Friday, 9 November 2012

Lockout spotlight: the start of the OKC Barons' AHL season

a.m.k. has 9,000 words to share with you about the Oilers' farm team.

It's a few weeks into the North American pro hockey season, and with the NHL lockout dragging on perhaps for infinity, the spotlight is on the AHL. For you non-hockey lovers out there, that's one step below the NHL as far as  North American professional hockey goes.

Average turnout at a Barons game.
The AHL operates very similarly to the NHL and in fact is attached to its parent league: each NHL team owns an AHL team, which they use to develop their prospects and replacement-level players. Most minor league teams will have over half their players on NHL contracts, meaning they can be called up to the NHL at any time (some of the older guys have to clear waivers). For a young team like the Oilers, though, almost every single player on their farm team has an NHL contract, and since the lockout is on, they were able to send many of the young guys who would normally be in the NHL to their farm team, the Oklahoma City Barons (which, as you might have guessed, doesn't exactly sell out the building, even when giving a freakin car away every Saturday). You see, when your parent club, the Edmonton Oilers, is as bad as they've been for as long as they've been, they get a lot of high draft picks, most of which are still pretty young and are thus eligible to play in the AHL during the lockout.

Now, OKC is supposed to be tearing up the minor leagues because of the skill players they have down there: two first overall NHL picks (Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent Hopkins), an NHL all-star (Jordan Eberle), one of the most prized young free agent acquisition of the offseason (Justin Schultz -- currently leading the AHL in points, which is especially ridiculous because he's a defenseman), a few young players with NHL experience still developing (Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander), and the normal array of promising young prospects that haven't quite made the jump to the NHL yet.

The difference between the OKC Barons and the other AHL teams is that most other AHL teams only have an array of talented young prospects, replacement NHL players and AHL vets. Some teams have a couple NHL players because of the lockout, but none have the number that OKC has. In fact, it'd be tough to argue that OKC doesn't have the top four players in the whole AHL, or at least four of the top ten players in the league.

Barons looking like Oilers.
As an aside, the level of play in the AHL has been a lot higher than I thought it'd be, and I think most of the guys on those rosters wouldn't look especially out of place as bottom six NHL players. There is definitely not as much skill on the ice, but it's still good hockey.

So, on paper, OKC should be tearing up the league. After 10 games, they're 5-4-0-1 (one shootout loss), which adds to 11 points and is good for a tie for seventh in the Western conference. If the postseason started today, they'd barely squeak into the playoffs.

The season is only 1/8 done so it's obviously quite early, but the 10-game point is about the time where I like to start collecting impressions and getting worried/excited about the individual and team performances. Since is this is the minor leagues, I don't care nearly as much if the Barons win or lose (though I prefer they win). I'm more concerned with how the players are doing, developing and projecting into NHL roles. 10 games is a small sample size, but for a team that's supposed to be dominating, being a middling team is not good enough. Now is the time they need to turn it up.

a.m.k. conducting a Barons' practice.
I've collected impressions of each player to play a game for the Barons so far this season and am posting them here as a sort of sketch of my impressions of the team so far to come back to in the middle and towards the end of the season for each of the players. For us sports fanatics these players are the beloved characters in a novel that grow and develop in real time and take unexpected turns along the way. Since I'm a fan who plays close attention, rarely missing a game and reading a lot of what other people are saying about the games and players I actually enjoy reading other write detailed things about the players so maybe some other crazy people who search for info on Barons/Oilers players will actually read some of it. For me, seeing someone play is more important than seeing their stats (you'd be surprised how contentious this viewpoint actually is), but the best view, especially to help minimize bias, if the fullest picture possible, which includes basic stats like the ones I've included here but also advanced stats, such as possession metrics, quality of competition, face-off percentages (not that advanced) and even scoring chance numbers.

An important thing to take into consideration how a player is being utilized and how he is performing based on usage and expectations. The stats I've included are more useful for offense-oriented players and less useful for defensive, 2-way players, like your 3rd and 4th line centres, for example. In general, though, as you might imagine, scoring is good.

# - Position - Player: GP G-A-P, +/-, Penalty Minutes, Shots on Goal

#2 - D - Teighan Zahn: 3 0-1-1, 0, 2PiM, 4SOG

Zahn is a tough rookie shutdown defenseman coming off some good years in the Canadian university system. He didn't make the team out of main camp, which surprised me based on his play in the exhibition games, but he was recently recalled after Brandon Davidson was diagnosed with testicular cancer. In his brief stint in Stockton (in the ECHL, the league below the AHL -- it's like AA if the AHL is AAA), he was near a point-per-game, which is very good for a player of his mould.

You can tell he's a rookie at times, but he's holding his head above water and he looks like a #6 AHL defenseman, which is as much as you can ask of him. The fact that he isn't a huge liability means he's doing well. He is scared to move the puck most times though, which spells trouble when paired with Colten Teubert, who is certainly not known for his puck-moving skills either. In fact, I'd say Zahn is much better offensively from the few games I've seen him in, and once he settles a bit more I'd suspect he will show that. Has had a couple of surprising plays in the offensive zone already.

Zahn is not considered a legitimate NHL prospect and thus doesn't project into an NHL role, though if he did it'd be as a bottom pairing penalty killer who can be tough.

Brandon Davidson
#3 - D - Brandon Davidson: 6, 0-1-1, 0, 6PiM, 7 SOG

Before Davidson was sidelined, he was on the 2nd pairing in a shutdown role with Teubert, often playing first unit PK. His first few games he looked like he might have benefited from starting in the ECHL, but he made a slight improvement each game, being mostly a low-event player. He had good point totals in Junior but isn't expected to be a realistic powerplay option and thus being crafted for a shut-down role is probably the way he's most likely to succeed, though no elements of his game particularly stand out in a positive way.

His biggest weakness is probably puck-carrying and confidence. He looks a bit shaky out there in general, and I remember one sequence, I think in the second game of the year, when Teubert and Davidson were in their own zone, seemingly trying to figure out which of them was the better option to bring the puck out. By my account, neither should, and they probably shouldn't be paired together except perhaps on the PK.

Davidson has looked like a rookie which isn't a bad thing, it's just a shame the best veteran option to play him with is Teubert, who isn't as consistently steady as you'd like your veteran shut-down guy to be. The thing about Davidson is he has great work ethic, and though it will take him a few years in the AHL before he's a realistic NHL option (at least), with perseverance and continual improvement, there's no reason why he can't carve out a role. The odds are against him, but they've always been, and he's in a position (if the recovery goes well) where he can pull it off.

Davidson projects to top out as a bottom-pairing NHL defenseman, likely sheltered playing against the other teams' grinders, probably as a second unit penalty killer. His cancer treatment is going to push him back a bit, which is especially a shame for him because he's worked so hard to get where he is, defying the odds to be given an NHL contract after staying in Junior for his overage year (normally not a good sign).

Alex Plante
#4 - D - Alex Plante: 6, 0-0-0, -2, 4PiM, 1 SOG

An AHL all-star last year, Plante has been a regular healthy scratch as early as the second game. He has been a bit better in his last couple of games, but by that I mean he's looked like a bottom pairing AHL defender instead of someone who shouldn't be playing. The younger prospects are more skilled than him and having already been passed by Teubert, I have pretty much given up on Plante ever making a dent in the NHL. He will need to show something more than competency and middling play to get noticed at this point, which he hasn't even shown much of. The other guys are just more interesting players with higher ceilings at this point, and although he isn't as raw as them, he also doesn't make the quality of plays that the other players on this roster seem capable of making. And he's very slow and has little offense.

He has made some effective plays by removing an opposing forward from the play by using his body. Unfortunately this is about the extent of his effectiveness. If I were the Oilers, as soon as the lockout ends I would offload him and a guy like Cornet for a more veteran AHL blue-liner and a low round prospect (if they can get that much) -- I've seen enough of Plante to know that it would take a miracle for him to re-pass all the people now ahead of him for NHL employment.

At this point in his career, Plante needs to turn it around quickly to still project as a bottom-pairing, tough NHL defenseman who is a PK option. More realistically, I think he tops out as a replacement-level player that you aren't particularly confident calling up, mostly because of his foot speed issues and perhaps because of a concussion history.

AHL Player of the
month Justin Schultz
#5 - D - Justin Schultz: 10, 6-9-15, +6, 6PiM, 35 SOG

Justin Schultz was a big deal this off-season. Teams made presentations to him about why he should sign with their team. It was so dramatized that it was called the Justin Schultz sweepstakes. Somehow, the Oilers won, and they now have one of the best young defenders in the game. He has been easily the best Barons player over the first ten games and had a point in each contest except the last one, where the Barons were shut out. He currently leads the league in scoring by two points. He was also the AHL player of the month for October. He plays all minutes for the Barons and looks excellent on the PP and even strength and so-so on the PK, though his two short-handed goals really show that offense is his calling card.

Really, you just need to watch this guy. I heard comparisons to a Paul Coffey style when I first of him and thought this was a huge exaggeration, but it's really not. He can skate from end to end, deke out the other team and put the puck in the net, which he did early in the year. Of course I don't expect him to have the same career as one of the best defensemen to ever play the game, but I would say it's within his ability at this point to reach a similar level. He's still young and developing and it will be interesting to see if he can continue with his style of play in the NHL, which I think is the only lagging question that remains.

I am pretty confident to say that Schultz projects to be a top-pairing NHL player, perhaps even a #1 defenseman, who can play 25+ minutes in a game in all disciplines. He probably starts in the NHL as a second-pairing guy to start on the first unit powerplay and occasional PK time, but I don't think it'll take much more than a year for him to get used to the grind and be "the guy".

Dan Ringwald
#6 - D - Dan Ringwald: 6, 0-0-0, 0, 0 PiM, 1 SOG

Ringwald started last year in the ECHL and had some callups to the Barons before an AHL deal for this year. He made the team right out of camp and although is not a veteran, he's 26, making him the oldest blue-liner on OKC. He's looked shaky up to this point, though when paired with Schultz he looked better (which should be expected). Unfortunately with all the rookies the Barons have, the AHL-only contract on defense should really (in my opinion) be going to a much more veteran presence to help stabilize the blue-line, like with the now-almost-40 year old Bryan Helmer. Apparently he's not playing but would like to be and might be worth a call.

In any event, Ringwald isn't terrible as a #7 defender on an AHL team, but the thing is the Barons have a whole bunch of players that can play bottom pairing minutes with higher upside and a better range of skills. Ringwald has even had somewhat of a push, playing 2nd unit power play and getting significant minutes at evens. Zahn has always looked like the better of the two AHL-only deal players to be, and Ringwald has done nothing so far to change my mind, despite the larger opportunity. He tops out as a bottom-pairing AHL player.

Jordan Eberle
#7 - RW - Jordan Eberle: 10, 6-5-11, +3, 0PiM, 28 SOG

Eberle was an NHL all-star last year, so him playing in the AHL is a bit funny. However, he hasn't been tearing up the league as many (myself included) originally thought, though the past three games he has been getting on the scoreboard more. Where he does show his talent in my opinion is stick-handling. He can beat virtually any defender one-on-one and looks to be the best puck controller in the AHL. The elite skill oozes off him, especially how he can dance in the slot area. His finish has been a bit rusty to start, but I also expect that the other teams' top defenders have watched endless video on how to contain him, attention he probably didn't receive quite as much of in the NHL. At this point forward, I think expecting him to bank 1.5 points per game isn't unreasonable.

One place where he hasn't look good is on the power play point. He doesn't seem dangerous from there and it completely wastes his offensive firepower. I can see why he's the logical choice to be placed there for the first unit, but really Paajarvi didn't do any worse there and is more defensively-minded. Eberle needs to be in that left wing slot area where RNH can feed him. With Taylor Hall in the mix now, that just means that guys like Hartikainen have to be on unit two, and so they should be.

Eberle not only projects to be but is a top-line RW in the NHL. I don't think an 80 point season is at all out of the question, and if everything breaks right with him and his linemates and the back end in Edmonton I'd say 100 points is possible.

Tyler Pitlick
#9 - RW - Tyler Pitlick: 9, 0-2-2, -1, 2PiM, 17 SOG

Pitlick is one of the more frustrating prospects in the system in that he fits into an area of need for the Oilers -- big, fast player who (apparently) can score -- but he just hasn't lived up to potential. It's easy to see why people like this player when he's playing well -- he's like a (much) faster Hartikainen going into the boards in the offensive zone and can skate around the outside of defenders -- but so far, he lacks the finishing touches and can't keep up with the top skill. He's gotten a push and I expect he'll continue to get one because the Oilers badly want this player to turn out, but he needs to score more to make it to an NHL skill line. Either way, I think he could have a future as a 3rd or 4th line grinder, but even still he'll have to work on his defensive game -- I don't notice him on the backcheck enough if he's going to be a player of that mould. Even if he makes it to a skill line, actually, he'll likely be the 3rd-most offensive guy on his line, so he needs to round out his defensive game.

At this point in his career, in his 2nd pro season, if he doesn't start scoring at a quick clip very soon I would seriously consider moving him back to centre to try him out there. The organization badly needs centres with size, and if Pitlick works on his defense and faceoffs, he could slot into that 3C role in 2-3 years. Especially with how Lander and Martindale have looked in the early going, centre is a position that the Oilers need to seriously think about soon, and that can come via trade, but the Oilers don't want to give up anything they have that other teams want enough right now to give up a good centre with size, so it'd be real sweet if they have their man in the system right now. Even if they pick up a big centre in the first round of the upcoming draft, they only have one centre who they're going to want for the long haul, perhaps two if Gagner has a good year.

Pitlick has the skills to project onto a scoring line in the NHL, but it's a matter of realizing that potential. He's been pretty unimpressive to me for being picked 31st overall, so I'm going to say it's more likely he ends up as a 3rd or 4th line grinder. If he can become an excellent defensive player, and especially if he can transition back to centre, I think a 2 or 3C would be an excellent win for him and the Oilers.

Teemu Hartikainen
#10 - LW - Teemu Hartikainen: 10, 3-9-9, +4, 6PiM, 17 SOG

Hartikainen has ended his last two seasons in the NHL, both times playing quite well. The problem has been that he has had a slow start to the season each year, and after the first game of the AHL season, this year didn't seem to be any different. Thankfully, he really seemed to pick things up after that first game, and in game three when Josh Green went down with an injury, Hartikainen seized the opportunity to play on the top line and did exceedingly well with it, having not looked back since.

The biggest knock on Hartikainen is still his foot speed, but if he can keep up with the talent on his line he will make it. So far so good, though he obviously lacks the skill of his linemates, he's still the best option in the system for a big winger on a skilled line, and it's not even close. If they could find a player in his mould who is more skilled, that would be awesome, but frankly that's unlikely. The thing about Hartikainen is he can fit reasonably well anywhere in the lineup, and if I had to suggest something I'd say 2nd line left-winger is probably his best fit. His defensive game isn't stellar, but it's not bad, and it's something that he can probably work on. The problem with that is his foot speed and that he (rightfully so) often played near the opponents' goaltenders, making it hard for him to be the first forward back most times.

The most important thing for Hartikainen to do is to keep hitting people and with more frequency. He's laid some excellent checks so far this year, and if he can bring that intensity on a nightly basis and win his puck battles more consistently (some nights he wins them all, others it's more 50/50), then he will become entrenched on a scoring line. If not, he's still at least a 4th line player, even at this point in his career. I think once the NHL resumes, he'll have seen the last of the AHL.

Josh Green
#12 - C - Josh Green: 3, 1-1-2, +2, 0PiM, 3 SOG

One of the few Barons on an AHL-only contract, Green is a stable veteran on a team that desperately needs more. He had a somewhat flukey goal to open the scoring in the 2nd game, but he took the puck from behind the net and pushed it in, which is a good play regardless. He doesn't have a game-changing element to his game but he doesn't need to; he needs to be solid, which he normally is. Unfortunately he's injured now, though he has been for a while and one would think that he's close to returning by now. He is in his mid-30s, though, so he might be taking more time to recover than initially expected.

He will probably spend the next four years or so as an AHL veteran or in Europe before calling it a career. I wouldn't expect him to get another NHL contract at this point, although he played okay in a brief callup with the Oilers last year.

Curtis Hamilton
#13 - LW/RW - Curtis Hamilton: 7, 1-0-1, -3, 0PiM, 8 SOG

I keep looking for reasons to like this player but find few. He has shown almost no offense in the games I've seen and is often a healthy scratch, even though I've heard Tambellini (Oilers GM) continually mention him as a part of the future. He forechecks but not with a lot of energy, and in his own zone he is pretty tight but I don't know if that's enough. He has looked good on the PK. When he's in the offensive zone, he has a tendency to shoot from low percentage areas -- between the blue line and the slot -- and as you might imagine it rarely looks dangerous. In many of these circumstances it'd probably be better if he maintained puck possession and set up in the zone.

For a 2nd rounder who scored so much in Junior, you'd like more offense from him, and if he is going to make it he needs to stay in the lineup in the AHL every game. He hasn't shown that he can and I haven't seen anything to suggest that he's going to step it up. But he has a good defensive game and a solid frame, so if he can turn the switch and take his game to the next level he still has a shot. He needs to pick it up soon though -- Stockton Thunder have at least four forwards that I could easily see play their way into the OKC lineup, quite possibly at the expense of Hamilton.

At this point, I'd say Hamilton has little to no chance at making it on a skill line in the NHL, barring any epiphany-like moments. But if he can become a regular in the line-up -- task #1 for this guy -- he is a good candidate as a 3rd/4th line PK specialist. He'd be an upgrade on Lennart Petrell in 2-3 years, one would think.

#14 - LW - Antti Tyrvainen: 7, 1-0-1, +1, 21PiM, 9 SOG

The Oilers have room for this player type, but Tyrvainen has not had a good start to the year. The biggest thing with Tyrvainen is the sheer number of mistakes he makes, often with taking penalties. He isn't a bad hockey player, enough so that the coach gives him shifts on skill lines occasionally, and since he's an agitator who's not a terrible skater he could have a good shot at NHL employment if he played consistently. That has been a rare occurrence so far, though, and with all the attention on OKC he could be shooting himself in the foot right now. I don't think his contract will be renewed, barring any major improvements.

If he could play defensively sound hockey and play consistently, he could top out as a 4th, even 3rd liner in the NHL. Realistically, I think he heads back to Europe after this year. 

Anton Lander
#16 - C - Anton Lander: 6, 0-0-0, +2, 2PiM, 6 SOG

I am a bit worried about him. Playing very few minutes in the NHL on the bottom line with terrible linemates and being low event isn't a terrible thing, but watching him in the AHL doing the same thing has me a bit concerned. I don't see any offense from him yet, and he isn't particularly adept at putting on pressure of any kind. Pretty sound defensively, but you can't always let the play come to you, not if you're projecting as a third-line NHL player anyway. The centre depth in the Oilers organization is the most worrisome to me, and if Lander doesn't step up his game soon I think the Oilers need to look hard at bringing in a young centre or ensuring they pick up a good one at the 2013 draft, which thankfully is deep at centre.

He has been a coach's decision, which isn't good for any player in the AHL but my god is it bad for someone who spent most of last year in the NHL. He doesn't make any awful mistakes, he just doesn't seem to have another gear in his game. I don't see any offense, either, and he's getting outplayed by virtually ever other centre in the lineup right now, which is not good for this player since he should be 2nd on the depth chart. It's still early and he has time, but he needs to act fast before he dips out of the conversation. This is a stacked minor league team and if he doesn't make the most of his time then the opportunity will be given to someone else who might not botch it. Right now I'd rather Tanner House or even VandeVelde in the NHL, and I see nothing in Lander's game that suggests he has more to offer.

Lander projects as a 4th or 3rd line defensive centre in the NHL who can PK, but his offense is so anemic that 4th line is probably more likely. I think he needs more confidence to try to be offensive, because the only time when I've seen that gear to his game is the NHL preseason last year and the Young Stars tournament in Penticton shortly before that, where he looked excellent, excellent enough to be kept in the NHL as long as he was.

Ryan Martindale
#17 - C - Ryan Martindale: 6, 0-3-3, +2, 2PiM, 7 SOG

Another guy who turns it on in the preseason in order to make a team, Martindale spent most of last year in the ECHL but had an excellent preseason in OKC, enough to propel him into a roster spot and to have a few people wonder aloud if he was still a legitimate prospect after all (many had written him off already, myself included). After a few games, though, he became scratched often, and though he has shown flashes of offensive ability, his defensive game is pretty poor and he would have miles to go before being considered for a defensive centre position.

Apparently he's been sick, but when he's back in the lineup he needs to play very well or else I think he'll be sent down, especially with ECHL player Eric Hunter recently signing an AHL contract. I think his upside is probably 2C in the NHL, but the odds of that happening are minute, and based on his development trajectory he's about 4-5 years away from that possibility.

Enormous RNH
#18 - C - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 9, 3-7-10, +2, 4PiM, 22 SOG

I've been a tad disappointed with him so far in that his even strength scoring numbers aren't so good. Like in the NHL, he does the bulk of his damage on the PP, which is fine, just you want to see more offense at ES for a player of his skill level. His defensive game is looking pretty decent, though, so if all the lockout does is help him work on his faceoffs and 2-way ability, it's still a huge success. I haven't seen many of his patented super-passes -- no spectacular threading, and although you shouldn't expect someone to be spectacular, there just hasn't been much excitement for me with RNH. I think putting Eberle on the point for the PP really messes him up, since he needs a guy like that to feed in that area.

Regular RNH
I'd like to see RNH increase his intensity a bit more and for him to win more puck battles. He's small but has put on 10 pounds since last year, but I'd like him to be a bit stronger on the puck. He's already not afraid to throw hits which is good, and I bet he can keep gaining weight to help with his strength. He just hasn't controlled the play the way I'd like him to for a guy of his pedigree.

RNH is a #1 centre in the NHL, though he hasn't quite been playing like one. Nevertheless it's obvious that he's too good for this league when watching him play, even if he isn't playing his best.

#19 - LW - Magnus Paajarvi: 10, 2-4-6, -1, 4PiM, 26 SOG

Paajarvi started the season as the left-winger on the NHL line of Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but after two games he was replaced and hasn't seen time with them since. As usual, Paajarvi has shown his speed and will race around defenders on the rush, but he's normally quite a bit faster than his linemates and won't have much support, ending up getting off a non-dangerous perimeter shot or taking the puck to the side of the net. Occasionally he'll go inside the defender, but this is rare, and it's unfortunate because if he took the puck to the goal mouth I imagine he'd score a lot more goals and would also keep the defense and goalie more on their toes. He seems to lack the extra push to power his way into the crease. It's not an easy thing to do while holding onto the puck and taking a shot, but he has size and speed so he has the tools to do it.

So versatile.
For now, he looks like a 3rd line RW defensive specialist. Everyone talks about trying Hall at centre but I've heard people say before Paajarvi seems like a more logical choice and I'd have to agree. Paajarvi seems like the best fit for a young 3C in the system, and if he can do well in that role I think it's a huge win, since none of the centres in the system have really been playing in a way to make me think they'd be a good 3C. In fact, I feel like Paajarvi could even play defense, and he looks very good on the point on the powerplay. Wing seems like the worst kind of place for this player -- his shot is poor, he doesn't like driving the net, but he's defensively conscious and has enough skill to play with skill. He's also very fast and can get back on the backcheck efficiently. He looks excellent on the PK --always the first winger option -- and I think he should be in the same position in the NHL. He's been given some chances at this point and while I don't object to him having more chances on skill lines, I also don't mind the idea of him playing into that role instead of it being handed to him, since I think there are more deserving players.

At this point, I'd suggest Paajarvi projects to be a 3rd line winger, though I am intrigued at the possibility of him at centre. Either way, I think the organization should focus more on putting him in a position to succeed and not forcing the issue of him as a top 6 winger. They have other options and they need big, fast, defensive forwards probably more than they need a thus far ineffective perimeter winger.

#21 - C - Tanner House: 7, 1-0-1, +2, 7PiM, 8 SOG

One of my pleasant surprises so far this year, Tanner House is on a two-way contract but is probably considered the least-prospect prospect in the system, or at least that's what I would've said before this season started. I think he is now past Phil Cornet on the depth chart and I think he's close to passing Ryan Martindale. The problem with House is that he's old, but for what he projects to be, experience is an asset. To my mind, he has played the other two defensive centers in OKC (Anton Lander and Chris VandeVelde), but I don't think he's ahead of either of them on the depth chart yet -- they have a lot of stock in Lander and VandeVelde has gotten the NHL calls in the past.

Tanner House
House has made very few mistakes by my eye, which to me is the most important thing for this type of player. If you're a defensive specialist, you want to be tight in your own zone. He also has shown a surprising flair for offense, and although the points haven't been coming, I chalk that up to the role he's being used in. From what I've seen of him in the offensive zone, I feel like he could be used in a more offensive role and he wouldn't be particular bad at it. The thing is, VandeVelde has the NHL experience, so at this point I think House has to outplay him consistently and by a wide-ish margin to be considered for the 4C job in Edmonton. House was often scratched at the beginning of the year, but he's been a regular ever since week two from what I can tell. He also plays more physical than VandeVelde, and I'm not sure who is better taking draws but they both look pretty good to me.

House projects to be a 4C in the NHL if everything breaks right for him, hell maybe even 3C, but that is quite unlikely, which is unfortunate. He's in a similar position to Arcobello in that he's very good at this level, but because of the other guys in the system and his age (with Arcobello it's more of a size concern), he's really going to have to play out of his mind to get a look, and I think that is absolutely possible, it's just that it's hard to tell at what point the Oilers will give him serious consideration. I'd say ten more games of him playing at a slightly higher level than he's been playing at should put him in the conversation.

Taylor Hall
#22 - LW - Taylor Hall: 2, 1-0-1, 0, 10PiM, 5 SOG

Had an excellent first shift after his 8-month absence of playing hockey that included shoulder surgery, tipping in an unlikely Colten Teubert shot, but showed his rust after that. Part of it is he's used to playing with more talented players. Give him another week and he'll be tearing it up, kind of like how Eberle recently exploded. Hall's speed and possession skills were evident in his first two games, even if the only offense that counted on the scoreboard was on his first shift.

Hall is a top line left-winger in the NHL who is very good at controlling possession and putting the defense on their heels. He's also not afraid to play physical and likes to set up on the right offensive post on the PP, where he scores many easy goals. Because of the way the lines are in Edmonton I think he's more likely to be a 2LW facing tough competition, or with the good play of Hartikainen, the Oilers might push him to play centre (so Yakupov and Hemsky could flank him). It's becoming evident that one of Sam Gagner or Ales Hemsky will be moved soon, or both. Ideally, Hall plays excellent at centre, and in two years when Hemsky's contract is up Tobias Rieder plays his way as the 2RW in the NHL. Unlikely, but that'd be grand.

*#23 - RW - Kristians Pelss: 3, 0-2-2, +1, 2PiM, 1 SOG (ECHL: 3, 1-0-1)

Like Martindale, Pelss had a very good camp and made the team right off the bat when many expected him to get sent to the ECHL. Unlike Martindale though, Pelss was sent down after playing only three games. Ironically, Pelss played well enough to warrant staying in the lineup whereas Martindale has been shaky, but the Barons are deeper at wing and wanted to bring Abney up to fight or something.

Kristians Pelss
Before he was sent down, I thought Pelss was playing quite well in his role, though I imagine his ability to impact a game on the NHL level will be extremely limited. One play that stands out is hammering an opposition player when he was on the backcheck right before that player could get a shot off, which was extremely effective -- unfortunately Pelss was called for a (highly unwarranted) penalty on the play. The good thing he has going for him is he doesn't look like a liability out there and seems to play a complete game. Somehow he got some PP time in his short stint in OKC, even though he never got any in Junior. He's auditioning to a similar job as Curtis Hamilton, except Pelss is smaller and has never scored as much as Hamilton. Pelss seems to put more effort into his game, though, and he plays a more reckless style, so perhaps he could carve out a career as a 4th line guy to cause a little chaos, kind of like the role Antti Tyrvainen is currently failing at. Pelss has some skill too, and although he doesn't possess as much raw skill as Hamilton does, he plays a lot more effectively at this point, and if the case remains the same a year from now or even in a few months, I'd like to think he'd pass Hamilton on the depth chart. A smaller guy finishing his checks and managing to put up some apples is better than a bigger guy with more offensive gifts doing neither of those things.

#26 - C - Mark Arcobello: 9, 3-4-7, -1, 4PiM, 15 SOG

Mark Arcobello is in a similar situation to Tanner House in he's playing very well but no one seems to pay any attention to him. Probably the most underrated Barons player, he plays solid pretty much every game, and his defensive lapses are rare. His worst games see him not impact the game much on any level, while in his best he'll get a helping hand on several goals and help create offense. Competent on all areas of the ice, Arcobello isn't very high event but he makes good offensive players and battles hard for the puck. This is the year he will need to make people pay attention to him since a lot of Oilers eyes are closely analyzing the Barons, and so far he's been getting a chance to play with the skilled kids pretty regularly after starting the year in more of a depth role.

Mark Arcobello
He's a small player, but I'd love to see him called up and thrown into the 3rd line in the NHL to see how he responds for 3 games. You can knock a guy for his size, but if he consistently shows you he can play, why not give him a shot? Worst case scenario you see that he can't handle his own at the NHL and you don't give him a contract. Best case scenario you have another option to consider when you ponder how to find 3-4 centres who can play well in their roles at an NHL level 2 years from now. I don't know why more people aren't panicking about the organization's centre depth, but to me it requires much more attention than defense. At defense, there are several prospects tracking quite well. At centre, you have a few players who were never supposed to make the NHL playing pretty well (Arcobello, VandeVelde, House) and some other, more highly touted centres playing very poorly (Lander, Martindale). Of course there's trades, but easier said than done.

Arcobello projects to be a journeyman minor leaguer with perhaps upside as a replacement level NHL player. If given a shot, I think he might be able to make an NHL career as a reliable two-way 3C who can score, but he'll need to find at least one more to be given a real look. As with many skilled players, size is the issue, but one would think he could form an interesting line with Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark, even though that is extraordinarily unlikely to happen.

Taylor Fedun
#27 - D - Taylor Fedun: 10, 0-3-3, 0, 4PiM, 3SOG

Fedun was given a 2 year contract after a very good college career. Last year at the Oilers camp he was virtually unknown, then a lot of things broke right for him and he was most likely going to earn a spot on the Oilers' opening night roster. He was playing better than most of their defensemen and looked competent at that level, enough to be introduced as a bottom-pairing guy with PP time. It was a mixture of him playing very well, making few mistakes and injuries decimating the Oilers. Unfortunately, things went from breaking well to breaking horrible when he suffered a season-ending injury in one of the final preseason games. After a year of intense rehab, he's playing in his first pro season in a contract year.

I was a bit worried, like many people were, how Fedun would respond to losing the season last year, and so far I'd say he's responded quite well. He hasn't blown anyone away his elite skill, but he has been competent and by my eye the 2nd-best Barons defender. I'd like to see a pairing of Fedun with Schultz, since Fedun has the same puck-moving abilities and arguable the same skills as Marcinin but is a lot less raw defensively at this stage. He's an older prospect, but if he steadily improves he absolutely could make the Oilers as a bottom pairing defender in the future. Right now he lacks a game-changing element, but bottom pairing guys don't really require that, though of course the more impact defenders a team has the better. I remain cautiously optimistic about Fedun and am anxious to see him slowly fine-tune his game.

The problem with Fedun so far this year he been his speed. It's like watching a minor league version of Ryan Whitney -- you can see the skill and he has a good outlet pass (which is severely lacking in the Oilers system), but he's slow turning and he's learned to compensate for it yet. I'm not sure if he'll ever fully regain his speed, which is a damn shame because with that speed he'd be a lot more likely to move his career forward. I haven't given up on him yet but Martin Marincin has more upside at this point and although he's still much more raw, he's also quite a bit younger than Fedun and will likely pass him on the depth chart by the end of the year unless Fedun regains some speed.

the brain power to play with skill
One thing that I have been impressed about with Fedun is his physical game, which I thought was non-existent until seeing him line up a few opposition players with clean, hard hits in his own zone. He's not overly physical at any area of the ice, but it's nice to see that he has that ability. In the past couple of games, I've also noticed him join the rush more, which is one of the things that stuck out to me when I first saw him play last year. Very few Oilers defenders do this, so it was exciting to watch, though now we are spoiled with Justin Schultz doing it several times a game.

Fedun has the brain power to play with skill and not ruin scoring chances, which is more than can be said for many players on the Barons roster. It's just cleaning up some defensive mistakes and getting that speed back. If he can do that, I'd say an NHL career as a 5-6 defenseman with PP time and a bit of PK time as well is quite possible. It's going to be difficult, but I think he can do if given the opportunity. I just hope the Oilers will renew his contract for at least a year considering he lost a full year of development. Right now he's the 2nd best defender on the Barons by eye, but Teubert has been playing better as of late and once Marincin puts it all together Fedun could be the 4th best. The guys below Schultz, Teubert, Marincin and Fedun aren't even close at this point, though -- I'll take Zahn as a 6/7 guy and would love the Barons to find 2 defenders who are more reliable than the current options in the system.

Martin Marincin
#28 - D - Martin Marincin: 9, 2-2-4, +6, 8PiM, 12 SOG

Martin Marincin has obvious skills as a defenseman and has a high NHL ceiling. The thing is he's in his first pro season and rustiness is to be expected. Marincin's biggest troubles come in his own end or risky decision-making in the offensive zone that he likely could compensate for in Junior. He's got good size, though he doesn't use it much and I think he'd be a more complete player if he filled out some and adding more of a physical element to his game.

Marincin has slowly improved game to game this year, though he rarely puts together a full game where he plays exceedingly well, often guilty of defensive lapses. I can see why they're pushing him on the top pairing with Schultz since they have the two highest ceilings on the team, but right now he isn't the ideal candidate to cover for Schultz' superior offensive tendencies, and Marincin is perhaps the most error-prone of the defensemen that OKC employs. Marincin is playing well all things considered but he's a good two years away from NHL employment by my eye and has a lot of ironing out in his game, which will come slowly. That being said, I think he'll have an NHL career, barring significant injury or him never figuring out how to tighten up his game, scenarios which are both entirely possible.

I could see Marincin slotting in anywhere from a bottom-pairing offensive defenseman to a #2 complete defender who's more offensive than shut-down. It won't come quickly, though, and he shouldn't be rushed.

Chris VandeVelde
#29 - C - Chris VandeVelde: 9, 0-3-3, +1, 4PiM, 11 SOG

Chris VandeVelde is a player who will have difficulty surviving in the NHL in my opinion because he lacks any stand-out quality. He seems to be good at taking draws and pretty decent two-way centre, but his overall game isn't as tight as I'd like a 4C's to be. You can tell he's a veteran on the team, and he's trusted for important draws in his own end, but I'd like a 4C to be more physical and a 3C to bring more offense.

Anton Lander's crappy start probably benefits VandeVelde the most short-term, since if the Oilers want one of them on the big club my bet is VandeVelde gets the call. When Ryan O'Marra was traded last year for the minor league swap I always thought I'd rather have him stick around as a replacement-level 4C rather than VandeVelde, since I thought that O'Marra's overall defensive game was better, and he was better at draws and PK. But at the end of the 2010/11 season, O'Marra played pretty crappy in a call-up to the Oilers while VandeVelde played pretty well, and perhaps that impression stuck. By eye, VandeVelde's lines in OKC this year have been getting more ice time than I think is warranted.

VandeVelde pretty much tops out as a 4C option in the NHL but I think replacement level is more likely based on what I've seen. Sometimes all it takes is a chance though and players can find a way to stick, and VandeVelde's (last) chance may very well come this year. Luckily he plays for an organization that has atrocious centre depth, but if he can't take advantage of that here, he'll likely be a minor league journeyman.

Olivier Roy
#31 - G - Olivier Roy: 4, 2-2, 237:17, 2.53, .915%

Olivier Roy is one of the two young goalies in the Oilers system developing quite well. He had a good year in the ECHL last year and has earned the right to be the back-up in OKC, and so far this year I'd say he's keeping pace with Danis if not outplaying him. Roy has looked a bit shaky at times but no more than should be expected of a rookie. He's also made some very nice saves and even though he hasn't always looked solid, he's given up very few bad goals. He's only played four games so that could easily be circumstantial, but I think a 40/60 split for him is pretty fair at this point.

The biggest knock for me with Roy is that he gives up a lot of rebounds, but only a couple I would have expected him to suffocate, and he's made several great saves of the quick reaction variety that he probably shouldn't have been expected to make. If he can replicate his performance over the course of the year, he may find himself starting more games than perhaps was originally anticipated.

At this point, Roy could end up being an elite NHL goalie option or never even getting a game. It really is hard to tell with goalies, especially young ones.

#33 - D - Colten Teubert: 10, 0-1-1, 0, 50 PiM, 17 SOG

Thankfully, Colten Teubert looks a lot better in the AHL than the NHL; unfortunately, he still doesn't look that good, though his past couple of games he's much better. I don't like fighting in hockey, but if the Oilers are going to have someone who retaliates Teubert is a good person. If he can be good enough to be a 6/7 defenseman at the NHL level and kick the crap out of people who run Eberle and Schultz, he's serving his purpose and might convince the team they don't need someone like Cameron Abney or Darcy Hordichuk, thus freeing up a roster spot.

Colton Teubert
Teubert isn't expected to be offensive, but I'd to see a bit more offense out of him, and he has been shooting more as of late. For a defender of his mould, he needs to be absolutely solid in his own end, and while he's playing pretty well there I wouldn't call him solid. He also lacks an ability to move the puck or have a good outlet pass, so he'll need to be paired with someone competent in these areas on a bottom pairing (Taylor Fedun comes to mind). I don't really like players of his type because I see them as a liability -- if you can't effectively move the puck or make an outlet pass, it immediately puts you at a disadvantage when you have the puck in your own end -- but if he is solid positionally and plays physically he might be good enough to play regularly in the NHL. Andy Sutton, a veteran player in a similar mould has surprisingly decent puck-moving skills, and if Teubert hopes to have a career like that I think this is an area he could work on that would greatly help his cause.

The other problem with Teubert is that he doesn't look solid enough to pair him with an inexperienced defenseman, which is a problem with this roster. He's one of the veterans now and needs to play consistent.

Teubert tops out as a 6/7 physical defender who can PK. At this point I'd bet on him being replacement level rather than NHL regular, but the Oilers are lacking players of this type so he'll get chances.

Dane Byers
#34 - LW - Dane Byers: 10, 1-1-2, -1, 28 PiM, 11 SOG

Speaking of player types that the Oilers lack, Dane Byers is most similar in my eyes to Ben Eager -- a big, physical forward who can fight and who the coaches will occasionally throw out with the skill lines. Byers is more consistent than Eager and by eye handles the puck better which makes him a better candidate to play with skill, but he lacks Eager's explosive speed. Still, Byers doesn't take as many stupid penalties or blow his defensive coverage as much, and that for me is enough to give him a shot at a 4th line role on the big club, if the team insists on having a player like this (which it seems they do).

It's hard to get too excited about a guy whose ceiling is a 4th line energy player if everything breaks right and he gets a chance. As it stands right now though he's a pretty good veteran AHL winger and is probably replacement level in the NHL. If a couple 4th line guys go down to injury I wouldn't be worried if Byers takes their place.

#35 - G - Yann Danis: 6, 3-2-1, 363:44, 3.13, .895%

Danis has made some excellent saves so far this year but has also let in some easy goals. He looks more solid overall than Roy, and one can see his veteran presence. However, he doesn't look like the AHL goalie of the year last year, and I don't think he's pushing the issue to be in consideration for a backup role in Edmonton, though I still think he's a good #3 guy. He has a competent backup in Roy so he'll need to play a bit more consistently to hold on to his starting role. Neil Livingston had an article up that explained why he expected Danis to regress a bit this season, and so far it looks pretty spot-on. But it does appear within Danis' range of abilities to tighten up.

Yann Danis
Danis projects to be pretty much what he is now, a replacement level NHL goalie and a good minor leaguer. It's possible for him to take that step up to being a #2 goalie in the NHL, even at age 31, but he'll need to show more than he has so far this season. With aging Khabibulin possibly never playing again, Danis really is with the perfect organization to get his shot, but as it stands right now I think it'd be more likely for the Oilers to find a cheaper, more proven option to backstop the already unproven Devan Dubnyk.

#36 - RW - Cameron Abney: 3, 0-0-0, 0, 7 PiM, 1 SOG

Cameron Abney is hired fists, and he plays like it, even though he hasn't fought much yet. He made the team out of the gate and was hilariously a healthy scratch for the first four games before being sent down without seeing any action. He was called back up when Taylor Hall signed his AHL deal presumably to deter the opposition but has done nothing effective to this point. I don't understand why he's on the ice in the third period ever.

Abney projects to be a goon in any level of hockey he's playing, and if Hordichuk goes down Abney might be the first OKC player called up to the NHL. A scary thought.

On the radar in the ECHL:
F Phil Cornet (9 4-7, 11, +5, 2PiM, 28 SOG)
F Toni Rajala (9 6-5, 11, +5, 2PiM, 40 SOG)
G Tyler Bunz (7 5-1-1, 425:00, 2.12, .917)

Cornet and Rajala are tied for 13th in league scoring. Cornet was an AHL all-star last year but couldn't make the club out of the gate. Rajala has turned it on as of late and will probably earn a recall before Cornet.

Hartikainen shows how it's done.
So there you have it folks, a pretty intense and unprofessional look at all of the players on the roster for what is supposed to be the most dominant team in North American professional sports at this time. If you're looking to watch hockey, the OKC Barons can provide you with some entertainment and a look into emerging NHL stars, if that's your kind of thing. Nevertheless, it should be interesting to see if and when this team can turn things around and what it means for the future of the young Oilers.

a.m.k. is a professional writer and an amateur amateur hockey scout.

[The images in this article were lifted from a number of sources: the Baron's Facebook page, OKCBaronsHockey, the Edmonton Journal, TendTheFarm, Oilers Nation, NewsOK, CopperNBlue, Artful Puck,, Wikipedia, and the Hockey Writers.]

1 comment:

  1. Apologies for the weak image credits as things are. Will fix into something respectable tomorrow, but wanted to rush this into print for tonight. --ed