Charlotte Checkers vs. Oklahoma City Barons Preview: It’s A System

Checkers vs. Oklahoma City Barons 1-11-13
Photo by Rob Ferguson.

Oklahoma City. A place where the wind sweeps down the plains, where the wavin’ wheat smells sweet, and the wind always comes right behind (and before and during) the rain. A town that I’ve called home for the better part of half of my life, and where my family has grown. A destination that’s gone from cow town to oil town to new energy to professional sports market to a new business promoter and beyond. A spot on the map where, despite these changes, it’s the people that have gone unchanged since statehood in 1907. A spirited outpost that is more than a wild west gong show of old. A locale that isn’t the first place one points to and says, “I want to live there!”, but when they leave those same people say, “I want to go back there!” And truthfully there’s no better time to be in Oklahoma than now.

Lost in the sea of NBA playoffs, Sooners quarterback controversy, Cowboys recruiting news, and other various sports meanderings are the Oklahoma City Barons. The newest sports franchise in OKC that in three years has made the playoffs, and had some pretty memorable moments along the way. So today, we few who follow, love, cherish, and promote the Barons better than any other single entity in the metro area, look forward to a quick five game quarterfinal series against the Charlotte Checkers. With the Calder Cup being the final destination, I boldly declare this the year of the Western Conference! No more Eastern Conference domination, it’s time for a non-traditional hockey market to punch the league in the jaw, win the whole thing, and ease my fears that the AHL is becoming a New England-y league. And I think our Barons have a real shot to make that happen. But first, the race flags.

Oklahoma City Barons Playoff Roster:

Forwards
Tyler Pitlick, Josh Green, Curtis Hamilton, Antti Tyrvainen, Philippe Cornet, Ryan Martindale, Jonathan Cheechoo, C.J. Stretch, Tanner House, Kritians Pelss, Toni Rajala, Mark Arcobello, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk

Defenseman
Kendal McFaull, Brandon Davidson, Alex Plante, Garrett Stafford, Randy Jones, Dan Ringwald, Nathan Deck, Joey Leach, Andrew Hotham, Taylor Fedun, Martin Marincin, Colten Teubert

Goaltenders
Yann Danis, Niko Hovinen

Potential NHL additions
Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander

Charlotte Checkers Playoff Roster:

Forwards
Chris Terry, Jerome Samson, Riley Nash, Matt Beca, Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk, Brett Sutter, Justin Shugg, Justin Soryal, Sean Dolan, Brody Sutter, Jeremy Welsh, Luke Pither, Andreas Nodl, Matt Marquardt, David Marshall, Brock McGinn, Brendan Woods

Defenseman
Brett Bellemore, Michael Jordan, Rasmus Rissanen, Justin Krueger, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Beau Schmitz, Bobby Raymond, Danny Biega, Eric Baier, Brendon Nash, Ryan Murphy

Goaltenders
Rob Madore, John Muse, Mike Murphy

Lifetime Series Head-to-Head & 2012-2013 Season Series Outcomes

Lifetime:
Oklahoma City 7-7-1-1
Charlotte 9-5-1-1

This season:
Oklahoma City 4-3-1-0
Charlotte 4-4-0-0

Oklahoma City 4 @ Charlotte 2 (Mar 4 2013) Final
Oklahoma City 2 @ Charlotte 3 (Mar 3 2013) Final
Charlotte 3 @ Oklahoma City 7 (Feb 1 2013) Final
Charlotte 2 @ Oklahoma City 1 (Jan 31 2013) Final
Charlotte 4 @ Oklahoma City 3 (Jan 12 2013) Final OT
Charlotte 7 @ Oklahoma City 0 (Jan 11 2013) Final
Oklahoma City 7 @ Charlotte 2 (Nov 25 2012) Final
Oklahoma City 4 @ Charlotte 2 (Nov 24 2012) Final

Barons vs. Houston 10-16-11
Photo by Rob Ferguson.

The Oklahoma City Barons are every bit a systematic team as any other team in the American Hockey League. Describing that system in one word is difficult. Many claim that Todd Nelson ices a defense first mentality each night that relies heavily on the puck spending very little time in the defensive zone, and desperately needs the goaltender to be good when a lead is taken. To start the season, that wasn’t the case. It was all about firepower with Ebs-Nuge-Hall-Schultz in the lineup, and I believe that’s why they struggled greatly to surge to the top of the standings – offense first, defense second. The Barons fumbled through a six week period after the lockout, and quickly returned to the system that Nelson and company had concocted in previous seasons. Low and behold it worked.

The addition of Brett Clark and Randy Jones put the stamp of approval on the defensively strong system, and even when Brett signed a contract with the Minnesota Wild, that system continued to grow.

In the month of April, we saw the system take root within the Barons on-ice play, and it was evident on the scoreboard and in the standings. But it wasn’t quite the defensive scheme that we’ve seen before. Nelson had evolved just a bit, and realized that his guns need to blaze. Jonathan Cheechoo, Mark Arcobello, Toni Rajala and to some extent Philippe Cornet are all guys who desperately need to play the puck in and around the net. With this notion in mind (and this happened when Hartikainen and Linus Omark were consistently around in year one), the system has become a hybrid mix of free range offense, and buttoned down defense. Puck moving is the one constant.

The defenders on the Barons squad are young. Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun, Brandon Davidson, Nathan Deck, Andrew Hotham, Kendall McFaull and Joey Leach are all in their rookie pro seasons. Those six typically play in the top four defensive pairings in rotations. That leaves Alex Plante, Colten Teubert, and Randy Jones on a three-way rotation at the 6-7 spot, and those three have at least three years (Jones with ten) of experience under their belt. The proof is in the pudding. The defensive core is young, they play lots of minutes, and they are expected to be really good on a nightly basis. And maybe, just maybe, that’s why the system has become a hybrid, purely out of necessity and protection.

The forwards are a mixed bag of both age and skill. Philippe Cornet, Mark Arcobello, Jonathan Cheechoo, the Barons top line, are a constant reminder of this. Cornet, in his third season of his Oilers ELC, likes to be fearless, driving the net. Mark Arcobello is a play maker through and through who no one predicted would be a top AHLer. Jonathan Cheechoo, the former San Jose Shark turned flavor of the week goal-scorer, has been bounced around from team to team and city to city, and continues to produce. The second line is pretty similar as well, typically consisting of rookie gun Toni Rajala, ECHL diamond in the rough, C.J. Stretch, and vet captain Josh Green. You get deeper into the lineup, and things continue that direction. Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk squeeze in with youngsters like Tanner House, Ryan Martindale, Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick, and (okay not youngster) Chris VandeVelde. Overall, the offense of this squad is deep and rangy, as really good AHL teams should be.

Checkers vs. Oklahoma City Barons 1-11-13
Photo by Rob Ferguson.

Goaltending, again, is a mixed bag of age. Yann Danis the go-to-guy, and Todd Nelson has made this very apparent both in playing time, and with his comments in pre and post game conferences. 31 years old, with a wealth of oversees, minor, and major minutes, he’s one season removed from his best statistical season as a pro. His backup, is quite different. Niko Hovinen, five years younger than Danis, has played 26 games as a Northa American pro after spending many years since his 2005 draft year playing in the SM-liiga. Ten games as a Baron this season have given many hope that he’s capable of being a strong #2. Save percentage isn’t earth shattering, goals allowed are under three, but remember he’s not expected to be fantastic, just adequate. He’s capable.

Oklahoma City will have to make a strong statement early against a Charlotte Checkers squad that also plays a system akin to the Barons, but perhaps a slightly better version.

Drayson Bowman, Justin Faulk, Bobby Sanguinetti and Dan Ellis left an NHL sized hole on the Checkers squad that the Barons completely empathize with. But like OKC, they’ve found ways to overcome adversity, and the depth of their lineup is going to potentially propel them beyond the quarterfinals. Simply looking at the nuts and bolts of the team, you can quickly asertain the balance and depth from top to bottom.

Although they don’t have a single forward with a point-per-game pace or better (active roster), their team average PT/G is over .5 (.57) to be exact. By comparison, the Oklahoma City Barons forward core averages less than that at .44. This means two things to me. First, overall the Checkers have a more balanced scoring front. From top to bottom, they have guys that have scoring potential. That’s big when the post season rolls around. Healthy, hungry, and offensively potent teams can go deep into the minor league playoffs. Second, this also tells me that the Barons have a top heavy scoring lineup, and that’s nothing new to those that watched the Barons post-January. Arcobello, Rajala, and Cheechoo are on the cusp of having a one-point-per-game pace, and had the season been five games longer, they would have likely met that. The Checker’s Chris Terry is the only one who comes close to that pace. Because of the depth of scoring for Charlotte, choosing the lineup nightly will involve some mental gymnastics.

Another number worth exploring is the amount of scoring taking place from the Checkers over the entire season. A goal differential of +24 tells me that they like to score, and they’ve found ways of not letting their opponent do the same. Letting in just over 200 goals on the season, they are near the top of the league in that stat. This leads us to the defensive side of the puck.

Digesting the Checkers three goaltenders is treacherous. With no clear cut starter, Checker’s coach, Jeff Daniels, will have some soul searching to do when it comes to choosing the game one man. Rob Madore, the 24 year old ECHL “get” who was called to play with Charlotte in March (when Cam Ward went out in Carolina), has only suited nine games all season. He’s not been bad with a .951 SV% and 5-3 win/loss tally, but he’s a big question mark when the goings get tough. That leaves another 24 year old in John Muse, as the likely starter. Muse in sixteen games has let in 3.22 goals on average, but has kept the save percentage surprisingly low at .891. That’s about as good as it gets from this team, and I can’t imagine he gets undone by Mike Murphy. Murphy, as some might remember, exercised his option to play in the KHL for much of the season. When he was released from his contract in that league, the Checkers made a play to bring him back to Charlotte where he played the two seasons prior. That moment came recently, and Murphy has only had a single start (a loss) under his belt. The curious nature of both his release and his awkwardness to discuss it have led many to speculate, but this still remains the player that led the Checkers to the East Finals in 2011. That’s big. Did I mention that he also is 24 years old?

The defenders of the blue line have been mangled together no thanks to injuries and callups. Brendon Nash, Bobby Raymond, Michael Jordan, Justin Krueger, and Brett Bellemore are the leaders of what is left of the Checkers defensive core, and that’s not too bad a grouping. Add to the mix the offensive defender, Marc-Andre Gragnani, and things are looking up. They are quick, gifted with a plethora of intangibles, and are committed to the system (more on that later). A lot more seasoned than the Barons, I don’t expect the defense to be a problem for this team. However, I do expect them to challenge the free-range nature of the Barons top forwards. They really like to drive OKC to the outskirts of the rink, along the boards, and that is something that the Barons don’t do a lot of. Keep in mind, however, that Anton Lander and Teemu Hartikainen are expected to join OKC in the coming days, and that changes things quite a bit, but until that time, the Checkers will carefully manhandle their way through the first two games.

And on to system and the Charlotte Checkers. Poised and smart. Sharp and skilled. Well-rounded and potent. All of those qualities have been on display in 2012-2013 for the Checkers. They are smartly coached by Jeff Daniels, and are certainly a well oiled machine. Tough defensively, and very quick, they play a brand of hockey that is conditioned for greatness. As one of the least penalized teams in the entire AHL, they are careful and patient. So much so, that one odd slumbering series and they’ll quickly score a bunch of goals. That’s how energized they’ve become.

Todd Nelson seems to think that the key to breaking down his opponent in this particular instance is beating them at their own game. This week he’s mentioned at least twice that the Barons defense will have to be strong. Not theoretically strong, but actually strong. Moving guys off the puck, pinching at the right time, skating strong on the puck, and passing with force will all have to be fundamentally perfect for his team to have any chance of beating Charlotte in a quick five game series (that starts at home, thank goodness). This is a gameplan that I agree with 100%.

The great talking point in this series is goaltending. The Barons have a number one guy, and they’ve had the luxury of having him the majority of the season. On the other hand, the Checkers haven’t, and that’s going to be a black eye. Hear me when I say this, Charlotte can win with any of the three goaltenders they have, I’m just not sure that Charlotte thinks that, or they haven’t shown that. In the end, Jeff Daniels is a smart guy. He knows what his team’s strengths and weaknesses are, and he rarely exposes the latter.

I’m choosing Oklahoma City to win the goaltending battle, and ultimately beat the Checkers in five games. The hill is steep, but the gear is packed and ready. Stick to the system, win by doing the small things right, pray for a bit of depth scoring, and challenge all four lines of offense. Godspeed, Oklahoma City Barons

Series Schedule:

April 26 at Oklahoma City (8 p.m.)
April 27 at Oklahoma City (8 p.m.)
May 1 at Charlotte (7 p.m.)
May 3 at Charlotte (7 p.m.)*
May 4 at Charlotte (7 p.m.)*

*If necessary