Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography. All rights reserved.
The road can be a long and lonely place. If you were to travel from the East coast of the US to the West, you’d encounter 3,200 or so miles, most of that concreted interstate. The occasional mountain or roadside monument might be in your peripheral, but the majority of the trek would be completely boring. If you’re a truck driver reading this, you are a better man than I.
The Oklahoma City Barons are currently on a trek, one that is landmarked closer to the Eastern time zone, and with some increasingly familiar faces. Although the road to these destinations might be long, winding, and boring, the actual games were anything but. We learned a lot about the Barons this weekend. Some wounds were exposed. Some missteps were noted. But the real question in this journey is simple. Can the team learn from these mistakes to become a better team?
Three games in three days against three different opponents on the road is a tall order. Friday it was a potential first round playoff matchup with the Peoria Rivermen, followed by a Saturday jaunt to Grand Rapids to ensnare the Griffins. The team found themselves in a less-than-24-hours-later scenario on Sunday where they’d face the Chicago Wolves. When the dust settled the Barons only gained a single standing point, were outscored 12-6, let in four power play goals while only scoring one themselves, and gave away 37 total penalty minutes (32 of the minor variety) while their opponents only gave up 21. It was all kinds of ugly for one of the best teams in the American League.
On the outside looking in I hesitate to say that it’s time to panic. We’ve seen how disciplined this team can be, we just don’t want this weekend to be featured on the highlight video over the season. There are, however, some very important reasons for why these losses occurred and how they can be addressed. So let’s dig in.
The Penalty Kill
I make no reservations in my continued protest of shipping out Ryan O’Marra and bringing in Bryan Rodney. O’Marra was a skilled role player that led to the leagues best penalty kill for much of the season. You in essence traded away something you were really good at for something you though you might need down the road. When the successes were so strong why tinker with them? (*note* That’s the Oilers way) Since that trade went down we’ve begun to see the lingering affects of a declining power play. What the Barons/Oilers didn’t prepare for was the loss of Ryan O’Marra coupled with Hunter Tremblay, another dandy penalty killer, being out with concussion symptoms. It’s a double whammy that was on glorious display this weekend. So much so that we eventually saw Magnus Paajarvi on the kill multiple times which on paper seems like a bad idea and in real life was exactly the same. Both forwards and defensemen on the kill gave up way too much room between themselves and the opponents forwards. They were also unwilling to clear the goal crease for either Yann Danis or David LeNeveu. This was a breeding ground for a terrible kill, and it played out as such.
I fully realize that there are a lot of things at play here. The strength of opponents being one of them. The North teams in the Western Division have some fight. Why? Because everyone is grappling for a playoff spot. The West Div is nearly set (but with lots of time left), but the North and Midwest will get interesting as teams jockey for positioning.
In the end, the kill looks bad for the Barons. Regardless of opponent, goaltender, or duration of penalties, they just aren’t getting the little things done when at a man disadvantage.
I’ll try not to whisper Bryan Rodney’s name too much in this conversation, but let’s be honest, he’s not a very good defensive player. If the Oilers believed him to be a scoring defender that’s fine, but he’s not even very good at that. We’ve seen his time on ice go from top defensive pairing to middle of the pack. Coach Nelson isn’t a dummy. He still gets the power play time and strong even strength opportunities, but the man struggles to protect his own blue line. And although he had a +3 this weekend, he remains a liability in his own zone. Disagree if you will, but how much did a scoring defenseman benefit OKC on this road trip? That’s a non-conversation.
He’s not the only one to blame. By Sunday, Bryan Helmer was gassed. The defensive leader on this squad did a yeomans job of picking up the slack, but the road had him weary. Chorney, Yeo, Teubert – you name it, the defenders struggled. It might simply boil down to timing, and stupid penalty leniency which are more head issues than tangible ones. This core can really be solid. They can also unintentionally take nights off.
The goaltending went Danis, LeNeveu, LeNeveu/Roy. Both regular Barons tenders struggled a bit. Danis had some positional situations on Friday, but wasn’t given much help in front. LeNeveu clung to a solid third period to push the game into OT on Saturday. But then he fell asleep at the wheel on Sunday, which allowed Olivier Roy almost 40 minutes of quality ice time. The system that Todd Nelson has instituted begins with the goaltenders. If they have a bad night, the team does as well. Plain and simple, these two have been the best duo on the league and what a nice cushion that has been. For as good as they’ve been, they’ll need to be better. Danis apparently has some stiffness in his knees, thus the insertion of Olivier Roy into the lineup. I’m sure he’ll be fine, he almost has to be for this team to make any type of statement.
The bright spot of the goaltending weekend might just have been Roy. 21 shots 20 saves in nearly 40 minutes is Danis like numbers. He bandaged the wound left by LeNeveu in the final game on Sunday, and certainly kept the score admirable. If the Barons forwards (other than Sir Linus) had been better, he may have given them the opportunity to stage a comeback. He’s on the full time roster next season; no doubt.
The top line of Cornet-Arcobello-Keller needs to remain the top line. It had been the consistent scoring threat for much of this season. Indeed on Friday that line accounted for both goals. And although the firepower on this team seems remarkable good (Paajarvi, Omark, Keller, Cornet, Lander, Hartikainen) they still struggled to find the back of the net. Equal parts solid defensive scheming by their opponents, and a few line shakeups – the team looked a tad wonky. The committee scoring tendency also continues. Keller, Arcobello, Pitlick, Paajarvi, Grant, Omark were your weekend goal scorers. No one scored more than once. Without changing too much systematically, there continues to be a lack of a forward that seizes the moment when the team needs it the most. I think that Linus Omark could fill that role nicely, and slightly began to do that on Saturday and Sunday. Yet he’s now Oilers bound and any forward thinking that he had rolling in OKC is headed towards the NHL. Someone else needs to take the lead.
Much has been made of the all Swede line of Omark-Lander-Paajarvi. It looked great when things were going well, and awful when it didn’t. With Omark out of the mix the line gets scrambled, but come postseason I’ll be anxious to see if the three land together again. I tend to favor them apart. Where? Omark on top, Paajarvi and Lander on the second or a a few other combinations. These three are highly skilled, better-than-AHL players. Lander, of the three, needs the most work according to my limited viewing. But he’s still mighty progressive.
As the Barons tour rolls on this week (Peoria on Wednesday), we’ll get to see how the team rights the ship. Defense needs to be smart, penalty kill needs to be solid, goalies need to be sharp, and someone on those offensive lines needs to take the lead. All are simple fundamentals of hockey, and Todd Nelson knows how to adjust.
Once the road swing ends, the Barons return home for a three game stretch. From that point forward there are only 14 games remaining prior to the Calder Cup playoffs. The expectations on these Barons is huge. I’d prefer the speed bumps to occur now, in the beginning of March rather than the middle of April. Road tested teams that struggled, and battle back to prominence are how league titles are won. Shake it off, make it better, push onwards.