Since arriving as head coach in 2000, Craig MacTavish has auditioned 19 rookie defensemen: They are listed below (in bold for their first Oiler appearance) and before the lockout received very little ice time.
Janne Ninnimaa (2078)
Tom Poti (1842)
Jason Smith (1776)
Igor Ulanov (1542)
Eric Brewer (1425)
Sean Brown (689)
Scott Ferguson (218)
Frank Musil (145)
Sven Butenschon (78)
Chris Hajt (7)
- There was a nice veteran presence, with Jason Smith, Igor Ulanov and before his injury Frank Musil giving the team some experience.
Ferguson was 27-years old and had played 3 NHL games (with 2 NHL teams) before arriving in camp fall 2000. Hajt was a highly touted defenseman getting his first cup of coffee.
2001-02 (Rookie Minutes: 30. Percentage: .3)
Janne Niinimaa (2108)
Eric Brewer (1938)
Jason Smith (1555)
Tom Poti (1325-est)
Steve Staios (1320)
Sean Brown (763-est)
Scott Ferguson (683)
Sven Butenschon (135)
Ales Pisa (30)
Steve Staios arrives and Tom Poti departs. Poti and Brown’s minutes are estimated because I can’t find their actual totals.
Pisa gets a cup of coffee and there are still youngsters (Brewer 2nd in overall minutes, Poti would have been up there if he’d stayed).
The Oilers made their decision on two young D the same day: Poti and Brown dealt at the deadline, and the Butenschon minutes all came (iirc) after they left themselves undermanned with the late deadline deal that sent away Poti.
2002-03 (Rookie Minutes: 1736. Percentage: 17.8)
- Eric Brewer (1994)
- Steve Staios (1693)
- Janne Niinimaa(1687-est)
- Jason Smith (1480)
- Scott Ferguson (959)
- Alexei Semenov (905)
- Ales Pisa (622-est)
- Cory Cross (196-est)
- Kari Haakana (103)
- MA Bergeron (82)
- Alex Henry (21)
- Bobby Allen (3)
- Semenov was another highly touted Oilers pick who began an audition that lasted over two years and resulted in failure. He was not as advertised. Pisa showed well enough to get himself packaged in a deal that brought in experience (Cory Cross) and Kari Haakana looked capable but slow in his 100 minutes.
- Pisa belongs to the “Scott Ferguson” group whose pro experience makes them less vulnerable as rookies.
- Marc-Andre Bergeron represents the first “chaos D” from the rookies who arrived under MacT (the others were chaotic but Bergeron was that high risk, high reward type who can kill a coach’s career single-handedly).
- Alex Henry and Bobby Allen would have NHL careers but not in Edmonton.
- Fans used to push all the kids over Scott Ferguson but the guy played a simple game and was reliable. His NHL career should serve as a template for someone like Matt Greene.
2003-04 (Rookie Minutes: 980. Percentage: 9.95)
- Eric Brewer (1899)
- Steve Staios (1890)
- Jason Smith (1452)
- Cory Cross (1308)
- MA Bergeron (953)
- Igor Ulanov (833)
- Alexei Semenov (794)
- Scott Ferguson (694)
- Mikko Luoma (17)
- Doug Lynch (10)
- Bergeron just got traded again and I’m reading over at HF that it’s a case of “another team giving up on him.” I don’t buy that. Anaheim has money issues and may want to elevate a prospect, but Bergeron has value (as indicated by the calibre of draft pick coming back and the year the pick comes in). The Oilers decided to go another direction but that kid worked like a bugger every minute he played for Edmonton and I think Bergeron’s development and NHL career are a credit to him and a coach who believed in what he brought to each game.
- Luoma was the third in the group of Euro overages (Pisa, Haakana) who were drafted and filled a gap that should have belonged to Chris Hajt and Alex Henry.
- Oilers at this point are very stable on the blue, with the top 3 (Brewer, Staios, Smith) representing the heart of the club at this position throught the early 00′s.
- Doug Lynch looks like an afterthought but he would have been a quality player imo. AHL all-star at age 20 who loses his career to a misdiagnosed hand injury. Lordy.
2005-06 (Rookie Minutes: 439. Percentage: 4.45)
- Chris Pronger (2239)
- Steve Staios (1712)
- MA Bergeron (1592)
- Jason Smith (1493)
- Jaroslav Spacek (760-est)
- Igor Ulanov (609)
- Cory Cross (454-est)
- Dick Tarnstrom (373-est)
- Matt Greene (303)
- Danny Syvret (123)
- Alexei Semenov (119)
- Dan Smith (79)
- Mathieu Roy (13)
- Matt Greene arrives to eventually fill the toughness/grit role and eventually replace Jason Smith in the top 4 (it’s ongoing). The Oilers management group and MacT clearly believe in him and they are often right on defenders. The worry is that he’ll emerge as a legit beast just as he arrives at free agency. Seriously. His development curve was delayed because of the college career and he’s long in the tooth for where he is on the depth chart but if he has a big 08-09 he’s on the verge of free agency with all the development warts worn off and 10 years of blacktop.
- Danny Syvret begins his NHL audition that will eventually see him dealt in 2008.
- Mathieu Roy keeps climbing up the depth chart and arrives ahead of many drafted earler.
2006-07 (Rookie Minutes: 3217. Percentage: 34.4)
- Jason Smith (1733)
- Ladislav Smid (1481)
- Matt Greene (1373)
- Steve Staios (1240)
- MA Bergeron (939-est)
- Daniel Tjarnqvist (840)
- Jan Hedja (795)
- Danny Syvret (295)
- Tom Gilbert (241)
- Mathieu Roy (226)
- Bryan Young (151)
- Sebastian Bisaillon (28)
- Smid was going to play based on who he was traded for and he looked like a fish out of water much of the time. Still, he survived and is certainly a young player of value moving forward. It’s my guess that he’s #6 on the depth chart entering training camp which would make a draft day trade or pressbox time a possibility for him.
- Jan Hejda would fall under the “Scott Ferguson” umbrella of rookies who aren’t really based on their own resume at the pro level. Hejda was a brilliant acquisition who was eventually wasted.
- Mathieu Roy keeps hanging around and plays well when healthy. We may look back on these years and see that the injuries delayed a fine career, but it’s more likely they’ve derailed it.
- Syvret gets a legit shot but eventually lost in the flood. Tom Gilbert shows extremely well before injury and that forces the team to bring in everyone who can skate. Bryan Young and Sebastien Bisaillon arrive long before their time.
2007-08 (Rookie Minutes: 1972 Percentage: 21.4)
- Tom Gilbert (1820)
- Steve Staios (1805)
- Joni Pitkanen (1519)
- Denis Grebeshkov (1198)
- Ladislav Smid (1161)
- Matt Greene (768)
- Sheldon Souray (633)
- Allan Rourke (142)
- Mathieu Roy (135)
- Theo Peckham (13)
- Bryan Young (4)
- Gilbert was a rookie but his leading TOI total had more to do with injury than MacT’s desire to thrust him into a role. Besides, he grabbed the job by the throat early on and by the time he stepped off the gas he was clearly in the top 4D with no better options available. A very nice career curve.
- Roy is starting to lose his career to injury. The fact that the NHL still regards him as a rookie was a surprise to me (he has to have been on an NHL roster for one full season by now).
- Peckham got his audition when there were others available, likely as a reward for coming all the way from the ECHL to being a guy the AHL coach could put on the ice in any situation.
- Bryan Young may be this generation’s Chris Hajt.
- The best rookie in the group was Tom Gilbert (07-08), and I’d suggest that Bergeron (03-04) and Jan Hejda (06-07) were also quality as rookies.
- The only rookies who got significant icetime over an extended period despite looking overmatched were Alexei Semenov and Ladislav Smid.
I think we can place these 19 rookies in 5 distinct categories:
- The Scott Ferguson group (Ferguson, Pisa, Haakana, Luoma, Hejda) who had a lot of experience in quality pro leagues before arrival in the NHL. I’d say that Josef Hrabel might belong to this group although he’s younger than the men listed.
- The Chris Hajt group (Hajt, Bobby Allen, Alex Henry) who were AHL defenders on the fringe of the show. Some of these guys ended up playing quite a bit in other organizations. Although not a rookie, Allan Rourke would be in this group, and for next season I’d bet the Oilers will sign one or two AHL veterans for insurance.
- The MA Bergeron group (Bergeron, Alexei Semenov, Doug Lynch, Matt Greene, Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert, Theo Peckham) who the organization considers quality options who may end up being long term solutions. Among the group either heading to the AHL or already there I’d bet that Taylor Chorney, Cody Wild are part of this group and Sebastien Bisaillon is headed in that direction.
- The Danny Syvret group (Syvret, Mathieu Roy) who show enough in the minors to get an NHL look despite not being “A” type prospects. Bryan Young is likely to end up part of this group.
- The Bryan Young Group (Young, Bisaillon) who are emergency callups and may be part of either the Bergeron or Syvret groups.
19 rookies have arrived under Craig MacTavish to play defense in the NHL. Of those, 2 from the Ferguson group (Ferugson, Hejda), 1 from the Hajt group (Henry) and 4 from the Bergeron group (Bergeron, Greene, Smid, Gilbert) have played significant roles for a season or more in the NHL.
The Oilers have devoted a tremendous amount of time since fall 2000 to developing NHL defensemen. Do rookie minutes show up in the standings?
- 00-01: 2.23% and they Lost in Round One
- 01-02: 0.3% and they missed the playoffs
- 02-03: 17.8% and they Lost in Round One
- 03-04: 9.95% and they missed the playoffs
- 05-06: 4.45% and they Lost in the Finals
- 06-07: 34.4% and they missed the playoffs
- 07-08: 21.4% and they missed the playoffs
Injuries have certainly been a factor in some seasons, but in ’01, ’03 and especially in ’06 there were veterans in important positions and rookies auditioning in middle relief. If the Edmonton Oilers are serious about making the ’09 post-season, the rookie minutes ratio needs to come down drastically from the last two years which should happen even if they don’t do anything to address the blueline this summer.
However, it wouldn’t hurt to include Smid or Greene as part of a package and add a veteran from the Ulanov/Cross tree to go with the top 4D (Pitkanen, Staios, Gilbert, Grebeshkov).
Call it Souray insurance.