The NHL Lockout Ends, Development Begins Again

Nugent-Hopkins Center Image
Photo courtesy of Steven Christy. All rights reserved.

As I awoke this morning to hammer out the finishing touches on last night’s shootout victory by the Oklahoma City Barons, little did I know that it would be the last I’d write featuring Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, and likely many more. The NHL and NHLPA have reached a tentative agreement to actually have a (2012-)2013 season. The tremors of a deal getting done had been rumbling through the online world for days, but as these things have gone for nearly 3 months plus, you really just never know.

The nuts and bolts of the deal are important, but we’ll discuss those at a later date. For me, it’s a time to both reflect on a half season of interesting hockey on an AHL team that is likely the most potent offensively the world has or will ever see.

The lockout ending naturally gives Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back to Edmonton where they belong. Perhaps Justin Schultz goes too. Maybe Anton Lander, maybe Teemu Hartikainen, maybe Magnus Paajarvi, and maybe Yann Danis. With camp expected to start as soon as Wednesday, the Barons look quite different as the NHL season begins and the AHL season soldiers on.

For me, a local Oklahoma City hockey writer, the trickle down effect of this is going to give me whiplash. It most certainly will be painful to watch a large chunk of the Barons leave, but in the end things can heal. Think also about the ECHL Stockton Thunder who’ll get mangled into something even more ugly than the Barons. Cornet, Hunter, Rajala, Zahn, just to name a few, will now get the chance to be in a better league, with better players, and higher stakes.

And it feels as if the natural order of things can begin to return. I’ve said from day one that American League hockey is at its best when it does two things. First, it makes young players much better. Second, it showcases the players talents. I also believe it should be in that order. This season we got a portion of that two-fold mantra, but it wasn’t the most important piece to the puzzle. Thus development of players took a back seat simply because there wasn’t roster space to go around.

I don’t pity Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton, etc. etc. for not having ice time. And they wouldn’t want you to feel that way towards them. But don’t think for a minute that they don’t realize the importance of playing on a team that needs them. Also don’t discount what they learned from a Hall or an Eberle or a Nugent-Hopkins, because they watched two of the best young NHL talents play alongside them for three straight months. They certainly learned something. But remember, we are human beings, and most of us learn by doing. And with the lockout ending, the time for development to truly begin again has now come. And so, in some regards, this makes Oklahoma City a better team. Better in that they do what they are supposed to do – make players better and showcase their talents.

We’ll forever wonder why the Barons didn’t have more success in the standings as a result of having really strong NHL talent in their lineup. And to be quite honest, right now I can’t wrap my mind around one specific thing that did them in. An offensive chancy style? Too great a gap in player talent from top to bottom? Ignoring defensively philosophies? Check. Check. Check. But the short story is that the season did go down as a memorable one, albeit painful for Oilers fans that live, breathe, eat, sleep, drink their hockey.

I quickly want to thank those that contributed to Oklahoma City Barons hockey this season from afar. The Cult of Hockey, Oil on Whyte, Lowetide, even EdmontonOilers.com. They gave legs of awareness to a team that often times folks just didn’t pay attention to. Granted there were reasons why people followed the team, but I choose to believe that regardless of whom played in OKC this season, those same entities love hockey enough to give the Barons some eye time. I enjoyed your thoughts, loved the interaction, and ultimately appreciate your dedication. You’ll be missed.

It’s Sunday morning. In a week, we’ll probably be talking about legit NHL rosters. We’ll also have played a handful of AHL Barons games. Watch as OKC does some things that evens out the playing field so to speak. They’ll be fine. Good coaches. Good GM. A good system of play. This team will be just fine. It will be a different team, but it ultimately makes them better.