Muratov scored eight points in seven games compared to five for Lyubimov.  Muratov's RSL (the Russian Super League, the KHL's predecessor) season saw him score twenty points in thirty-seven games compared to only one point in twenty-five games for Lyubimov.  I expect Muratov's issue was signability (he's never left Russia), but at 274th, skill probably trumps that.  Lyubimov did come to North America briefly, but he couldn't make it as a scorer with the Odessa Jackalopes of the Central Hockey League.  Unsurprisingly, that was the end of his North American experiment.

 

2001

The Oilers took Ales Hemsky this season, but he was playing in the QMJHL, so we'll waltz past him and move down the list to the four players who were taken out of Europe.  The first one, Jussi Markkanen, came straight to the NHL as a backup.  He was drafted at twenty-six years of age, so in the new CBA he would have just been signed as a free agent but that doesn't change the fact that this was a very good pick.  Whether or not this was a guy Nilsson saw much of probably depends on whether or not the Oilers had a European pro scout at this time and, to be honest, I just don't know.  Last season Markkanen had the second best save percentage in Switzerland's National League (other notable goaltenders in the National League include Tobias Stephan, David Aebischer, and Sebastien Caron). 

The Oilers took two more players for immediate help in the NHL in Kari Haakana and Ales Pisa.  Who was in charge here again depends on whether or not the Oilers had a dedicated pro scout in the 2000-01 season.  In terms of performance, Haakana came over to North America right away, but wasn't able to find consistent work with the Oilers.  By 2003-04 Haakana was already back in Europe to stay.  He spent 2009-10 mostly in the Italian league.  Pisa also came over right away, spent a year in the AHL before making it to the NHL with the Oilers.  He was traded to the New York Rangers at the deadline in 2002-03 and went back to Europe the following year (I guess he must have really hated New York after spending time in a place like Edmonton).  He spent the 2009-10 season playing with Pardubice in the Czech Republic.

The only European junior selected was defenseman Mikael Svensk who was chosen 185th overall.  Svensk played most of 2001 in a Swedish U20 league and was a defensive blueliner.  Since he has no international experience it seems quite likely that this is a pick that Nilsson pushed for.  Svensk hasn't developed as much as the Oilers expected, topping out in Sweden's second division, which is where he played in 2009-10.

 

2002

Frank Musil joined the organization as a European scout for the 2001-02 season so things start to get a bit fuzzy in terms of who's responsible for what.  For the last several seasons Musil has officially been the pro scout, but you'd have to think that Musil and Nilsson divided responsibilities by region as much as they did by player age.  I think that's an important thing to keep in mind going forward, especially for prospects drafted out of the Eastern Europe.

The first pick from Europe is a doozy: Jesse Niinimaki, last seen in one of Ben's jokes about a prospect who's bound to bust, was selected 15th overall.  To say this didn't work out is probably an understatement but it's been widely reported that this was more of a "team" draft.  That doesn't absolve Nilsson, but it does suggest he was one of many who made a bad call.  Niinimaki had his best season since being drafted in 2009-10, scoring thirty-four points in fifty-five SM-Liiga games.  He's a pretty big guy too.  At this point, he may even be a better bet than J.F. Jacques.

The next European selected was Ivan Koltsov 106th overall out of a third-tier Russian league.  The defender scored four points in that league in his draft year so I'm going to go ahead and say that he wasn't picked for his offensive flare.  He's never played a game in North America or the KHL and is now out of professional hockey.  He was ranked as the 38th best European skater by central scouting, so it's not like the player didn't have talent, but he sure didn't live up to it.  I don't know for sure if this pick should be tagged to Musil or Nilsson or both, but it was a stinker.

Jonas Almtorp was selected just a few picks after Koltsov, 111th overall.  Almtorp had played in the 2001 U18 WJC and had respectable offensive totals in a Swedish U20 league in his draft year, but was always billed as a defensive center.  Although we don't know for sure that Nilsson suggested Almtorp, we do know that Nilsson was keeping tabs on him in Sweden after he was drafted.  It seems pretty likely that Nilsson had a substantial say in this one.  Almtorp eventually came to North America but couldn't stay in the AHL.  Last season Almtorp posted an impressive thirty-two points in fifty-four SEL games.

Mikko Luoma was drafted out of Finland at the age of twenty-six.  After spending one more year in Finland he came over to North America only to find himself in the AHL for the vast majority of the season.  He immediately returned to Europe and spent last season playing in the KHL.  Nilsson's impact here again depends on how much pro scouting he was doing for the Oilers during the season.

The last pick out of Europe in 2002 was Tomas Micka.  He played on the Czech squad for the 2001 U18 WJC, so there was some familiarity for other scouts regardless, but this pick seems like it may have been more Frank Musil than Kent Nilsson, since Micka was playing in Musil's back yard.  Micka came over to North America but never made it past the ECHL before heading back to Europe.  He spent last season playing in the Czech Republic's top league.

 

2003

Do you know which one was an Edmonton draft pick? (Photo ITAR-TASS / Sergei Metelitsa) Photo via Newscom via view1.picapp.com

This was the last year that the Oilers took a significant number of European-based players for several seasons, probably because so many of those high picks we've gone over already turned out so poorly.  The first European player taken in 2003 was Russian-born forward Mikhail Zhukov, 72nd overall.  He was actually playing in Sweden's second division at the time and didn't play in any of the major tournaments.  Thus, I'd assume that this player is a Nilsson find.  Zhukov didn't have great numbers in Sweden, and never took any big steps forward after being drafted.  After another year in Sweden Zhukov went back to Russia and is still playing a bit role in the KHL.

Kalle Olsson was also playing in Sweden when he was drafted by the Oilers with the 147th pick.  He had played for the Swedes in the U18 WJC just before the draft and had put up thirty-five points in thirty games in Sweden's U20 league in his draft year, which was a pretty impressive total.  Although other scouts likely saw Olsson play, his numbers in the U18 tournament weren't particularly good (0-1-1 in six games) so this is another player that Nilsson likely pushed.  Olsson's offense stagnated immediately after being drafted (he stayed in the U20 league for two more seasons without improving his offense) and today Olsson finds himself playing in Sweden's second best league, the highest level of hockey he's ever reached.

The third forward the Oilers drafted out of Sweden was Croat Dragan Umicevic.  What an awesome name.  Anyway, Umicevic played internationally for Sweden's U18 WJC in 2002, so it's not like the pick is the guy was playing Croatian hockey for long.  The Oilers drafted him as an overager in 2003, probably on the strength of his beating the tar out of the U20 league.  Thus, this is likely another Nilsson pick, especially since Nilsson is described a few years later as a family friend.  Although Umicevic never did come to North America, the man does have enough talent to be a scorer in the SEL.  In 2009-10 he scored thirty-six points in fifty-five games for Farjestad.  There's not quite enough there for an NHL career, but he's had a pretty decent career for a guy taken 184th overall in his second time through the draft.

Finally, we have Josef Hrabal, chosen out of the Czech Republic.  An obscure Czech defender just screams "Frank Musil pick" to me.  He didn't play internationally and didn't have great numbers offensively in an U20 league.  The only way to make this pick is if you've seen the kid play quite a few times.  At one point, Hrabal came over to the AHL, but he got hurt, and then played poorly, and then went back to Europe.  He's played professional hockey in the best European leagues and done quite well, but probably isn't on his way back to North America any time soon.

 

2004

The only European prospect drafted in 2004 was overager - as in, he was turning 24 that summer - Bjorn Bjurling, a Swedish goalie who had put up very good numbers in the Swedish Elite League.  Like Markkanen, this is the kind of guy that a team would sign as a free agent now, but in 2004, you had to draft them.  At 274th overall, it was a nice pick (Bjurling posted a .923 save percentage in forty-five SEL games the year he was drafted) and, in that the goaltender is Swedish, it's tempting to say that this is one of Nilsson's picks (as opposed to Musil's) even though the player is older.  Bjurling has been hit or miss since being drafted including a downright miserable SEL season in 2009-10.

 

2005

The Oilers drafted Fredrik Pettersson with 157th overall pick in the draft out of Sweden's second division.  Pettersson played in the U18 WJC before the draft, so if Nilsson found the little Swede, it's likely that he asked his fellow scouts to check him out in that tournament.  And according to a Guy Flaming interview with Kevin Prendergast, that's exactly what they did: "In the U18’s this year he was one of the best Swedes in both tournaments..." After being selected, Pettersson played a couple of seasons with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen but he couldn't come to terms with the Oilers on a contract.  Pettersson has played in Sweden for the last several seasons, but will be coming back to North America in 2010-11, having signed an entry-level deal (including $180,000 in signing bonuses) with the Atlanta Thrashers.

 

2006

Alexander Bumagin

Photo via Newscom via view2.picapp.com

For the third year in a row, the Oilers only drafted one player out of Europe.  Russian forward Alexander Bumagin was taken 170th overall after a very strong season in the RSL that saw him score 23 points in 40 games.  Bumagin would've likely been known to a variety of scouts after playing in the U17 WJC in 2004 and the U18 WJC in 2006.  Thanks to Guy Flaming (and the internet for holding onto pretty much all kinds of information forever), we have some comments from Kevin Prendergast confirming that fact: "Frank Musil, Kenta Nilsson and myself saw him play in a couple international tournaments and we think he’s highly skilled..."  Nilsson's views were important, but he wasn't the only one who saw the player.  As for Bumagin, he never did come to North America, but that's as much about a prospect who hasn't progressed as much as anything else.  Last year, Bumagin scored 21 points in 51 KHL games, his best total since being drafted. 

 

2007

This was the last year of Kevin Prendergast's time as head scout and there were some definite changes in the Oilers' attitude towards Europe already starting.  The Oilers chose three Europeans, the first time since 2003 that the Oilers had taken more than one player out of Europe.  They also took Linus Omark 97th overall, the first European-based player  taken in the top one hundred since Mikhail Zhukov, also in 2003. 

Linus Omark was an overager in the 2007 draft, but all of the scouts would have seen him play in the U20 WJC where he scored five points in seven games.  When Guy Flaming asked Kevin Prendergast about the selection, this is what he had to say: "He played in the U20 tournament and he didn’t look out of place there. And we saw him with Lulea in the SEL playing against men and he didn’t look out of place there either."  It seems to me that this is some vindication for the idea that the major tournaments play a big role in the Oilers' evaluation.  Nilsson's contribution (Omark's performance in the SEL) is important, but right alongside that is his performance in the WJC.  As for Omark himself, the early returns are good.  After successful seasons in the SEL and KHL, Omark has signed a contract with the Oilers and will be at training camp this fall with a legitimate shot to make the team.

The next European selected was Milan Kytnar out of Slovakia.  Kytnar dominated the Slovakian junior league and played a bit in the senior Slovakian league, but he also made appearances for the Slovaks in the U17 WJC in 2006 and the U18 WJC in 2007.  His performance in the U18 tournament was particularly impressive; he scored seven points in six games to finish in a tie for tenth in tournament scoring.  Before I found Flaming's article, I suspected that Kytnar's selection was based as much on his performance at the U18 tournament as it was on any of the viewings Nilsson had overseas.  Here's what Prendergast had to say: "His role with the Slovaks at the U18, they didn’t have a very good team so the puck was in their end the whole time, he did have some points for them but they weren’t a very offensive-minded hockey club.  Anytime there was an important faceoff in their end or a penalty to be killed, he was the guy out there doing it for them."  Prendergast didn't mention anything about his performance in Slovakia.  This seems like a bit of a tell that this selection was less about Nilsson and more about how the group saw the player in the U18's.  Kytnar's performance since coming over to the CHL hasn't been overwhelming, but he's been a solid shut-down centerman for the Vancouver Giants and has a pro contract in hand.  He'll spend next season with either Oklahoma City or Stockton.

The last selection in 2007 was quite a bit different.  William Quist didn't play in the U17.  Or the U18.  Or even the Swedish Elite League.  William Quist played in an U20 league in Sweden where he scored well and had some nice things that scouts often look for (size, speed).  Nilsson is probably the only one who saw this guy play.  Once again, here's Prendergast talking to Guy Flaming: "Kent Nilsson saw him play a few games at the end of the year and came away very impressed with him.  He’s 6’3 and a 185 pounds, he’s an excellent skater. His numbers don’t show that he’s much of an offensive player, but Kenta seemed to feel that his hands were pretty good and for Linkoping to sign him they must feel there’s something there too. You have to trust your guys and when they have a feel for a player at that point of the draft, looking at what we had on our list at that point, he was the best player available for us."  So it's about what we expected.  This was a Nilsson pick through and through.  It wasn't a good one.  Quist still hasn't played a game in the SEL, let alone the NHL.

 

2008

The first year of Stu MacGregor in the head scout's chair saw the Oilers continue with their move back to Europe.  Two of the Oilers' five picks were spent in Europe, although both selections were again made in the later rounds. The first player selected was Johan Motin, 103rd overall. Motin had played in the U18 WJC in 2007 and the U20 WJC in 2008.  With Stu MacGregor now in top spot, we have comments from him on the selection: "He played on the Swedish WJC team as a 18-year-old player and went with Sweden to the gold medal game as the No. 5 defenseman on that team.  He had a good finish to his season and played some games in the Elite League."  We also have some comments from General Manager Kevin Lowe: "I saw him two years ago at the U18 and at the time the scouts were projecting him to be a top 10 pick in this year’s draft.  He’s a big boy and he’s played in the World Juniors already and to me that’s a pretty good pedigree that he’s already up at the world level."  Although MacGregor mentions keeping an eye on Motin in the SEL, it seems that a lot of people in the Oilers' organization saw Motin play and that his play in the WJC's in 2007 and 2008 were major factors in his being selected.  Nilsson probably could have killed this pick had he been really unimpressed with his play in Sweden, but there's not much reason to believe he was the one pushing for his selection.  Motin played last year with Springfield of the AHL and is currently ranked twentieth in the Top 25.

The other European drafted was Derek's favourite Finn, Teemu Hartikainen.  Regular readers of the Copper and Blue know that Hartikainen has progressed well since draft day and will be playing in North America this year, likely with the Oklahoma City Barons.  Like Motin, Hartikainen had played internationally before being drafted, in this case with Finland's U18 team in 2008.  Was that a big factor in his selection?  Stu MacGregor never specificially mentions it in his discussion with Guy Flaming but he doesn't specifically reference his play in Finland either.  We're left to guess, then, about where the Oilers "saw him good" but it seems probable from some of the other selections that it was a mixture of Nilsson's recommendations and what other scouts had seen.

 

2009

The Oilers hadn't taken a European in the top fifty since the disaster that was Jesse Niinimaki in 2002.  This year they took two.  The first was Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson who went 10th overall.  I'm sure Nilsson's input was somewhat important in the selection, but this is a player who I'm certain was widely viewed among the Oilers' staff, particularly during the U18 WJC just before the draft where Svensson scored twelve points in six games.  The fact that he was the consensus pick at the time also diminishes the import on Nilsson's input.  The other player chosen in the top fifty was Anton Lander who was selected 40th overall.  Lander was also highly rated and played with Paajarvi-Svensson on the U18 WJC team in both 2008 and 2009.  Nilsson's input was likely more important with this selection, but Lander is another player most of the scouts in the organization would have seen play.  Both Swedes are developing well and will likely be playing apart for the first time in ages in 2010-11 with Lander staying in Sweden and Paajarvi-Svensson coming over to North America.

The other European skater chosen in the 2009 entry draft was Finnish forward Toni Rajala.  I'm convinced this was not a player Nilsson particularly liked.  The Oilers had three picks between 70 and 100 and didn't take Rajala, who was rated between 30th and 50th by the major scouting services.  This was a player who had played in both the U20 WJC in December and completely lit up the U18 WJC just before the draft, scoring nineteen points in only six games.  Despite the numbers, it seems obvious that no NHL team really liked him (he fell about fifty spots to 101st overall), and I think that probably includes Kent Nilsson and the Oilers.  Eventually, though, you just need to take a chance.  Rajala's 2009-10 season with Brandon wasn't particularly impressive, but he's already signed a contract with the Oilers and will likely get lots of opportunity to develop over the next several seasons.

 

2010

Martin Marincin was the first European drafted by the Oilers in 2010.  Both GM Steve Tambellini and head scout Stu MacGregor emphasized his size and his performance in the U20 WJC over Christmas when they were asked about the pick.  Tambellini said, "The poise that he showed at the World Junior tournament where I thought he was better there than what he was showing at the U18 which speaks volumes to the ability to play against good players.  His ability to match up against skilled players in that tournament - he had a great stick, his mobility was good for a big man..."  Stu MacGregor followed those comments by saying, "He competed really well at the World Junior tournament this past year, he was the captain of the Slovak Under 18 team at their World Championships.  Neither of them mentioned his performance in Slovakia, at least in the interview I saw, which probably means this wasn't a pick predicated on Nilsson's (or Musil's) seeing the player good there.

The other European the Oilers selected this year was Latvian Kristians Pelss.  When asked about the pick MacGregor said: "Well we saw him at the Under 18 World Championships.  Latvia happened to be in the "A" Pool this year when we were in Belarus and he played extremely well..."Again, it seems like the Oilers went with a player they saw in the tournaments over whoever Nilsson may have been suggesting from his European scouting.  

 

Overall Evaluation

So which picks am I confident "Nilsson" played the biggest role in? My list would be William Quist, Alexander Bumagin, Dragan Umicevic, Kalle Olsson, Mikhail Zhukov, Mikael Svensk, Alexei Mikhnov, Tomas Groschl, and Oleg Smirnov.  Recognizing that these are mostly - but not all - late picks, that's still a pretty brutal list.  The other thing I notice is that it's all players drafted in 2007 or earlier.  My impression, then, is that Kevin Prendergast and Kevin Lowe trusted Kent Nilsson a lot more than Stu MacGregor and Steve Tambellini.  Although the Oilers have selected quite a few players out of Europe over the last three seasons, all of them had played in major international tournaments and their performance in those tournaments is usually emphasized when upper management discusses the selection.  Furthermore, unlike previous seasons, no players were selected from Nilsson's territory without having those international games.  I suspect Nilsson may have seen his influence fading over the last few years and decided that his son's dismissal was the proverbial last straw.  Ultimately, I don't see Nilsson as a particularly good scout and, so long as the Oilers replace him with somebody, the scouting department shouldn't be adversely affected by his departure.

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