There is one final subject I want to discuss concerning Edmonton Assistant GM Kevin Prendergast and his history with the Oilers and that is in the area of trading.
What’s the role that the head scout plays when the NHL team he works for swings a deal? I don’t know if it’s the same with every team, although I assume it’s probably pretty similar, but Prendergast’s job is to give input from the scouting staff on the players either being offered by the other team or on the other assets the team has that the Oilers should be targeting. Pretty straight forward, I’m sure that’s hardly a stunning revelation to anyone.
Scenario 1 – GM: “KP, we need to find a _____ type of player. Who is out there that we might be able to trade for?”
Scenario 2 – GM: “KP, we’re in trade talks with _____ and they are offering _____. Is he a fit for us or do they have someone else we should be targeting?”
Prendergast oversees all hockey operations including the scouting staff which is comprised of two groups – amateur and pro scouts. At my last count, the Oilers have 3 pro scouts; Dave Semenko, Morey Gare and Mike Abbamont that cover the NHL and the AHL. Rob Daum was also in this group for a brief period.
On the amateur side covering all of the Major Junior, Canadian Junior A, USHL, NCAA, U.S. High School and Canadian University leagues, the Oilers employ a greater number of bird dogs. Stu MacGregor now heads up the amateur scouting department and his staff is comprised of Bob Brown, Bill Dandy, Brad Davis, Kent Hawley, Chris McCarthy and two summers ago former NHL tough guy Mike Peluso was added as well. Player Development coach Bob Mancini still watches prospects while he’s doing his job with the Oiler properties. Former Assistant to Kevin Lowe, James McGregor, has evolved from his internal office position to become a part time WHL scout. Long time Oiler scout Lorne Davis passed away this past season.
As was mentioned in the first part of this series, the entire amateur scout staff crisscrosses territories in order to see all prospects playing in all leagues.
Kent Nilsson and Frank Musil are the team’s two European based evaluators and they perform the duties of both pro and amateur scouting on that side of the Atlantic.
I’ve spoken with a few people recently to try and get a handle on the level of Prendergast’s (and the scout staff) involvement in deals over the last number of years and I’ll use the key ones that were brought up to me as my examples.
March 8, 2004 – Tommy Salo + 6th (Justin Mercier) for Tom Gilbert
The Colorado Avalanche were headed to the playoffs with a netminding duo of David Aebisher and Philippe Sauve and were looking to upgrade with a veteran who could produce confidence as a back up. With the Oilers having re-acquired Jussi Markkanen from the Rangers, Salo (an impeding UFA) was readily available. Salo’s play had tailed off considerably that year and most fans felt that if the Oilers could get anything for him it would be a good move.
My understanding is that the Avalanche made several offers that Kevin Lowe discussed with Scott Howson and Prendergast but it was the latter that insisted that the Oilers should hold out until Colorado offered Wisconsin defenceman Tom Gilbert. The Minnesota native was taken at the end of the fourth round in 2002 by the Aves and was just finishing his sophomore season with the Badgers.
While Colorado had initially offered other defencemen (I believe 2002 2nd rounder Johnny Boychuk to be one), Lowe, acting on Prendergast’s recommendation, countered with Gilbert and Colorado approved.
Few would argue that the Oilers won this deal although Justin Mercier, the Miami RedHawks forward Colorado drafted with Edmonton’s 2005 6th round pick, will begin his pro career next year so it’s impossible to say right now.
There is no denying that Gilbert has turned into one of the better players Edmonton has graduated from prospect to NHLer this past decade. For all his defensive flaws and soft play that fans have focused on this year, he has 84 career points in little over two NHL seasons and has appeared in all 82 games the last two years. He plays a major role on the team and is regarded by most as either Edmonton’s most valuable trading chip this summer or a cornerstone worth keeping and building around.
July 3rd, 2006 – Chris Pronger for Joffrey Lupul + Ladislav Smid + 1st (Riley Nash) + 1st (Jordan Eberle) + 2nd (given to NYI)
Let’s not get into the whole debate about whether the Oilers should have forced Pronger’s hand by sitting him out instead of giving in to his wishes and trading him. Can we just focus on the assets that Edmonton got in the deal? (and if I'm a bit off on the final draft names above, someone leave it in the comments, thx!)
First, it doesn’t come to me first hand but I was told back then by someone who would know that there were five serious suitors for Pronger, four other than Anaheim. If my memory serves, three of them were Chicago, San Jose and Los Angeles. I do recall that although the Florida Panthers were a rumored destination at one point, talks with them didn’t last long and in fact none of the teams in the final hunt were from the Eastern Conference – which would have been Edmonton’s preference.
The Oilers wanted a pair of young players who could step in and contribute right away as well as an assortment of draft picks. In Joffrey Lupul they acquired a sniper who had just scored 28 goals in only his second NHL campaign. He was also a hometown product that was already friends with a few of his new teammates that were deemed to be the future core of the team – Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres. Lupul was a player that Prendergast and the staff had ranked highly during the 2002 draft where he went 7th overall. All indications were that this was a top-notch player who was still on the upswing of reaching his potential, the organization believed he was of the right age for the dressing room and because he grew up in the area, getting acclimatized to Northern Alberta would not be a complication like it had been with Pronger.
The reasons for Lupul’s failure are either plentiful or few, depending on whom you ask. Some will say he couldn’t deal with the stress of playing in the fishbowl environment in his backyard. Others will argue the coach misused and mistreated Lupul (and others that year) to the point that the player basically quit. Still, Lupul’s 16 goals were third highest on a team that was either decimated by injuries or down right bad. He scored 28 goals the year prior to his Edmonton season and then 20 (in 56 games) and 25 for Philly in the two years since.
Defenceman Ladislav Smid was highly regarded during the 2004 NHL Draft and it was not a surprise when he went 9th overall, the second highest blueliner taken that year. Conversations I had with scouts prior to the draft, including Edmonton’s, suggested that next to Cam Barker (CHI), Smid might have the most latent offensive potential because of how well he skated and passed the puck. At the time of the trade, the fact that he was 19-years-old and playing in the AHL against men suggested a quick transition to the NHL and sure enough, he played 77 games in Edmonton the year following the trade.
Smid’s NHL career with the Oilers has run the gamut with fans, media and coach Craig MacTavish. At points over the last three seasons the Czech native has looked awful and then fantastic, inexperienced one week and mature the next. In one of his first exhibition games as an Oiler, in Winnipeg against Phoenix, he hammered Georges Laraque with a big league hit. If there has been one aspect of his game that has been consistent it’s been the physical play, which at times has included a willingness to fight. There aren’t many 23-year-old blueliners in the NHL with 200 games under their belt but Smid is one of them, and his young age might be something some Oiler fans forget when they argue the team should deal him. At this point he is a solid third pairing defenceman but it’s not unreasonable to think with a few more years of experience that by the time he’s 28 he could be 2-3 on the depth chart.
July 2006 – 7th (Nick Eno) for Jan Hejda
Really, what needs to be said about this transaction? Oiler fans wish that they could draft an impact player late in the draft well, they weren’t the team that originally drafted Jan Hejda but it only cost them a 7th round pick and the player is now a top-pairing rearguard in the NHL. The fact that he’s not with the Oilers now is certainly not the fault of Prendergast and his staff, the group that first identified Hejda as a target from the Sabres. Full credit should go to Frank Musil who followed Hejda’s progression in Europe.
Hejda played part of one season in Edmonton and by the end of the year he had Craig MacTavish regretting not playing him early. It was a major mistake for Edmonton to not resign Hejda at the end of the 2007 season. He was quickly snapped up by Scott Howson in Columbus and has since turned into one of the league’s most underrated defensive defencemen and plays on their top pairing.
February 18th, 2007 – Marc-Andre Bergeron + 3rd for Denis Grebeshkov
Here’s a deal that involved a pair of players that Prendergast and the scouting staff identified.
The Oilers scouted and signed undrafted defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron as a free agent out of the QMJHL and he went on to play 189 games in Edmonton over four seasons. However, his final year in Edmonton was a tumultuous one that had Oiler fans split on whether the diminutive rearguard’s offensive gifts outweighed his defensive flaws.
Edmonton decided to deal him along with a 3rd round pick to Long Island in exchange for Denis Grebeshkov. Grebeshkov had been drafted by the L.A. Kings in the 1st round in 2002 but failed to stick in California, was dealt to the Islanders but didn’t appear to be in their plans eitheras he toiled in Russia. At the time of the Edmonton trade some people (including me) questioned why it was the Oilers who had to add the extra pick when they were parting with a proven NHL player for a borderline first round bust.
However, Prendergast and the scouts had Grebeshkov ranked highly back in 2002 and had been keeping tabs on him ever since. I’ve been told that the Oilers had discussed acquiring the defenceman in the past so when they were told he was available from the Islanders they jumped at the opportunity. Personally I think everyone in Edmonton deserves a ton of credit for the way Grebeshkov has turned out including MacTavish who continued to play him despite a very poor start to the 2007-08 season and he eventually turned it around. But it was Prendergast and his staff that identified him in the first place and now the Russian is looking every bit the 1st round pick that he was.
February 27th, 2007 – Ryan Smyth for 1st (Alex Plante) + Robert Nilsson + Ryan O’Marra
Contract negotiations aside, trading Ryan Smyth was a polarizing move by the Oilers that infuriated a large portion of their fan base. Still to this day there are plenty of people who feel Edmonton didn’t get enough of a return for the player that was once the face of the franchise. (Although I think Islander fans would be quick to admit that giving up 3 first round picks in exchange for 18 regular season and 5 playoff games from Smyth hardly constitutes a “win”).
The first part of the deal was the 1st rounder from the Islanders. Next Edmonton wanted a younger prospect that could develop into an impact player. With their request for Kyle Okposo shot down, Nilsson became an integral part of Edmonton’s demands.
Robert Nilsson was one of Edmonton’s main targets during the 2003 Entry Draft and not because of who his father is. Nilsson had put up impressive numbers in Sweden as a junior player and had 20 points in 53 games as a NHL rookie in 2005-06. Despite the strong rookie year, Nilsson failed to make the team as new head coach Ted Nolan made him an early cut from training camp. Nilsson’s debut Oiler season created a lot of buzz as he teamed with Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner to carry the offensive load down the stretch. He ended the year with 41 points.
Edmonton wanted more from the Islanders and 2005 first round pick Ryan O’Marra was the final addition to the deal. Considered the “safe pick” from that draft class, when the Smyth deal was first announced the thought was that O’Marra was the only “sure thing” that Edmonton was getting. The opposite has actually happened with the former 2-time WJC gold medal winner spending all his time as an Oiler property down on the farm including a stint in the ECHL.
The end results of the trades listed above have been mixed but that’s not the point. The point of this exercise was to show Kevin Prendergast’s role in the deals and in all cases, the Oilers acquired players who, at the time, were either considered to be promising prospects or were wrongly thought of as failed prospects (Hejda, Grebeshkov). When prospects are involved in trades, the scouting staff, or Prendergast at least, is consulted before hand to get his evaluation of the players in question. What they do or fail to do once they become Oiler property had largely been out of his control until 2007-08 and he assumed control of the farm system.
The coaching staff and the scouting staff have often been at odds which I’m sure is the same for most NHL clubs. The organization asks the scouts to supply players that will fill specific roles or have impact in target areas but it’s the coach who ultimately decides how to utilize those players in games, or who not to use at all.
That said, if Smid is played as a forward, Ales Kotalik or Erik Cole on the left-wing or Fernando Pisani takes shifts as a center… that’s not on Prendergast. Likewise if Georges Laraque is used as a 2nd line injury replacement for Radek Dvorak ahead of a 1st round offensive prospect like Jani Rita (during the 2005-06 season). Those are coaching decisions that quite frankly drive scouts crazy.
You can be sure that the offer sheet to Dustin Penner, that cost Edmonton a number of draft picks, wasn’t a plan formulated by the scouts. It’s my opinion that the EIG put pressure on Lowe to do something significant that summer and he responded with the two offer sheets (Vanek and Penner).
Alexei Mikhnov was never given a realistic chance at the NHL level and yet the Oilers threw big money and a number of draft picks away to secure what is basically his North American clone. Mikhnov and Penner are both big left wingers who play small, can score on one shift and look invisible the next, they’ll both drive coaches crazy with their laid back attitude and will invoke ire from the fans for appearing slow footed. After the verbal beating Penner took from the coach and the fans this year, I wonder if Edmonton’s brass wishes they could rewind to 2006-07 and give Mikhnov a do-over. At least they would have saved a ton of payroll and a trio of solid picks.
It’s my humble opinion that too often, Oilers management asked for and received round pegs from the scouts only to see Craig MacTavish try to work them into square holes.
* Two paragraphs removed - see comments section*
Does a different coach give more chances to Ryan Potulny and/or Gilbert Brule or do they move on to different teams, potentially prospering like those on the list above?
It’s been said that the Oilers are too small now. Does that mean that players like Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Gagner, Cogliano, Penner, Nilsson and Kyle Brodziak all magically shrank since 2007-08? They’re the same players they were then and yet this year they ALL saw a drop off in their offensive production.
A lot of media outlets predicted the Oilers to not only make the playoffs but challenge for the Division title. Did everyone really overestimate the talent level Edmonton has or was the problem on the bench? I wasn't around the team this past year as much as the previous few so I honestly don’t know for certain. Personally, I would like to see what a new coach and bench staff could do with the players that are in place because, outside of a few needed additions (a faceoff specialist like Stoll and a physical shutdown blueliner like Greene) I do think the talent is good enough.
With the team missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year, of course changes must happen. However, with Craig MacTavish gone and Steve Tambellini clearly in charge , outside of demanding a better result next year in Springfield, for me, enough off-ice personnel shuffling has already been done.
Player Development: 2001-07 - A for creating summer prospects camp and development coach hires of Geoff Ward, Kelly Buchberger and Bob Mancini. 2007-09 – -D for the Springfield Falcons disappointment this year.
Player Acquisition: -B
A reminder that Kevin Prendergast will be making his annual 1-hour, in studio appearance on The Pipeline Show this coming Tuesday (April 21st). Edmonton prospect questions for the Oilers Assistant GM can be emailed in to: firstname.lastname@example.org