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Oilers "Under 25" Update - Part 1

If you've been ignoring the prospects too during the lockout, here is part one of our quick catch-up on all of the players in the Oilers' system.

David Maxwell

Every summer and winter, a collection of Oiler columnists from the online community come together at Copper and Blue to evaluate the team's "Top 25 under 25". The series profiles the team's best prospects, and gives a brief mention of those who have fallen short. Over the last few years, it has begun to boast some pretty impressive talent. With the coming season, virtually all of the team's best prospects will be in the NHL, though there are still many prospects moving along.

Our winter 2013 version of the Top 25 will be beginning shortly, but before it does, here is part one of our update on each of the players who will be included in this list. Part two will be posted in the next couple of days.

Taylor Hall - After missing the first part of the AHL season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery that ended his season early, Hall received medical clearance in mid-October and was free to sign in any league of his choosing for the duration of the lockout. Hall opted to join the young core of the Oilers in Oklahoma City and after a slow start while testing out his shoulder, Hall caught fire, and by the time the lockout ended had moved all the way up to the top 5 in league scoring, posting 14g-20a-34p in 26 games.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - RNH was assigned to the OKC Barons by the Oilers prior to the start of the lockout and played there throughout the season until mid-December when Team Canada held its selection camp for the World Junior Hockey Championship. At that time there was a bit of controversy as RNH failed a physical and needed to strengthen his shoulder before being cleared to play in the tournament. (RNH injured that shoulder during his rookie season, causing him to miss 20 games, which unquestionably cost him the Calder trophy.) There was some talk of him sitting out the tournament, but he was able to join the team. He was named Captain of Canada's team and though they finished a disappointing fourth, Nugent-Hopkins led the tournament in scoring and was named the tournaments' top forward. During his time with the Barons, he posted 8g-12a-20p, +7 in 19 games.

Nail Yakupov - Another young Oiler whose lockout was not without controversy. Yakupov was initially thought to be going back to the Sarnia Sting of the OHL for the duration of the lockout, but eventually was able to move to the KHL to play for Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk where he would face a much higher level of competition. Yakupov had an excellent 22 game run in the KHL, posting 10g-8a-18p as a rookie pro in what many feel to be the 2nd best league in the world. Yakupov then participated in an across Canada "Super Series" that saw the Russian U20 team play all-star teams from the OHL, QMJHL and WHL. Yakupov was then named Captain of the Russian WJHC team and while his stats did not overwhelm in the tournament and he received some criticism for his play, he scored two goals and was named player of the game in the Russians bronze-medal winning victory over Canada.

Jordan Eberle - The golden boy of Oiler fans everywhere continues to surpass expectations. There has been much discussion about Eberle's 2011/12 season where he scored 76 points in 78 games as a 2nd year player. Many feel his underlying percentages indicate that statistically he it is improbable he will be able to replicate that success going forward. However, Canada's all-time greatest WJHC player (as named by TSN) has been absolutely dominant this season in the AHL. Like RNH, Eberle was assigned to the Barons pre-lockout and at the time of the lockout's conclusion was the leading scorer in the American Hockey League. "Eber-squee" as many Oiler fans on twitter call him produced a ridiculous 25g-26a-51p in only 34 games. Among his most impressive accomplishments was a natural hat-trick in the span of less than 4:00 during the first period of a game in December.

Sam Gagner - Gagner was another young Oiler who was able to play competitively during the lockout, though he played in the Austrian League, putting up 10g-10a-20p in 21 games. Gagner also left the team to join Canada's Spengler cup team with fellow Oilers Ryan Smyth and Devan Dubnyk. Gagner had 1 assist in three games while playing a top six role on the team that would eventually win the tournament championship.

Jeff Petry - Petry is the first person on the list to have not played professionally during the lockout. As a result, all we can evaluate him on is his most recent season. In the case of Petry that is a very good thing as he firmly established himself as a top 4 defenceman in the NHL. Playing with Ladislav Smid following the trading of Tom Gilbert, Petry was essentially part of the team's top pairing in the latter stages of the season and performed admirably in what was really his first full NHL season. Petry had 2g-23a-25p, but more importantly, played a strong defensive game against significant competition, which is a skill the Oilers need desperately. Couple that with the fact that he is a right-handed shooting blueliner, and he's practically heaven-sent for Edmonton. Petry's presence on the blueline will be the primary source of insulation for Justin Schultz during his rookie season.

Justin Schultz - Speaking of the younger Schultz, I suspect you've all heard about his season thus far. From an offensive standpoint, he has been nothing short of mesmerizing. After choosing the Edmonton Oilers out of all 30 teams who had all offered him a contract, Schultz spent the lockout in Oklahoma City, where he had the chance to develop some chemistry with the team's young forwards. Needless to say it went well. If not for Jordan Eberle, Schultz would have been leading the entire AHL in scoring when the lockout ended and was a favourite for league MVP had the NHL season been cancelled. Schultz had 18g-30a-48p in only 34 games. Ridiculous numbers for a defenceman, and simply off the charts for a rookie pro. He was already closing in on the rookies scoring record for blueliners at the mid-way point in the seaon. It bares mentioning that while Schultz's skill as an offensive blueliner are incredible, there will be a learning curve from a defensive standpoint and fans should be prepared to be patient as he adjusts to the NHL game on the back-end.

Magnus Paajarvi - Paajarvi would be among the first players I would consider to be a victim of this lockout. The reason for that is that he would have been a featured part of the offence in OKC had the NHL season started on time, but instead, he bounced around for a bit before settling on the 2nd line with Teemu Hartikainen and Anton Lander. Since that unit was put together, they have performed very well. MPS is an underrated 5v5 player at the NHL level already in terms of his ability to drive the flow of play away from the defensive zone. He has the makings of a very strong tough minutes player, though I don't think he'll ever be an offensive force in the NHL. Personally I believe he should be tried at centre, though if Anton Lander is the heir to Shawn Horcoff's role, than Paajarvi could fit nicely on his flank replacing Ryan Smyth. Paajarvi's offence is coming along after a slow start with the Barons. He has 4g-16a-20p in 35 games. I expect Paajarvi may start the season in Edmonton due to the injury to Ryan Jones, but when the forwards are healthy, he'll be a featured player in OKC in the 2nd half of their season.

Oscar Klefbom - Oscar Klefbom was supposed to make this the season he started to put up significant numbers in the SEL after working his way up the depth chart over the last two seasons. Unfortunately, in what is becoming a little too frequent for my liking at this stage in his career. Klefbom is out long-term with a shoulder injury. In fact, he'll miss the rest of the season. The plan was for Kelfbom to come to North America at the end of this season, which I think the Oilers still intend to do, however he won't have the extra year of experience they were hoping he would use to develop his all around game. Before being injured he had 3 assists in 11 games and was an impressive +7, though that is a very small sample size.

Teemu Hartikainen - Possibly the individual who benefits from the lockout the most among Oiler prospects (other than Justin Schultz) is Teemu Hartikainen. Coming into the expected start of training camp in September, Hartikainen would have been in a dog fight to make the team. However, a strong first half would appear to have solidified his status as a player who is expected to be a full-time contributor at the NHL level. He is a versatile player, and expectations for his production will vary based on his placement in the line-up. If he plays alongside Gagner and Hemsky as some have suggested, he'll be counted on for offense. Should he flank Shawn Horcoff, he'll be expected to be a more defensive-minded player. Either way, he will bring some size and physicality to the top 9 forwards, which is a look the team currently doesn't have an abundance of. Teemu has 11g-15a-26p in 35 AHL games this season.

Martin Marincin - Marincin is in an advantageous position amongst the young Oiler blueline prospects as he is the first to make the pro ranks, which gives him a head start at making the adjustment to playing professionals on the opposing team, which is something many young defenders struggle with. Not surprisingly, Marincin's season has been up and down. He started out being heralded for his play, though I think a part of that was being dragged along for the ride on the Justin Schultz train. Since being separated from Schultz, Marincin has struggled and has been moved all over the depth chart in recent months. He does have 3 goals and 13 points and is a +8, but his defensive game has been erratic, and he has a long way to go before he'll be ready to take that next step. Considering this is a learning year for Marincin, some inconsistency is to be expected, so the strikes against his play this year are not overly alarming.

Dillon Simpson - I wish Simpson's name appeared in Part 2 of this list, because that one is going to have a some really negative reviews, and Simpson's excellent season would have broken up the storm clouds to come very nicely. Simpson is continuing to have a strong NCAA career in his third season with the University of North Dakota. Simpson plays on a strong team (UND is ranked 7th in the NCAA) and their blueline is tied for the most points produced by a blueline corps in the league. Within that group, which boasts 6 NHL drafted blueliners, Simpson is tied for the team lead in scoring with Kings 1st rounder Derek Forbort. Simpson has 2g-8a-10p to Forborts 4-6-10, though Forbort appears to spend a lot of time on the powerplay and two of his goals have come with the man advantage. For Simpson, a 4th rounder in 2010 to be matching a highly regarded prospect like Forbort while playing heavy minutes as a 3rd year player has to be considered impressive. He has done nothing but surpass expectations since being drafted and will soon need to be part of the conversation with the rest of the wave of young Oiler blueline prospects like Marincin, Klefbom, Gernat and Musil in terms of where he fits into the depth chart.

Colten Teubert - Teubert's season in OKC has to be considered a little disappointing. There is some anecdotal evidence from those who have been watching the Barons regularly during the lockout that Teubert's positioning is improved from last year, but he is still considered to be lower on the depth chart than the likes of Theo Peckham, and that in and of itself is bad news. Teubert is still likely the top call-up option as he was in 2011/12, however, given the weaknesses on the Oil's blueline and the multitude of prospects coming behind him with higher ceilings, if Teubert hopes to establish himself as an NHL player with the Oilers, his window begins now, and he doesn't yet appear to be up to the task.

David Musil - Musil's season began on the slow side with awful Vancouver Giants part way through the season though he was traded to the powerhouse Oil Kings. His numbers with the Oil KIngs are very similar to those produced in Vancouver, however he is now part of perhaps the best blueline in all of junior hockey, so it stands to reason he's likely doing so in fewer minutes than he was with the Giants where he was basically the whole show on the back end. Musil was once again a rock for the Czech Republic, playing an integral role in their 2nd place finish in pool A before being overpowered by the eventual gold medalists, the United States, in the quarterfinals. Musil is not likely to develop into an offensive force, but has size and plays and intelligent game. I think he's got a chance to become the player Oiler fans want Colten Teubert to be.

Martin Gernat - Gernat has unfortunately missed the entire first half of the Edmonton Oil Kings' season while recovering from a shoulder injury, but has received medical clearance and should be joining the team in the near future. With his added presence to an already incredible blue-line in Edmonton. He has a shot to play in the Memorial Cup this year and gain some valuable experience and development time since he has lost so much of the year to date.

Anton Lander - One of the most crucial prospects in the Oilers's system, Lander has had an interesting first half of this season. Lander is arguably the team's most important forward prospect in the system outside of Nail Yakupov. I say this because the team is essentially set in their top six for the foreseeable future, and both Teemu Hartikainen and Magnus Paajarvi are already knocking on the door of regular NHL jobs. Lander however is taking more time to progress and as the only centre in the system that fits the prototypical tough minutes "Shawn Horcoff" mold, if Lander doesn't develop as projected, the team will either need to deal away strength from another area or sign a free-agent which typically involves overpaying and potentially damaging what will be a delicate cap balancing act in the next 3-5 years. Lander's season did not start well. With the stars coming down to play in OKC, Lander bounced around until finding a home with Paajarvi and Hartikainen on a strong second line for the Barons. This marked the first time that Lander has been given the opportunity to play consistent heavy top six minutes as a pro in North America. After a short adjustment period, it has begun to pay off. All reports indicate that Lander has taken significant strides in recent weeks and has begun producing more regularly. A new test awaits as he may lose either one or both of his wingers when the Oilers camp opens this weekend, but either way, Lander should be a mainstay in the Barons' top two lines for the remainder of the season. He has 3g-5a-8p in 31 games in OKC so far this year.

Tyler Pitlick - The beginnings of the pro career for both Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton have been as close to the opposite of ideal as I can imagine. The Oilers' decided to stack up on veterans to try and produce more of a winning culture in the AHL after their teams in Springfield had gotten crushed for a number of years consecutively. As a result, both Pitlick and Hamilton found themselves low on the depth chart throughout their rookie seasons. This year was supposed to provide them with new opportunities to contribute, but the NHL lockout ended that in a hurry with the Barons roster being arguably even more crowded this year than last. Now, after a year and a half of toiling in third and fourth line roles, both should hopefully be given a chance to see if there is a player in there somewhere in the 2nd half of this season...that is, if they can earn it. Neither has done anything to push the envelope, to the point where I feel very comfortable saying that the ship has likely sailed on either one of these to ever become a consistent offensive player at the NHL level. Both however do possess skills that could prove valuable as role players if they can begin to realize the potential they showed in their draft years. Pitlick, likely the more offensively gifted of the two, has been completely snake bitten from a scoring standpoint, registering 1g-2a-3p in 28 games.

Curtis Hamilton - See: Pitlick, Tyler. Hamilton possesses some nice instincts as a penalty killer and could grow into a winger-version of a Marty Reasoner-type of player someday. However his 2-2-4 in 29 games isn't going to be enough to even get a sniff of the NHL game.

Tobias Rieder - Another prospect who showed significant promise last season but has yet to build on it this year. Reider is once again with the Kitchener Rangers, but after an outstanding second half last year and an otherworldly playoff performance, he has been simply ok in the OHL this season. Playing on a Rangers team whose offense is borderline anemic, Reider has put up 9g-15a-24p in 28 games. He left the team in December to play for Germany in the World Junior Hockey Championships where he was 2nd on the team with 5 points in 6 games. This season has tempered some of the optimism about Reider's offensive potential at the NHL level (which I always felt was a bit of a stretch). He's still very young and playing on a team with the 4th lowest GF in the league may be limiting his offensive totals, but the first half of this year has been a step back for Reider.

Kyle Bigos - The forgotten defensive prospect in the Oilers' system. He's a monster of a hockey player at 6'5" 230 lbs. A 4th round pick in 2009, Bigos is frequently forgotten because he plays in the college system. That may be appropriate though because if I am correct, if Bigos finishes this season without a contract from the Oilers, he would become an unrestricted free agent in the same manner Justin Schultz did, at which point the Oilers would not be guaranteed to have him stay in the organization. Bigos is in his senior year at Merrimack College where he has put up 2g-4a-6p in 12 games to date. 12 games played seems a bit light but I have not been able to find any details regarding an injury or suspension to date. I don't think Bigos will ever be confused as an offensive defender, his best college season saw him produce 17 points, but he has had over 120 PIM in each of the last two seasons and has over 50 through a dozen contests this year. Should he stay with the organization beyond this season, at 24 years of age he would immediately enter competition with Alex Plante and Colten Teubert for a potential bottom pairing physical blueliner, though the team will need to see if he can transition to a pro game. I'm of the opinion that he will opt for UFA status at season's end. At this point, I don't see why a player wouldn't unless he has a strong relationship with the team that drafted him.

Theo Peckham - Teddy Peckman has done little to make a believer out of his doubters during the lockout. His two greatest accomplishments to date this year have been a four game stint with the San Francisco Bulls of the ECHL (in which he produced no points, 11 PIMs and was a -2) before mutually agreeing to leave the team and tweeting pictures of himself cooking meals large enough to make you question what his conditioning will be like when camp opens on Sunday. Way to go Teddy. Peckham’s existence in the Oilers’ organization only continues due to Andy Sutton’s injury. Were it not for that, I am quite confident he would be waived during camp and either be lost to another team or sent to OKC where he’ll likely continue to be by-passed by the ongoing onslaught of defensive prospects the Oilers have coming through the ranks.

Check back in a couple of days for part two of our list which will include many of the team's most recent draftees as well as all of the team's goaltending prospects.