Coming off a 40 win and 91 point season, the Oklahoma City Barons were the first Edmonton Oilers farm team in quite a while to have a successful season. Granted, they would have certainly preferred more playoff success, but after years of toiling in futility at the bottom of the standings, the first year in OKC was a positive one for the Oilers minor league affiliate.
While the Barons have lost some of their veteran leaders (and their top three scorers from a season ago), they have the look of a deeper, more talented, more well rounded club and will be looking to improve on last season's success. Winning in the AHL is rarely the result of boasting the most talent, but more about the right mix of veterans, youth, and a balanced roster. Before the puck has dropped on the season, the Barons look like a quality, playoff caliber club yet again.
Up front, there is still quite a bit to be settled, as the Oilers still have 20 forwards in camp. Assuming they keep 14 on the active roster, and that both Sam Gagner and Ben Eager start the year on the IR, that means there will be at least four, and possibly five or six, players sent down to OKC before the season starts. The trio of Josh Green, Ryan Keller, and Ryan O'Marra are almost certain to be among that group, while Lennart Petrell, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander, and Gilbert Brule are also likely fighting for a few roster spots.
Based on contract status and performance to date, Petrell and Hartikainen are likely to be the pair who find their way to the AHL, at least to open the year, with a decision made on Lander, Brule, or possibly Ryan Nugent-Hopkins once Gagner is healthy and the depth chart at center becomes more crowded.
Regardless of who heads down, the roster up front looks very deep and very talented for the Barons. AHL stalwarts like newcomers Josh Green and Ryan Keller will look to take leadership roles both in the dressing room and on the scoresheet, while the first wave of talented youngsters procured by Stu McGregor's scouting department will also get their first chance to shine.
Most notably the trio of Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick, and Ryan Martindale all look poised to make their pro debuts this season for the Barons and all three bring a great deal of size, skill, and varying levels of grit to the table. Most expect all three players to be knocking on the NHL door within the next 24 months and that journey will start this season.
Not to be overlooked, Finnish veterans Lennart Petrell and Antii Tyrvainen will bring tenacity, a physicality, and a ferociousness to the club that will be of great benefit for their teammates. Petrell is an excellent penalty killer (a skill that may well earn him a spot on the big club) while Tyrvainen is a wild man who plays on, and sometimes over, the edge.
Finally, there is a strong complement of quality returnees from last year, players like Ryan O'Marra, Chris VandeVelde, and Milan Kytnar, who all play well rounded, complete games and excel at neutralizing the opposing team's top players.
On the whole, the skill (and range of skills) of this year's forward crop are second to none. They are big, experienced, accomplished professional players, and they should be more than able to excel in any style of game. The forwards will be the driving force for any success or failure in Oklahoma City this season.
Much like the forwards, there is some uncertainty on who will be sent down on the back end, as the quartet of Taylor Chorney, Tyler Fedun, Jeff Petry, and Corey Potter duke it out for the last two roster spots coming out of camp (or potentially one spot if Ryan Whitney's health improves sooner than expected). Based on performance to date, the most likely duo to be sent down is Chorney and Fedun, though waiver eligibility may save Chorney in the end.
This year's club looks to lack the explosive talent from the blue line (unless Petry spends significant time on the farm) but is a big, physical unit with some quality veteran presence. Bryan Helmer returns as the grey beard of the group, and is joined by the towering, physical pair of Colten Teubert and Alex Plante. While Plante hasn't progressed as much as the organization would have liked, Teubert looked good last season after coming over from the Los Angeles Kings in the Dustin Penner deal. Add Fedun and Chorney (both smaller puck movers) to that group and the top five has a nice balance and complementary set of skills. The last two spots on OKCs back end will likely be a revolving door this year, as players like Ryan Lowery, Kirill Tulupov and Johan Motin try to secure a regular spot.
If injuries strike at either the NHL or AHL level, this is one area that could be exposed very quickly due to a lack of depth. There are a tremendous number of excellent young defensemen playing in the CHL for the Oilers currently, but that depth isn't going to figure in at the pro level until next season, so fans in Oklahoma need to hope for a fairly healthy year for blueliners, otherwise it could get ugly.
As strange as it sounds, the key to OKCs goaltending may well be Nikolai Khabibulin who is sure to be on the Oilers' roster this season. If Khabibulin can stay reasonably healthy and effective in Edmonton, the tandem of Yann Danis and David LeNeveu will man the crease in the AHL. There is a real chance however, that Danis will be called upon for an extended period for the big club, in which case a lot of responsibility falls to LeNeveu and raw rookie Olivier Roy.
Roy is likely to open the season playing big minutes for Stockton of the ECHL, and he could alleviate a lot of concerns about pro depth in net by playing well enough to force the issue at the AHL level. However as it stands, the reality between the pipes is similar to that on the blue line for the Barons, they need to hope for a healthy season, and above average performances if they want to be contenders.
Todd Nelson is back in charge for his second season with the Barons, and if last year was any indication he has all the tools and then some to get the job done well. He'll need to lean heavily on his forwards, and get his defensemen to each pull their weight, however his results speak for themselves. Being able to improve upon the plus-11 goal differential will be key this season, as will capitalizing on shootout opportunities since the team went 2-9 in those situations last year.
The big name amongst prospects this preseason has been, not surprisingly, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The first overall pick from last June's draft has opened eyes not only with his offensive vision and top level skill, but more surprisingly with his clever defensive play and ability to excel away from the puck. While there was mixed opinion prior to training camp about whether he would stay in the NHL or be headed back to junior for seasoning, there is near unanimous agreement that he's here for the first nine games of the season, and almost certainly for the balance of the year. He has all the look of a truly special talent.
Other players who could well figure in a big way at the NHL level this season are Anton Lander, Teemu Hartikainen, and Jeff Petry, all three of whom should probably be on the opening night roster based on performance to date. In the case of all three, there's a real chance they could spend some time in the AHL-much like Linus Omark last season-however it would likely be just a brief stint, as they've shown NHL caliber ability and are among the best options at their positions.
The forward depth was mentioned earlier, and all eyes will be on the trio of Hamilton, Pitlick and Martindale as the season wears on, however the defensive depth is much more evident in the junior and college ranks. With all of Brandon Davidson, Jeremie Blain and Martin Marincin being sent back to their CHL clubs, the expectations will be high amongst Oilers fans and the Oilers brass for those players. Similarly, 2011 draftees David Musil, Martin Gernat, Dillon Simpson, and Oscar Klefbom will be watched with keen eyes.
Between the pipes, Tyler Bunz is looking to build on a tremendous 18-year-old season and has set his sights on one of the two spots on Canada's World Junior entry this season. By all accounts he has an excellent chance to represent his country at this year's tournament being held jointly in Calgary and Edmonton.