In recent years being the Edmonton Oilers’ minor league affiliate has been more of a burden than an advantage. Just look at the fortunes of the Springfield Falcons, a team that was dead last in the AHL the past two seasons, their lone two years partnered with the Oilers.
Much like the renewed hope and optimism with the NHL team however, there is reason for optimism and a fresh start in Oklahoma City. A few years of impressive procurement at the draft table combined with an emphasis by management on building a successful minor league team through veteran signings bodes well for the 2010-11 outlook.
One thing is for certain, it can’t get any worse.
Much of the fan focus will be on some of the younger talents plying their trade on the farm, but the success of first year head coach Todd Nelson’s club will rest on the shoulders of some elite AHL veterans up front. The talented duo likely to pace the club in scoring are Alexandre Giroux and Brad Moran, as both players have distinguished minor pro resumes the past number of years. Moran is coming off back-to-back seasons in SEL where he posted 40 or more points while Giroux has tallied an eye popping 110 goals over his past two AHL seasons.
Other key veterans added up front include Gregory Stewart and Ben Ondrus, who both bring experience and grit to the table, attributes that will likely be invaluable to some of the younger forwards over a long AHL season.
While the vets are likely to be the straws that stir the drink in OKC, there are quite a few younger talents worth watching. The names are uncertain as the battles at NHL camp continue, however a host of youngsters with a wide range of skill-sets are sure to catch the eyes of the Barons’ faithful. Players like Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, and Chris Vande Velde will be making their AHL debuts while younger talents with AHL experience under their belts including Ryan O’Marra, Liam Reddox, Matt Marquardt, Colin McDonald, and Milan Kytnar are evidence of the depth the club will be blessed with up front.
Two particular talents worth highlighting are Omark and Vande Velde for very different reasons.
There is a belief that Omark has played well enough to open the season in Edmonton, but the numbers make it more likely he’ll be in OKC when the puck drops. That said, if he’s able to continue his strong play from the past two seasons in the SEL and KHL respectively, the sublimely skilled winger will certainly get a shot with the big club once injuries or a loss of form hit among the top nine forwards.
In the case of Vande Velde the four-year man from the University of North Dakota has gotten stronger and stronger as training camp has gone on, and could be looked to when the team needs to add a player who can play a more physical and defensive role up front—a skill-set in short supply on the current NHL roster.
The back end isn’t as skilled or exciting on the high end as the forwards, but it still boasts the same balance and has the look of a club ready to compete at a high level in the AHL. 27-year-old Jake Taylor is back for another tour, and he is joined by newcomers with minor-pro experience in Richard Petiot and Shawn Belle. That trio will likely be relied upon heavily by Nelson throughout the season, and any kind of significant injury to those players would be a challenge to say the least.
The key quartet of younger blueliners likely to log the most minutes alongside the three veterans are Alex Plante, Taylor Chorney, Johan Motin, and Jeff Petry. Chorney, Plante, Motin all played in the AHL last year and that experience should help them as they look to progress toward the NHL roster. An intriguing player and one many will be watching closely is Petry.
In an eight game AHL stint late last season following the end of his college career, Petry was overwhelmed as his minus-10 rating would indicate. That said, he has been a bright light in training camp this season and clearly possesses a wealth of natural talent and ability. He will likely be sheltered early on as he adjusts to the pro game, but don’t be surprised if he’s a key contributor and a difference maker by the end of the year.
Like many of the other positions on the roster, there is a lack of clarity about who will be manning the nets in Oklahoma City resulting from battles for the NHL roster. The prevailing opinion is that the likely duo to open the year will see veteran puckstopper Martin Gerber joined by Jeff Deslauriers. There’s a chance Deslauriers will stick with the big club leading to Devan Dubnyk being sent down, or the possibility one of the two will be dealt.
Regardless of the outcome, pairing either netminder with Gerber, or rolling with Gerber and the fifth man on the depth chart Bryan Pitton, the depth in net is a strength for this team.
Todd Nelson takes the reigns of a team that has seen a number of bench bosses over the past couple of years. The first time AHL head coach’s background and expertise is managing the blue line, a role he handled as an assistant to former Atlanta Thrashers and Chicago Wolves head man John Anderson.
As a player Nelson had a lengthy minor league career spanning a dozen seasons, including a seven game cup of coffee in the NHL, as an offensive defenseman.
He’s stepping into the job with a club that has a lot of skill up front, experience in net, and a workmanlike unit on the blue line, a breakdown that seems to be well suited to his strengths. If he is able to find the right balance and chemistry up front and extract the most out of the players on the back end, he will likely find success in his first year. Considering the money spent and the organizational focus on building a winner in Oklahoma City, anything less than a successful, winning season will not be well received by management or by a very committed Oilers fanbase.
The fans, the media, even the organization acknowledge that this year and this camp represent a fresh start for the Oilers. Not surprisingly, much of the focus has been on the “Big Three” as they’ve been dubbed—Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi. It would be a surprise if any of them weren’t on the ice with the Oilers October 7th when they open the season against the Calgary Flames.
Of the trio of talented youngsters, Hall has appeared the least comfortable early on which is to be expected since both Eberle and Paajarvi have pro experience. However Hall has improved and settled in with each preseason appearance, and with the only other option being a return to junior, he’s a safe bet to be in Edmonton all year. If either of the other two struggle once the season gets underway, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they spend some time in Oklahoma City, considering General Manager Steve Tambellini has been adamant that the organization doesn’t want to rush any of their young players.
Beyond those three prospects Linus Omark saw his star rise the furthest thus far, and stands a real chance of sticking with the big club. He will likely need to steal a spot from someone like Andrew Cogliano, or play so well in the last few preseason tilts that the team can’t send him down, but his skill level is elite. Unlike many pure skill forwards however, Omark has shown that he understands how to play away from the puck as well, though he lacks consistency in that area.
Jeff Petry also shone over the past few weeks, displaying a skill set that combines smooth skating, excellent size, and great hockey IQ and instincts. While he likely needs at least a year of seasoning on the farm to adjust to the pro game, he could play a big role with the parent club in the next couple seasons.
Other players who exceeded expectations include the previously mentioned Vande Velde, a power forward in the making in Hartikainen (though he still has a ways to go with his skating), and Tyler Pitlick. Pitlick in particular opened eyes with his mature and well rounded game at such a young age. He is definitely someone to keep a close eye on with the Medicine Hat Tigers this season.
Article was written by Lawrence Bailey.