Photo courtesy of Rob Ferguson. All rights reserved.
Easter Sunday, the Oilers made transactions that sent Teemu Hartikainen, Chris VandeVelde, and Colten Teubert to the Oklahoma City Barons for what will be a Calder Cup run for the minor league roster. There’s no denying that the Barons are kinda whispering their way into the playoffs. Sure they will likely nab a 1 seed in the West (although Toronto might best that at the last minute) with the best overall record in that conference, but they are doing so with a March/April record of 8-6-2-2. Although above .500 in regulation those 10 outright losses are pretty simple evidence that this team is dipping (not diving) towards an imposition. A crossroads where the team learns to play team hockey and thus winning hockey, or have that first round, five game series over before the dust settles.
With those three players returning to the farm, where they set up shop for most of the season, the Barons just might get a little edge that they were lacking. Not goal scoring or assist making (although that’s a possibility), but rather some heart. Hartikainen is a player that is a take charge winger. Strong, sturdy, and charismatic when he wants to be. VandeVelde is a third line closer that matches up nightly with opposing top lines. He is a yeoman at frustrating others. Then there’s Colten Teubert. A guy with which the organization, at both levels, seems to enjoy. I find his play lacking something. However, he does add that heart element in most regards. He embraces his situations and predicaments with full force. He realizes his prospect nature, chooses to work hard wherever he might be. These are all qualities that the Barons in its current incarnation seem to be lacking.
But in the end it’s goal scoring that has the Barons snake bitten. With names on this roster like Ryan Keller, Phillipe Cornet, Magnus Paajarvi, etc, etc, it’s maddening to think that Antti Tyrvainen has become the go-to consistent scorer. That’s not a slight knock on Antti (now with a shaved, angry looking head) but rather a testament to both his increasingly strong rookie N. American season and his teams’ druthers of late.
But the hard facts are that those scoring players listed above have indeed received their share of chances, really good ones in fact. And this is where heart plays a big role — when scoring isn’t coming naturally. When your team has dominated the Western Conference (or at least the important parts of it) for nearly 3/4 of a season, for the well of offense to dry up so quickly is most disconcerting. Todd Nelson doesn’t say it, but you can tell in his demeanor that he is gobsmacked by his Barons’ inability to score of late. Yet he insists the system works, as do I, and thus the team will be fine. But how long can the coaching staff, players, and fans continue to tell themselves that when the team has hit the skids?
The need for heart is also the need for a leader. Someone in that locker room that talks the talk, but laces it up and walks the walk (or skates the skate). I believe that will come from a young player. Captain Helmer serves a purpose, but it’s time for someone else to get some moxy. A Tyler Pitlick, for example, would be a great candidate if he chooses to thrust himself into this position. He’s a “go hard” player by definition, but can be crippled by his own inconsistency. Imagine if he strung together a postseason that rattled cages, forced his teammates to be better, and lit a fire by mere example. That’d be impressive and timely and much needed and much accepted.
There is one cog in this postseason machine that will be sorely missed despite some fans insisting he be gone — Linus Omark. I’d make the argument that we haven’t seen a player in Oklahoma City that could score at will quite like Linus Omark. He had gears that very few AHL prospects possess. And he’s made it very clear that he’s done with the Oilers organization, not just the minor league Barons. His insistence that he play in the Worlds is fine, and I don’t blame him for doing so given how much he’s been jerked around by the Oil. But that doesn’t diminish how much of an impact he could have had on this current Barons squad. A goal scorer with dangerous hands, knee cap breaking puck handles, and raw talent would have been a dangerous postseason concoction. Nonetheless, that ship has sailed – Gothenburg or bust.
So the time comes for wondering. What does this Barons squad do in the next two weeks to prep for the Calder Cup Playoffs? Sure they’ll insist they need to “skate better”, “make better decisions”, and “be more aggressive”, but my fear lies in the one thing that takes longer than two weeks to develop. The mental fortitude to go hard takes time to mature. That heart aspect might indeed be bubbling within a player whom we least expect. If so, let’s see it now. Show us what you got. Make us believe that this team can have a healthy heart transplant & bang some pots whilst steam rolling through the AHL postseason. As fans, we know it’s there, we’ve seen it, we’ve watched it. We just haven’t seen it in a while, and I think we’re due.