EDMONTON, AB - The 2020-21 hockey season could be described in a multitude of ways but Bakersfield Condors Head Coach Jay Woodcroft proclaimed his account of the campaign in simple terms.
"It was a high-quality season for the organization," Woodcroft said two days after the Condors captured the John D. Chick Trophy as the American Hockey League Pacific Division Champions.
"When our staff came in a couple of years ago, we wanted to create a culture where there's an expectation for development but also winning. This year, with the ability to win our last game of the season, it was a fun group to coach and help develop."
A delayed beginning to the year proved to be a challenge for the Condors, who slumped out of the gate with a five-game losing streak. Woodcroft attributed the turning of the tide to the arrival of starting goaltender Stuart Skinner - one of many Condors who evolved their game throughout the schedule.
"He came in and really calmed the waters back there," Woodcroft, capping his third season as coach of the Condors, said.
"Last year he established himself as an American Hockey League everyday goaltender, a No. 1 in this league, but we wanted him to take the step to become an elite goaltender at this level. He led the League in the most important category, which was wins."
Skinner posted a sparkling 20-9-1 record that accompanied a 2.38 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts. In the Pacific Division post-season circuit, Skinner went 4-2 and continued his success while protecting the blue paint behind a rangy, blue-collar blueline.
"We had a bunch of long bodies; a bunch of hard-working, penalty-kill oriented guys. We just tried to keep things simple with that group on the back end and out-compete the teams that we were playing against," Woodcroft said of his defensive unit.
"Guys like (Markus) Niemelainen and (Vincent) Desharnais, they took steps in their personal development. We were paced by the leadership of Ryan Stanton and Kevin Gravel. Michael Kesselring got 20 games in after his college career. Phil Kemp came in from overseas and Yanni Kaldis was with us all year."
Upfront, Cooper Marody, Tyler Benson and Ryan McLeod showed their chemistry as offensive catalysts and were guided by the veteran-heavy presence of several journeymen.
"Once we slotted people into what we believed were the correct places, we saw our forwards take off," Woodcroft said.
"It was led by the McLeod-Marody-Benson line, which I thought was the most dynamic and potent line in the Pacific Division. They paced us offensively up front and then you look at the rest of those forwards. Just like our D, they were paced by our leaders. Guys like Brad Malone, Adam Cracknell and Seth Griffith all gave us great minutes and a lot of leadership behind the scenes that people don't get to see."
The result was a 'high-quality' experience, filled with personal maturity and group success. Bakersfield completed the campaign with a 24-14-0-1 record, had the eighth-best points percentage at .628 and carried that momentum into the only post-season of the AHL, where they defeated the Henderson Silver Knights in a best-of-three series for the Pacific Division crown.
"There's a lot to be excited about for the Edmonton Oilers as an organization," Woodcroft added. "You never know the steps that players can take over a summertime and that's going to be the message as we meet with our guys: to make sure that our bellies are hungry, we're not full and we're not self-satisfied."