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Future Watch: Nelson, Barons ready for '12-13

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Teemu Hartikainen protects the puck against Toronto Marlies' Mike Zigomanis in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final last spring (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).

Edmonton, AB - Last year the Oklahoma City Barons led the AHL's Western Conference with a 45-22-4-5 record and 99 points.

Not bad at all.

Now insert Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz to the team's 16 returning players that advanced three series' deep in last spring's post-season.

2012-13 is shaping up nicely -- and Todd Nelson certainly won't argue otherwise. (For the record, Eberle will wear No. 14 as Antti Tyrvainen is switching to 11. Nugent-Hopkins will sport No. 18 and Justin Schultz No. 5. The Barons have a team rule that no one can have a number higher than 40.)

"I am, I really am," laughed OKC's head coach when asked if he was feeling a little lucky. "It's very exciting. We pretty much have the same makeup as a team as we did last year. When you add those three guys, all of a sudden we take on a bit of a new, more exciting dynamic. I'm very excited, the players are all excited and so is our entire coaching staff. Everyone's chomping at the bit to start playing some hockey."

Nelson does admit, however, that the coaches will be tough to properly allocate ice time. With Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins most-assuredly guaranteed Top 6 minutes and ample power-play time, competition will be at an all-time high when camp starts this weekend.

"Guys are coming in and are like, 'Holy cow! Where am I going to be?'" Nelson said. "Everyone's wondering where they're going to fit in the lineup, but I think as a coaching staff we have a pretty good grasp on it.

"Our job first and foremost is to try and promote these players. Getting those guys means we'll be taking ice time away from some of the other guys that were here last year. We're going to have to do a good job as a staff to find ice time for everybody, and it doesn't make any sense for a player to be sitting out three or four games in a row because they're not getting any better. We'll have to rotate guys in and out, even if guys have strong games. It's just the way it is."

In a year-end discussion with Nelson several months ago, learned more about his coaching philosophy. While winning is obviously crucial, the bench boss stressed the importance of development and giving young players an opportunity to succeed under new, challenging on-ice assignments.

In other words, it's not always about playing your best player or most lethal goal-scorer 20-25 minutes a game. For example, Ryan Keller -- the team's leading point-getter in 2011-12 with 49 in 71 regular-season games -- only saw about 17 every night.

Does the plan change if NHL-caliber players enter the fold of a minor-league squad?

"I don't think so," Nelson said. "We're approaching it the same way. If we develop our players right, when game time comes, we'll focus on the winning part; also, we can teach as we go. Our philosophy stays the same. We have to develop and win hockey games, but I honestly believe winning is a form of development. Even the young Oilers coming in are going to experience that. They're going to play -- a lot. Schultz hasn't played a pro game yet, so he's going to have to develop as well. When the lockout ends, he's ready to step in with the Oilers and be an impact player.

"One of the questions I'm constantly asked is, 'Do you think the players will come in and feel as though they're too good for the AHL?' It's an easy answer. I spoke to all three guys last week and every one of them has a world-class attitude. They're excited to come here, they're excited to play and help the team. Some times when you get into a situation like this, you could get a player that has an attitude like that, but that isn't the case at all. They're looking forward to coming in, working on their game, having some fun and winning hockey games.

"This (situation) probably won't ever happen again, but I'm enjoying it. It's very unique."

Particularly with the success of the NBA's OKC Thunder and its residence across the street at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, Barons hockey -- despite the strong playoff run -- is still struggling to catch on. Attendance averaged well under 5,000 per game last season, but Nelson is hoping that will change. Even now, there's a noticeable buzz around the city. Those that like hockey in Oklahoma City know it well and are extremely passionate about it.

"The diehards know who's coming and they're all very excited," he said. "The biggest thing is to educate the casual fan that's not quite sure if he or she likes hockey or not. We're equating it to having James Harden and Kevin Durant (Thunder players) go into a lower level. We're making comparisons like that because it's true. They're young guys with the Thunder and we have young stars coming to us that will be impact players in the NHL for a long, long time. We're hoping people get a bit curious and will want to check it out."

In addition to Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Schultz, the Barons still boast one of the most dangerous lineups in the AHL. Veteran Josh Green is back, as he signed a new one-year (AHL-only) contract back in July. MVP goaltender Yann Danis did the same, backstopping the crease as up-and-coming prospects Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz look to nail down the backup spot.

"You always need some veteran leadership in your locker room," Nelson explained. "Josh and Yann do it on the ice and they're big voices in the room as well. We also added Dane Byers, which gives us that and some grit up front. I think Dane's been the captain on the past three teams he's been on. If you look after that, we're really young. Having those guys around is very important. It's crucial for the young guys to see how they act and how they deal with certain situations. That's a form of development as well.

"We're developing young leaders here and we already have excellent character on our team," he added. "Everybody's a solid person in that dressing room and that's a tribute to how the Oilers have been selecting guys with such good character to be a part of this process."

From the already established, to the veterans and wide-eyed rookies, there are those in between still vying to make an impression. And as Nelson previously alluded to, no circumstance will stand in the way of a youngster's development. Considering his philosophy of promotion, Tyler Pitlick is Exhibit A.

The 20-year-old was the 31st overall pick in 2010. The 6'2", 195-pound pivot started his first pro season slow, but turned it on late and into the post-season when he registered two goals and seven points in 13 games. By his own admission, Pitlick said late last season that he may have underestimated the difficulty of the American League because of his seamless transition to junior a year prior with the WHL's Medicine Hat Tigers.

That all changed in a hurry -- but that physical, goal-scoring threat returned for the Barons at the season's most critical point. Because of that, Nelson sees a brighter season for the Minneapolis native in his sophomore year.

"This is a very big year for him," he said. "He really came on strong last season, which was great to see. Guys like him and Curtis Hamilton, we're going to put a bit more -- not pressure -- but they'll be put in certain roles and we're going to count on them a lot more than last year because they are second-year players.

"With Tyler, we see him playing in the Top 6. He's a guy that has a lot of speed and can create scoring chances because of it. I was happy with how he came around in the second half, so we're going to continue to give him those opportunities and help him succeed with it."

Hamilton had a similar rookie season when you consider his pace and offensive output. His adjustment to the professional rank was a trying one, but it wasn't nearly as difficult as the toll injuries took on his season. Limited to just 41 regular-season games and only two in the playoffs, Hamilton -- also a second-round pick in 2010 -- will also be seeing a different role this year; perhaps one that's better suited to his style.

"Curtis is going to be put in a penalty-killing role similar to how he played with Team Canada in the (2011) World Juniors," Nelson said. "I watched those games over the summer and he played that role well, so that's what we're going to do now."

They're not the only ones, either. Magnus Paajarvi and Anton Lander both started the 2011-12 season in Edmonton, but ended the year in OKC. Then there's Teemu Hartikainen, who could also have been in the mix for a Top 6 role with the Oilers had training camp started on time. In many ways, it's an embarrassment of riches but one Nelson will gladly take.

With a plan securely in place, Nelson and his assistants Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson are equally as prepared as the players are. This year, the Oklahoma City Barons will have a little more firepower added to some already lethal offensive weaponry. The goal? Return to the dance in just as strong a position as last year and ride the momentum all the way through to some unfinished business.

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick

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