Photo by Steven Christy. Suit up, Ryan, suit up.
It’s Monday morning. The new Kings of Leon album greets me warmly as the Oklahoma sunshine escapes the outside world, and taunts my face. Clean shaven, well dressed, and ready to face the Monday that lies before me, I briefly remember that it’s September. The we-are-almost there month on the calendar that aches, groans, and then excites as the knowledge of hockey to come embraces our synapses.
But wait, hockey is here. It’s been on my television for a week tucked cautiously away on the NHL Network, but it’s there. Live video streams fade away, and behold 1080p HD has arrived. The NHL is back, and the season is nigh.
For me, a land-locked Oklahoman, the hockey season really doesn’t begin until the Oklahoma State Fair ends. When I see banners rise in the streets of Bricktown attempting to sell tickets to a non-committal community of city dwellers. When I drink my first Fall inspired latte from the local coffee shop. When I smell pumpkin themed pastries at the local bakery. School has long returned, football is weeks old, a light jacket isn’t considered yet, and when fresh ice returns to an arena floor (which is more suited for gymnastic and bull riding).
Hockey season begins, for me, as it does for most whom live in ice and puck towns. When training camp arrives.
Today, around 9-ish, men/boys/prospects will listen to the bright whistle blow of Todd Nelson, the coach of the Oklahoma City Barons, as he wields the cold steel attention grabber for the first time in the Cox Center in far-too-many months. He will yell names, assign roles, watch, learn, and dissect the play of a group of hockey players who are at the important precipice of their careers. Will they take a step up or will they take a step down?
The goal is simple. Players want to impress. Some naturally are inspiring, while others are a slow burn. Either way, that journey begins today.
Here is what I’m watching at this year’s Oklahoma City Barons training camp.
Every season I pick a darkhorse type of player. Season one it was Colin McDonald. Season two it was Philippe Cornet. Season three it was, well, I didn’t pick one. We were too busy being googly-eyed over the “Lockout Bunch”.
This season I’ll take a stab in the dark. My heart wants to pick Curtis Hamilton because I can. I see something in him that hasn’t been fully fledged out. I considered Tyler Pitlick, and that would be a solid pick too. Instead I’m going with Ryan Martindale. The centerman from Oshawa spent the bulk of his rookie season in the ECHL. In his sophomore outing the scales tipped the other direction, and he played 41 in the AHL. Judging from the last two seasons, he shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of anyone’s he might surprise you list, but I have my reasons.
Martindale seems highly motivated in preseason. I realize that isn’t saying much, but remember how important centerman are to the Oilers in the coming seasons. The hole left on the PK by Chris VandeVelde will dictate that someone pick up the slack in this department. Martindale is a quality face-off winner, seems poised when asked to do big boy things, and he is in his final entry level season. Nothing motivates prospects more than the thought of becoming replaceable. Martindale, like a few others, has no choice. He needs to be good. Not just fourteen points in forty games good, but 1/2 a point per game. THAT would be huge for Martindale. While his role might be big on defense, he’ll give a good bit of punch to a third minor league line. Don’t count him out just yet.
Craig MacTavish made not buts about it when he pressured the organization into a dogfight amongst prospects. The hiring of Dallas Eakins, his steely demeanor, and his tenacious attitude have further compounded the situation for the up-and-comers that will make the Barons squad.
Tyler Bunz and Olivier Roy have not been what most expected them to be, but honestly, most goaltenders aren’t after two seasons. Yet for as much as we fans discuss the two, they haven’t really been made to duke it out in the crease. By default we give Roy the leg up, and his stats suggest this. Richard Bachman will backstop the Barons, but don’t think for an Oklahoma minute (which is looooonger than you think) that Roy and Bunz aren’t being asked to fight for number two. They are. As they should.
Two vastly different approaches to goaltending – one skilled, surgical; the other cool, calm, casual – the prospect goaltenders in the Oilers pipeline are going to be asked to make peace with being better, both of them.
We talk a lot about players in training camp, but this is an important year for Coach Todd Nelson. Passed over in Edmonton by Craig MacTavish for a less successful peer isn’t something that Todd expected to happen. He made it very clear when Dallas was hired that he would be willing to work the process, be a part of the system, and continue farming players. In the same breathe he was disappointed.
A minor league coach with a three year winning percentage of .606 stronglysuggests that he is not long for the minor leagues. But Nelson remains content.
The only head coach the Oklahoma City Barons have known, expect Nelson to have a statement year. He is going to coach his socks off, and if he finishes well over .500 again, don’t expect him to be in OKC for another season. Enjoy him now, he will be in another zip code very soon.
We can talk about hockey systems in the North American pro ranks all we want, but really they all boil down to two categories – offensive and defensive. Oklahoma City has always managed to balance both with a strong consideration for defensive stoutness in net. The defensive core in OKC is young, but very promising. Goaltending will again be good at number one, but possibly mediocre (hope not; read The Goaltenders above). The offense is sketchy on paper. So what does that leave us?
The 2013-14 Barons won’t score a ton of goals, but will find harmony in being efficient. Defense will win this team games.
What things are you ready to watch develop during training camp? Share below. See you at the rink!