The salary cap era of the NHL requires teams to carefully navigate their roster construction to ensure they can ice their best team while doing so within the confines of the salary cap. Each year, NHL fans see a litany of buyouts and trades with “sweeteners” to offload contracts that are impeding these teams’ ability to ice the best team within the cap. However, some teams have been able to overcome or survive this challenge by drafting well in the later rounds and signing undrafted players. The benefit being the team can ice a roster that is good, but also has some budget flexibility given these players are lower cost for a longer time. The team that often receives the most credit for this is the Tampa Bay Lightning. From middle round successes like Kucherov, Point, Cirelli and Killorn to late rounders like Ondraj Palat and undrafted free agents, Yanni Gourde and Alex Barre-Boulet, the Lightning have excelled at bringing in core contributors outside of the top 2 rounds of the draft. This excellence has allowed Tampa Bay to compete annually for the Stanley Cup without having to rebuild or trade away the core of the team.
Unfortunately for me, I cheer for the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers organization has not performed well in this area over the years, much to the chagrin of its fan base. While the team has drafted well at the top end of the draft, it has not historically developed players from lower rounds or from the prospect pool of undrafted players. However, there are green shoots coming up through the earth that indicate this may be changing. While some are known to Oiler fans like Skinner, Savoie, Tulio and Petrov, there is one prospect who might just become the Northern Alberta version of Yanni Gourde. His name is James Hamblin.
Hamblin was a 5-year CHL player with the Medicine Hat Tigers after being their first-round pick in the WHL bantam draft. He led his team in scoring his last two years, including an impressive 92 points in 63 games in his twenty-year-old season. However, Hamblin was never drafted. Fortunately, for the Edmonton native, Keith Gretzky saw enough of him and signed him to a two-year AHL contract with Bakersfield starting the 2020/21 season. Hamblin finished the Covid riddled year with 15 points in 38 games plus a tidy 25 points in 22 games in the Swedish Allsvenskan when the AHL shut down. In his most recently completed year, he finished with 35 points in 64 games, which was good for fifth in team scoring and earned him a new contract, this time a two-year, two-way deal with the Edmonton Oilers.
IS HE A PROSPECT?
This is an easy answer, yes. While Hamblin is on the smaller side listed at 5’10” and approximately 178 pounds, he has NHL caliber speed. This helps him avoid larger players and makes him a threat offensively. In the clips below, his skating is built around his first three steps. He can create space with three quick, explosive strides and then maintain that gap. This allows him to evade tight checking, but also jump into seams.
The other NHL level attribute he has is his hockey sense. Even back to his junior days, he was consistently scouted as a player who thought the game at a very high level. Certainly, he has carried that through to the AHL. In this past year, with Jay Woodcroft as his coach for a good portion of it, Hamblin played LW on a checking line, C on a scoring line, was one of the 6 forwards in the rotation for penalty kill and played on power play mostly on the second group. In addition, he was used to defend high leverage situations such as empty net situations and as one of the first players up in 3 on 3 OT. If you want the hockey player definition of a Swiss Army knife, it is James Hamblin. He understands the game in all its facets very well and it allows him to succeed. This set of clips below show him in 5 on 6 and a DZ faceoff situations. Watch his read and react skills. This is very smart play by a second-year pro.
The other part of his game that will certainly give him a chance at the NHL is his compete level. For a smaller player, he is fiercely competitive. He is like a dog on a bone for the puck. He plays the middle of the ice with abandon, and he goes to the net hard. Watch this one clip where he single handedly keeps the puck alive on four separate occasions leading to a Condors goal.
BUT CAN HE SCORE?
This is often the pushback I see on prospects. “Sure, doesn’t look like he scores enough.” This can be a legitimate critique of a player, but as with all criticisms, it needs to be analyzed in context. Hamblin’s case is no different. Of Hamblin’s 35 points this year, only 2 points came on the PP and only one point came in an empty net situation. Hamblin scored 32 even strength points this year in 64 games. Two of those points were short-handed goals. Certainly, he played on the second powerplay and that needs to be noted, but with due respect, the players on that second unit lacked scoring skills.
In addition, he does have a pedigree of scoring back to his junior days. He has improved each year he plays at a certain level. I would expect no different playing top end minutes next year in all situations with Bakersfield.
Finally, how he scores is also important. Look at the clip below and where he is located when he scores. Is he a one-shot sniper that can score from distance; no.? However, he is very willing to take punishment to create plays where more than 85% of NHL goals are scored from and that is key. This is not a perimeter player.
GREAT! SIGN HIM UP FOR THE OILERS NEXT SEASON?
I think it’s possible in the right circumstances that Hamblin sees some Oiler games next year. However, he has work to do for certain. Primarily, he needs to get stronger. A more solid core will accentuate his speed skill and will allow him to handle wall and net battles with more stability. This is a must for a smaller player expecting to play 82 games against the greatest players in the world. Indeed, the video packages show Hamblin getting knocked around a fair bit. That needs to get better and strength training will be key.
The other area of focus must be his shot. When he shoots now, he reminds me of Todd Marchant. He at least needs to improve the quickness of the release to give the goalie something to be concerned about from distance. In addition, which will take some pressure off him to always be in the high traffic areas taking punishment. More weapons to score will help him avoid injury and fatigue issues.
Finally, there will be a question as to whether he can play center at the next level. This all relates to his size more than anything. When Gourde arrived, he ended up on the right wing despite having been a center. Hamblin did play left wing for essentially the first half of this season until Dylan Holloway arrived. The concern was that his most productive time of the year was when he played center. Hamblin will need to add another tool to his Swiss Army knife to increase his value and his opportunities with the Oilers.
SO, IS HE YANNI GOURDE?
It’s a wild comparison. They are both the same size. Both were highly rated as offensive, high hockey sense players in junior. Both were well regarded as 200-foot players with energy to burn constantly. Gourde is a little more physical, but Hamblin certainly doesn’t shy away from it although he will never likely drop the gloves as Gourde has done. Watch the clip below of Gourde and compare it to Hamblin’s play. There are some strong similarities. Where the comparison gets murky is AHL development. Gourde bounced around from AHL to ECHL to AHL and multiple organizations. His breakout year was in his 24-year-old season. Hamblin is currently entering his 23-year-old season. To see positive development, the Oilers will want to see his TOI in all situations increase and correspondingly his points per game follow the same path. If that happens, the Oilers certainly may have the Edmonton version of Yanni Gourde.