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We’re now in the Tyler Wright Era of Edmonton Oilers amateur scouting. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the fate of the team is in large part in his hands. If Wright can consistently identify future Big 12 NHLers, the Oilers will have a huge leg up on their NHL competitors.
What is a Big 12 NHLer? The spine of the team, the critical players essential to any squad’s success, the No. 1 goalie, Top 4 d-men and Top 7 forwards, all the top two line forwards and one excellent checker/two-way player leading the third line.
NHL head scouts who succeed will identify at least one Big 12 player every draft year on average, they will make the most of their Top 10 overall picks, they’ll find at least one Big 12 players outside the first round every second year, and they’ll identify at least one Team Canada-quality player every four drafts.
Wright is replacing a head scout Bob Green, who did some good work in the draft. It’s not like Wright is coming in and restoring order and competence to a part of the team that had none. In fact, if there’s one area of the Edmonton Oilers operation that appears to have been functioning well in the past five years, it’s the amateur scouting department.
As new Oilers pro scout Archie Henderson told Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now: “There has been over the course of the years a real lack of legitimate NHL prospects in the organization. But in the last couple of years that has been changed. There are some young players that we do believe have good futures ahead of them, especially on the back end. I mean, you’ve got Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, (William) Lagesson, (Evan) Bouchard, (Dmitri) Samorukov. I would say that in the American League level as far as prospects go, those five may be as good as any other NHL team has playing in their system to develop into the NHL defenceman.”
Henderson’s positive take on Edmonton’s prospects isn’t rose-coloured optimism. It aligns with improved performances each year of numerous prospects, from Samorukov and Jones on defence to Tyler Benson and Cooper Marody at forward.
All this raises the question of whether Oilers GM Ken Holland made the right choice in moving out Green in favour of Wright. I’m digging into this question in a few posts, the first of which established some back-of-the-envelope criteria to judge scouts and looked at Green’s record running the amateur scouting department.
In this second post today, we’ll look at how past Oilers head scouts have done, which will give us one more point when we rate Wright’s work in Columbus and Detroit in the final post in this series.
Strong: The Barry Fraser Era, 1979-2000
Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson
Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson
Outside of Wayne Gretzky, Glen Sather and Peter Pocklington, Barry Fraser is as much as anyone responsible for Edmonton’s five Stanley Cups from 1984 to 1990.
Fraser was the chief scout who drafted all-time NHL greats like Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, often with lower round picks.
But there’s a rub — all those players were taken in Fraser’s first three drafts. After that, he had marginal success. In eight draft years — 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995 — he and his scouts failed to draft even one Big 12 player.
When we look at Fraser’s entire 22 year run, how did he do?
Here’s the list of Big 12 players he drafted in that time.
Did the scouts make best use of all their Top 10 overall picks? In his 22 years, Fraser had seven picks in the Top Ten of a draft. In 1980, he took Paul Coffey 6th overall, with Grant Fuhr 8th overall in 1981, Jason Arnott 7th in 1993, Jason Bonsignore 4th in 1994, Ryan Smyth 6th in 1994, Steve Kelly 6th in 1995 and Boyd Devereaux 6th in 1996. So he got two Hall-of-Fame players in Coffey and Fuhr, two other Team Canada-quality players in Arnott and Smyth, and had three duds-to-mediocre NHLers. Even a great team of scouts is going to have the odd dud with a Top 10 pick (the success rate of picks five-to-ten is pretty much a coin flip on average for NHL teams, with half being good-to-great players and half being mediocre-to-duds), but this is one dud too many to give Fraser top marks in this category. At the same time, with picks like Coffey, Fuhr, Smyth and Arnott, it’s tough to fail Fraser. Given that most of Fraser’s Top 10 picks were not at the very top end of the draft and he found two Hall-of-Fame players in the five-to-ten overall range, I’m inclined to say he passed this test. It’s not like he had endless first overall picks thrown his way.
Edmonton Oilers defenceman Randy Gregg, a brilliant amateur free agent signing along with d-man Charlie Huddy STAFF FILE / EDMONTON JOURNAL
Did the scouts find at least one Big 12 player on average each year of the draft? In his 22 drafts, Fraser grabbed twenty-three Big 12 players. He also signed amateur free agents Charlie Huddy and Randy Gregg, bumping up his number to twenty-five Big 12 players in 22 draft years. He passes this test as well. The only proviso here is that Fraser found eight Big 12 players in his first three years, then just seventeen in his final 19 drafts. He had a complete and ugly dry spell for five years from 1986 to 1990. That crippled the Oilers in the mid-1990s, especially when Pocklington sold off Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier for money and far lesser players.
Did the scouts identify at least one Team Canada-quality player every four years in the draft? By my assessment, Fraser drafted ten Team Canada-quality players, and he signed two others, Huddy and Gregg, as amateur free agents. Huddy and Gregg both made the 1984 Canada Cup team. By this measure, Fraser scores exceedingly well in this category. In fact, he killed here. By comparison, when the Detroit Red Wings were at the very height of their drafting acumen from 1983 to 2004, they drafted only eight Team Canada-quality players in those 22 years. Fraser outpaced that stellar performance.
Legendary Oilers scout Barry Fraser
Did the scouts draft a Big 12 player outside of the first round every second year? Sharp-eyed Fraser also rocks this category, having found sixteen Big 12 players outside the first round (the 32nd pick in the draft and later). Again, we add in Gregg and Huddy here and it’s clear Fraser and his team had success by this measure. Indeed, his eighteen Big 12 later round gems in 22 drafts is just one less than the Detroit record of nineteen uncut gems during its excellent 1983-to-2004 run.
Overall, Fraser passes every category, some with the flying-est of colours. If he had not had that terrible run of drafting from 1986 to 1990, and if had not blown three Top Ten picks in the 1990s, we might be calling Fraser the greatest scout in NHL history. He’s most certainly in the Top Five.
His reputation has been tarnished because of his work after 1983, but his final drafts through the 1990s weren’t disasters and brought the Oilers many of the key players (Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Ryan Smyth and Fernando Pisani) who would help the team come within one game of winning the 2006 Stanley Cup.
All hail Barry the Far-sighted!
Edmonton Oilers winger Jarret Stoll (right) celebrates LARRY WONG / EDMONTON JOURNAL
Weak: The Kevin Prendergast Era, 2001 to 2007 drafts
Prendergast took over from Fraser in the 2001 draft, and the story goes that his best pick was the first one he ever made, Ales Hemsky.
But how did Prendergast do overall?
Did the scouts make best use of all their Top 10 overall picks? Prendergast had just one such pick in his seven years, Sam Gagner taken 6th overall in 2007. It’s up for debate but I don’t think Gagner has been a successful Big 12 player. He’s not been a dud but I can’t give Prendergast a pass in this category. Gagner might well be a useful Oilers winger this year, but he has too many defensive holes in his game and not quite enough offence, which is why he’s bounced around so much.
Did the scouts find at least one Big 12 player on average each year of the draft? With just five Big 12 players in seven drafts, Prendergast failed to meet this test as well.
Did the scouts identify at least one Team Canada-quality player every four years in the draft? Prendergast would have to have found two such players to pass this test. Hemsky arguably had that kind of quality and Devan Dubnyk had a strong five year run with the Wild, so I’ll give this one to Prendergast, though just barely.
Did the scouts draft a Big 12 player outside of the first round every second year? In seven years Prendergast found Stoll at 36th overall and Petry at 45th overall, both solid Big 12 players, but that was it for late round gems. Prendergast failed here.
Prendergast didn’t have a great record. There are way too many misses with first and second round players like Doug Lynch, Ed Caron, Jesse Niinimaki, Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Colin McDonald, Jean-Francois Jacques, Rob Schremp, Roman Tesliuk, Geoff Paukovich, Taylor Chorney and Alex Plante. Prendergast needed two or three of these players to turn into Big 12ers, along with one or two more late round gems. But not to be, and this failure is a big reason why the Oilers collapsed into the Decade of Darkness, which started in 2006-07, the last of Prendergast’s years in charge of the draft.
WEAKEST: The Stu MacGregor Era, 2008-2014
If Kevin Prendergast dug the pit of the Decade of Darkness, Stu MacGregor and his scouts built the unsound foundation.
Did the scouts make best use of all their Top 10 overall picks? In six of his seven years running amateur scouting, MacGregor had Top 10 overall picks. Three of those picks were first overall selections, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, with MacGregor and his scouts famously being over-ruled by management on their wish to draft Ryan Murray over Yakupov (but it’s not like Murray has smoked the NHL either). MacGregor’s team can boast of drafting Leon Draisaitl fourth overall in 2014 and Darnell Nurse 7th overall in 2017, but it flopped taking Magnus Paajarvi 10th overall in 2009. With the Yakupov/Murray and Paajarvi failures, it’s hard to give MacGregor a pass here, but I can’t fail him either, given the success of Hall, RNH, Nurse and Draisaitl. He’s in the grey zone on this one, even as the Yakupov/Murray fiasco stinks things up.
Did the scouts find at least one Big 12 player on average each year of the draft? Yes, the team found at least seven such players, but it also had six Top 10 picks and three first overall, so it’s hard to get too excited about MacGregor passing in this category.
Did the scouts identify at least one Team Canada-quality player every four years in the draft? Hall, Draisaitl and RNH are all Team Canada-quality, and Erik Gustafsson in Chicago is trending that way. So a solid pass here, even if Hall and Gustasson are no longer OIlers.
Did the scouts draft a Big 12 player outside of the first round every second year? Here is where things get painful. Here is where MacGregor failed miserably. In his seven drafts, he found just one player, Gustafsson, outside the first round who became a Big 12 players. MacGregor completely missed with numerous first, second and third round picks including Yakupov, Paajarvi, Anton Lander, Troy Hesketh, Cameron Abney, Curtis Hamilton, Ryan Martindale, David Musil, Samu Perhonen, Travis Ewanyk, Mitch Moroz, Danil Zharkov, Marco Roy, Bogdan Yakimov, Anton Slepyshev. There’s still a chance that William Lagesson will become a Big 12 player, but overall MacGregor’s record when it comes to finding late round gems is atrocious.
Anton Lander of the Edmonton Oilers puts on a team jersey handed to him from Stu MacGregor BRUCE BENNETT / GETTY IMAGES
In total, given the first round picks he had to work with, MacGregor didn’t come close to succeeding. He had two strong picks with Jordan Eberle and Oscar Klefbom, and he made the right calls on Draisaitl and Nurse, but that’s the best you can say about his seven years. The lack of prospect depth created then has only been now been addressed to some extent by Bob Green and Keith Gretzky. It’s a big reason why the early years of the McDavid era were unsuccessful.
Indeed, outside of Fraser’s five wretched years in the draft from 1986-1990, the MacGregor era is the worst in Edmonton’s history.
It’s still early days for rating Green and Gretzky, but they have almost certainly done a much better job than MacGregor and Prendergast did. They haven’t yet succeeded in the way that Barry Fraser did for a short time but things are trending well, as Henderson suggests, with about 16 players in their five drafts having a decent chance to become Big 12 players.