I was recently asked by a friend, “Who is the best young Oiler?” This is due to the fact I follow the team as a fan regularly. I decided to take up the challenge from my own take on the current roster, but to focus on the players I’ve seen more often than not this season. Yes, I realize I am omitting some significant talent in the club.
When we look at the youth core, and we tend to forget a young long-tooth, and one I will start with is Sam Gagner. In the league 5 years already, but he’s only 23. His best years are still ahead of him. He’s already very established for a guy projected to be a career second line center. He could prove them all wrong. I suspect he’d be in my top 3.
Justin Shultz is young for a D-man in the league, and his Minor league/college numbers have certainly been status quo so far for a rookie in the NHL thus far. He’s performing great for Edmonton, and has the ice time to continue to develop at a high level. I have to think if he only gets better from here, the word “Norris” might be a possibility for this very young defenceman.
Devan Dubnyk. We all know goalies are weirdos. While he has been in the system for a long time, and he’s not a “youngster,” per say, I would argue that in goalie years, he is. Goalies are the drummers of the team, if you will. Totally literally marching to the beat of their own drum. When it comes to the modern era, he has the wanted size. For age and experience, he is getting the opportunity to develop alongside a Stanley Cup winning veteran as HIS backup, which says a lot for the Oilers confidence in him. And without much defensive help in front of him, he’s doing very well. But goalies are hit and miss. I can’t place him in my top 3 at all. Too hard to predict goal tending, in my opinion. But I do really want him to continue to succeed.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Oh man, what high expectations have been thrust on this kid. He had a decent debut season. Much like Gagner, he came in really early, and should be given time to deliver. Will he eventually tie Gagner with an 8 point night against Chicago last year? Doubtful. Not a top 3 guy for me just yet.
Nail Yakupov. First season. Shortened season. Russian, but I’m not slapping the enigmatic label on him. I’m not slapping the “playing for the first long term contract, and then checking out” label on him. He clearly loves to play, and his enthusiasm is sick. He’s fun to watch, and if you don’t smile with him when he does well, he’s probably just scored on “your” team. It is way too difficult to say just yet what his future holds. Not in my top 3.
That brings us to Hall (not to dismiss Magnus Pääjärvi andTeemu Hartikainen who could sneak up on us as they develop). Hall has a ridiculous skill set. He’s aggressive, skilled, confident, and reliable for the most part. I think his defensive game might need some work, but he’s still a lad with a fire that needs tending to. He could use advice from a guy like Ryan Smyth, and I suspect he is getting it. I really like how he plays, but it’s so high risk I worry he might have his career cut short. I honestly think if he stays healthy, he might be the cream of the crop. He did not have the luxury of being thrust into a winning team and capture a cup as a result of the Leafs and Bruins situation. That is a very important difference maker. But I will still put him in my top 3.
So who am I obviously leaving out at this point? Jordan Eberle. I’ve always found the word “clutch” intangible Yes, I know what it is supposed to mean. But this guy never seems to let the game get to him on any level, in any league, period. If that is “clutch” and he is the guy you can rely on to make it happen, yeah this brother is clutch. Plus, I would argue he has the best over stats for the youth core coming in. I think he would be my number one.
So for me, it’s Eberle, Gagner, and Hall in no particular order. If you force me to pick who is the best of the youth core right now, I’m going to say Eberle.
On a final note, and an important one. All of these youth are being exposed currently to a culture of losing. Sociologically as a group, I would argue this is very dangerous. They could become complacent to collecting a paycheck and playing with their “bros.” Psychologically, this also applies, but if one is moved, this will be the culture that all they know when they arrive elsewhere. In the long-term, it could also serve as their folly clicking with a new club.