Eberle, Schultz, Nugent-Hopkins – Oklahoma City Bound

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography. All rights reserved.

It was inevitable that the full list of Oilers being waived, and thus re-assigned to Oklahoma City, would come today. With the CBA virtually dying out at midnight tonight, the slow sputter towards dispersement of players has begun. The list indeed was unfurled, and with high caliber names that everyone expected — namely Justin Schultz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. These three get the most attention because of their current NHL status, or seemingly NHL-readiness. Schultz, of course, was the big offseason get that was supposed to begin the era of better defensive posturing by the Oilers. Nugent-Hopkins, the first rounder with play making skills heralded by some as one of the best-in-the-biz, had a sunny disposition heading into his second year as a pro. And, of course, Jordan Eberle. Nearly a point per game last season, a high-end contract extension (that takes a hit post-lockout), and an Oilers favorite. All three instantly make the OKC Barons a more potent squad.

Here is the full list of names per the Oklahoma City Barons:

Cameron Abney, Mark Arcobello, Tyler Bunz, Dane Byers, Philippe Cornet, Yann Danis, Brandon Davidson, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Fedun, Curtis Hamilton, Teemu Hartikainen, Tanner House, Anton Lander, Martin Marincin, Ryan Martindale, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Magnus Paajarvi, Kristians Pelss, Tyler Pitlick, Alex Plante, Toni Rajala, Olivier Roy, Justin Schultz, Colten Teubert, Antti Tyrvainen, Chris Vande Velde

At what cost do these players come? That’s the question that has been encircling my mind for the last two weeks. And really the eye-popping scorecard potential of the top 6 on this AHL team is going to be silly good. But that causes several to take a backseat. For players like Ryan Martindale, Cameron Abney, Curtis Hamilton, etc. they’ll continue to develop but unfortunately buried much deeper in a top heavy lineup. And that’s yet another trickle down effect of having an NHL lockout — prospect positioning.

Adding high caliber, marquee players entices Oilers fans to follow the Barons club. It hopefully brightens the attendance numbers for the Barons home games. Maybe it causes the team to be more accessible, more “important”. But the end game of player development in the AHL takes a slight dip. And that’s important to remember.

It’s also worth noting that Steve Tambellini, albeit unintentionally in the upcoming season, will ice three of the best AHL teams in recent memory. From goaltenders to higher end forward prospects to incoming defensive ones — the Barons have started three seasons as the darlings of the minor leagues. And they’ve gotten better with each passing year. New, consistent, fun, prospect important — just three really good minor league teams in three consecutive seasons. That’s weirdly impressive (and kinda ridiculous).

You’ll begin to see and hear line combos as well as defensive pairs in the coming weeks. You have to think that Nugent-Hopkins centers the top line with a familiar Eberle to his right. But who plays the left side Taylor Hall role? Mark me down for saying Teemu Hartikainen fills that role nicely. He may not be the all-out cannonball that Hall is, but he’s a tough skater with incredible puck protection. He’s not afraid to go in deep, or mix it up around the boards. In the same breathe that I speak the name Teemu, I also speak Magnus. And most will likely lean towards a Paajarvi-Nuge-Eberle line to start the AHL season. Why? It just makes sense. All three are NHL ready, willing, and able. All are important cogs in the Oilers machine. All have NHL experience. And they can soar. Other possible scenarios are out there. How about the angsty, Dane Byers adding some grit to the finesse game of both top liners. Or perhaps move Josh Green to the left, but he’s probably better served as the second line center. Or perhaps a guy like Tyler Pitlick, that naturally traveled from left to right to center in various forms over the 2012-13 season? He’s the best of both worlds – strong and driven to get towards the net. It will be hard to go wrong with such good play down the center. The world is your oyster.

Will the Oklahoma City world even acknowledge that the lockout is a big deal for their minor league hockey team? No. The team will again be buried in the rubble of NBA, NCAA, and other “more important” sporting endeavors in the Fall/Winter. But the honey hole is in the out-of-towner attention given to the team. Much like the blog you’re reading now, the greatest number of Oklahoma City Barons fans are outside the metro area (70% of the TendTheFarm.com readership is in Canada). The team will attempt to mount an all out blitz to get people to recognize the importance of the NHL players playing in your own backyard, but the sell is still an uphill battle.

As a fan of hockey in general, this is the year to follow the American Hockey League (I see you, Jeff Skinner). And if you live in this city,  and you’re within the sound of my blog voice, get to a game this October. It will be the closest thing to real NHL hockey this city will likely see in your lifetime. It’s important. And thus, don’t let it pass you by.