Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography. All rights reserved.
Oklahoma City as well as our fair neighbors in Edmonton have been kicked in the shins. Kicked in the shins, and jabbed in the face. No stranger to injury filled seasons, the Oilers organization seems to find themselves in another bout with Mr. Gimpy. Tis the season for the grind of professional sports to wear down even the toughest of competitors. For the Oilers it’s all about the defensive injuries plus one young phenom. Cam Barker and Corey Potter are dealing with ankle injuries that won’t be healed any time soon. Andy Sutton gets the honor of wearing the badge of “first-groin-pull-of-the-season” and isn’t expected to be out as long as the ankle-biters, but out nonetheless. Then comes the jab in the face. Taylor Hall, with an undisclosed shoulder injury that might keep the offensive threat out for nearly a month or more. Ouch. This pushes a ton of weight onto the shoulders of two Oilers goaltenders and a random assortment of minor league up-and-comers.
Like it’s major counterpart, the minor league Barons are coming up limping. Fortunately, in the grand scheme of things, the Barons have a handful of forwards on the IR, and a healthy sked of defensive players. But as in any good development league, seeing the future get snake bitten by injury is tough. Tough for fans wanting to see potential greatness; tough for the player who wants to prove said greatness.
There is somewhat of an ironic twist to this tale. The Barons, while really banged up on the forward lines find themselves the best team in the American Hockey League. Wrapping up the month of November with only three total losses is impressive. Doing so with integral names gone in the lineup – stupendous.
At center the Barons are missing AHL-contracted tough guy Andrew Lord who hasn’t seen even a single game in the still young, but moving on season. His injury stemmed from a bang up (concussion) in training camp that never has fully healed. He’s a fan favorite, but his off-ice activities with the fans have kept his place on the team warm and fuzzy. Josh Green, the other centerman on the ir, was one third of what was shaping up to be a stout first scoring line alongside Keller and Hartikainen. His absence has forced the coaching staff to rely on a rookie (Tyler Pitlick), an AHL winger playing center (Marc Arcobello), and a deep line grinder (Chris VandeVelde). So far, those stepping into the center position have been incredible play makers.
Antti Tyrvainen broke his arm in a game two weeks ago in Abbotsford and this thinned the right wing even more than it had already been. The team misses his grit along the boards, and his ability to frustrate the opposition. Indeed the need for right handed shots is getting depleted, but even prior to Tyrvaninen’s injury this was a problem. But the team hasn’t suffered too badly on the right and continues to adjust where needed.
The two most eye-popping names on the injured list are two of the most important prospects to the Oilers franchise. Omark, suffering a broken ankle, has led some to wonder why the team sent him down in the first place, and if it was worth it in retrospect. What seemed like a textbook slew foot, Omark would take a wicked turn into the boards that initially looked like a knee injury, but proved to be a broken ankle. Forget how dynamic of a player he is with the Barons, because he’s also out for the Oilers when they probably need him the most. Perhaps easing Omark into that Hall spot with the big club would be a natural maneuver. Now, it’ll be a while before that’s even an option. The other scenario would place Omark on the trading block if the Oilers needed to do so. Once again, that may not be an immediate option moving forward.
Hartikainen, the durable winger, suffered what looked like a separated shoulder in a game this past weekend. The injury hasn’t been classified, but in a pre-game interview Coach Todd Nelson called it an injury that “would be of a multi-week duration”. This being Hartiakainen’s first serious injury of his North American career, he’ll bounce back quickly. The Oilers GM and company seemed prepared to wait Teemu out as he gained a heavy amount of playing time and respect for his future in Oil Country. And they’ll wait. Wait for him to heal, and wait for him to regain his momentum through the new year.
With 31 standings points, the Barons are the best team in the American League right now. The wild hot streak is being cultivated with players like Hunter Tremblay who has three short-handed goals this season. With Tyler Pitlick who is a raging fire ball of speed and tenacity down the center. With Curtis Hamilton that plays on the grinder line one night, and then on the top scoring the next. With Ryan Lowery and Kiril Tulupov, two defenders who are rookies in this league and almost nightly make a difference when called up. With the best goaltending tandem in the league who leap frog each other statistically week-after-week.
Just how good is this team? Per the Barons in an official release, they are the team with the most wins in North American professional hockey:
Team League Record
Oklahoma City Barons AHL 15-5-0-1
Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 14-6-4
Chicago Blackhawks NHL 14-7-3
Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 14-8-2
Detroit Red Wings NHL 14-7-1
Boston Bruins NHL 14-7-1
Alaska Aces ECHL 13-4-1-1
Wichita Thunder CHL 11-4-0
Augusta Riverhawks SPHL 11-2-1
Winning while wounded is a true test of both coaching and the heart of a team. Todd Nelson knows how to rally the troops, and the troops are poised to follow. The culture of “buying into the system” is something that Oklahoma City coaches have preached since before training camp. That system is smart on defense, disciplined on the power play, and open to interpretation to an extent on offense. On the rare occasion that the team dips, the coaching staff conjures up a game plan shoring up the weak points that failed. Injuries, call-ups, and roadtrips are looming, but the Barons take it all in stride. Whether they face a demanding foe in Grand Rapids or a fast pressing enemy in Charlotte – OKC weathers the storm. Will this team be tops by March? Time will tell, but for now the Oklahoma City Barons will win while wounded.