There are many ways that one could envision a minor league hockey preview, especially when it involves farming for the Edmonton Oilers who have every right to be relegated from the ranks of the National Hockey League.
I could, for instance, claim that this is a “year or redemptive overtones” as the team attempts to right what went so wrong last season. However, that would be a tale of two season halves as the team post-Christmas played vastly different minutes than the team prior to our Thanksgiving smorgasbords. Mostly thanks to the skilled coaching of Todd Nelson, who remains one of the most successful coaches in the bulk of the AHL.
I could mention that the Barons, now in their fifth season of existence, are a team of underdogs with whom rarely people pay attention, but are always willing to give accolades when it is convenient. But that’s unfair. Oilers fans, writers, and general onlookers can’t help themselves. After all, this is the minors, and despite the Barons turning towards prospect friendliness it is still a league of journeymen, teenagers, and strange roadtrips in stuffy buses where the nightly decision is Happy Gilmore or Step Brothers (do I have to choose?).
I probably could suggest that this year the Oklahoma City Barons are poised to be dyno-mite, what with many players coming off remarkable seasons in the CHL or 60+ games in the AHL, or seasoned by time and place. And that this is going to cause the defense to seize the day, the offense to please a crowd or two, and the goaltending to be refreshing. Mostly young, but some old, gives the make up of a prospect team with an ivy league tendency. They are smart. Willing to dive right in. Pliable. Able to leap small cones on a frozen surface in a single bound.
I would be afraid to talk about domination. Despite the team growing in one season, and the will of the Oilers pressing down hard, there is still work to be done. David Musil looks bigger, but prone to two left feet. Martin Gernat is probably the most ready to make the jump, then suddenly he isn’t. Dillon Simpson might be the headstrong collegiate prospect that Craig MacTavish likes and needs, or he could a smoke in mirrors fella. Brad Hunt might be able to pull off another good season of hockey, frankly I hope he does, but does he have a future with Edmonton? Oscar Klefbom might quietly force me to swoon, or he could make me a nervous wreck. Martin Marincin, sweet Martin Marincin, he is a tweener+, and by golly he knows it. Jordan Oesterle appears steady when facing a preseason tournament of boys, but might be a fraction of himself when he travels to Texas 20+ times a season. Domination is probably not what we are discussing here.
I really want to shout from the rooftoops, “THIS TEAM IS PRONE TO FEATS OF AN AMAZING NATURE”! Mitch Moroz masterfully scoring goals exponentially. Pakarinen packing a punch on the left side. Of course we have the mainstays – Tyler Pitlick, Andrew Miller, Matt Ford, Curtis Hamilton, Ryan Hamilton – to keep us entertained if only in flashes of brilliance. Kale Kessy and Travis Ewanyk could sure push the boundaries of a minor league “grinder” line. Khaira. Yakimov. Are they ready to tear the roof off expectations? Will Acton might be (oh, you forgot about him too?). There’s Jason Williams and Anton Lander, two guys who are likely going to be charged with leading the team, being ready to jetset to join the Oilers, but will always be huge momentos to their AHL squad. Amazing might be an overstatement, but unrealized excitement may not be.
I love me a goaltender…or three. Try Bachman, Brossoit, and Bunz on for size. See how they fit in to the lineup on multi-night basis. For Bachman, he loves Oklahoma City, has embraced the fans and family that surround him. He is always a man about his business, hence “The Biz” nickname. He is a good guy, one whom deserved a better season a year ago, but was undone by the sloppiness in front of him. In a nutshell his season was beautifully depicted in a winter overtime loss when he destroyed his tending paddle on the iron pipes on both sides of his frame. I would have done the same. Then there’s Brossoit and Bunz . The former being the new kid in town with dreams of cracking an NHL roster in Albertan city one day (no not that one, the other one). The ladder having been-there-done-that, and lived to see another day. Tyler knows a rough ride, a trip to Cali, a broken larynx and a vagrant way of life. In the end I like all three. They are diverse, and capable, and fully functioning.
I’ve often wondered if this is the season that the Barons put together a perfect season that ends in a Cup-lifting experience, but I wholly believe that the days of “that” being the definition of a perfect season are gone (like a freight train, gone like yesterday, gone like a solider in the Civil War – BANG! BANG!). Instead I’m going to focus on the two-fold race that is being run.
One in the minors – where both coach and player want to be the perfect incarnation of themselves. This includes making mistakes, changing, striving to not make the same mistake again. An incoming Marlies forward may have made your leg work look like figgy pudding, but gosh darnit, it ain’t happenin’ again. That’s personal motivation, and something that is a great struggle when you are in the bowels of the NHL reserve. You might be a coach who stuck the roster in the blender, sprinkled in a flip of the coin, added a dash of “please, Lord, please!”, and emerged with a six goal deficit. That’s okay, as long as it isn’t a divisional rival. Right. Right! Right!?!?!
One in the majors – where it’s time for the OKC Barons prospects to start making a difference come hell or high water. A defender. A centerman. Both. It doesn’t matter. It’s time for Nelson to not only graduate players, but see those players make a lasting impact. Hall, Nuge, Yakupov, and now Draisaitl should load the tank nightly, and have in their own world, but without a supporting cast of characters. Not finding offseason acquisitions that make much of a difference means that farm hands need to be better, get better, do better. It’s time.
I do, however, realize that there is no “i” in team, but there certainly is an “i” in city. Oklahoma City, to be more specific. With ongoing speculation of the Barons really struggling financially coupled with no affiliation extension news from Edmonton, putting paying customers in the stands is really going to be a challenge. Of course the challenge isn’t any difference, #TheStruggleIsReal, and it really is put up or shut up time for both marketing and fandom. Ticket prices have been relaxed, the play promised to be titilating, and the promotional stuff, wellllll, it’s there. These things give you, me, and other random onlookers no excuse when it comes to convincing the world that the Barons belong in Oklahoma City.
In five seasons we have tempted fate in both directions. At times the team looks painfully distant from the top ten in the league, and then have resurrected themselves to one of the best. It is the life of a minor league franchise, and certainly one with a parent organization that values things other than winning (seemingly). The bravado with which our Eakins/MacTavish Oilers go about business is their own doing, and for now, they are content with doing things this way. It does, however, need to be a plan that works, and works well. It has been far too long since the Canadian city of Edmonton has been a legit title contender. Heck, I just want them to beat the Cali teams more often.
When we reach the cold throws of January, remind me how optimistic I was in early October. As the hue of my hair changes with the stress of goofy things like professional hockeying, remind me that I once loved a team of young players. Remind me that Oklahoma City is a good hockey town, and that the people here are good-hearted sports fans albeit ignorant of sticks and pucks. Remind me that I wrote a season preview that was over 1400 words, and then remind me how grateful I am to have a grandmother that reads Tend The Farm. Death, taxes, and hockey – all are inevitable. Let’s. Do. This. Barons!