I’d begun to notice something of a trend recently amongst the Oilers’ prospects and decided to take a closer look. Excluding 1st overall picks, is there a one area in which the Oilers are collecting the majority of their successful draft picks? In other words, who, based on draft pick performance to-date, are the Oilers’ best amateur scouts?
The Oilers scouting group is headed by Stu MacGregor, but also features others among the ranks, including Frank Musil, Brad Davis (son of former scout Lorne Davis), Bob Brown, Kent Hawley, Jim Crosson and others. Given the importance of the draft in the modern NHL and the Oilers’ dependence on that aspect of talent acquisition lately, which of these scouts is delivering at peak performance?
How does one evaluate an amateur scouting group? Over time, the results should speak for themselves, but we are five years in on MacGregor’s tenure as head scout now and this is as good a time as any to begin the process of performance evaluation. Also, because amateur scouting is a delayed results business, continual review is necessary. Otherwise a scouting group could be making serious errors for years before the problems became apparent, at which point the damage has already been done to the organization.
Grading the Scouts
If a scouting group can be evaluated by the amount and quality of talent brought in under their watch, regardless of whether that talent blossoms within the same team or another organization, then we are starting to get some data we can use to answer this question.
I’m not the first person to look at this. Curcro over at coppernblue.com has an article looking at the overall amateur drafting by the Oilers. And our own esteemed Jonathan Willis had a look at the Oilers amateur scouting crew shortly after Stu MacGregor took the reins back in 2008. You can find it here, and it gives an overview of the different people responsible for the various regions at the time.
I am looking at the Oilers’ prospects taken between 2008 and 2012, the Stu MacGregor era, grouping them according to region drafted, and then grading them based on a variety of rankings including Lowetide’s top 20s, Hockey’s Future, Corey Pronman at Hockey Prospectus and giving weight to LT’s oft-cited preference for players with a “wide range of skills”. In some cases players who have made the jump to the AHL/ECHL may be ranked ahead of those still playing junior and those who have signed professional deals are ahead of those still unsigned.
To that end I created a table of each player selected from one of the above-mentioned regions and then ranked them based on their overall success post-draft, with the exclusion of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.
Oilers’ Scouting Group
Stu “the Magnificent Bastard” MacGregor oversees the Oilers amateur drafting, an area with which, for better or for worse, many Oilers fans may have become familiar these past few seasons. He was elevated to that post in 2008 from the regional scout for the WHL, taking over from Kevin Prendergast as Head of Amateur Scouting. He is the figurehead of the dark and shadowy group that has been responsible for putting together the foundation of this rebuild.
Stu MacGregor is the grand poobah of the amateur scouting team, with him is Bill Dandy working the QMJHL, Kent Hawley and Brad Davis in the OHL, and Bob Brown and Jim Crosson keeping an eye on the WHL, USHL and other assorted Tier II Junior leagues. Overseas Frank Musil, Pelle Eklund and Robert Nordmark are the Oilers’ European eyes and ears. Musil had originally been the Oilers European professional scout but moved to the amateur side of things after Kent Nilsson left. All this information is off of the Oilers website, and it should be noted that the team appears to be somewhat reticent to reveal too much information on their scouting corps online. Some teams’ sites will list the entire scouting staff in an administration directory, while the Oilers’ site does not.
Here is the list of the Oilers’s draft picks from 2008 to 2012 by region. I’ve ranked them within that region according to talent, both potential and delivered. Players that have managed NHL games are at the top of the list, those that have gone unsigned are at the bottom. Players who have made the jump from junior to pro are ahead of those still in junior or NCAA. Your opinions may differ, but the results aren’t really skewed by the ranking so much as the overall NHL-worthiness of the picks themselves.
I have put in italics any players who have more or less graduated to become NHL players. Players in green have been traded, those in blue have been signed to professional contracts, and those in grey have been flushed from the prospect system. The importance isn’t in the rankings so much as the players who have been signed or made the NHL versus those who have been let go. Blue is a benchmark of success for a draft pick, relative to their draft ranking, while grey is an outright failed pick.
The WHL, USHL, NCAA, etc…
The WHL and US development leagues are obviously the regions where the Oilers have committed the majority of their scouting resources, be they man-hours, draft picks or pro contracts. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly if you are a regular reader of the Oilogosphere, there appear to be some redundancies in some of the selections made; specifically, a snipe hunt for a big scoring forward. The Oilers have looked for this Lucic-ness under many rocks in the WHL, and have selected players like Drew Czerwonka, Cameron Abney, John McCarron, Jujhar Khaira, Mitchell Moroz, Travis Ewanyk, Curtis Hamilton, and Tyler Pitlick all in their quest for “size with scoring”. Had they been able to arrange a trade at last year’s draft I believe we could have added Henrik Samuelsson to this list, and depending on what happens this June, perhaps another name will follow.
The results have been mixed, and the table would appear to have a significant gap in the middle as well as the most departed picks of any group, in fact we may be adding to that list in a month or two. That being said, many of those selected are either currently in the NCAA or were selected last June and therefore need not be signed immediately so the jury is still out on a number of prospects listed. In fact, in two years’ time this list could feature three more signed prospects in Khaira, Simpson, Moroz and Laleggia.
There are some promising players in this group. Mitch Moroz, for all the questions about where he was drafted, has an interesting assortment of tools and Jujhar Khaira may just be the sleeper in this group when it comes to eventual NHL talent. Cameron Abney was considered a mistake when he was selected in the third round and history changed many minds since.
Of the three players from this group who have since been let go, the highest was a 3rd round pick out of high school. I think we can say that this scouting group is performing well enough but that they leave ample room for improvement and some of these selections are always going to haunt them (Abney, Hesketh, and heaven help them if Moroz washes out).
Looking at the table, it would appear that of the four regions, the OHL and QMJHL are fairly underrepresented in the Oilers’ draft agenda, and keeping in mind that we have excluded Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov from this discussion as 1st overall selections. The QMJHL in particular is a region the Oilers have shied away from, for whatever reason, and the drafted prospects from that league have been underwhelming albeit from a small sample size. Even when one dials back the clock to the beginning of the century to look at previous selections from that league there aren’t many names that stand out in a positive light: Vyacheslav Trukhno, Stephane Goulet, M.A. Pouliot, J.F. Jacques, Mathieu Roy, Jeff Deslauriers, J.F. Dufort, and Ales Hemsky. It appears as though either the Oilers have found better options in other regions when it is their turn at the podium. The QMJHL is a league that has produced some astounding talent over the past few decades, but it has been a slightly smaller talent pool these past few years when compared to the OHL, WHL and European leagues. As such the Oilers may not have been in a position to have drafted as many impact players from that league, in addition to their obvious preference for the WHL.
The OHL has had a slightly better representation in the Oilers’ draft ledger, although the scouting staff again appears content to let them sit at the kiddie table on draft day. Under MacGregor, the highest selection the Oilers have used on the OHL, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov aside, is a 3rd round pick on Ryan Martindale (61st overall). Considering that the Oilers knew well in advance in the past three years that they would be drafting at or around 1st overall, and thus spent a good deal of time looking at the best and brightest of the OHL during Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov’s draft years, it is telling to see that they they preferred prospects in the other leagues ahead of the OHL with some of their mid-round selections.
The few selections made from the OHL have outperformed those made from the QMJHL, based on early returns and a very small sample size, and again excluding Yakupov and Hall. Rieder was an intriguing prospect prior to being traded to Phoenix and could become at least the equivalent to Cornet thought I suspect much better once he turns pro, while both Martindale and Roy have made the jump from junior to the AHL/ECHL, neither has found any great deal of sustainable succes. The deciding vote is in the development and talent ceiling of Zharkov over Jeremie Blain. While Zharkov’s second junior season has seen some ups and downs, he remains an interesting forward prospect. It may not be much, but in this small a sample size it gives the OHL the clear win over the Q.
Across the Pond
By my eye, the best of the scouting group right now is Frank Musil with Eklund and Nordmark over in Europe. Musil and company are delivering quality prospects with late picks. Only twice have they had 1st round picks and they recommended Paajarvi and Klefbom at 10th and 19th overall. While Paajarvi may never be as attractive a pick as Eberle or Hall, he is a quality NHL player and Klefbom apparently has the skillset to convince Oilers managment that he is the answer to many of their defensive problems.
Musil and the European scouts have had only one clear bust in Johan Motin, and even he hung around the organization for a long time. Of the prospects taken, only two remain unsigned, one who was selected just last year and the other who has two more years of eligibility remaining before the Oilers need to make a decision. In addition, three of their recommended players have already logged NHL minutes and are on the cusp of a career in the big leagues in Paajarvi, Lander and Hartikainen.
How Do They Measure Up?
Overall, the Oilers have room for improvement in some areas of their amateur drafting department. But there are also some men out there working where a good manager ought to know to just leave them well enough alone. They are doing their job and then some.
I don’t know that the Oilers could gain much by increasing their scouting footprint in the QMJHL, though there have been some prospects I had hoped they would select, Martin Frk and Tomas Jurco to name two recent examples. Frk for instance, was taken 49th overall by the Red Wings last year, well after Mitch Moroz, and is a 6’ 200lb winger registering a point for every penalty minute this season (84 apiece).
The OHL has some interesting prospects every year, but so often this league is overscouted by the Eastern teams, not to mention covered like a blanket by many in the Eastern-based sports media. Finding the hidden gem in this league may be more difficult because of the sheer number of eyes on every player.
The WHL is delivering decent money on the bets placed so far and Stu MacGregor could retire on the goodwill he earned with that first selection he made back in 2008. But that is what eventually sunk Barry Fraser and he took the entire organization with him into the cold, dark, murky depths of the NHL. I would like to see some diversification to other NA leagues, specifically the QMJHL, however I think that MacGregor is already retooling this scouting group to take some eyes off the WHL and move them to the NCAA. Recent drafts have had more collegiate players, most notably the 2012 draft class that focused heavily on the overage prospects.
It is incumbent on Craig MacTavish to keep the scouting group fresh and on their toes, as well, management sets the tone for prospect valuations and preferred skills. The recent change of senior management is likely to bring about some alterations to the drafting record.
I like some of MacGregor’s picks, and his willingness to advocate for tougher players like Henrik Samuelsson, speaks to a hockey mind that recognizes the need for a variety of player types. However, there are just enough question marks with some of the selections to lead me to believe that we’ll have to keep a close eye on this group. One failed draft can have serious consequences down the road, and the truly good teams find consistency in all aspects, including procurement.
If I had to pick an eventual successor to Stu MacGregor it wouldn’t be Frank Musil. The man is doing far too good a job where he is. Buy him a cabin on a lake somewhere and give him Hakan Andersson’s phone number so they can spend their off-season fishing and swapping stories, but for the love of Tikkanen keep that man overseas where he is doing his best work. I won’t say that Musil, Eklund and Nordmark routinely find can’t miss prospects because there is virtually no such thing, but they are finding some quality players in late rounds. They are looking in off-the-beaten-track places (Germany, Latvia, Slovakia) and funneling talent into the Oilers development system on a consistent basis. You can’t really ask for too much more than that.