At the beginning of each hockey season you are seduced into thinking this season will be the winning season. And, to be honest, the NHL lockout has provided more justification for falling into this line of thought. Before the season started the OKC Barons was the team predicted to win it all – all the way to the top, the Calder Cup; and on paper OKC is still the perfect storm scenario, just waiting to come together. With the Oilers top line of young players – “the kid line” or “young guns” – how could it not happen?
Currently at the end of November, 20 games in, the OKC Barons are at 11-6-1-2. Not exactly burning up the league, but they are beginning to warm it up. Why is that? How are they not in the top AHL spot with NHL players such as Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and the newly signed defenseman, just out of NCAA Wisconsin Badger hockey, Justin Schultz – who by the way is a +14 and at the top of the AHL points stats?
Anyone watching this team play has to be asking themselves that question, and after talking to professional players, writers and fans, there seems to be some consensus. The AHL is tough – and what works in the NHL does not necessarily translate into the AHL – and this is not just about OKC, but rather the entire AHL league. There is an interesting phenomenon afoot right now at the AHL level and team dynamics have been skewed and disturbed. Sports are always unpredictable, that’s why they are exciting to watch and follow. The predicted winners can and do lose, and the underdogs make astonishing comebacks which go down in history.
The American Hockey League is under any circumstances a tough, hard, gritty league on and off the ice. Off the ice, the schedule is a grueling, long hard grind to the end, often with 3-in-3 games, 2 at home and one on the road, or vice versa, or even 3 nights in 3 different locations! And let’s not forget the three-week-long road game schedules. Luckily for many South Division teams much of their travel is by air, but for shorter trips they travel by bus, often busing overnight, sleeping on the road. “We fly for the most part,” Jordan Eberle told Jason Strudwick at OilersNation. “We only bus to the Texas teams, San Antonio and Texas. It is a little different than the NHL but we have a sleeper bus. You get a chance to lie down. There are TV’s which come in very handy.”
On the ice the AHL play itself is also much grittier and uneven. The pass isn’t always on the tape, and the pass you are expecting doesn’t always arrive. What a higher level player is expecting does not necessarily happen, and in the end, those players often have to work harder to counteract their own instincts. Eberle talking to Jason Strudwick says “It took me a few games to get used to the style of play down here. The play is more choppy and more turnovers than I am used to. All in all I think the speed and the strength is the same as it is in the NHL. I don’t think the decision making is as quick as I am used to, but I have started to adapt a lot better now.” Alex Burmistrov, a Winnipeg Jet’s player now with the IceCaps tells Robin Short at The Telegram, “It’s not an easy league, especially when you’re down here from the NHL. Players are playing hard against you, so it’s not easy for us.”
“It is chippier down here [in the American Hockey League],” Ryan Nugent Hopkins told Mike Baldwin at The Oklahoman. “You just have to play around that kind of stuff.” It is not surprising that other teams are gunning for these loaded teams such as the OKC Barons – teams trying to make a name for themselves, particularly against the Barons with their top Oilers line, and the fact that they were Western Conference Champions last season. In the most recent OKC game versus their ever scrappy division rival the Houston Aeros on November 30th, both teams racked up a total of 23 penalties worth 90 minutes. Therefore it comes as no surprise that OKC has the two top penalty minute players thus far this season – Dane Byers and Colten Teubert, each with 88 PIM.
Gradually over time the AHL teams are beginning to settle, as Justin Schultz recently told Mike Baldwin, “We’re getting more comfortable with each other, more chemistry.” Team chemistry takes time, especially under these circumstances with such varying levels of play. While the AHL players were prepared for this, the NHL players who have never played in the AHL have had to adjust to the differences. “I bet a lot of fans thought I’d come here and score hat tricks every game. It’s not an easy league. It’s tough to score goals … it’s tough,” Alex Burmistrov, the Winnipeg Jets now IceCaps player tells Robin Short.
The OKC Barons went into Houston on Thursday coming off a five game winning streak and a back to back defeat of the Charlotte Checkers, a team who was at the top of not only the Western Conference but also the entire AHL. The Barons were beginning to show signs of their famous “swagger” as Coach Todd Nelson calls it – full of confidence and assertiveness – but Houston dealt them a hard blow, defeating the Barons both nights. The GM of the Edmonton Oilers Steve Tambellini admits “If you’ve watched an American Hockey League game, you recognize that you’d better have respect for the game at that level and the players in it because it’s a fine line between an NHL player and an American Hockey League player on any given night. The part that I do like is that it has not been easy for our people to have success there and you soon recognize if you don’t have both feet in, total commitment, regardless what you’ve done in the National [Hockey] League, you are not going to have success there.”
This season was never going to be an easy run to the Calder Cup. Sam McCaig at Yahoo Sports takes a good look at the AHL starting lineups and provides a list of who is playing in the AHL this lockout season – NHL players such as Brayden Schenn (Flyers), Adam Henrique (Devils), Sven Baertschi (Flames), Cody Hodgson (Sabres) and Brett Connolly (Lightning), along with the Oilers’ “Kid” line. Looking back to the 2004-05 NHL lockout, AHL teams experienced the same situation. Just ask the Binghamton Senators and the NHL players on that team: Jason Spezza (who led the league with 117 points and earned the AHL MVP) and his NHL teammates, Antoine Vermette, Anton Volchenkov, Chris Neil, Josh Langfeld and Brian Pothier. Binghamton won their division title and headed to the Calder Cup playoffs on a roll, only to be crushed by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round after the second game.
As for the OKC Barons, they will continue to fine-tune their lines, work on their chemistry, give their NHL players more time to adapt, and allow their defense to improve as the team regains that exhilarating “swagger” we so enjoy watching here in Oklahoma City. Periodically I will revisit this topic, providing updates and additional thoughts as this unusual AHL season progresses. Anyone who follows my comments and articles knows that team dynamics fascinate me and this has been an incredibly interesting phenomenon to witness.