For our prospect rankings, we are onto the top three prospects in the Edmonton Oilers system, if only for dramatic effect titled as tier A. While these players are worthy of note within the Oilers system, they might not be highly regarded from a league-wide perspective, as most would have all three outside a league-wide top 50 NHL affiliated prospects list.
As such, ratings of the Oilers overall prospect system are currently quite low, in large part due to the nature of the Oilers aggressiveness in pursuing victory in the present. With picks and prospects consistently traded away over the past few seasons, the Oilers have whittled down the strength of their prospect pool by design.
It isn’t all bad news though, and quite frankly the Oilers do have several prospects worth being excited about. The strength of their system is also hampered by two of their brightest hopes, Philip Broberg and Dylan Holloway, having surpassed the prospect designation altogether. Broberg and Holloway would almost certainly be ranked first and second on such a list, were they still eligible, and subsequently the overall strength of the Oilers system would be rated significantly higher. Both Broberg and Holloway are key young players, looking to continue taking steps towards asserting themselves as key pieces of the Oilers core, and offer the hope of upward mobility for the present and future strength of the Oilers roster.
Without Broberg and Holloway, the three prospects profiled today represent the top of the Oilers system, and look quite likely to be a factor in the Oilers long term plans. While not every prospect will develop how we would hope, all three have shown signs towards promising careers. If nothing else, these prospects will be coveted by other teams around the league in potential trade talks as the season progresses.
3. Nikita Yevseyev, LHD
Nikita Yevseyev is a left shot defenceman playing with Ak-Bars Kazan in the KHL, meaning his 2023–24 season is already underway. A sixth-round pick in 2022, Yevseyev is already a KHL sophomore, despite still being a teenager. What’s more is that Kazan was an extremely strong team last season, earning top seed in the KHL’s western conference, and making it to the Gagarin Cup Final. His team’s success certainly helped, but Yevseyev earned honours as the KHL playoffs’ top rookie last season.
The fact that Yevseyev was able to contribute at such a high level is undercut slightly by the fact that Yevseyev was fairly deep in the lineup, playing on the teams fourth defence pairing through the playoffs. This season has started with Yevseyev playing in the same limited role, though this is anything but concerning.
As Yevseyev doesn’t receive much icetime, it can be difficult to see a volume of highlights from him. Of course, the nature of his skill set plays into this as well, as Yevseyev is a defence first player. Although Yevseyev is not particularly tall, at 6’1”, he does seem to have a fairly mature physicality to his game, looking strong and stout.
There are some moments where Yevseyev struggled with speed in transition, though this might be expected from a KHL defenceman his age. Perhaps these awkward moments have more to do with a lack of experience rather than a lack of skating ability. By no means a speedster, Yevseyev seems to be capable and has some agility, enough that this shouldn’t be a hindrance. While continuing to add strength should give his stride more power, it is most likely balance that will be the greater factor to his game.
Yevseyev has a defensive awareness beyond his years, and should be trusted to be sound positionally. Some strength and savvy should help him grow into a reliable defender against the rush as well as an in-zone defender.
Offensively, there might be more to Yevseyev’s game than he showed last season, in this sense, more icetime and a green light to take risks will likely bring more in this area. Yevseyev is an effective transition passer, at times daring with long, cross ice breakout passes. Still, these flashes are the exception, as Yevseyev usually keeps things simple with functional support passes.
For these reasons, even with more icetime and improved skills, we shouldn’t be expecting high end level production from Yevseyev at any level. Still, Yevseyev managed five KHL goals last season, which is more than his profile might suggest. Most of this production came from Yevseyev sneaking towards the net during in-zone offence, cleaning up loose pucks and rebounds with an unorthodox rotation.
While some might consider the fact that Yevseyev started the season on the fourth pairing as a negative, it is encouraging to see that he hasn’t backslid out of the KHL altogether. Yevseyev is operating at a high level for his age, and even if he doesn’t earn third pairing minutes until next season, it should be viewed as a huge endorsement of his ability to be a regular KHL defender at all.
This isn’t to say that there are no concerns regarding Yevseyev’s development, though. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Yevseyev would be better served playing top minutes in a lower league, as dominating play against weaker competition would allow him more opportunities to grow the offensive aspects of his game. At this point, though, having already played a full KHL season this strategy might have passed us by, as sliding back down to a lower league would not be ideal either.
This precarious position might offer some insight to Yevseyev as a prospect as well. He might not possess much game changing upside as an offensive option, and his role in the KHL certainly won’t be conducive to his becoming such. Still, Yevseyev is ahead of where any would have projected him to be at this point, and presents great upside as a defensive player.
Beyond slowly starting to earn more minutes we shall have to see what the future holds for Yevseyev. With time left on his current KHL deal, it is possible that he signs another deal to stay in Russia beyond that. Unless, for some reason, animosities develop between Yevseyev and Ak Bars Kazan, there is little reason to expect him to leave the KHL for the AHL, meaning Yevseyev might wait until he is a legitimate top four KHL defenceman, expected to jump directly into the NHL, before signing with the Oilers.
2. Maximus Wanner, RHD
Max Wanner is a big, right shot defenceman who is likely AHL bound, set to debut for the Bakersfield Condors after ageing out of his junior career. Wanner was given a spot on his Moose Jaw Warriors team prior to his draft year and has continually played above expectations since. A seventh-round pick in 2021, Wanner steadily rose his profile, earning more icetime and a greater role in the WHL, as well as impressing at Oilers rookie camps in years past.
The only blemish on this path is a mysterious suspension from the WHL that ended Wanner’s season in the early weeks of the 2023 calendar year. The reason for the suspension is still unknown, and in this forum there is little to be gained in speculation, but safe to say it is somewhat concerning.
Aside from the inauspicious end to his Junior career, Wanner brings a lot of different elements to the ice. First and foremost are his physical tools, a 6’3” frame, strong skating skills, and a willingness to apply both with a mean streak conducive to defending. This is the basis on which Wanner was given a chance in the WHL, as a defensive presence first, as it should be the primary area of which we expect him to form his reputation as a professional.
Wanner is big and strong enough to break cycles and clear the net front, but also possesses the skating to control gaps in transition. Combined with a long reach, if Wanner is focused on developing his skills and embracing his role, there is undoubtedly a path towards his becoming a capable NHL defender.
All that being said we have seen Wanner’s offensive game take positive steps as well, in no small pet thanks to his skating skills. Though taller players with longer skating strides are often perceived to be slower than they really are, Wanner seems to have enough speed to keep up with higher levels of competition. What’s more is that Wanner is able to use his agility to shake off checkers and open offensive options. More and more, we have seen Wanner attack up ice, whether to open up passing lanes or to carry the puck himself. We saw him deliver crisp direct passes through the season, but we also saw a multitude of other more creative passes, including deft area passes.
This attacking is possible because of improving puck skills as well. Wanner is confident enough to deke, even to his backhand side, usually cutting into the middle. While not necessarily a top power play offensive force, Wanner has more skills than one would expect for a defenceman of his size and disposition. Wanner did see some usage on the power play in the WHL, where he attacked off the blueline into the slot, or used a powerful shot.
Defencemen can take longer to mature than forwards, and due to his role as a defensive presence, Wanner might be a bit slower to adjust to the AHL than some of the rookie forwards debuting for the Bakersfield Condors this season. It will take some experience for Wanner to upgrade his play from the comparatively relaxed standard of defending in the WHL compared to the AHL. Of course, his time off due to suspension might be a factor here as well, as it certainly didn’t help his development to miss so much time of what should have been his most dominant WHL season.
No matter where in the Condors lineup Wanner begins the season, the key to watch for will be if he’s able to earn more minutes towards the end of the season. In any case, if Wanner is able to be a positive force as a third pair defender and contribute on the second penalty killing unit it would be a good start to his professional career.
Eventually, we might see some offence materialise for Wanner in the AHL, perhaps even a role on the second power play unit, but such goals might be best left for the 2024–25 season and beyond. While production might be a factor in an eventual NHL call up, it will instead be Wanner’s dominance as a defender that will lay the foundations for a promotion. If Wanner is able to become a true top pair defenceman in the AHL, controlling the flow play, by his second or third AHL season, it will be extremely encouraging for his potential as an NHLer.
1. Xavier Bourgault
Xavier Bourgault combines a mix of draft pedigree, production as an AHL rookie, growth trajectory, and upside to combine into a worthy candidacy for the mantle of Oilers top prospect. Though he is not expected to make the NHL out of camp, there are certainly those who believe a mid-season promotion is on the horizon. In any event, Bourgault might well be the most interesting prospect the Oilers have as a trade chip, should they decide to buy aggressively this season.
Last season Bourgault made his AHL debut, performing well as a rookie. With 32 points in 58 games, there is hope for increased production, but Bourgault managed to be a healthy contributor at even strength, even playing a role on both special teams. While it wasn’t a banner season for Bourgault, he did enough to keep his projection as a prospect intact.
Bourgault is perhaps best described as a crafty and cerebral player. With some positional flexibility in his past, Bourgault is likely bound for the wing as he pushes for an NHL spot. Still, Bourgault’s game has a lot of strengths that lend themselves to his being a responsible, play-driving presence, qualities of a two-way centreman.
Bourgault is more stout than his height would suggest, and should continue to add strength and balance as he develops his body. This is unlocked with a degree of tenaciousness, as Bourgault is and will need to be a battler for the puck, especially along the boards, both willing and able.
In any case one can usually depend on Bourgault being in a responsible is not advantageous positioning. With a skilled stick, Bourgault is able to corral loose pucks, steal pucks from opposing players, or break up passes. These qualities combine to give Bourgault a path to playing time as a penalty killer, where we should like to see his role continue after contributing to the BCondors unit last season.
While some clever forechecking would be appreciated, Bourgault might do his best defensive work as a transition defender. Through the neutral zone, Bourgault should be able to funnel opponents into turnovers, neutralising would be attackers.
Bourgault’s feel for the game goes beyond defensive posture, as one of the more exciting traits shown is his ability to make smart and effective support passes. Even a short pass can break the opponent’s checking, and Bourgault will be best served to be decisive, if not intuitive, in delivering the puck up the ice. This will help Bourgault in controlling play, as his ability to distribute should help his team breakout of their zone, move through the neutral zone, and break into the attacking zone with control.
The final major element to Bourgault’s game is his work as a shooter in the offensive zone. Bourgault is able to find quiet ice in the slot, and has a half one-time shot that is quality enough to be a scoring threat. While certainly not the best shot on the team, especially at the NHL level, Bourgault has some upside as a goal scorer.
When we put these elements together Bourgault has a lot of tools to work with. While production will be an important part of what Bourgault is expected to contribute, he has a lot of value beyond scoring totals. More than anything, we should be looking for Bourgault to be a leader in icetime for Condors forwards, contributing positively in a major role in all situations in the AHL this season.
Still, there will be some temptation to take Bourgault’s production into account. Especially with some strong linemates, as well as significant power play time, Bourgault is poised to improve on his ~0.5 points per game pace from last season. Showing continued growth, playing a leading role, and producing near 0.7 points per game in the first few months of the season might be enough to warrant consideration for an NHL promotion, especially if the Oilers are dealing with injuries to their forwards en masse.
If Bourgault is able to have become such a player somewhere within the back half of this season, noise surrounding his being called up will swell, even if only for a serious chance at an NHL spot out of the 2024–25 training camp.
There is still a wide range of possibilities for how Bourgault’s game might translate to the NHL, but at this point a future as a bonafide top line player is unlikely. That said, Bourgault might well be a worthy contributor in the middle of an NHL lineup if he continues improving.
Stylistically there might be some shades of Patrice Bergeron in Bourgault’s game, though in terms of effectiveness former Oiler Kailer Yamamoto might be a more realistic expectation. Yamamoto remains a productive player, as it was the steep cap cost that forced the Oilers to move off of him rather than poor performance. Bourgault could exceed those expectations if he asserts himself as a play driver and manages to chip in with some goals thanks to his mid range shooting.
Bourgault seems to have the skills and disposition to play up and down the lineup. His promising defensive game and penalty kill usage might help earn him an NHL call up ahead of other more offensively minded Condors. Because of his cerebral support passing, and armed with some shooting ability as well, Bourgault might also make an interesting option to play with top players, who are better suited to take advantage of the primary puck handling duties or create space off of give and gos.
This is, after all, the role that fellow Oilers first-round picks have filled in the past, as both Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi have moved on after starting last season with the Oilers. Bourgault seems to be on track to being a bigger factor on the penalty kill than either Yamamoto or Puljujarvi were, but his being the top ranked prospect likely means that the hope is Bourgault has more upside as a scorer as well. While Yamamoto and Puljujarvi have their strong points, Bourgault might be a more natural fit to the Oilers offensive lineup.