Edmonton, AB - Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson is a lucky man.
At 9:59pm MT Saturday night, the NHL/NHLPA's Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire and a lockout will commence. As such and in preparation, Edmonton has assigned 26 players, including Justin Schultz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers' leading-scorer in 2011-12, Jordan Eberle, to OKC.
Eberle, 22, scored a career-high 34 goals and 76 points last year in his sophomore campaign. New Jersey's Adam Henrique, Carolina's Jeff Skinner and Winnipeg's Alexander Burmistrov were also assigned to the American Hockey League Saturday.
"For me, personally, it's a great option to go down there and play," Eberle said over the phone. "It's going to be a great league with all the guys going down. I think it's going to be better than normal and the AHL is a pretty great league to begin with, since a lot of guys are pushing for spots in the National League. But now with all the guys coming down, it's going to be great.
"At the end of the day, no one really wants to sit around at home and wait for hockey -- you want to be playing, so it's a great idea."
Earlier in the week, Eberle insisted that he was going to take it "day-by-day" until camp was set to begin. Europe was an intriguing option, but isn't sure if that's still something he can pursue. For now, he's preparing as usual in Edmonton and is excited to report to Oklahoma City when training camp opens later this month.
"Ryan Whitney played in the AHL during the last lockout and he said it was one of the best years in his career," Eberle said. "I see it as a good opportunity to improve my game and build some more chemistry with the guys. A lot of the guys down there are going to make the Edmonton Oilers in the next couple years, so it's good to go down, hang out with them, and get a winning attitude because we're going to have a good team.
"That's something we badly need in our locker room. It will be a change of scenery, but we'll be playing good hockey and be living in a great city, so it's pretty exciting."
Eberle recently signed a six-year, $36M contract extension -- but the Regina, Saskatchewan native would still be playing under the remaining season in his three-year entry-level deal, which will only pay him a $65,000 US salary.
While Eberle's quick surge to dominance at the NHL level would indicate to some that he's too mature to play in a lesser league, the all-star winger isn't concerned. His main priority is getting an opportunity to play, wherever that may be.
But he's still convinced it will be a challenge.
"Mentally, I don't really look at it like it's going to dwindle anything or hurt my progress," Eberle explained. "I'm going to try and build my game as best I can and play to the best of my ability -- that doesn't change no matter where you're playing. We're going to have some good players down there like Nuge, (Justin) Schultz and, in all likelihood, Hallsy (Taylor Hall) once he gets cleared."
Hall is currently rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder and will be paid his NHL salary to sit out and remain in Edmonton.
Last season, OKC cruised to a 45-22-4-5 record in the AHL's Western Conference standings. With 99 points to the Toronto Marlies' 96, the Barons earned the conference's top spot and looked to be the team to beat in the post-season. Toronto got the last laugh, however, clipping the Barons 4-1 in the Western Conference Final.
The one thing missing in the Barons' arsenal in 2011-12 was a lethal goal-scorer and playmaker. Much of the team's production was done so by committee, meaning Ryan Keller's 21 goals and 49 points led OKC in the regular season.
Eberle, meanwhile, is no stranger to the American League game. Prior to his NHL debut, the 22nd overall pick in 2008 put up nine goals and 23 points in only 20 games over two late-season stints as an 18- and 19-year-old.
"I know all the guys down there very well. I think [Todd Nelson is] a great coach and a great guy, so I'm excited to work with him. They had a lot of success last year, so I'm looking to blend in and be a part of that."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick