The Oklahoma City Barons are used to winning.
Since joining the American Hockey League in 2010, the Oilers affiliate has never missed the playoffs. They have a pair of first-round exits to go along with their two Western Conference Final appearances.
Under the guidance of Head Coach Todd Nelson, the Barons entered the 2014-15 season looking to continue their streak.
A TOUGH TASK
The Barons were ousted from the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs by the eventual champs. The Texas Stars took the first-round series in three games. So it seemed like the schedulers at the AHL offices were being cruel when they had the Barons face the Stars four out of their first six games. The Barons took five out of a possible eight points in those games, with a record of 2-1-1-0.
“I like the way we played against them,” Nelson said. “It was a big challenge for our young defence. Texas is a team that is playing with a lot of confidence from winning a championship last year. We’ve always been somewhat of a thorn in their side and the last three games we’ve played against them we took five out of six points. It’s always going to be like that against Texas with every game we play against them, it’s always exciting.”
Nelson continued, “I thought our young defence handled them well and the positive thing is that our power play is clicking right now and we’re getting goals off of that. But we’re also generating offence from all four lines and six defence. Scoring by committee is huge and that’s the type of team we have this year. It doesn’t matter what line we throw out there, they can contribute. It has a lot of similarities to the team we had our second year. We had to score by committee, had an outstanding year and we made it to the Western Conference Finals.”
SCORING BY COMMITTEE
As Nelson said, the Barons are scoring by committee. Through the first nine games of the season, Oklahoma City has scored 36 goals, with 17 different players contributing. Three players have at least five goals (Jason Williams, Iiro Pakarinen and Ryan Hamilton).
The 34-year-old veteran Jason Williams leads the team in scoring with 11 points (5-6-11).
A large part of their offensive success has been the power play, which is the best in the league. Through nine games, Oklahoma City’s man advantage has scored 14 goals at a conversion rate of 33.3%.
The team as a whole has managed to score at least four goals in their last seven games. The forward depth is a reason for the committee approach.
DEEP UP FRONT
The Oilers affiliate is stacked at forward in ways they’ve never been before.
“We have tremendous depth at forward and it really doesn’t matter who we put in the lineup or what line combinations we have, it always seems to work,” Nelson said. “I guess the toughest thing is to manage that the best way possible because we can only dress 12 forwards in a game so at least two have to sit out.”
Nelson has been tasked with the tough decision of just who to sit out each night.
“We went on a span there where we were just doing a normal rotation and it seemed like whatever player we were sitting out that night was our leading scorer at that time. I think it went from Ryan Hamilton to Tyler Pitlick to Pakarinen then Andrew Miller. It was kind of a funny running joke that if you were the leading scorer on the team you have to sit out. We’re trying to manage that the best way possible. We like our size. We have some big centre men with (Jujhar) Khaira and (Bogdan)Yakimov and also we have big, strong wingers. We have guys like Ryan Hamilton, Curtis Hamilton, (Steve) Pinizzotto and Pitlick. We have a really good mix and it doesn’t matter what combinations we put together, it always seems to work - at least right now anyway.”
Managing playing time can be a difficult situation for Nelson, but it’s better than not having the depth to begin with.
“It’s tough to manage but it’s the American Hockey League,” Nelson said. “You have to get guys playing and we have to give everybody an opportunity, at least early in the season. As the season goes on, the lineup will change based on performance but for right now we have a lot of these young guys we want to get playing and get them acclimated to the American Hockey League. When we make the changes we try to not break up a full line. Maybe it’s a winger that sits out and the other two guys stick together. We have a pretty good idea of what lines we want to put together for chemistry because we do have a lot of guys returning from last year’s team.”
The depth at forward can help with making injuries and call ups survivable as the season rolls on.
“There are always going to be call ups or injuries that happen and this year I think we’re set up really well with the forward position because, besides the players we have here, we have good depth down in Bakersfield. We’re ready for any kind of injuries or call ups. It will be a bit more of a seamless transition if there are maybe three guys getting called up because we can call upon some guys in Bakersfield who are playing very well there.”
IIRO THE HERO
Iiro Pakarinen has been recalled by the Oilers but, before he left Oklahoma City, he was an integral piece to the offensive puzzle.
Pakarinen scored five goals, including three on the power play, in just seven games with OKC. He got his first NHL goal on Friday night in Buffalo.
“The first thing that comes to mind when you meet him is how mature he is for his age and he’s a consummate professional,” Nelson said. “He’s played in the international scene but coming here we were expecting a bit of an adjustment, but he adjusted fine. He’s a very complete hockey player. When we were looking at him for some of the areas to help him grow there isn’t a lot there, especially at this level. Everybody can get faster, everybody can shoot harder and move the puck better. With him, he plays a skilled game but he also plays an abrasive style where he’s good defensively, he’s good on the walls and he’s a big, strong guy. He has a lot going on for him. If he plays the way I think he can up in Edmonton I don’t think I’ll get him back.”
|Photo provided |
Youthful defence has become the norm for the Oilers farm team. Last year, the Barons had a pretty young blueline and that continued into this season.
Oscar Klefbom may be on call up with the Oilers right now, but he started the season in OKC. Klefbom flashed his potential in six games with the Barons, finding offensive success with seven points (1-6-7).
“Defensively, he’s a horse,” Nelson said. “He’s very strong in the corners, he wins loose puck battles and also, he’s chipping in offensively when he was here. He turned himself into a dominant defenceman at this level and we’re hoping that he can take that next step and be that type of player up in Edmonton. He’s so much further ahead right now than he was last year at this time and he’s a guy that just has to keep playing games to gain confidence. Up in Edmonton, the same thing applies. Play a strong defensive game, keep the puck out of your own net and when you have an opportunity to shoot the puck from the point he has to fire it because he has a good shot. It was nice seeing him put up some offensive numbers while he was here and hopefully that translates to the National Hockey League where he can be a dominant player in the future.”
Some more young blueliners are making good impressions on Nelson. Jordan Oesterle and Dillon Simpson are two former college defencemen and the duo not only rooms together, but they’ve been paired on the ice as well.
“I think both players have played well,” Nelson said. “I think they’ve both made the adjustment and they’re getting better everyday. We have them paired up together and they really do compliment each other. Both players can move the puck very well. Jordan is an excellent skater, where skating is something Dillon has to work on and he understands that. They compliment each other and they make some smart plays and they’ve been really efficient in breaking out the puck, which has helped out our transition game.”
MORE TO COME
Stay tuned next week for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at life on the road in the American Hockey League.