By Stu Hackel
OK, enough of Gary Bettman and Don Fehr for the moment (though the two sides did quietly meet for general talks on Friday in Toronto). Let's talk hockey and, specifically, the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers farm team that may be the best club in North America if the NHL doesn't return. Why? Thanks to the lockout, the Barons probably have more top young NHL-caliber talent on their roster than any team on this side of the ocean.
"It's very exciting," says Patricia Teter, an avid hockey fan who lives in Oklahoma and expertly writes about the Barons on her Artful Puck blog. "I'm calling it the perfect storm down here."
That's what the lockout has become for fans in OK City, where their team can boast the Oilers' top three scorers from last season. No other AHL team will be receiving that kind of firepower from its parent club.
Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and (when he's cleared to play due to offseason shoulder surgery) Taylor Hall will skate for the Barons until the NHL restarts. All three are first-round draft choices, Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Hall (2010) each going first overall. Magnus Paajarvi, another first rounder who has a season-and-a-half of NHL experience, is also a Baron. All of them are 21 or under and supremely skilled.
“They’re not just NHL players, they’re top NHL players. It’s huge for us,” Barons goaltender Yann Danis -- who has played 50 NHL games with the Canadiens, Islanders, Devils and Oilers and was the AHL's top goalie last sesaon-- told Joanne Ireland of The Edmonton Journal. “I think you see it already. The skill level has definitely gone up since last year … I think everybody has raised their game. And they’re a big reason for that. We don’t know how long they’ll be here, but it’s definitely a plus for us.”
You can add defenseman Justin Schultz to this group. He's out of the University of Wisconsin, a two-time Hobey Baker finalist as the top U.S. collegiate player. As freshman, Schultz was part of one of the most notable defense corps in NCAA history, including Ryan McDonagh (Rangers), Jake Gardiner (Maple Leafs) and Brendan Smith (Red Wings). Snared by the Oilers as a free agent this past summer, he's yet to play an NHL game but he's got top level skills, having left the Badgers after his junior year with nothing more to prove as a collegian.
“It's very exciting to have the opportunity to work with young guys that have so much talent,” Barons coach Todd Nelson told Michael Baldwin of The Oklahoman. “It's my job to mold these guys into excellent professional hockey players so when the lockout ends they can go up and help the big club.”
"He's very good," Teter says of Nelson. "He's great fun to watch. He's always mixing up the lines, being very creative. I think he loves tinkering. I'm afraid at some point some NHL team will nab him."
Nelson, a career minor league defenseman (he played three NHL games with the Penguins and Capitals), turned to coaching and twice led Muskegon to the Unitee Hockey League championship. He was on the staff of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers for two years before returning to minor pro with the Barons, and he interviewed for the Oilers' top job over the summer. "We love him here," Teter laughs.
Here's Nelson discussing the Barons' training camp on Thursday before their first pair of preseason games (Friday and Saturday), the only two they'll have before their schedule begins next Friday when they visit the Lake Erie Monsters.
Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins won't play in either of the preseason contests, a home-and-home encounter against the Houston Aeros. Nelson has to whittle down the number of players he has in camp and make some decisions on who stays and who will be sent to the Oilers' ECHL club in Stockton, CA.
When the roster is set, the young Oilers stars will join a Barons team that's already filled with Edmonton prospects, most of whom are returning, especially at forward. The Barons finished first in the AHL's Western Conference last season, second overall in the league, and went to the Conference Championship round before bowing to Toronto in five games, with some of their defensive deficiencies exploited by the Marlies' strong forecheck.
As Oilers fans know, upgrading on the blueline is their team's biggest need, not just at the NHL level, but throughout the organization. The club made that a priority last June, drafting four d-men with their nine picks plus signing Schultz. Although last year's Barons weren't especially strong defensively, after watching the team's training camp Teter says, "This season our D is for the most part incredibly young, but their skill level is much higher. With Schultz, I am hoping we see a much stronger D." She names a pair of those blueline prospects: Brandon Davidson and Taylor Fedun, an ECAC first team All-Star out of Princeton who broke his leg last preseason with the Oilers while chasing the puck on an icing call. He's recovered and Teter is impressed with his progress.
The Barons averaged a bit under 4,000 fans per game last season, in only their second year of operation. They face pretty stiff competition from college football and the NBA's Thunder, but Teter thinks the team's recent success and the addition of the young NHL stars could boost their visibility. The Barons are also doing a good deal more marketing and advertising, she said, plus they've minimized their scheduling conflicts with the Thunder, a problem last season due to the NBA's redrawn lockout-truncated schedule. "A lot of the local hockey fans are also basketball fans," she said.
Like other NHL clubs, the Oilers are doing their best to keep their minor league affiliates front and center for fans of the parent club, with regular updates -- including detailed game previews -- on the Barons and links to listen to their games online.
Once the AHL regular season starts, fans will be able to watch the Barons -- and all AHL teams -- play via the league's AHL Live video on demand feature. It's more expensive than the NHL's Center Ice package and the quality of the video is not as good. But, then again, there is no Center Ice package right now, is there?
As long as the NHL is shut down, the Barons will be one of the clubs well worth watching. We'll check back with them periodically in the weeks to come.
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