With the NHL Entry draft coming up in the next couple months, most teams are doing one of a variety of things. They’re either busy playing for the Stanley Cup, which means they’re not thinking about next year, looking at what’s available, or looking at what they have. As important as scouting the draft class is an accurate assessment of what a team already has in their cupboards. In other words: prospects.
Every team has them; they’re part of the landscape of the NHL. Most NHL players will spend some time as a prospect – exceptions to this rule are notable because they’re seen as a cut above. With every team having prospects, the trick is to manage them. Like for anyone, it doesn’t do any good for a team to fill their cupboard with the same thing. For instance, the Oilers have traditionally put small, skilled prospects in their system, but like with the food analogy, it makes one sick if they only eat one thing.
This over-reliance on drafting small, skilled forwards has left the Oilers in a position where trading for size or grit means they seem to get the short end of the stick. Recent Oilers history is littered with trades where the Oilers haven’t gotten the better end of the deal. One that seems to have particular bite is Tobias Rieder being traded to Arizona in exchange for Kale Kessy. While Kessy has produced very little for the Oilers, Rieder has made an impact in Arizona. These kind of trades seem all too common for the Oilers.
The answer is, of course, for the Oilers to honestly evaluate what they have in their metaphorical cupboard. Do they have the prospects they need? If they don’t, what do they have that someone else might need? One of the most contentious Oilers prospects is Mitch Moroz. He’s considered to be either a power forward or an enforcer, depending on your perspective. The issue for many fans is that the Oilers drafted Moroz 32ndoverall in 2012. For a player who has produced very little aside from a remarkable amount of time in the penalty box, this seems like a steep price to pay. So what do the Oilers do with this prospect they can’t seem to turn into something more?
Do they continue trying? Keep waiting for him to show something more than flashes of the player he was in the WHL? Are they willing to gamble on the fact his value can’t depreciate further in the eyes of possible trade partners? These are the kinds of choices many Oilers prospects seem to have placed the organization in. They simply don’t seem to be developing the potential the organization must have seen to make them worth drafting.
If the Oilers don’t engage in a frank assessment of what they have and what they need going forward, how are they supposed to draft to fill gaps in the organization's future? Which is not to say that the previous iterations of Oilers management haven’t tried to do that; it would be foolish to say that. Perhaps they’ve been short-sighted though. The organization has spent between three and five years developing a prospect only to release them on multiple occasions. Prospects like Taylor Fedun, Tyler Bunz, or Curtis Hamilton have cost the Oilers time and resources and developed into players the Oilers for which received no compensation. This happens to every team, but with the Oilers, the process seems to continue for a longer period of time and happen more frequently.
Which isn’t giving the Oilers credit for the players they have received in trades which were either never going to be Oilers – like Philip Larsen in the Horcoff trade with Dallas – or players that the Oilers kept in their system too long (so the full spectrum of player problems could be displayed) and diminished the return on – Linus Omark comes to mind. Others, like the Martin Marincin trade, saw the Oilers acquiring a prospect pool which doesn’t seem to equate to what they gave up.
So as the Oilers look ready to add another draft class to the ranks of their prospects – hopefully this will be a draft from which they actually sign a good number of prospects unlike many of the more recent drafts – they need to consider who they have, who they can move, who they want to move, and who they don’t want to make an offer to in their pool of RFAs. Oilers teams at every level have finished their seasons. No player is still working to prove their worth to the team, and based off development, performance and potential displayed in the last season, the Oilers management group has at least four RFAs to consider.
David Musil is a player with a lot of potential, but there is no clear cut answer. Musil’s game has problems, and the Oilers need to be sure they’re not continuing to spend time and money on a prospect they either can’t use or in which they don’t believe. Musil has talent, and if the Oilers don’t want to re-sign him, making him a part of a deal for a more valuable player would be wise. It’s time to stop pretending that prospects have no use besides developing into NHL caliber players. They happen to make excellent bargaining chips.
Tyler Pitlick has got to be the least lucky prospect on this list. It seems like every time he manages to make the Oilers roster, he finds himself injured, and with the maturation of later draft classes, there might not be a spot for Pitlick now. Players like Draisaitl, McDavid, and Slepyshev have all seemed to pass him on the depth charts. The Oilers need to look at Pitlick and decide if they think a 2010 draft pick who has only managed 27 NHL games still has a place. If not, Pitlick is one of the RFA players the Oilers might be able to market to a team that needs a capable player to anchor their AHL team and spend some time filling in at the NHL level. If the Oilers are comfortable with that, there’s no problems, but the Oilers have enough younger players in their system that Pitlick may become more of an evaluation tool than a prospect.
Ryan Hamilton is a player who has yet to manage much time in the NHL, and at 31 years of age, it seems unlikely he ever will. He is, however, the captain of the Bakersfield Condors and a large part of Oilers AHL affiliate. The most reasonable solution, and the one the Oilers actually did take, is to sign Hamilton to an AHL contract. There is little hope of him being the player called up on a two-way contract, and a contract with the Condors themselves should not count against the Oilers’ fifty contract limit. After all, Marc-Olivier Roy doesn’t appear on the Oilers contract list. This gives the Oilers what they need from Hamilton without costing them something extra based on an unrealistic dream.
Finally, there’s Brad Hunt. Despite spending time at the NHL level in the last three seasons, Hunt just can’t seem to hold down a place in the main roster. If the Oilers want to keep trying to develop him because of one or two attributes -- like a great shot from the point – they need to decide soon. And then they need to avoid trading for more players that fill that position. There only need to be so many players with a great shot but an inability to manage a prolonged period of time in the NHL in the system. If the Oilers want Hunt in Bakersfield to help develop some of the young defensemen who will inevitably end up there – Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, and William Lagesson – then those expectations need to be clearly defined. It’s time to remove the stars from everyone’s eyes and see what is actually feasible.
The Oilers have spent too much time picking prospects that fit one mold and then trading for other types of players. The Oilers’ luck being what it is, the prospects they trade for seem to have a much lower ceiling than the ones they receive in return. The Oilers need to stop, evaluate what they have, and make decisions both on what to do with their prospects and draft picks based on a strategy that’s something better than 'we’re wasting a lot of contracts on players that will never be NHL talent.'