Oklahoma City, OK - Coming into the 2011-12 season, Head Coach Todd Nelson's squad was a new one. The Barons' inaugural campaign saw the club compile 40 wins, a six-game post-season appearance vs. Hamilton and an increase in growth when it comes to the Oilers' AHL building blocks.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was room to grow -- in more ways than one.
Improving the team's rank was a priority, but so too was continued development. 2010 selections Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton, chosen 31st and 48th overall in that year's second round, made the jump as 20-year-old rookies after graduating from successful WHL tenures.
"We knew coming into the season that we were going to be a lot younger," Nelson said. "Being so young, it was about how quickly could we transfer these first-year players from the junior or college ranks into pros, and how fast that adjustment could happen. That happened much quicker than I expected, which is excellent. It shows that talent level that we have, and the character and commitment of guys."
Pitlick started the season slow, but has been coming on of late. In 52 games, he's collected six goals and 19 points, along with a -3 rating as he learns the pro game's nuances. Initiative and the desire to improve are the pivot's greatest attributes. Prior to the Barons' morning skate on Saturday, Pitlick was on the ice 15 minutes before his teammates, working diligently with the coaches on a drill that simulates a game situation with stops, starts and tight turns.
"They set up some cones for me and I was going around them as if it were a game situation -- rolling off the wall and shooting on net," he explained. "Little things like that, in addition to all the video work the coaches do with me has been a huge help."
It was all Pitlick's idea, too. It's part of the closely-knit, coach-player relationship that Nelson, Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson (assistant coaches) are all proud to instill.
"I have an open door policy," Nelson said. "If something's bothering a player, or if he wants to improve his game in a particular area that he believes needs attention, I tell them, 'Get if off your chest and come talk to me.' We're not going to get into a yelling match or anything. I think communication is the biggest thing."
While Pitlick and Hamilton both struggled to the start the season, an increase in responsibility, ice time and experience have helped them grow and become vital cogs in the Barons' post-season bound quest.
"We've seen both players start to get real comfortable, and it's unfortunate that Curtis had to get hurt. But we can see in Tyler's game right now that he's elevated his game, he's feeling more comfortable and he's playing a bit more right now since we don't have as many bodies as we did at the start of the year.
"It's just a growing process with those young guys," Nelson added. "For them to be here and play in the American Hockey League for at least one full season, maybe two -- depending on how they develop -- I think everybody should go through the AHL, doesn't matter who you are, because you have to earn the right to play for the Oilers. There are also valuable skills that they need to learn, and there's no better place to do that. Where they came from, they were the top dogs -- when they come here, they're like everybody else."
Then, of course, it's natural to consider the ever-popular ice time debate. Up in Edmonton, Jordan Eberle leads the Oilers with 32 goals and 71 points in 71 games this season. In doing so, he's averaging only 17:32 per game, sixth-most among forwards.
As the season has gone on, Head Coach Tom Renney has begun to deploy his lethal scorer with more regularity and under more challenging assignments. But as a second-year pro, it was a mandate that Eberle (and others) be brought along slowly, so not to disrupt the 21-year-old's valued development curve.
How does Renney's philosophy stack up with Nelson's? The farm's bench boss is equally as prudent in considering his youngsters' ice time, but he'll most certainly reward his squad with more if they're deserving, or vice-versa when he wants to protect the individual's best interest.
"Since we're doing well (No. 1 in the AHL's Western Conference, 40-17-9 record for 89 points), people think that I'm coaching to win all the time -- which I am, but if I really wanted to win and only win, I'd play certain players about 20-25 minutes a game, which we don't.
"A guy like Ryan Keller, our leading scorer, only plays about 17 minutes a game as opposed 22 or 23. If there are no penalties, we'll roll the lines. We have a lot of depth on our team and a solid balance throughout our lineup, and it doesn't matter who's going. If the fourth line plays well, they'll be our top line that night. It's about rewarding guys that are playing well, and we give everyone an opportunity to succeed.
"Development and winning go hand in hand," Nelson explained. "I think players need to develop a winning attitude. Going back to last season, a lot of guys that are back had never made the post-season before. This will be a new experience for Taylor Chorney, as he's never been there as a pro. It's a totally different experience than in the regular season, and I think if we can provide that winning culture, go on a long run and win the Calder Cup, our players can take that experience along with them when they gradate and go to the Oilers."
A player's development is not a sink or swim method. Todd Nelson is making sure of that in OKC, promoting a winning atmosphere alongside to provide the best of both worlds.