It's been a while since I did some checking into the overseas situation so I recently made a couple calls, surfed a bunch of foreign team websites and put my translations skills to work. All in an effort to get an update on Europe... and I don't mean these gals... er, guys.
The Edmonton Oilers own the rights to 8 players who are currently skating in various European leagues. Four are barely a blip on the radar these days but the other half are very much on the minds of the organization’s hierarchy and could be factors in North America as soon as next year.
Linus Omark was a 4th round pick in 2007 as an overage player – the pint-sized forward was passed over in 2006 but had a terrific World Junior tournament and wouldn't get overlooked again. The season after Edmonton grabbed him 97th overall, Omark recorded 11 goals and 32 points in 55 Swedish Elite League games with Luleå. Those were considered very encouraging numbers and made him a player of note for Edmonton’s prospect camp held last June.
The camp took place in Sherwood Park and it was there that I had my first chance to watch Omark practice and to chat with him. I asked him about his North American interest level and in no uncertain terms he told me that it was his desire to play on this side of the Atlantic Ocean for the 2009-2010 season.
I asked him if he would feel that way if it meant playing in the American Hockey League and again he made it clear that his end goal is to play in the NHL even if it meant a season on the farm. Unlike former Oiler property Dragan Umicevic, Omark verbally confirmed that he would be willing to play in North America without a guarantee of a NHL job.
Considering the season he is currently having, it will be interesting to see if Omark feels the same way this summer as he did last June. Omark currently has 15 goals and 41 points in 43 games with Luleå and ranks second in the SEL’s scoring race. The Overtornea product will turn 22-years-old on February 5th but is clearly unaffected by his limited inexperience or his lack of size as he racks up the numbers in arguably the World’s best pro league outside of the NHL.
Oilers Assistant GM Kevin Prendergast, who oversees player development and scouting, will be overseas in February and has Luleå games high on his to-do list. I spoke with Prendergast yesterday from Shawinigan, PQ where he was set to watch the Cataractes in action on Friday.
“I’m actually heading over to Sweden in the first week of February to watch [Omark] play a couple of games and then hopefully he’s going to be on the Swedish National team for the 4-Nations tournament at home there,” he told me, “He’s taken himself from nowhere on the radar screen to being a pretty good hockey player.”
Prendergast admits that Omark’s productivity this year is a pleasant surprise and extremely impressive considering his age but he's also quick to point out that there is one major drawback to the player as well.
“The negative is that he’s 5’9 and we have a lot of small players as it is right now,” he said, “but when you’re able to score at that level… we have to do our darndest to get a deal done to get him over here and have a look at him in September.”
I’m not the only one who asked Omark last June about his North American plans.
“We never really got into [contract negotiations] but when I explained it to him [last June] I said to him ‘you might have to start in the AHL until you get used to the situation over here but that’s not for sure. If you win a job and the coaches like you then you obviously could start with the big team’ and he didn’t balk at that.” Said Prendergast.
With his offensive prowess going through the roof right now, you can bet Omark will be considering lucrative offers for next season but will that preclude a 2-way deal here?
“The AHL contract, once you throw in the signing bonus, it’s a pretty good contract anyways,” argued Prendergast, “He might be in the minors for a month or two months, if at all, we won’t know until he gets here and see how he adapts to the North American style.”
Edmonton has to have Omark under contract this off-season or else they will lose their exclusive rights to the talented Swede. Here’s a sample of Omark’s recent work for Lulea and when you're done that one look for the other clip called "Zorro vs Brynas" to get another glimpse at his offensive creativity:
Edmonton’s other Swedish pick from 2007 isn’t faring near as well as William Quist is quickly falling off the map for the Oilers.
“Yeah very quickly, unfortunately.” Prendergast stated. “He had a great camp a couple years ago but hasn’t taken one step forward since then so I think it’s fair to say that at this point he’s not longer of interest to us.”
Quist basically wrote himself out of the picture by shunning the CHL twice, an avenue that the Oilers really wanted the project prospect to have taken.
“Absolutely and I went over that again with him when I was over there last year and he turned me down again,” said Prendergast, “That was basically the final straw on whether he had any interest in wanting to play.”
Like with Omark, Quist will become a free agent this summer if not signed by Edmonton but there appears to be little to no chance of that happening.
If you’re part of The Pipeline Show’s listening audience or you’ve been by the blog in the past you may recall that we’ve brought up the name of Bjorn Bjurling a few times (like here or here). Last year it was hinted to me that the 9th round pick from 2004 might be playing his way into consideration for the 2008-09 season but that obviously didn’t come to fruition. With the recent trade of Mathieu Garon and the impending UFA status of starter Dwayne Rolson it is at least conceivable that the Oilers will either be hitting the free agent market this summer or gutting it out with a pair of rookies in net next year.
But that got me thinking about Bjurling again so I posed the question to Prendergast to make sure the team still owned his rights.
“We do, yes, and he’s another player I have to go and look at because every time we think he’s done and we put him in a grave he keeps crawling out again!” laughed the team exec. “He’s found ways to put his name on the map over there and I watched him play a couple of games last year for Södertälje and I was impressed with him; he was really good. They brought a high profile guy last year into Sodertalje (Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth) and Bjurling just took the job away from him.”
Sodertalje is the worst team in the SEL this year but some how Bjurling has been able to keep his stats looking pretty respectable. He's playing 3 of every 4 games and has managed a .916 sv% and a 2.76 GAA despite his club’s poor record.
“The down side is that he’s a little older but at the same time a lot of goalies don’t mature until later anyway,” Prendergast said as he weighed the pros and cons, “He’s one of the guys we’re going to look at while we’re over there and we’ll have a talk with him and see what his thought process is too at the same time.”
It would be anything but unprecedented if Bjurling were to make his North American debut next season. Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom arrived 3 years ago as a 28-year-old and has enjoyed huge success with the Wild. Bjurling is 29-years-old now and seems to be getting better as he nears 30 as opposed to slowing down.
“It’s obviously a scenario that we’re going to have to look at; he’s done nothing to warrant us not talking to him to see if he wants to come over,” Prendergast confirmed. “We have two blue-chippers in Deslauriers and Dubnyk and whether we resign ‘Roli’ at the end of the year or whatever happens, certainly [Bjurling’s] a guy that might come into play for us.”
If Edmonton fails to resign the almost 40-year-old Dwayne Roloson, or simply chooses not to, the team could potential replace him with someone who has been playing pro hockey for the last decade. At the start of the current season, most fans expected the 2009-2010 combination of Deslauriers and a veteran netminder although everyone assumed that would be 31-year-old Mathieu Garon. Would a Deslauriers/Bjurling tandem be that outrageous to consider?
John Motin was chosen by Edmonton in the 4th round of the 2008 draft in large part because of his strong résumé. He’s played parts of two seasons in the SEL and had made two appearances at the World Junior Championships for Sweden as well. However, Motin was a surprise omission from his country’s U20 entry at the 2009 tournament in Ottawa.
“A very big surprise to all of us to be honest with you because I thought he was in for sure,” admitted Prendergast. “I guess it came down to [Motin] and a player who plays for the coach’s club team and that’s who they took. Johan was pretty upset; he’s playing in the SEL and there was really no reason given to us why they didn’t take him, and now it’s just one of those things where he’ll have to take it as motivation for himself.”
“It doesn’t reflect the way we feel about him because we think he’s a hell of a prospect.”
Motin doesn't have an offensive bone in his body, one point in 40 games this year for Färjestad, and that may have played a role in why he was left off the U20 squad. It’s still somewhat surprising though as it would be almost unthinkable for Canada not to take a player who had 2 WJC tournaments under his belt simply for the leadership he could provide.
Perhaps the snub will be motivation for Motin to come to North America but with another year before their hand is forced, the Oilers might be content leaving him to develop in the SEL until the 2010-11 campaign.
Switching countries, the only Finn in the group is Teemu Hartikainen who was Edmonton’s 6th round pick at the 2008 draft. Hartikainen has overcome a slow start and is currently enjoying an extended streak of 7 games where he’s registered 8 points in that time span. The 18-year-old now has 13 goals and 3 helpers for a total of 16 points in his rookie pro season with KalPa of the Finnish Elite League.
Hartikainen, who wears the typical goalie sweater #35, is a power forward that led Finland’s U20 team in scoring during the 2009 WJC in Ottawa earlier this month. It was a disappointing tournament for the Finns in general but the Oilers were pleased as punch to see Hartikainen leading the pack with 9 points in 6 games. Overall, the Kuopio native placed 8th in tournament scoring yet was somehow forgotten by his coach when he was asked to name his team’s top 3 players. Oddly enough, Hartikainen also didn't get a single Player of the Game award during the event either.
“It was a surprise but he’s got excellent hands and that’s what I liked about him last year,” explained Prendergast, “His skating has to improve but he works like hell and can finish. Some of the goals that he scored at the WJC were goal scorer’s goals; they weren’t fluke goals. He knows what to do when he’s in close, he knows how to use his body to protect the puck really well and he’s big and he’s strong. The only thing he needs to get better at is his skating but he’s got the perfect mentality to be a NHL player.”
Asked about the slow start Hartikainen has overcome, Prendergast said he was getting the same reports including one from a former Oiler great.
“I talked to Jari Kurri about [Hartikainen] when he was here and Jari said the same thing – slow start but with more ice time he’s getting the more he’s producing,” Prendergast said. “[Kurri] says he’s got pretty good hands for a big guy so it all comes down to his skating.”
Other Oiler players have overcome average to below average skating in their youth like Jarret Stoll and Kyle Brodziak so the organization knows that it can be done. To do it though they want to get started ASAP.
“We hope to get him over here this June and get him working with Steve Serdachny,” Prendergast said in reference to the club’s power skating specialist, “I talked to Teemu over the summer and he was all for coming over as early as we wanted him to. I think we have a player there Guy, I really do, but there’s just a ways to go from the skating end.”
That just leaves the three Russians who most fans believe to be as good as done with the organization and nothing I’ve heard recently would counter that opinion. I asked Prendergast directly if any of the three were worthy of consideration anymore.
“Very low consideration,” He began, “We wanted Bumagin to come over last year but he hummed and hawed and then it got a little crazy as far as contract demands so we put him on the back burner. We’ll wait to hear from him, we’re not going to approach the subject again.”
Alexander Bumagin was a 6th round pick in 2006 after a sensational rookie season in the Russia Superleague with Lada Togliatti. However, his play dropped off significantly the following year for what was described to me as “extracurricular reasons”. I never got the specifics but someone else told me that Bumagin "liked to live the life of a rock star" so take from that what you will. This year Bumagin has all of 11 points after 37 games with Atlant in the KHL.
Of course there is always Alexei Mikhnov who had a thimble of coffee in the NHL a couple seasons ago before returning to Yaroslavl Lokomotiv where he still plays. Mikhnov has a tradition of hot starts preceding injury and/or prolonged slumps. This year he has 23 points in 41 games.
“Obviously Mikhnov is… he’s been a player that’s been on the radar since the day that we drafted him,” Prendergast offered, “I’ll hopefully get a chance to see him play in a couple of weeks at the Swedish Games and run it by him again and see what his interests are and then at the end of the day we’ll see where we stand as far as contracts are for the big team.”
Finally, in case you were the one person in the world looking for an update on Mikhail Zhukov (Misha Joukov when in Sweden)… you can forget about him.
“Zhukov is not [a consideration] at this point,” Prendergast confirmed. “I saw him in Kazan last year and he seemed pretty content playing in the Russian league. We don’t have any aspiration in chasing him at this point.”
Some fans have emailed me asking about two former Oiler properties in Freddie Pettersson and Dragan Umicevic. Pettersson was always a guy I personally liked because he came to Canada to play in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen and he was about as honest a player as you could find. He had a stellar game against the UofA Golden Bears the one fall and impressed Kevin Lowe so much that the former GM approached me about him at a practice one day .
“Keep an eye on #48,” Lowe advised with a wink, “he’s fun to watch.”
Of course I was watching him anyway but it was interesting to see Lowe so openly admiring a prospect like that. In my time around the team, admittedly shorter than most in town (2003), the organization doesn’t really show much excitement over unsung prospects. Patrick Thoresen was another exception the following year.
Anyway, Pettersson left the organization two years after he was drafted. The Oilers were against the 50-contract cap and after an internal debate, Pettersson was deemed expendable as a smaller energy player in a franchise loaded with smaller forwards. He was offered a minor league contract but knowing he could make more money in Sweden he returned home and turned pro.
Pettersson currently has 22 points for Frölunda in the SEL. Although he admitted to having a soft spot for Pettersson and his high tempo, all out style of game, Prendergast conceded that Edmonton was no longer in the Swede's future.
“At this point I would have to say no from an organizational standpoint because of how many players [contracts] we have in the organization right now,” he said. “Freddie’s always been interesting to [the organization] but he’s probably making too much money now for us to put him into the American League.”
Dragan Umicevic, A.K.A "Trogdor" to many in the Oiler-section of cyberspace, has 24 points this year with Södertälje (Bjurling’s team) but his departure from the NHL club seems to have been a little less amicable than Pettersson’s.
“Umicevic’s attitude… I just don’t think he really cares and that’s one of the things that’s always scared me about him,” Prendergast said. “He’s loaded with talent but he doesn’t have that instinct where it was important for him to come over so he shrugged it off every time I talked to him. I would be worried that he’d be one of those guys that would shut it down if he was in the AHL because it wasn’t the NHL.”
If you’re wondering why the Oilers have to sign guys like Omark 2 years after he was drafted and yet the Russians and Bjorn Bjurling are immune to the same rules, I asked Prendergast for the simple explanation.
“Bjurling was drafted in the old system [old CBA] so he’s been on ‘defected status’ but with the new system when Omark was drafted, we only have 2 years to get him signed,” the Assistant GM said.
Outside of Jussi Markkanen, it's been a while since the Oilers drafted a European who made a significant impact for the team at the NHL level. You could go back to 1993 and point out that the team did draft David Vyborny and Miro Satan but even those two blossomed elsewhere. Perhaps one of the four promising players listed above can change all that.