Thursday, April 5, 2012

Work Continues Once Season Ends for Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers 2011-12 season will end this weekend in Vancouver but there is still plenty of work to be done off the ice. With another lottery pick awaiting them at the draft in June, the potential exists for another strong performance by Stu MacGregor and his staff of which most have helped to add valuable prospects to the organization over the last decade.

But it's still in question whether some of the more recent draftees are going to be with the organization for much longer.

The draft class of 2010 is of particular interest right now because most of the players selected that year now have to be signed prior to June 1st or their rights will revert back into the pool for any team to go after. The Oilers chose eleven players in 2010 and the future of five of them is uncertain right now.

One, Kellen Jones, is not a pressing concern for Edmonton because he's playing collegiate hockey so does not have to be signed until August 15th 2014. The other four however, that's another matter all together.

Taylor Hall is the only Oiler from 2010 that has seen the NHL thus far but Tyler Pitlick, Ryan Martindale and Curtis Hamilton have all signed their entry level deals and played on the farm this past season. Defenceman Martin Marincin has also signed but returned to the WHL and split the campaign between Prince George and Regina.

Recently the Oilers inked goaltender Tyler Bunz likely making the current playoffs his swan song as a member of the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL. That leaves four players. Two defencemen and two forwards, three from the WHL. All of them arguably deserving of a contract but none of them assured to have one offered to them.

Brandon Davidson (D) - Regina Pats

[Photo: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings]
For me, the most deserved of an entry level contract is Regina Pats captain Brandon Davidson. The 6th round pick has developed into a much stronger player than you would expect from a selection that late. It was a gamble to select him on draft day but a low risk one considering the round and thus far it appears to have been a smart one.

Davidson has completed three consecutive seasons with the Pats and was the club's top defensive scorer in each of the last two. He was 6'1 and 190 lbs on draft day but has filled out to 6'2 and 205 lbs now. He's a character player and is just as reliable in his own end as he is proficient on the attack. I think Davidson is a bit of a late bloomer and may actually still have more to offer than most project. I think in time he could end up being a pretty steady, reliable bottom pairing guy and although that may not excite a lot of people, those are often the glue guys that teams can't win without.

Although Marincin has reported to Oklahoma City now that the Pats playoffs are done, Davidson is not yet down with the team. He did finish up 2010-11 in the AHL and played a game for the Barons. Davidson did comment on Twitter yesterday "Good to be home again watching masters... wish the old shouldy wasn't separated so I could get out on the course" so clearly he's not fit to play anyway. I'm sure he could muster up the strength to sign a contract though.

Drew Czerwonka (F) - Kootenay Ice

[Photo: Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oil Kings]
Another 6th round pick from 2010 is still waiting for a contract in power forward Drew Czerwonka. The sailing hasn't been as smooth for Czerwonka as it has been for Davidson but there are things to like about the Saskatchewan product. First off he's got size and plays with aggression, two things the Oilers have been looking outside the organization for.

He also wore the captain's 'C' in Kootenay this year so there is obviously some character and leadership skills for Edmonton to work with. That said, injuries have been an issue. Over his 4-year stay in Kootenay he only played more than 55 games in just one season and only appeared in 40 this past year. His numbers are nothing to write home about either as there are dozens of players skating at the CIS level who outscored him during their own WHL days.

There is the option of signing and returning him to the WHL next year. That way the contract wouldn't be on the books until 2013-14 and it would give Czerwonka another full year to hone his skills before taking the next step. Let's face it, he's not close to contributing at the NHL level and no one I've talked to feels he's too good for the WHL so it makes some sense.

That move is not without a downside though. The Oilers would be banking on Czerwonka being a lot better twelve months from now than he is today and I'm not sold that will be the case. To me the Oilers would be better served holding onto the contract and using it on an undrafted prospect out of the NCAA or CHL who is further along in his development than Czerwonka will be next spring.

Jérémie Blain (D) - Victoriaville Tigres 

[Photo: via RDS]
It was a hit and miss season for Edmonton 4th round, 2010 draft pick. On one hand, Blain ended the year with 50 points in 58 regular season games and he was considered one of the key trade deadline acquisitions when he was picked up from Acadie-Bathurst by Victoriaville.

Unfortunately for Victoriaville, Blain and their other deadline additions were not enough to prevent a massive upset and the hands of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. The Tigres were swept in four straight games and Blain contributed just a pair of assists in the series.

Then there was the embarrassing incident that earned Blain a 2-game suspension right before Christmas. I don't know if such a thing would factor into the decision to offer him a contract but I don't know that it wouldn't either.

Kristians Pelss (LW) - Edmonton Oil Kings 

[Photo: Andy Devlin /Edmonton Oil Kings]
It's going to be very interesting to see what Edmonton decides to do with their 7th round pick. I wasn't entirely sure the Oilers had to do anything this spring with Pelss because he was drafted out of Latvia. I was uncertain if Latvia was like Sweden and Finland, countries with a transfer agreement that means NHL teams have two years to sign players drafted from there. That's not the case with Russia and I didn't know if Latvia shared that scenario.

I actually ran into Stu MacGregor at a recent Oil Kings game and asked him that question. Of course knowing the CBA inside and out isn't the job of a scout so I wasn't surprised that he didn't know the answer although he said it would be interesting to find out. I tried to get clarification from the Oilers but was flatly denied. I was told that information like that was not something the NHL team would share with the media. I found that odd so placed a call to another contact employed by an NHL team and in less than 5 minutes I got the answers I needed. Perhaps it was Edmonton's way of trying to avoid another possible CBA-related gaff in less than a week.

Regardless, I have been able to confirm that YES, Edmonton does have to sign Pelss before June 1st to hang onto his rights. In my opinion, they definitely should sign him to an entry level deal. By no means do I think Pelss is NHL ready but there is too much there to give up on already. He may never be more than an excellent minor leaguer or a top tier guy in Europe but it's too early to know for sure.

Pelss is one of the fastest players in the entire WHL and I have no problems suggesting that he can skate at an NHL level right now. He's shown deadly accuracy and an uncanny ability to score in creative ways; he struck for a goal against Swift Current a month ago by releasing a quick wrist shot while in the middle of a toe drag around a defenceman. He ended the 2011-12 regular season with 28 goals and 50 points through 63 games.

The Latvian is also a character player. Chosen by his teammates to be captain of Team Latvia during the recent 2012 WJC in Alberta, Pelss stepped into that role with ease. What Pelss doesn't have yet is the physical ability to perform and succeed at the next level. At 5'11 and 187 lbs, he's of average size and the strength isn't there yet but with another season in the WHL a possibility, I think it's worth taking the chance.

Earlier I said I wouldn't do that for Czerwonka but now I am arguing the other side of the debate in regard to Pelss. The difference in my mind is that I have confidence that Pelss will be much better twelve months from now than he is today. He's leaps and bounds ahead after his second season in North America than he was as a WHL rookie and I have to think another campaign with a Memorial Cup caliber team would be highly beneficial for his development.


[Photo: Merrimack College]
- It's worth keeping an eye on 2009 draft pick Kyle Bigos in terms of signing a contract these days too. Edmonton doesn't have to yet because Bigos still has a year left at Merrimack College but you have to wonder why the Oilers haven't signed him already. Bigos will be able to become an unrestricted free agent on August 15, 2013 and every day that goes by between now and then is probably one step closer to that happening. The last time Edmonton was in this situation was with Riley Nash who they ended up dealing to Carolina for a draft pick. Bigos is a 6'5 and 235 lb, 137 PIM in 34 games, bull on the blueline and someone Edmonton should be signing as opposed to trading or playing UFA-Chicken with.

- Talk of Taylor Hall being injury prone has become fashionable these days. Some people argue that those who dare suggest two years later that it was possible to predict the injuries Hall would compile are simply using hindsight to guide them. Those people are wrong.

- If you could only keep two of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins... who would you keep to build your team around and why? For me it's Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins because I think they are both smarter than Hall and while Hall might have a higher ceiling, I have more confidence that the other two will reach theirs.

- Edmonton is currently slated to make 7 selections during the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. They have their own pick in each round plus an extra in the 3rd (they have L.A.'s from the Dustin Penner trade) and they have no pick in the 7th (traded to L.A. in the Ryan Smyth deal).  

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