Lowetide: What's Oilers prospect defenceman Max Wanner's NHL ETA?

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Lowetide: What's Oilers prospect defenceman Max Wanner's NHL ETA?

Shutdown defencemen are the most difficult players to evaluate as prospects.

Junior leagues and the AHL do not publish ice time, and that’s a major indicator of player performance. The head coach sends his best players out more often, and if it’s a player who doesn’t deliver much offensively there’s little evidence even if the performance is a good one.

We are left to track other things, and one of the key measurements is even-strength goal share.

It tells us how well the player performed, and the total goals (in games played) give us the best available clue about ice time at even strength.

Wanner is a rookie, age 20. What do his numbers look like compared to other Oilers prospects who played at the same age?

PlayerYearGPGF-GAPct

2017-18

37

14-21

40

2017-18

68

30-54

36

2019-20

54

41-51

45

2019-20

47

30-38

44

2020-21

21

11-13

46

2021-22

31

30-15

67

2022-23

39

24-28

46

Wanner’s AHL rookie season includes big minutes (right from the start of the year) and enough chaos in outscoring at even strength for him to land below 50 percent.

One of the things that has value in monitoring minor-league numbers is measuring prospects as each season rolls along.

The best way to evaluate a player is to compare performance with teammates. Men who play on the same team, have the same coaching, systems and goaltenders allow us to have the best look at a specific player compared to men performing the same job.

Here are the splits, including games and even-strength goal differential at even strength.

First 19 games

PlayerGPEV Goal Pct

Philip Broberg

8

9-4 (69 pct)

Ben Gleason

14

11-6 (65 pct)

Phil Kemp

19

15-10 (60 pct)

Noel Hoefenmayer

15

11-10 (52 pct)

Markus Niemelainen

15

9-10 (47 pct)

Max Wanner

19

11-15 (42 pct)

Cam Dineen

19

11-17 (39 pct)

All numbers even strength

Wanner played a regular shift out of the box as an AHL rookie and went 1-1 at even-strength goals with partner Cam Dineen in his first pro game.

For most AHL rookies, and especially defencemen, there is usually a period of adjustment making the transition from junior hockey to the AHL. Wanner played elevated minutes from the outset and has continued to do so through the first 39 games of the 2023-24 season.

He has size (6-foot-3, 184 pounds, according to the AHL site), plays bigger than those numbers and has a rugged, borderline filthy style.

Oilers management reportedly loves him, and he does represent the kind of player pursued by the team since Ken Holland’s arrival in the spring of 2019 as general manager.

Last 20 games

In the first 19 games, Wanner played often with Dineen at even strength. When the veteran puck mover was out of the lineup, coach Colin Chaulk placed him often with veteran Noel Hoefenmayer or Markus Niemelainen.

The big minutes continued, and the results improved for Wanner at even strength.

PlayerGPEV Goal Pct

Markus Niemelainen

20

8-5 (62 pct)

Philip Broberg

13

14-9 (61 pct)

Ben Gleason

15

13-12 (52 pct)

Max Wanner

20

13-13 (50 pct)

Phil Kemp

12

3-3 (50 pct)

Noel Hoefenmayer

13

9-11 (45 pct)

Cam Dineen

6

2-0 (100 pct)

Wanner looks more comfortable in his role. He’s a rugged player in a tough league (the AHL can be nasty) and finding a way to help his team.

The progress made in even-strength scoring may not shine like a diamond, but for rookie defencemen, playing in one of the best leagues in the world, survival is success.

The next step

The AHL is a league designed to smooth the rough edges, teach patience, reading plays and getting young players used to the wear and tear of a long professional season.

Wanner appears to be well-suited to the rigours of the game at this level, so the question then focuses on his being NHL-ready.

How close is he?

Wanner is best described as a shutdown defender, a defence-first player. Here’s a list of Oilers blue with similar resumes and their development time (represented by regular games played in the AHL before graduation to the NHL).

Wanner is just 39 games into his AHL career, and most of these names (Darnell Nurse was a top-10 selection) spent well over one full season in the minors before emerging as true NHL options.

Early days, Wanner’s numbers bear a resemblance to Martin Marincin and Brandon Davidson at the same stage of their careers.

Will Wanner play in the NHL? 

There are two things to consider when discussing Wanner as a potential NHL player.

First, he was drafted in the pandemic season.

There were fewer eyes on Wanner, who played sparingly in a year when the scouting community was not able to cover the draft eligible players over the winter. Wanner’s seventh-round selection might have been a far different story in a normal WHL season.

Second, his game is heavily weighted to the defensive side of the puck. Identifying quality in this area is difficult because the measurements used at the minor-league level are not publicly available.

We can compare goal shares from past comparable players, like Marincin and Davidson, but their rookie seasons took place during the 2012-13 lockout season.

The best solution in this case is to look exclusively at the games played in the AHL after the NHL resumed playing games.

In 34 games after the lockout lifted in 2012-13, Marincin was a feature player on Edmonton’s farm team. He went 30-21 (58 percent) at even strength. The Oklahoma City Barons scored 28-30 (48 percent) when he was off the ice in those 34 games.

Davidson played 20 games in that period, his 8-10 (44 percent) even-strength goal share a little shy of the Barons without him. During those 20 contests, without Davidson, Oklahoma City scored 62 percent of the goals (37-23) with Davidson at rest.

So far in his AHL career, Wanner’s goal share at even strength is 46 percent (24-28 goals) through 39 games. The Condors are 65-48 (58 percent) without him in the lineup.

Wanner as a rookie is tracking at about the same level as Davidson. That’s good company. He is also trending in a good direction, although catching Marincin’s performance appears to be a distant bell.

Wanner’s ETA

The historical evidence suggests Wanner will play all of 2023-24 and most of next season in Bakersfield. Shutdown defencemen taken in later rounds have no draft pedigree and lack the offensive numbers that might get them noticed

That understood, he has some things in his favour.

Wanner is a right-handed defenceman who plays a fierce style, something the Oilers value highly from the blueliners.

He’s also in a system that lacks right-handed options after NHL regulars Evan Bouchard, Vincent Desharnais and Cody Ceci.

His chief competition in the AHL is Phil Kemp, who is a smart shutdown blue who consistently outscores opponents at even strength. As a rookie pro, Kemp was 29-25 (54 percent) on the 2021-22 Condors. Bakersfield’s goal share at even strength was 57 percent with Kemp off the ice in his rookie campaign.

Edmonton’s management team will experience some shuffling in the offseason, meaning Holland’s preference to slow-play talent may ease.

Desharnais is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he could sign elsewhere. Ceci carries a significant cap hit; he could be dealt in an effort to add talent in other areas.

All those things considered, the ETA for Wanner is probably in the Davidson window.

Davidson played his first AHL game (after turning pro) in October 2012 and made his NHL debut 26 months later.

That would put Wanner’s estimated time of arrival in Edmonton at around December 2025, and if he progresses like Davidson he will spend his first season as an NHL regular in 2026-27.

He’s on the radar and improving. The Oilers think highly of him. He has been able to avoid injury (Davidson was not so lucky).

Wanner is trending in a good direction.

(Photo of Ryan Donato and Max Wanner: Alika Jenner / Getty Images)