Last week, with the NHL All-Star break in its full glory, many of the regular Oilers writers from the north graced the Cox Center with their presence and always cheery demeanor. The Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones, SportsNet another, and a few other curious folk in need of something to talk about. For as bad as the Oilers have been for nearly three seasons, their farm team has become a minor league juggernaut. Thus the All-Star festivities in Ottawa seemed un-important to most Oilers fans. Jordan Eberle was the one bright spot, able to play and represent the city, but even that is almost a footnote to the weekend.
The sudden success of the Barons, in this their second year of existence in Oklahoma City, has forced the media to look long and hard and often at how a minor league team can soar while the NHL team is a bore. I’m here to tell you, that this Barons squad is not without its imperfections. The late period “fade” is something the coaching staff is trying to correct in the latter half of the season. The lack of power play scoring to begin and end games is improving, but still lumpy. At this point, I’m just nitpicking, but for the right reasons. As someone whom watches more minor league hockey on a weekly basis than that of the major league variety, I like to think that I know a thing or two about this Oklahoma City squad. So as the Edmonton writers enjoyed a really good steak, some warmer weather, and FINALLY a couple of wins in a row, I too ponder the success in the “A” and the failures in the “N”.
G To The M
The most interesting talk over the last three weeks has been about Steve Tambellini and the inevitable contract extension that many believe he is due. One wrinkle to the re-up has been the success of the farm team, and the attention laid to promoting wins through strong roster maneuvers. Those who argue the contrary are absolutely right in my opinion. An NHL GM being graded on his AHL team is ludicrous, especially when you have a GM in the AHL. Bill Scott, former AHL Director of Hockey Operations has made deep roster moves that have stitched this team together. Tambellini can take credit for Hartikainen, Plante, Cornet, maybe Keller, maybe Green, and a few marquee names, but give credit to the minor league GM for Montgomery, LeNeveu, Yeo, Helmer, Ringwald, and Martens who have been the back end of this team when the callups and injuries are in full effect. I choose to believe, and history does as well, that a deep team is a winning team. I’d go as far as to say that a team is only as strong as it’s bottom pairings and lines. Don’t believe me, look at the Oilers.
Imagine you work for the circus. You’re the guy responsible for booking the acts, as freakish as they might be. You know the elephants are the big showstopper, but lately that portion of the show has been really bad. The elephants are belligerent, your trainer isn’t pushing new portions of the act, and people are starting to complain. However, you keep your job. Why? Because the bearded lady has had a big crowd for a year now. People love her. Children are in amazement of her. But remember, the main show is brutally unbearable. Sound familiar? Even Barnum & Bailey know better.
Coach Todd Nelson is a diamond in the rough. He’s honest with the media, respected by his players, and really good at motivating play. Not lost on we OKC fans is his ability to coach youngsters. He’s a system guy. A guy that preaches “work the system” in practice, the dressing room, the weight room, and in game time situations. That system is defensively sharp and offensively open. For two seasons it has worked. It’s taken on different shapes and forms, but it’s a system that works. He does add pieces into the fray according to opponents, and this is where Nelson’s sweet spot lies. He has a knack for keeping opponents off the game plan. Rarely do you see a hockey coach that can get opponents bumfuzzled even on back-to-back nights. He does this posturing in two ways. He’s a line mixer. But only to a point. He doesn’t fuss with those that are producing. He lets them evolve. But 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines are the meat and potatoes, and this is where he’s a magician. He knows the Checkers are a quick team, and so he places Pitlick on the left wing where he can defensively stab opponents around the boards. He realizes that the team needs some bite against Texas, so he pops Tryvainen centered by O’Marra. The same goes for defensive pairings. On nights where the puck needs to move quickly, you’ll see Chorney and Helmer get the top spots. Nelson will counter large teams with Plante-Teubert, Tulupov-Yeo. There’s just enough “buying into” the system that the rotation of players and injuries don’t ruffle enough feaathers to get the Barons into bind in the standings.
If you’ve watched the Oilers for a year or so it’s evident that at times they play lifeless hockey. Much of that comes from losing so much, but some of that happens to be a direct result of the culture that begins in the dressing room. Don’t get me wrong, the Oilers have players w/ heart, but at times the team isn’t uniformly moving in the same direction. This is tough for any sports team, organization, or business to overcome. One thing that has pushed the Barons through the last two seasons has been heart. The heart and soul of this team is about determination. Determination to get better on the ice, stay focused off the ice, and be positive in the locker room. From practice to Friday nights, this team doesn’t deviate from that heartbeat. Coaching, player leadership, and fan support all help, but ultimately it’s an individual concept that requires “buying into”. The Barons, even when in defeat, never lose heart. A concept that continues to run its course.
It’s important to remember the main reason for a farm team’s existence. Unfortunately for those in OKC, it’s not always about seeing that team succeed. It’s more about feeding quality talent to the parent club, seeing them succeed, and rightly contribute. Omark, Hartikainen, Plante, Teubert, Petry, McDonald, and Reddox are just a few players who have made great strides as a result of farm play. Except for Jeff Petry, some continue to develop in the minors, and have probably reached a level of potential that necessitates a move to another organization. However, there’s no denying their improvement while in OKC. The only problem is that very few have been able to translate success to the NHL club that equals their dominance in the AHL. It’s also a strange time. The Oilers are seemingly in desperate need of good players NOW. But the process seems to be working. Winning while working is just a nice bonus.
When the dust settles on the Oiler GM’s contract re-up (or not), I’d be hesitant to assume that it was a direct result of the minor league Barons success. I’d even take it one step further. Perhaps the AHL team is succeeding in spite of Steve Tambelinni’s so-called meddling in the farm team in OKC. In reality, it’s a pretty sad state when that’s how you might intend on pitching your reasons for an extension. I’m not saying that Tambelinni is doing so, but he just might. After all, what does he have left?