Edmonton, AB - On a busy Jul. 1 last summer, Darcy Hordichuk and Ben Eager's one- and three-year deals indicated that the Oilers' priority was toughness. Of equal importance to go along with it, a complementary skill-set was required in the player's repertoire.
Head Coach Tom Renney and General Manager Steve Tambellini made no bones about it. Their tough guy(s) had to be able to play. And while the successes of each signing can be debated long and hard, it was the philosophy the club employed up and down the organization.
Two weeks prior, the Oilers inked Finnish winger Antti Tyrvainen to a multi-year contract. Primarily known as an agitator, the 5'11", 200-pound bruiser collected 14 goals and 23 points in 52 games, along with a staggering 186 penalty minutes, in only 52 games with the Finnish Elite League's Lahti Pelicans.
He was brought in to help add a much-needed dimension to the Oklahoma City Barons' roster. He's done so recently, growing as a pest and chipping in with the occasional goal and spirited celebration.
"The season started well," Tyrvainen recalled. "I had a good training camp, scored a goal in one of the pre-season games. I knew it was going to be tough to crack the roster, so when I was sent down (on Sep. 29, along with Colten Teubert and Yann Danis), I was really excited. I was going to get a great opportunity to play in OKC."
In the Barons' third game of 2011-12, Tyrvainen picked up a point, notching an assist in a dominant 10-1 win over the Texas Stars. But his enthusiasm soon waned as quickly as it came. A long dry spell preceded an injury that sidelined the physical forward in a time when confidence was at a premium.
"I wasn't able to get into the game," he said. "When I broke my hand, it took eight weeks to heal. I wasn't used to it, so it was pretty disappointing to have to watch games in the press box and not be out there helping my team."
The 22-year-old returned to the lineup on Dec. 31 -- a night in which he broke the ice, potting his first career AHL goal with a rocket from the slot. Fittingly enough, it was scored against the San Antonio Rampage, who the Barons will face in the second round of the 2012 Calder Cup Playoffs beginning on Thursday in OKC.
"Since then, my game has really come around; it's going so well," he said. "I scored the next night, too (vs. Houston), so it was a bit of a turning point in my season. I needed to re-focus and get back to how I knew I could play, which was worked on a lot at camp in Edmonton.
"Tom (Renney) was a huge help. The game is a little different than it is back home. In Finland, we like to pass back to the D, gather speed and come through the middle. But here there's so much emphasis on turning the puck up-ice and attacking right away without regrouping as much.
"I think it's a little more physical here, too. There are bigger guys here and everyone wants to make a hit. That, and it's very up-tempo with the smaller rink. I had to get used to all that."
It was certainly a slower-than-expected start to his career in orange (mostly copper) and blue, but Tyrvainen's rise is a credit to coaching and the player's willingness to reach greater heights as a legitimate NHL prospect. As a result, the agitator's game is more well-rounded, but the highlight is still his on-the-edge-but-not-over-it style that makes him a physical menace.
"(Head Coach) Todd Nelson, (assistant coaches) Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson have been great," Tyrvainen explained, praising his tutors' patience. "Our coaches love to teach and they've helped us all become better players. They're helping us every single day and we can always ask for extra help. It's good to have that open door policy where you can always talk about anything with the coaches. Sometimes things are a little harder for me because I'm European and I might not understand what they're saying, but they always make it easy on me to understand and have success in practice and in games."
Now a veteran of 55 regular season games (and another four in the post-season, adding an assist) in which he posted six goals and 19 points, Tyrvainen's game is better than it has been all year. In the process and heading into next season, he'll quite likely be pushing for a roster spot at camp -- or, at the very least, establishing his name on the club's recall shortlist.
But he's still a raw rookie, and he feels as though improvement can still be made.
"I still have lots to learn," he laughed, "The big thing is playing hard, driving the net and rounding out my overall game. I'd like to score more and be better in my own end, so there's plenty to develop. But that's what I've been working on all season in Oklahoma City and I think it's been a good year.
"All season I've been playing with good linemates (usually Tanner House and Chris VandeVelde of late); I've been feeling more comfortable now, I'm getting more goals and, most importantly, the team is winning. -- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com -
"It's fun to be a part of it."