Thinking Outside of the Box With Prospects

The Oilers are doing everything they can to give Pelss the chance to play in Edmonton with Nugent-Hopkins one day. Photo courtesy Lisa McRitchie, all rights reserved.

When the Oilers development camp ended and each player return home he did so having been told by the team what aspects of his game he needs to work on the most over the summer and the coming season. How seriously that player takes the Oilers feedback and how much work he puts into improving his game will go a long way - talent will obviously play a role as well -  to determining if he ever makes it to the NHL, whether with the Oilers or another team.

How each player develops can have far reaching consequences beyond the player himself though. If draft picks consistently don't pan out it can hurt the on-ice product of a team, which could in turn affect the business as a whole. A run of bad picks could cost people their jobs too. Heads would likely start rolling within the scouting staff and eventually even the General Manager could find his job on the line.

With so much riding on the success of each seasons draft picks it's in a teams' best interests to do everything to maximize the chances that each pick has of making it to the NHL, which is a big part of why the OIlers host their development camp. But beyond the development camp the Oilers are in a unique situation to have more impact on a players development than most of their NHL competition and by taking advantage of that situation they are bettering their odds of NHL success.

While every team in the NHL has an AHL affiliate where their best prospects can develop after leaving the CHL or NCAA, the Oilers are also in the rather unique position of also having a WHL team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, under the umbrella of the Oilers parent company Rexall Sports. The Calgary Flames community ownership group also owns the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk owns the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors but these teams aren't utilizing those junior hockey assets like the Oilers are. The Oilers are using the Oil Kings as an extension of their farm system.

It started with Cameron Abney who was the first Oiler prospect to play with the Oil Kings but Abney didn't start his WHL career in Edmonton. When he was drafted in 2009 Abney was a member of the Everett Silvertips, 34 games into the following season though he was traded to Edmonton where he played out the remainder of his junior career. Abney was followed by Kristians Pelss. The Latvian native was drafted by the Oilers with pick number 181 in the seventh round of the 2010 draft and shortly thereafter was selected by the Oil Kings in the CHL import draft. And then at the draft this season the Oilers selected Oil King Travis Ewanyk with pick 74. Then with the Oilers first selection of round five they selected Martin Gernat from Slovakia who, just like Pelss had done a year earlier, joined the Oil Kings via the CHL import draft a few days later.

If just one or two of these players double up on the Oilers/Oil Kings and I'd be willing to call it a coincidence. But four players in sixteen months is a pattern. By comparison, the Hitmen have only had three Flames prospects play with them since taking over as the franchise owners in 1997 - Brent Krahn, Wade Davis, and Jiri Cetkovsky - and none in the last eight seasons; to date no future Senators have played with Mississauga.

The upside for the Oilers in this arrangement is fairly obvious as it provides the team the opportunity to keep close tabs on these prospects, seeing how each develops. The opportunities to more closely watch and work with each prospect during their time with the Oil Kings are significant when compared to any other prospect playing with another CHL team or overseas. In theory this should allow the Oilers to make much more informed decisions about these players when it comes time to decide if they are worth a pro contract. I say should because Abney was still given a pro deal in April despite plenty of evidence that he isn't a very good hockey player.

There is a potential downside to an arrangement like this for the Oil Kings if the team is being saddled with players, especially those selected in the import draft, that they normally wouldn't want. Obviously this could hurt the teams fortunes on the ice and eventually at the gate as well. I would imagine however, that any impact on ticket sales could be more than offset by the marketing opportunities associated with Oiler prospects playing for the Oil Kings.

It's safe to say that Abney, Pelss, Ewanyk, and Gernat are all, based on their draft position at least, long shots to make it to the NHL and only time will tell if playing with the Oil Kings changes that. But regardless of the eventual outcome this situation increases the likelihood that these players can beat the odds and make it to the NHL. When you improve your odds without any downside that is a very good thing. This kind of outside the box thinking can only help the Oilers organization.

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