Monday Mumble: The Season Worth Watching

In a few days, the Barons will play on home ice in downtown Oklahoma City. And when they do, it will feature one of the most glamorous sports teams in the cities history. Not in terms of where they will end the season do we rate them historically, but how deeply loaded they are from top to bottom. High draft picks into the NHL are rare for the really good teams in the NHL. But when you’re an Oilers fan, the picks are a plenty. Three of them, to be exact, in the last three years. It’s entirely possible that two of those will be donning the baby orange and blue this season even if only for a couple dozen games. That’s a remarkable feat. One that shows the doldrums of a rebuild, and the good fortune of its minor league affiliate.

The Nuge, Ebs, Schultz, Hall — had you asked me about these names 6 months ago, I would’ve told you how excited I was to watch them on Center Ice, and talk about them in the blogosphere the next morning. Unaware that I’d be meeting them face to face. Contemplating asking for an autograph. Posing with them in pictures. And wearing their names on a jersey with a Barons oil drop logo to the right. It’s still an unbelievable scenario.

Push those things aside for just a few moments if you can. There are some other important issues to consider this season.

The Oklahoma City organization, owned by Prodigal LLC, has many things to prove well beyond how dynamic this team will be. Things like attendance, prospects, determination, and appeal are things to be considerate of. And it’s the right time to judge those things because the city of OKC is watching, the powers-that-be in Edmonton are watching, and so is the rest of the league. Here are the things you need to watch this season with the Barons.

Attendance

This one is huge. Outside of this city, many don’t see it as a problem. But the fact that some don’t discuss it is why it’s a problem to begin with. The expectations of hockey attendance in Oklahoma in just three short years have been wildly out of touch. We’ve now come back to earth, so have the people at Prodigal, and the mantra is now to up the numbers quickly. The long plan is to grow a dedicated fan base that eats and digests Barons hockey with high knowledge and unparalleled excitement. But really, there’s a shorter plan in the works to turn the tide in the immediate, with the makings of a good team in 2012-13.

Here are the simple figures:

2010-2011 Season Attendance In OKC
166,195 Total | 4,155 AVG | 40 Games | 22nd In League | 2nd To Last (Abbotsford) In Western Conference
Postseason: 2,554 AVG | 3 Games | Last In League

2011-2012 Season Attendance In OKC
140,008 Total | 3,684 AVG | 38 Games | 26th In League | 2nd To Last (Abbotsford) In Western Conference
Postseason: 2,632 | 6 Games | 3rd To Last In League

The average number sharply declined (and, no, two games lost for re-scheduling doesn’t make THAT big of a difference). That’s a problem. Abbotsford, is the only other team in the Western Conference with similar numbers in last two seasons. To make things respectable, the Barons need to shoot for top 20, top 15 with the roster they’ll ice.

The number I do like is the postseason jump. The effects of a long playoff run might have earned a few more eyeballs, but will the carryover be there?

The Oklahoma City Thunder will run in tandem with the AHL season, and I’ve said it before, that’s not going to help attendance figures, and it’s also not an excuse. My proejections aren’t highly scientific nor are they proven of any value, but I think the Barons can crack 180,000 in total attendance which would have them alongside the Hamilton’s, Bridgeport’s, and Norfolk’s of the league and inside the top 20. That would be a step in the right direction. I also think the target needs to be 3,000+ a night, anything short of that is unsuccessful. And the team has recognized this. Huge car giveaway on every Saturday home game? That’s a 3,000+ night almost guaranteed. It’s the Sunday and mid-week games that are tough to decipher.

For those outside of the viewing area, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are unrecognizable names within the metro area. That’s painful to write, but do you know who Perry Jones III is? Point proven.

Another Prospect “Jumps”

Lost Omark. Gained Lander and Paajarvi (Petrell as well, but not pertinent to this season). Farmed Petry. Still have Plante and Teubert. It’s year three of Barons hockey, and it’s time for another prospect to make the jump to full-time NHL play. The candidates are a plenty. Teemu Hartikainen, Magnus Paajarvi, Anton Lander, and perhaps Fedun or Pitlick — it’s time to reap the harvest.

You could argue that Paajarvi has already done it. But it’s clear that the organization feels he’s not ready for full-time service, as evidenced by his demotion last season. Same for Lander. Linus Omark was supposed to be the next to step up a league, but that ended sourly as anticipated by most.

In a lockout season, the roster is indeed heavy, but the prospect development continues. Keep your eye on who impresses below the top line (and even that will be under the watchful eye). There’s likely to be one, two, or maybe even three that catapult to the Oilers next season (or earlier; fingers crossed for lockout to end).

Coverage

Mike Baldwin is now covering the Barons for the Daily Oklahoman. He’s a career writer of football, and various other sports, but this is his first hockey landing point that I’m aware of. He’s doing a fine job, but he’s a traditional writer. Little interaction on twitter, focused on the column space in the hard copy paper, and divided across various sporting events. It’s at least something.

The writing about Oklahoma City hockey has increased exponentially. Edmonton Journal, Oil On Whyte, National Post, Calgary Herald, and others have committed to covering the season of Oilers farm play. It has nothing to do with the team, but rather the individuals that make the team better during a lockout. And that’s fine, they cover top level hockey. The welcome coverage is a sight for sore eyes.

Professionally, one writer in OKC covers the Barons, and it’s a side project. Meanwhile fan run blogs (like this one), are keeping the connectedness to the team in tact. The demand for good hockey writing might be small, but it’s important. And without a lot of choices, the fan has taken the mantle on their shoulders.

Todd Nelson’s Use Of Players

Coach Nelson has had good teams two years in a row, and he’s done a great job handling the players in practice and in game time situations. But he’s never had the opportunity to coach players anywhere near the level of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall. How these players are used, managed, and placed throughout the lineup will be worth tracking.

When the power play or penalty kill or goaltending waiver can he adjust properly? The best do so without disrupting the core, something that many in Edmonton hoped Ralph Krueger would bring to their club.

Todd Nelson is content with at least one or two more seasons of farm coaching, but don’t think for a moment that he isn’t a viable candidate elsewhere when the season closes. Managing personnel that is NHL caliber carries a lot of weight with those that make important hirings. It’s another important year for Todd.

South Division

The re-structured Western Conference placed OKC in the newly named South Division alongside Texas, Houston, San Antonio, and Charlotte. Familiar are most of these teams, save for Charlotte who’s been bounced around in the Conference over a short two year period. The effects won’t necessarily be during the season, but in the postseason where unfamiliarity can cause strange outcomes. It’s not a huge deal, but definitely worth a glance and a hat tip.

Lockout Ends

Not knowing when the lockout will end has to be bothersome for AHL clubs. A team, like OKC, could find the top half of it’s roster sliced along with the regularity of winning. AHL teams looking to anchor themselves through that tumultuous time might struggle to maintain a solid footing. Whether that’s November, December, January, or never it’s more problematic than you think. Any momentum and consistency could be done away with rather quickly. That’s tough.