SAN ANTONIO, Tex. - With 18 games remaining in the 2012-13 season, Oklahoma City Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson believes the best is yet to come.
Heading into Wednesday's game against the San Antonio Rampage at the AT&T Center, the Barons sit alone in ninth place in the AHL's Western Conference standings. They're one point back of the Abbotsford Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot with four games at hand on their misplaced Battle of Alberta rivals
"We've got to keep plugging away and take it game-by-game, period-by-period and shift-by-shift," said Nelson. "People haven't seen the best of this team yet. We're only going to get stronger. All you have to do is get into the playoffs -- as everybody knows, it doesn't matter what seed you are; Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup last year being the eighth seed. It doesn't matter where we place as long as we have the opportunity to play for the Calder Cup."
Under the circumstances in which the season began, coupled with a challenging transition period when the NHL and NHLPA came to an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Nelson admits the ride hasn't been easy.
Gone are Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen and MVP goaltender Yann Danis to the Oilers. General Manager Bill Scott has been busy plugging the holes ever since. In total, 43 different players have suited up in copper and blue this season, many of whom were graduates from the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) or brought in as free agents signed to standard player contracts or professional tryout agreements.
"Every team goes through changes, but I think our team has probably been through the most over the course of the season," laughed Nelson. "But we're finding ourselves. We're working hard together and we're having a lot of fun doing it."
In addition to the Stockton Thunder standouts, such as forward Ryan Martindale and defenceman Brandon Davidson, some notable veterans were brought in to help ease the transition and provide immediate support to a team in desperate need: Jonathan Cheechoo, Brett Clark and Randy Jones who, combined, have played nearly 1,500 career games in the NHL, have contributed immensely since the work stoppage ended in early January.
"It's been excellent," said Nelson. "Those guys help out guys like Josh Green and Dane Byers, guys that have been around a bit. You can never have too much veteran leadership. They're a calming presence for us. When games get a bit hectic, they have a voice of reason. It's one thing for a coach to tell guys to settle down, but when it comes from your peers, it has a greater impact and those have provided that for us. They also lead a lot by example -- playing good, strong hockey and playing the game the right way. The guys are benefitting from that."
As "difficult" a season as it has been, Nelson wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Along with his assistant coaches Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson, the staff has been challenged to adjust on the fly and still produce the best product possible as they hunt down a spot in post-season play.
"It's amazing how fast the season has gone, but it's been a lot of fun -- and it still is a lot of fun," smiled Nelson. "Right now it's especially fun because we're battling for a playoff spot and the playoff push has been on for the past two or three weeks, and we know how important every game is. It's been a lot of fun working with these guys.
"As the games get more important, we get closer together. Every day we're getting closer and closer as a team and that's going to help us win games."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick