Oilers' James Hamblin took the long way to the NHL

James Hamblin's path to the NHL was unlike any other's, and he's intent on sticking with the Edmonton Oilers for the long haul. (Getty Images)

James Hamblin wasn’t supposed to make it to this point.

The undersized, undrafted Edmonton Oilers prospect was viewed as a longshot to ever carve out an NHL career just a season ago, but boy, have things changed.

Hamblin, at least in the minds of both fans and media, had no shot at cracking the Oilers opening night lineup in 2022-23. Despite some respectable numbers in the American Hockey League a season prior, there were still plenty who were ahead of him on the depth chart. At least, that’s what everyone thought.

Using his underdog story to his advantage, Hamblin stuck with the Oilers through all of training camp, and would likely have earned himself a roster spot had it not come down to Edmonton's tight salary cap constraints. While he was undoubtedly frustrated with his late re-assignment, he went down to the Bakersfield Condors and continued his great play.

As a result, he was recalled to the Oilers on Monday, and was able to suit up in his first NHL game just hours later, logging just shy of 10 minutes of ice time in a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers.

The 23-year-old scored just eight goals in 33 games with the SSAC Lions in 2012-13, a Bantam AAA team located in Edmonton. Ironically enough, another Oilers prospect in Tyler Benson led that team in scoring, while Stuart Skinner was their starting goaltender.

Fast forward a few seasons, and Hamblin cracked the Medicine Hat Tigers roster as a 16-year-old, an impressive feat for anyone at that age. That said, he struggled to make an impact, scoring just a single goal while registering only two helpers in 54 games. Once again, he didn’t appear to have the makings of a future NHLer.

Hamblin’s numbers grew over the next few seasons with the Tigers, but not enough to catch the eye of any NHL clubs, and he wouldn't hear his name called in any of his draft eligible years. Once again, however, he continued to put his head down and work, and it paid off in a major way.

During his final season with the Tigers as a 20-year-old, the 5-foot-9 forward scored 36 goals and 92 points in 63 games, totals that not only led his team in scoring, but were also enough to secure him a two-year AHL deal with the Bakersfield Condors.

In his rookie season with the Condors, Hamblin played in 38 games, scoring seven goals and 15 points. Respectable totals, but not ones that had anyone thinking he had a shot at suiting up with the Oilers any time soon. In 2021-22, he improved on those numbers, scoring 21 goals and 35 points in 64 outings. Those numbers caught the eye of Oilers management, who rewarded him with a two-year entry-level deal.

It certainly wasn’t an easy path, but he is quickly turning into one of the NHL’s feel-good stories; a true testament to never giving up on your dreams. But while the young forward has undoubtedly faced plenty of on-ice adversity in his life, he has faced even more hardships away from the rink.

In 2017, Hamblin’s mother, Gina, lost a hard-fought battle with cancer. Hamblin was just 18-years-old at the time. It's clear that, while he is trying to live out his childhood dream, a big part of the reason he has battled so hard to make it to this point in recent years is to make his late mother, along with the rest of his family, proud.

“A lot of tears were shed right off the bat,” Hamblin told reporters when asked about his initial reaction to being called up to the Oilers. “A lot of hard work put in to get to this point. Kind of a rush for emotions. I immediately called my dad and hardly even got it out to him. It’s just super cool to be here, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

As far as how long Hamblin will remain with the big club, that will depend largely on how he performs over these next few games. With players like Evander Kane, Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan McLeod out of the lineup, there is plenty of opportunity on a team that is starving for production from its bottom six. Whether or not Hamblin will be able to help in that area remains to be seen, but if there’s anything he’s proven throughout his career to this point, its that he will give everything he has in order to ensure he can stick around for the long haul.

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