Mark Bowie The Hockey Writers
Big Changes for Oilers at All Levels (AHL, ECHL & Prospects)
The 2017-18 season has been a disappointing one for the Edmonton Oilers, as the team will miss the playoffs for the 11th time in the last 12 years. To make matters worse, the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors, will also be hitting the links early barring a late-season miracle.
The Condors sit dead last in the AHL’s Pacific Division despite icing an older roster full of minor league veterans. The lack of success in the standings combined with the lack of development among many of the team’s prospects will no doubt result in massive changes this offseason. The only question is, how deep will these changes go?
Condors’ Head Coach Gerry Fleming and Staff
Typically, an AHL team’s top priority is to serve as a developmental territory with a mandate of producing NHL-ready players for its parent organization. It’s not unusual for the importance of player development to trump the importance of team success in the AHL ranks, nor should it be. An NHL organization would be best served if their blue chip prospects are given key roles and important minutes while playing on the farm rather than have those critical minutes handed to veteran players who likely do not factor into the team’s long-term plans.
Based on the severe lack of player development and on-ice success in Bakersfield, there is a high probability that the 2017-18 season will be the last behind the bench for head coach Gerry Fleming and the rest of his staff. The Condors have not made a single playoff appearance since Fleming took over the head coaching duties on a full-time basis at the start of the 2015-16 season. Even more alarming is that there are only two players on the current Oilers roster who have played in more than 50 games for Bakersfield: Jujhar Khaira and Anton Slepyshev.
A major reason for the lack of success in Bakersfield falls on poor drafting, but it’s also within reason to question the coaching staff’s decision-making. It’s easy to wonder if players like Bogdan Yakimov, Mitch Moroz, Greg Chase or Kyle Platzer would have developed further if they had been given bigger opportunities in the AHL.
The Oilers might be best served by exploring the Canadian Hockey League for their next AHL head coach. Finding someone who is familiar with the younger generation of players and their tendencies would go a long way towards helping their junior success translate to the pro ranks.
There are plenty of quality CHL coaches available with names like Dominique Ducharme, Jim Hulton, Richard Matvichuk, Drew Bannister or even former Oilers captain Jason Smith fitting the mold of what the organization needs.
A fresh perspective towards player development and a new voice behind the bench in Bakersfield should be near the top of the Oilers’ offseason to-do list.
Laurent Brossoit Among Expiring Condor Contracts
A total of 37 players have suited up for the Condors in 2017-18 and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that no more than nine of them will be back next season. With six pending restricted and seven pending unrestricted free agents playing in the minor leagues, the Oilers have the opportunity to revamp their farm system in a big way.
Restricted Free Agents
The list of restricted free agents in Bakersfield features goaltenders Laurent Brossoit and Nick Ellis, defenseman Ben Betker, and forwards Platzer, Patrick Russell and Braden Christoffer.
Brossoit has started 16 of the Condors’ last 18 games which leads one to believe that Ellis is no longer considered to be part of the organization’s future plans. There is a chance that Brossoit is retained but that is far from a guarantee after he was unable to secure the backup role in Edmonton.
There are rumors that Oilers management is looking for a goalie to challenge starter Cam Talbot next season. If such a player were to be acquired then backup Al Montoya would likely find himself in Condors blue to start 2018-19.
Betker, Platzer and Christoffer are as good as gone while Russell is close to NHL-ready but has limited upside.
Unrestricted Free Agents
The list of minor league unrestricted free agents on the Oilers 50-man list is made up of defensemen Mark Fayne, Dillon Simpson and Keegan Lowe as well as forwards Joey LaLeggia, Brian Ferlin, Grayson Downing and Ty Rattie.
There has been a clock counting down to the day that Fayne’s $14.5 million contract would expire and that clock will reach zero on July 1. It’s safe to say that the 30-year-old rearguard will not be back next season.
On the other hand, there is an argument that can be made to keep one of second-generation Oilers Simpson or Lowe on the roster as both men have been solid for the Condors this season. Of the two, Lowe would be the most likely to return as Simpson may choose to explore other options after getting into only three NHL games in his four seasons with the Oilers organization.
Up front, Ferlin and Downing fall under the one-and-done category while LaLeggia and Rattie both rank among the team’s top three scorers. The latter two could return if there is mutual interest as they would both capable of filling the role of “cheap winger” for the Oilers if called upon.
Minor League Contracted Players
The Condors’ second leading scorer is 25-year-old Josh Currie who, interestingly enough, is playing on an AHL contract. Currie is signed through 2018-19 so he will be around again next season but in a much smaller role if the Oilers offseason goes as planned.
The Condors also employ forwards Dave Gust, Ty Loney, Zach O’Brien, Chad Butcher and Evan Polei. Some of these players may return on new AHL deals but, in an ideal situation, they would mostly serve as depth options and shuttle back and forth between Bakersfield and the ECHL.
Incoming Prospects Highlighted by Kailer Yamamoto
A large fraction of the new faces expected to be in Bakersfield next season will come from prospects graduating from junior hockey and the collegiate ranks.
The Condors have a solid prospect base on the backend with Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha all expected to return for their sophomore seasons but there are literally no forward prospects on the roster to speak of as the season nears its close. Not all is doom and gloom, however, as there are finally some good forward prospects scheduled to arrive in the fall.
The Bakersfield roster is due to receive a much needed influx of offensively gifted forwards next season; a group highlighted by the Western Hockey League duo of Kailer Yamamoto and Tyler Benson.
Edmonton may be in the cards for Yamamoto at some point in 2018-19 but his development would be better served if he was placed in a prime offensive role in the AHL to start the season. Once the points start coming on a consistent basis and the player can show that he can dominate at the AHL level, then he should be brought up to the big league.
Benson, meanwhile, should spend the majority of next season in Bakersfield where he can focus on building off the success of his final junior year. The oft-injured forward has remained healthy since making his return to the ice on Oct. 27 and that in itself should be considered a huge accomplishment. The Vancouver Giants captain already plays a pro-style game and, if he can keep his injury troubles behind him, could develop into a key piece for the Oilers.
Other newcomers expected up front include WHL overage scorer Cameron Hebig, University of Nebraska-Omaha senior Tyler Vesel and the recently signed Colin Larkin, formerly of UMass-Boston.
Oilers 2017 fourth-round pick Ostap Safin could also make the transition to the AHL as he is not subject to the CHL-AHL player agreement. Safin is eligible to play in the AHL at age 19 because he was drafted out of the Czech League and only joined the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs later. Although having the six-foot-four forward in the AHL right away may sound enticing, he would likely benefit most by returning to junior for one more season.
The #Oilers have signed forward Ostap Safin to a three-year ELC. The 115th overall pick from the 2017 #NHLDraft has scored 53 points (24 goals, 29 assists) in 56 games with @SJSeaDogs this season. Congrats, @safinostap! https://t.co/bY6tNggVdH
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) March 6, 2018
There is only one new prospect guaranteed to be joining the Condors blue line next season and that is 23-year-old Swedish defenseman William Lagesson. The six-foot-two rearguard is already under contract with the Oilers but was loaned to the Swedish Hockey League for the 2017-18 season to ensure more playing time. The defensive specialist is now due to return to North America following a very successful campaign with Djurgardens.
Finnish defenseman Markus Niemelainen and Swedish defenseman Filip Berglund are other possibilities for Bakersfield but the most likely scenario would see the duo arrive for the 2019-20 season.
The Oilers have two goalie prospects in Dylan Wells and Stuart Skinner who are eligible for the AHL next season and they also have six-foot-five backstop Shane Starrett waiting in the wings in the ECHL. With the futures of Brossoit and Ellis still uncertain and the fact that Montoya is under contract for one more season, it will be a puzzle to figure out where each goalie ends up.
Both Wells and Skinner have solid pedigrees and both have been promising prospects for quite some time. Wells was the first goaltender chosen in the 2014 OHL draft when he was selected by the Peterborough Petes 21st overall while the Lethbridge Hurricanes made Skinner the first goaltender taken in the 2013 WHL draft at 17th overall. Both backstops were also invited to Team Canada’s World Junior camp this season but ultimately failed to survive the final cut.
The destinations of the two goaltenders will be linked with the most likely scenario seeing one of them turn pro and the other return to junior. Given that Wells was drafted one year earlier and is already signed to an NHL contract, he would be the most likely candidate to graduate to the pros. This situation would have Skinner, who remains unsigned but is still property of the Oilers for one more year, return to the WHL for his overage season.
Starrett, meanwhile, has shown well in the ECHL and has earned the promotion up to Bakersfield full-time.
Filling in the Blanks
When putting the pieces together, there is an obvious need for the Oilers to go out and sign a proven AHL scorer who can play down the middle. Without such an addition, the Condors could once again be relying on Currie to centre their top line.
Joey LaLeggia – Ostap Safin/Josh Currie – Kailer Yamamoto
Tyler Benson – Tyler Vesel – Cameron Hebig
Colin Larkin – Brad Malone – Mitch Callahan
Iiro Pakarinen – Joseph Gambardella – Patrick Russell
The defense corps should be the strong point for the Condors based on the quality of the blueliners expected to return. In the crease, the majority of the starts should fall to one of the team’s prospects with a veteran puck stopper serving as back up.
Caleb Jones – Ethan Bear
William Lagesson – Ryan Mantha
Ryan Stanton/Keegan Lowe – Eric Gryba
Shane Starrett/Dylan Wells
The Oilers should be scouting, drafting and signing players from North American junior leagues, college and European leagues in order to create the most competitive roster of young prospects possible. Take a look at the Toronto Marlies model and the success it has brought that franchise.
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