Welcome to the 2015 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2015 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) and you can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2015 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Its been a summer of change for the Edmonton Oilers. In are a new general manager, a new coach, a new starting goaltender, a new top pairing defenceman, and most importantly a new Face of the Franchise in Connor McDavid. There may be no team who has done better this off-season than the Oilers and there is certainly plenty to look forward to in Edmonton. This includes an impressive stable of prospects who were not part of their tremendous 2015 NHL draft.
EDMONTON OILERS TOP PROSPECTS
Top Prospect: Darnell Nurse, Defence
Born Feb 4 1995 — Hamilton, ONT
Height 6.05 — Weight 205 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the 1st Round, 7th Overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Nurse continued to improve his offense this past season, as he set new career highs in goals, assists and points per game. Nurse continued to show off his big-time point shot and one-timer, scoring 10 goals in just 33 games. Nurse is extremely effective at keeping his shot low, getting it through and on net, and generating opportunities for rebounds and tip-ins in front of the net. He also effectively utilizes a good wrist shot and release when he doesn’t have time to load up the slap shot. Nurse has also improved his puck handling skills, and shows poise and patience in controlling the play at the blue line. He walks the line well, and uses his lateral mobility to open up shooting and passing lanes. Nurse continues to improve his passing skills, and his ability to quarterback the power play, making smart passes and setting up teammates. Nurse was one of the top defencemen in the OHL this past season, and a huge part of the reason why Sault Ste. Marie was one of the league’s best teams. He also scored four points in four games during the AHL playoffs and helped Team Canada to win gold at the World Junior Championships.
A fantastic natural athlete, coming from a family of athletes, Nurse’s skating is elite given his size. He has excellent edge work, pivots, and agility. This allows him to transition quickly and cover all areas of the ice. He can change direction very quickly, allowing him to close space in an instant, and throw big hits. Nurse has good speed moving forward and backwards, and an above average first step and acceleration.
Nurse has terrific size and uses it effectively in his own end. He’s a big hitter who can strike fear into opposing players as they come down his end of the ice. He wins board battles and effectively leans on opposing players and clears the front of the net. His mobility makes him very difficult to beat one-on-one off the rush. He uses his size and an active stick to cut down passing lanes, and willingly sacrifices his body blocking shots. Nurse has been seen as a shutdown defence prospect and has continued to improve this aspect of his game. Going forward, he can stand to bulk up and add muscle to his frame, allowing him to be even more effective physically.
The question now will be if Nurse will be better off in Edmonton or spending a season in the AHL. He will likely need to have a tremendous camp to make the team, as the new Oilers management have hinted at the fact that they will not rush prospects. Still, he has the skill to put together that tremendous camp and make the decision very hard for Peter Chiarelli. Even if he does start the year in the AHL, Nurse looks like the future franchise defenceman that the Oilers have lacked for years.
#2 Prospect: Leon Draisaitl, Centre
Born Oct 27 1995 — Cologne, Germany
Height 6.01 — Weight 209 [185 cm/95 kg] – Shoots Left
Drafted in the 1st Round, 3rd Overall, by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2013 NHL Draft
The Oilers were desperate for a second line centre last year and so Draisaitl was put on the team, even though it was clear to most observers of his first eight NHL games that he simply wasn’t ready. He would end up sticking around for 37 games, scoring just two goals and nine points. When he was sent back to junior, Prince Albert immediately traded him to the WHL’s top team, the Kelowna Rockets. He would help the Rockets win the WHL title, scoring 53 points in 32 regular season games, and 28 points in 19 playoff games. His four goals and seven points in five Memorial Cup games would earn Draisaitl tournament MVP honors, despite the fact that his Rockets lost the final in overtime to the Oshawa Generals.
Draisaitl is a big centre with excellent reach and stickhandling ability. He protects the puck very well, especially in the cycle game. He also has the vision and the passing skill to find an open teammate with a quick and accurate pass. Draisaitl also has a strong and accurate wrist shot, with a very good release, leading to goal scoring ability. Draisaitl is not afraid to take the puck to the net, and has the soft hands to finish when he gets there. What is most impressive though is his ability to read the play, and be in the right spot at the right time, due to his very impressive hockey sense.
Draisaitl has greatly improved his skating since coming to North America and it is no longer a weakness. He seems to be a better skater every time I see him. He has above average speed and acceleration. His balance is extremely good and allows him to fight through checks and he is tough to knock off the puck. Draisaitl also has good agility which helps him to get by defenders.
Despite his size, Draisaitl is not overly physical. He uses his body to shield opponents from the puck when cycling and is not afraid to take a hit, or to get in the dirty areas of the ice. However he is not known for initiating the physical play. That said he doesn’t shy away from the battles if they come to him. He has decent faceoff skills and is a solid defensive player for his age.
It was clear that while he is able to play this power game and use his strength and size to shield the puck at the junior level, he was outmatched physically in the NHL last season. This is not unusual for a teenager, and adding muscle to his frame as he gets older is certainly something that he should be capable of doing. The ability to do that this off-season will tell the tale if Draisaitl is ready for the NHL this fall. I am of the belief that he may spend half a season or even a full year with Bakersfield in the AHL, to help him adjust to playing against bigger, faster, and more physical pros. Still he has all the talent to be a top NHL player in time, and adds to the Oilers embarrassment of riches when it comes to young forwards.
#3 Prospect: Griffin Reinhart, Defence
Born Jan 24 1994 — West Vancouver, B.C.
Height 6.04 — Weight 203 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New York Islanders in 1st Round, 4th Overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Oilers in June 2015
After doing all there was to do in junior hockey, after leading the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Memorial Cup in 2014, Griffin Reinhart made the jump to the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers this past season. His season was a bit hit and miss, as he showed some solid offensive contributions with seven goals and 22 points in 59 games. However, moving up a level to face faster, stronger opponents proved challenging for Reinhart, as footspeed could sometimes become an issue in the defensive zone, and he had some down periods as well.
Reinhart comes from good bloodlines, as he is the son of former Calgary Flames Defenceman Paul Reinhart, and his brothers Max (Calgary) and Sam (Buffalo, 2nd overall) are also NHL prospects. Reinhart, already at 6’4″ and over 200 lbs, is a huge presence in the defensive zone. However, while he sometimes throws big hits, he really doesn’t play that physical game as consistently as he could, and isn’t really a physically punishing defender. Despite this, Reinhart is in the mould of a true shut down defenceman, with excellent positioning in the his own zone, and his big frame and long stick allow him to block shots and effectively cut down passing lanes. He also can use his size and strength to keep the crease clear and win board battles in the corners. He was dominant in these areas as a junior, but facing older, stronger players in the AHL, it was clear the 20-year-old needs to add upper body strength to continue to play this game against pro players. This isn’t unusual for a young player though, and with that added strength he should develop into a shutdown defender.
Its the defensive game that takes the accolades but Reinhart has also displayed some offensive potential. While his offensive game seemed to stagnate a bit in junior, it was a solid first pro season for him in the offensive department. While he will likely never be a first unit powerplay guy, he could develop into someone who can add some points and play some minutes on the second unit. Reinhart hass have a good slapshot and excellent wrist shot which he unleashes from the point when pressured. He also makes quality passes both as part of his team’s breakout, and in the offensive zone. There are flashes of good offensive instincts and hockey sense, as he can exploit gaps in opponents’ defensive coverage and rarely gets caught making a bad pinch. He is very cautious though, and sometimes should pinch but doesn’t take the opportunity. This could be due to the fear of getting caught, as his skating speed is not the best. Reinhart could use some work on his stickhandling and puck control, as he is merely average in this area. Overall he looks like more of a powerplay trigger man than a quarterback though, as he just doesn’t have the poise and patience with the pick to set up plays at the blue line. He’s likely to top out as a second unit guy rather than a true offensive catalyst.
Reinhart has made some improvements as a skater over the years but his overall below average agility was exposed a bit in the AHL this past year. He has lengthened his choppy stride and improved his top end speed and acceleration. He will likely never be elite in this regard, but he has moved himself from average to good. He will need to keep working to get better edge work and overall agility in order to deal with small and quick forwards. His positioning helps him a lot in this regard in the defensive end, but he can be beat wide off the rush. This is the biggest issue holding him back from making an NHL impact.
Reinhart will fight for a spot in training camp, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he starts the season in the AHL. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if he doesn’t finish the season in the AHL. I could see him being slowly worked into the lineup as he has very high end potential, but still needs a little more polish around the edges. Overall though, he could be a top 4 defenceman in the NHL, and I do still really like the trade the Oilers made to pick him up at the draft. There were few defenders of his potential on the board at 16th overall and the Oilers really didn’t need another high end potential forward. Reinhart is also ahead of where another junior aged defender would be in his development at this stage.
TSP Sleeper Pick: Joey LaLeggia, Defence
Born Jun 24 1992 — Burnaby, BC
Height 5.9 — Weight 183 [175 cm/83 kg] – Shoots Left
Joey LaLeggia did it all for the Denver Pioneers last season. He was a top ten finalist for the 2015 Hobey Baker Award. He was named the NCHC Player of the Year, the NCHC Defenceman of the Year, as well as the Offensive Defenceman of the Year. He was the NCHC Defensive Scoring Champion by a margin of 13 points. His coach, Jim Montgomery, said, “He’s the most dominant player in the best conference in college hockey.” So why was he a fifth round pick? And why is he seen as a sleeper in prospect circles? In a word, size. LaLeggia is just 5’9″, which is extremely small for an NHL defenceman.
He has all the skills to succeed as a top puck mover. LaLeggia is a great skater, with outstanding speed in both directions, great edge work, quick, crisp pivots, excellent agility, and very good balance. He can lead the rush, or make a pinch at the line and still get back defensively. His passing skills are sublime, as he makes a great first pass out of his own zone, and he can quarterback things on the power play. His agility gives LaLeggia the ability to walk the line and open up shooting and passing lanes.
Defensively LaLeggia has good positioning, and a quick stick that can steal pucks off attackers, or break up passes. He can be overpowered by big forwards in board battles and in front of the net, and that can be an issue, but he makes up for it by trying to ensure that the puck does not stay in his end for long when he is on the ice. His ability to start the breakout and transition game gets the puck moving in the other direction quickly and efficiently.
LaLeggia will likely start the season in the AHL with Bakersfield. He will be tested against bigger, stronger forwards to see if he can overcome the size issue. Chiarelli saw a similar profile defender succeed under his watch with the Boston Bruins in Torey Krug, and so this might be the regime where he can get an opportunity to show his stuff in the AHL, and eventually get a crack at being an offensive specialist/third-pairing defender in the NHL. Size is really the only concern here, unfortunately it will still be a tough obstacle for LaLeggia to overcome. He has the type of elite skill set in other areas that could make it possible to overcome that size issue though.
Overall the Oilers youth is the envy of the NHL. Drafting high has seen their team get a collection of talent in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Nail Yakupov that is the envy of many NHL clubs. This past season has seen Oscar Klefbom develop into his potential on the blueline, and Anton Lander become a reliable top nine forward as well. Even with all those young players on the roster, there is still plenty of talent in the pipeline. Of course, since we don’t rehash our earlier looks at 2015 NHL Draft picks in this series, Connor McDavid hasn’t been profiled in this report. This doesn’t take away from the fact he’s the best prospect in hockey right now though. Forwards like Anton Slepyshev, Tyler Pitlick, Juhjar Khaira, Iiro Pakarinen, and Bogdan Yakimov show NHL potential. The Oilers also continue to have hope for defenders Dillon Simpson, David Musil and Martin Gernat moving forward as well. Laurent Brossoit took big steps forward in Oklahoma City last year and could be the Oilers goalie of the future, but still needs more time to develop. Overall though, this is one of the best prospect pools in the NHL. Now though is the time for the Oilers to stop being one of the best teams of the future, and start making strides to see that future today.