Winning garners attention, and the OKC Barons have done a lot of winning this year. They have the best record in the AHL at 29-11-5 despite having only one player in the top-70 in scoring. Ryan Keller is 28th with 35 points in 43 games, while Philippe Cornet sits 71st with 27 points, including 20 goals.
The Barons have two solid veteran goalies, David LeNeveu and Yann Danis, and they along with a stellar defensive system have given up the fewest goals in the league, 100, while they are 8th in goals scored. They don’t have any glaring weaknesses, nor do they have any bonafide superstars. They have depth and head coach Todd Nelson rolls four lines.
But how does the Barons success impact the Oilers?
The biggest impact is that some of the Oilers prospects are in a winning environment and that is huge. They should go at least two rounds in the playoffs, and seeing how the young kids play when the intensity and emotion is higher will be important, but when you look at Barons roster I’m not sure how many future NHLers are there.
Magnus Paajarvi would be one. Colten Teubert will likely become a 3rd pairing D, maybe a #4, and then you have young forwards in Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton who might mature into NHLers. Cornet has had a breakout season, but will he be a top-six forward in the future? I’m skeptical, but if he can improve his footspeed he’ll have a chance.
I caught up with Nelson early last week to get his thoughts on his system, in-game coaching, Pitlick, Hamilton, Cornet and which other young guys might have a chance to help the Oilers in the future.
JG: You’ve had a lot of changes. Guys getting pulled up to the team due to injury, some players getting picked up on waivers — Gilbert Brule — yet you’ve been able to maintain consistency. Why is that? Is it the system? Because it doesn’t seem to matter who you bring in, you’re able to win. How have you been able to avoid any dips by having to change your lineup so often?
TN: I think the biggest thing is the guys are playing the system, and I think that that’s one thing that we try to work on a weekly basis. For instance, we have three practices before we go into the weekend here; and once again, we have new guys that just got sent to us. Ryan O’Marra came back and so did Josh Green. And even though they’ve been part of our team before, we have to hammer on systems. I think that’s the biggest thing.
So we have three days of practice; today was the defensive day. Work in the D‑zone, all our D‑zone plays, our coverage and that; then we’ll go work on neutral zone tomorrow; and then on Thursday we’ll focus on the offensive zone. So I think we touch on those. So it doesn’t matter who we have in the lineup. They all know what we’re doing, and we’ve just got to keep on hammering on that. That’s the biggest thing. But also when you look at our team, it doesn’t matter who gets called up or sent down. We have a lot of depth, and I think that helps us out quite a bit. That’s the two biggest things; we have good depth plus our guys are playing our system well.
JG: Did you change your system this year from last year?
TN: No. I think what we’re doing with it is that we’re just expanding on it. We’re getting more refined because we have the basis down, like the system. All the guys from last year that we have coming back, it wasn’t foreign to them, so they know what’s going on. And it helps with the new guys coming in.
But now we’re starting to refine it. We’re starting to add more things to it. So it’s getting a bit more complex, but the guys are picking it up. So it helps us out. Right now, we’re playing against teams that saw us play last year and some of the coaches know how we play, but we’re throwing different things at them right now. And I think it’s catching some teams off guard.
JG: Can you give me an example of one element that you would tweak that would surprise the other team?
TN: Well, for instance, at the start of the year we go for maybe two control breakouts that we’ll do, and we hammer on those. So we get those down pat. And then we’ll focus on our neutral zone and offensive zone system where it will be one‑man pressure, just a 1‑2‑2. Then as we move along, get playing well with that, then we might incorporate two more control breakouts, two control forechecks, and then we might slide to a two‑man pressure system in the neutral zone and the offensive zone.
You know, we found out pretty quick that we can’t hammer on everything at once, and I think that’s the reason why we lost 6‑1 last year in the first game and 7‑0 this year. Keeping it simple at the start of the year allows for more success, and then we add things. Now we can start incorporating things. And the thing that I’m finding out is that the guys, especially this time of the year if you’re playing the same way, sometimes they get stale. And so if you throw some new things at the guys, it’s fresh for them, and it’s kind of exciting, believe it or not.
Right now we’ve been working on some face‑off plays in the offensive zone where it’s kind of fresh to them, and they’re picking it up. It keeps the game fresh for them. Even though you’re trying new things, the basis of the system stays the same. Our D‑zone coverage does not change. Our neutral zone, offensive zone system, there’s two of them, but we’ll switch back and forth. And right now it’s kind of nice where I can switch from one system to the next just by yelling down the bench. I can switch the system on the fly once guys come off the ice, so right now it’s pretty nice for that, but it takes time to implement.
JG: Speaking of line changes, if you get a too‑many‑men‑on‑the‑ice penalty, is that more a player or a coaching error?
TN: Well, it solely relies on the coach, obviously, but a lot of times it’s miscommunication from a player. We have to make sure that we know as coaches who’s going on and who’s coming off and all that stuff. But a lot of times it happens with a player where they’re not paying attention. A player is coming off the ice, and all of a sudden the puck is turned over; and the player that’s coming off the ice, he reacts and goes on. By that time, the guy had already jumped for him.
Sometimes those scenarios happen where it’s just miscommunication with the players. Also, sometimes the player might jump on for a guy that’s coming off the ice and the play gets turned up right in that area by the box, and you’re caught dead in the water. So sometimes those things happen, but everybody’s going to look at the coach, of course, and say, you know what, you didn’t have the right guys ready. But I think it’s the player’s responsibility as well as the coach’s to make sure that doesn’t happen.
JG: Two players who were drafted recently that Oiler fans are curious about are Curtis Hamilton and Tyler Pitlick. Both pretty much with identical stats. Both have played 34 games, both have four goals and five assists. Can you evaluate their games, contrast or compare the players and how are they adapting to the American League?
TN: Well, let’s start with Curtis Hamilton. I think Curtis has made tremendous strides this season. I think one of the biggest things for him was just getting used to the league, just being a young guy, and I think he’s adapting very well right now. It takes players, young players like him, a while to adapt to the league to begin with. And then once he adapts to it, now we can start focusing on the developments part of it since he feels comfortable out there on the ice. Now we can start working on what he needs to do and what he needs to work on to be an NHLer. We’re at that stage right now, which is nice.
He’s been coming along very well. He has drastically improved from the start of the year. His physical play is picking up, which we like to see, and now we can start incorporating him into certain special team situations. He’s a very smart player. He can play both power play and penalty kill, and we had him in both situations. He’s adapted to the league, but now he’s improving, which is good to see.
In the case of Tyler Pitlick, we all know that he has tremendous speed; and it’s just a matter of him, when he’s going that fast, for his hands to keep up with the pace. And so we’re working on stuff like that, but he’s another guy that we had playing at center at the start of the year. He’s played wing. We had him at center last game. He just returned from an injury, and it seems like he hasn’t missed a beat. He has the skating legs and he’s improving. We just have to keep on working with these guys through video and through practice, and keep reminding them of the things that they have to work on. Both guys are young guys and they have high potential, and so we want to make sure that we give them confidence as they go along here.
JG: You had Magnus Paajarvi down there, who obviously is a very good skater. How close is Pitlick to him in speed?
TN: You know what, he’s pretty close. When Tyler gets going, he’s very dynamic. He can really skate. He’s not far off. It would be interesting to see if those guys had a race. Once both those players get going, they have high‑end speed, so I’d be very interested to see. But if he’s slower than Magnus, he’s not very far off at all.
JG: Pitlick does have a little more sandpaper to his game. He’s not afraid to surprise guys with hits, buthHas he incorporated that in his game in OKC?
TN: He has incorporated it, but we want to see it more consistent. The biggest thing about young guys here is that when they have a great game, you want to see that great game consistently. He has been physical at times; and when he has, he’s a very dominant guy down low. He’s very strong. He’s very strong for a young guy.
The first goal that we scored in Lake Erie, he set it up. I don’t think he got an assist, but he finished his check on a guy, knocked him off the puck and Keller was able to retrieve it, pass it to Phil Cornet in front of the net, and Phil finished. Pitlick is very strong for a young man and if can improve on his consistency he’s going to be a very dominant player in the future.
JG: Outside of Pitlick and Hamilton, which other young prospects should Oiler fans expect to push for jobs in the coming years?
TN: Well, some guys come to mind. There’s probably four or five guys. Chris VandeVelde has made excellent gains this year. He’s a lot better player than he was last year. He’s a pretty dominant centerman at this level. And what I mean by dominant is just his play; his all-around game. If you look at his numbers, they’re nothing to get all excited about, but what he does for us is he plays a very good defensive role. He does excellent penalty killing for us, and he’s strong on draws. He’s a big strong centerman, and he has improved drastically from last year.
Another guy that improved a lot was Cornet. He has 20 goals for us right now, and he’s a guy that might get his shot this year if he keeps on producing like that. Another two guys that are very reliable are Hunter Tremblay and Tanner House. Both guys have been playing solid minutes for us, have been very good defensively, but also they’ve been chipping in offensively.
So we have a make‑up of a team that, if we look at our roster, I think we have one guy in the top-40 in scoring in the league, but everybody else chips in. So we have to score by committee, but those guys come to mind.
JG: When you mentioned Cornet, a lot of Oiler fans are wondering why he hasn’t been called up. He’s led your team in goals pretty much all season long. I know you talk to Tom Renney about who get’s recalled so what has held you back from giving him the green light thus far?
TN: Well, I talked to Tom quite a bit here lately about guys getting called up, and his name’s thrown out there. He’s the guy that I’d like to see get a chance. I think he’s earned the right. I think that he will get some games in as we move along here. Tom’s trying to find the right players for his mix up there. Right now, Phil’s just going to play here. When called upon, I want to see what he’s able to do. One of the biggest things with Phil’s game is that he was behind a step last year with his skating. Now, he’s got that step back this year. He worked hard all summer, and he’s a very good American Leaguer. If he’s given the opportunity, I’ll be very curious to see how he does.
JG: Has his foot speed improved enough to be an NHLer?
TN: It’s improved enough at the American League level for him to be a dominant player down here. I shouldn’t say dominant. A very good American Leaguer. I think he has to gain one more step to be in the NHL. I think Phil’s gotten confidence now around the net. Obviously, he’s scoring some goals. He’s a very smart player. I think he’d be fine with the thinking part of the game up there . He’d be exceptional with it. Once again, it just comes down to foot speed, and I think that’s a work in progress. It’s only his second year playing pro. I think that if he keeps on improving, he’s a guy that could probably play in the future.
JG: Did Linus Omark skate yet this week?
TN: He has not skated. We’re kind of projecting him to skate this week. I talked to him yesterday, and he was a bit sore. He felt better today. But once again, we just want to make sure to see how he is tomorrow. I’m hoping that he’ll get on the ice later on this week. If he doesn’t, we might take the precaution of just resting it over the All‑Star break, but I predict him to be skating right after the All‑Star break for sure. Hopefully there’s no soreness in it as we move along here.
JG: Any guess on when you think he would be back playing?
TN: Back playing, well, he’s very eager. He told me once he got his cast off; he wanted to play the next couple nights. He’s very eager. He wants to be back. If he starts skating around the All‑Star break or right after the All‑Star break, we have a couple games right away, and then we have some time off. So I think maybe a week after the All‑Star break we could probably see him in action. That’s what we’re projecting, but we’ll have to wait and see.
It is great that the Oilers finally have a winning atmosphere in the AHL, but outside of four or five players I don’t think people should expect the success of the Barons to natually lead to more success for the Oilers. Many of the key contributors in OKC are not players who can duplicate that in the NHL.