Oilers Making the Best of Strange Times

Edmonton has found European teams for most of their top prospects, ensuring key development time is not lost during the pandemic.
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Evan Bouchard. Photo by Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Bouchard. Photo by Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Right before the NHL began its Return to Play bubble for the 2020 playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers braintrust had a discussion about the future. Specifically, what would happen if hockey in North America was delayed for the 2020-21 campaign and what it would mean for their prospects. Because of that early thinking, the Oilers were well-positioned to find homes for many of their youngsters during a time when two of the biggest development leagues in the world - the OHL and WHL - have yet to drop the puck.

While having European prospects such as Philip Broberg, Matej Blumel and Tomas Mazura head back across the pond was a no-brainer, the Oilers also found spots for their many of their top Canadian picks, such as Evan Bouchard, Ryan McLeod, Raphael Lavoie and Olivier Rodrigue.

"It's extremely important to, not only us, but to the players and their development," said Tyler Wright, Edmonton's director of amateur scouting. "They're investing in their careers and they're getting games when a lot of other guys aren't."

Bouchard, the high-end defenseman who has already played seven NHL games, has been ripping it up for Sodertalje in Sweden's Allsvenskan, the country's second-best circuit under the SHL. Bouchard is tied for second in team scoring and Sodertalje sits third in the standings. Lavoie, the burgeoning power forward, is also playing in the Allsvenskan: he's leading last-place Vasby in scoring. Part of the reason the young Oilers are playing in the second tier is because the SHL wanted any players assigned to their league to stay all season long, while the Allsvenskan has more flexibility.

Meanwhile, McLeod is making nice contributions to Zug in the Swiss League, while Rodrigue has made a number of starts already for the Graz 99ers in Austria. Slotting in all these players with teams took a co-ordinated effort from the Oilers brass, the players' agents and Edmonton's European staffers, but that was only part of the job. Now, it's about making sure the youngsters are developing and staying healthy and safe. When the Oilers need updates, they turn to their video team, which has taken on an outsized role during the pandemic. That also means the kids can't treat this as a European vacation.

"They know we're constantly monitoring them," Wright said. "In this day and age with the technology and video, nothing is hidden. We're able to see it almost in live form. There's a lot of trials and tribulations in between and you have to learn sometimes to fail and how you are going to rebound. It's a good opportunity for these guys to further their careers in a trying time."

Wright also noted that none of the prospects sent over to Europe were guaranteed particular roles or ice time with their adopted clubs - and that's fine by him.

"One of the things we're really trying to establish in the Oilers organization is that you have to earn your ice time," he said. "And once you earn that ice time, you have to learn to be able to keep it. If you think it's going to be easy, you're going to have a lot of valleys. If you're open-minded to working hard, playing the right way and earning the coach's trust, that's part of the development process."

Incredibly, the Oilers aren't done thinking about prospect options. Defenseman Phil Kemp, for example, was supposed to be the captain of the Yale Bulldogs this season, but that Ivy school cancelled its campaign - so now the 21-year-old needs a place to play. There's also 2020 fifth-rounder Ty Tullio, whose OHL season with the Oshawa Generals won't begin until Feb. 4 at the earliest. Wright is hoping to have a short-term solution for Tullio very soon, and if the organization is successful, all six of Edmonton's 2020 draft picks will have games on their schedules, whether it's in college or Europe.

"At the end of the day, we hope these young men go over there, continue to stay in shape, they continue to play and continue to get better," Wright said. "And staying healthy is the ultimate goal."

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