OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- The Oklahoma City Barons play a very important role in the future of the Edmonton Oilers organization. From the nurturing and development of some of Edmonton’s top prospects to installing and teaching systems and fundamentals, OKC is all business.
“I think we have a big job to do,” said Barons Head Coach Todd Nelson. “I think yes, me, Rocky (Thompson) and Gerry (Fleming) have a very important role in this. We know it’s time to graduate some players to help out the big club, we know it’s a situation where the big club wants to get back to where they were in the 80’s and it all starts here. We have to continue to develop these guys and hopefully they become impact players in the National Hockey League.”
This season, even more so than in years past, the Oilers are reaping the benefits of having this American Hockey League farm team. Players like Mark Arcobello, Martin Marincin, Tyler Pitlick and Taylor Fedun have seen time with the Oilers this season and the future looks bright with some of the other young prospects coming into, or playing in the system now.
“We’re very proud that they’re going up there and performing well,” Nelson said. “That’s our job to help these guys get better and help out the big club. When I see the way that Marty Marincin is playing up there and the way that Tyler Pitlick played, Mark Arcobello is the same thing. These guys are contributing and doing a lot of good things in the NHL. Yes, it’s a very proud moment for us. That’s our job, to develop these guys. those three guys I mentioned have performed excellent up top, so far.”
The Barons have already begun transitioning the Oilers into a heavier-style of team, which is the plan for the NHL club moving forward. Even still, it’s going to be a waiting game. True and successful development takes patience.
“When you look at it, obviously the Oiler club wants to play a heavier game in the future. Some of the drafts that we’ve had recently, we have some players with good size and grit. Eventually, these guys will help out the big club and make them a heavier hockey team. But, it’s going to take time. It’s not like you can have five or six guys every year jump right from junior or college to the National Hockey League. They have to learn the pro game, they have to learn how to compete every night and be consistent with their efforts. That takes time to develop with these hockey players and some guys develop quicker than others. At some point, we can provide the tools for the hockey players but the hockey players themselves have to take ownership of their own development as well. It’s a combination of both, but I do see the big club getting a lot heavier in the future.”
“Our battle cry here in all our meetings is that the players have to compete and they’ve got to be hard to play against,” Edmonton’s Sr. Director of Player Development, Rick Carriere said. “That’s got to be the culture that we start to create with these players that are here in Oklahoma City and all our amateur prospects.”
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Carriere is in Oklahoma City this weekend for his annual mid-season check-ins with the Oilers prospects. Carriere sits with each player individually and they go over their IDP (Individual Development Plan) and discuss goals, progress and suggestions or changes they might make.
“All across the board, we want players that are going to compete hard all of the time and be hard to play against on a nightly basis. Players like Jujhar Khaira and Mitch Moroz, anybody that’s watched those two guys play have seen the caliber of play that they play. They’re big, strong kids that are starting to fit the mold of where we’re going.”
This season, the Oilers have seen gains in the progress of prospects. Former second round pick, Tyler Pitlick turned a corner in his development this season. He brought his physical, energizing game to Edmonton before suffering a knee injury, shortly following his first career NHL goal.
Fellow former 2nd rounder, Curtis Hamilton is another young forward who has evolved a heavier game this season and has tied his career-high in goals in just 21 games. He is currently out with an injury, but was showing potential prior to that.
Nelson says that those two aforementioned players have been pleasant revelations for the Barons this season.
“Two guys fall into that category, Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton,” the OKC bench boss said. “I don’t know if it was so much of a surprise, but we saw both players turn the corner. In the case of Curtis Hamilton, it’s unfortunate that he got injured but we saw him play with a lot of confidence with the puck. He was chipping in offensively, he was playing more physical and he was very good on the penalty kill. Tyler Pitlick is the same thing, where he has to play a physical game, more consistently. He’s understood that. It finally clicked with him. I can play Tyler on the power play or penalty kill and feel very confident that he’s going to get the job done. Those two guys stand out this year. It’s a good thing. It’s their third year, it’s time to turn the corner and I think they have.”
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Martin Marincin is steadily proving himself as a serious defensive option for the Oilers, this season.
“Martin had a great head for the game, always,” said Carriere. “His biggest thing is strength and he’s working on that. He’s almost getting up to 200 pounds now, he’s strong. He’s a very solid two-way defenceman. He’s good positionally, he’s got a great stick and a good sense of anticipation and he’s going to continue get better in the NHL.”
Mark Arcobello is another prime example of development taking time. Arcobello was not a one-year discovery for the Barons and the Oilers last season during the NHL work stoppage (68 points (22-46-68) in 74 games with the Barons in 2012-2013), his development began over three years ago. Nelson now considers Arcobello as the ‘biggest success’ of the Barons to date, in terms of development.
“I think so,” he said. “I think that’s a fair statement. I think the impressive thing with Mark is the process he went through. His first year, he was in the ECHL. He wasn’t for this league, so we used that tool to our advantage to have him go there and play a lot of minutes and be confident. He came out halfway during the year and he started to excel here. In his second year, he was our second leading scorer and he was arguably our first-line centreman and had a really good year. Then last year, he took it to a whole different level where he was our first-line centreman, led our team in points and did everything. Penalty kill, our power play, he performed well. The thing about Arcobello is I think the one thing people are starting to see is his character. He’s not a very big guy, but he plays like he’s 6-4. He’s not intimidated, he finishes all his checks and he’s contributing. I think that’s what a hockey player has to do. Play the game the right way and he’s come through our system and now he’s performing well up top.”
Arcobello has played 39 games in the NHL this season and has 18 points (4-14-18). He serves a key utility role in which he can be inserted nearly everywhere in the lineup and on any line from top to bottom of the depth chart for the Oilers.
It seems like more than ever, the development successes in OKC are being brought to light as more and more prospects take the next step towards full-time NHL duty.
YOUTH MOVEMENT AND THE EARLY STRUGGLES
The Barons are a much younger team this season than in years past. The logjam of young prospects has created more opportunity for those players, but it has been an obstacle for the team in terms of their place in the AHL standings.
“It’s been a grind this year,” said Nelson. “Obviously with our 95 transactions we’ve had, or more than that (99 as of Saturday night), it’s been tough to maybe, get the team together and get them all playing the right way. With that being said, we’re seeing improvement with a lot of the young prospects and, believe it or not, right now we’re playing better as a hockey team. We’re starting to play the right way, we’re just not maybe getting the goal support. The thing is that, we are playing better hockey and what we have to do is just focus on the process and the outcome will take care of itself. Now is the time in the season that we have to really make the playoffs. I think it is really important that we do so because the experience for the young guys in the playoffs, it goes unmatched.”
|Barons photos by Steven Christy |
The signs for the Barons have been trending upward recently, the team just needs to stick to the game plan.
“There’s always a process. In years past, this is the time of the year that are team has got going and I expect the same thing to happen to us this year. It is tough, but you have to be patient. We’re young on the backend and there’s going to be growing pains. We all knew that and we just have to be patient with that. We’re seeing improvement out of our young players. We’re seeing them progress and they’re getting better in a lot of areas. That’s probably the most important thing, is to get these guys ready to make the jump to the National Hockey League. It’s one of those things where you’re got to have patience, like I mentioned before, and you’ve just got to keep working with these young guys. I think that it is tough on our group because, let’s face it, when you’re winning games, you feel good about yourself and this year, it’s been a tough grind. We’ve just got to stick with it.”
Carriere agrees with Nelson’s sentiments that the increased responsibility has translated into progress with the younger players.
“I think it is sort of a different player that we have here now, it’s a younger group of guys,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s exciting because we’ve got some young guys cutting their teeth in a pretty good league. It’s a tough league to play in and they’re learning from some still established veterans. We’ve got still some players here, some older guys that are still helping lead the way but I’m impressed with some of the things I’ve seen. From the start of the year until now, all of those guys like David Musil, Martin Gernat and Travis Ewanyk, to name three, have really improved throughout the course of the season.”
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DEVELOPING THE COACHES
Just as the Oilers are pleased with the development of their prospects, the coaching staff in OKC is seeing some personal benefits as well. Going through this process of dealing with the youth movement, the early season struggles and the numerous transactions this season, has helped Todd Nelson and his staff grow as coaches.
“It’s definitely made me better as a coach,” he said. “You have challenges every night where you think you’re going in the right direction and then all of the sudden you have a ten minute part of the game where the guys forgot everything you taught them. You’ve got to stick with it. It is a bit different, but we’re seeing progress with our young guys. In years past, we had some of those guys that were more established, but right now we’re going through a situation, I guess you could call it a rebuilding phase for us here but these guys are going to be better hockey players in the end.”
The handwork, determination and accomplishments of these coaches have not gone unnoticed.
“I think with what we’ve talked about, with the development of those young players coming up, that it wouldn’t be possible without the support of our coaching staff here in Oklahoma City,” said Carriere. “Todd Nelson, Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson do a great job of supporting the IDPs and the development department.”
All of the hard work and the progress that’s been made over the past few seasons in Oklahoma City hasn’t just been for acknowledgement. The staff is working towards the purpose of bettering the Oilers from within the system. When the big club does eventually make it back to the playoffs, the Barons staff would like to think they were a part of that rebuild. However, the job isn’t done yet so Nelson will continue to put in the hours it takes to make the difference.
“If it does happen, yes,” he said. “Definitely. We’re hoping that happens really quick. We do have pride in knowing players are going up and contributing. Right now, it’s still not good enough. We have to excelerate the progress so the big club can have success in the future.”
Carriere likes the looks of that future.
“I think the future looks really bright, from my perspective in player development,” Carriere said. “The kids are all working really hard and trying to improve and make it to the National Hockey League.”
“They’re all really quality individuals that have really bought into the program that we’re running here in development. It’s fun to work with those guys.”