Why The Success Of The Oklahoma City Barons (Probably) Matters

The Oklahoma City Barons, as of this writing, are the second-best team in the AHL, with 91 points in 68 games and a plus-39 goal differential. If it weren’t for the 20-game winning streak the Norfolk Admirals are on (not hyperbole: the Admirals have literally won their last 20 contests) they’d be the best team in the league.

There’s a big gap between having one of the best teams in the AHL and having one of the best teams in the NHL, a real and spectacular gap.

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The former does not guarantee the latter. To cite just one example, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers had three brilliant years in the AHL in the early 2000’s (finishing first in the league in the regular season in 2001-02), and we all know how that turned out for their parent club, the New York Islanders.

Tyler Dellow went on about this at some length late in January, when a few of Edmonton’s more prominent media people wrote articles on the successes of the Barons. I’ll quote his conclusion:

It seems to me that the onus in proving that something matters is on those who assert that it does. There’s lots and lots of reason to think that your AHL team’s record has little to do with whether you’ll be a good team down the road or whether you’ll develop players effectively – I’ve only scratched the surface above. If people like Spector and Jones want to make the case that Tambellini should be praised for turning into the Barons into a powerhouse, it seems to me that they should explain why I should give the slightest damn as an Oilers’ fan. As far as I can tell, it’s irrelevant, or close to it. Unless, of course, you’re a hockey team desperate to draw the eye away from the flaming wreckage of another season and distract minds from questions about why you’re still employed. In that case, a good AHL team is probably incredibly relevant to you. It’s a justification for further employment that people who don’t dig into things might accept.

When I read Tyler’s piece, I was generally in agreement with it. I was aware of good AHL teams with terrible NHL parent franchises, and vice versa. On the other hand, it also seemed to me that a strong AHL organization was probably something of a positive; after all, as with the NHL there’s a need to assess, recruit and then coach talent, and some of the players contributing in the AHL are bound to contribute in the NHL down the road. It would seem to make a logical sense that a team winning in the AHL employs better people in coaching and development, and that some of the players helping their team win would make the leap.

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So I went out to try and see, one way or the other, if I could find evidence that success at the AHL level led to success at the NHL level. To answer the question, I looked at three seasons worth of AHL data: 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2007-08. I didn’t use earlier seasons because of the lost lockout year, and I didn’t use later seasons because there hasn’t been enough time since.

Goal Differential Correlations

The following table shows the correlation between the success of an AHL team (measured by goal differential) and its parent NHL club (also measured by goal differential). “Same season” denotes the correlation between the AHL team and the NHL team in the same season, while “Season+1” represents the correlation between AHL success one year and NHL success the next year (e.g. 2005-06 AHL team, 2006-07 NHL team), and so on. A perfect correlation is 1.0.

Season Correlation
Same season -0.2010
Season +1 0.1112
Season +2 0.1986
Season +3 0.3461

The most significant outlier to this pattern is the Atlanta Thrashers/Chicago Wolves affiliation; Chicago was highly successful for many years, while Atlanta no longer has an NHL team. Interestingly, the Wolves were not owned by the Thrashers but rather by a pair of Chicago-area businessmen and retained significant control over hockey operations under the Thrashers.

It’s interesting to note that there appears to be a link between a good AHL organization and eventual NHL success. I say “appears” for a number of reasons; firstly, I can’t think of a definitive reason for such a strong link, and secondly I’m dealing with just three years of AHL data here.

Why would such a link exist? There are a number of possible reasons. Presumably, more successful AHL teams have better players, coaches and managers; it’s certainly possible that those players, coaches and managers go on to influence the parent club. It’s also possible that successful AHL teams typically have more money behind them than unsuccessful clubs, and that additional money translates to NHL success. I can’t say with any certainty what the cause is.

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What I can say with certainty is that teams with a better AHL affiliate between 2005 and 2008 typically performed better between 2008 and 2011. That’s certainly a positive sign for the Oilers organization.

  • O.C.

    It matters

    JDD is the perfect reason why you need a farm team Development is the reason you instill winning. Stability also keeps players focused on development.

    • misfit

      That would be a great argument if there was any way to confirm that he would’ve turned out any better had he been in a system that had its own farm team. There are hundreds (well, lots anyway) of highly toughted goalies and high draft picks who played for organizations who had their own affiliates and still never panned out.

      In his first pro season, the Oilers did have their own their affiliate. JDD played well in the ECHL but was 6-13-2 with a .888 SV% for the Roadrunners.

      You could maybe say he was shafted the following year with the Bulldogs where he only got into 13 games, but Halak and Danis severely outplayed him.

      In Wilkes/Barre he was clearly the team’s #1 despite being another team’s affiliate.

      The following year was when the Oilers got their own affiliate (Springfield) and he was handed the #1 job.

      So out of 4 years, 2 of them were in another team’s affiliate, and only one of them was he not the starting goalie.

      • Emvee

        Did he do too bad. Starter on one NHL team, back-up on another. Seems like hes done ok. I would argue that even if he developed in a more stable envirnment, I can`t see him doing any better then what he has done if he was playing for a better organization.

  • Petr's Jofa

    Obviously there is a big difference if the AHL success it due to a goup of super prospects or a team of grizzled AHL vets. Is it possible to do some sort of historical correlation based on the age of ‘the players driving the bus’* and then see where the barons fit?

    * Stolen from Lowetide without expressed written consent.

  • Devolution

    Is it possible that being with a winning AHL team instills good attitudes and a desire to win whereas bad teams get used to losing? In the words of George Steinbrenner, “It only takes one thing to be a good loser, plenty of practice”.

  • Lexi

    I think the most hopeful sign is that the joke that was the Oilers farm team through most of the 2000s seems to have been a key predictor of the past 3 yrs results.

    The hiring of up and coming coaches, creating a winning atmosphere and the appearance that young defenseman are improving down there, seems to indicate the organization at least has a clue.

    I’m assuming it does not help a young goalie get confidence if he is facing 50 shots a night so that alone makes a better AHL team important. My biggest hope is that a playoff run in the AHL will help Paarjarvi, Lander and Pitlick develop into solid NHLers in the next couple of years.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    In trying to see if an AHL success leads to NHL success you need to factor in a development delay. I would expect AHL success and help to the NHL team would peak about 3-5 years after the AHL peak.

  • vetinari

    A strong minor league team can’t hurt, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your parent club will be a smashing success either.

    I’m a happier Oiler fan knowing that the team has been successful in March (despite a sub .500 season overall) than knowing that their minor league affiliate is the second best team in the AHL.

    If next year, Paajarvi, Lander and at least one defenceman returns to the big club and makes an impact on the roster, than I’m willing to give more credit to the development of the minor league squad directly leading to the Oilers’ successes, but until then, it’s almost like comparing apples to oranges.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    This is an interesting article…so because the Barons are good this year, it will keep me hopeful for the Oilers for the next 3+ years!

    Apparently I can run on hope for a while longer…I guess Tambi WILL keep his job!

  • Bucknuck

    I agree that a good AHL team certainly doesn’t hurt, and that the oilers needed their own affiliate in the AHL.

    I wouldn’t overstate the significance of a good AHL team, however. Although I don’t follow the barons closely, my sense this season has been that their success was largely driven by veteran AHL players who are relative long shots to make it in the NHL (e.g. both goaltenders and Cornet).

    Of course it’s good to put guys like Pitlick, Pajaarvi, Lander, Teubert, and Plante in that environment for development purposes – but if your big minutes guys aren’t going to be NHLers, and your AHL success is driven by AHL lifers, then I can see where Dellow is coming from.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    Has anyone else heard the rumour from Elliotte Freidman that Matt Duschene is unhappy is Colorado. Just curious if one could do a swap of Sam Gagner for Matt Duschene, would you do it. Size wise there the same, Duschene is a better skater. This season Sam`s been way better, but in the past Matt eaten his lunch. Upside could be debatable. Any thoughts……..

    • Reg Dunlop

      I don’t think Gagner gets you MD. How about Taylor Hall; damaged goods, as is with no returns? A big gamble for both sides, but I worry that Hall will have a short career unless he makes fundamental changes to his game.

      • Reg Dunlop

        Matt Duchene has 27 points this year. Has played on the third line, and has been outta sorts with management. You gotta wonder if they would take Gagner back straight up. I would take a flyer on the kid, but I honestly don`t watch the Av`s more then 6 games a year.

        Say you could get him for a couple prospects such as MPS/Musil or Klefbaum/ Pitlick would you take a chance…I would…

  • Bucknuck

    My inner geek is decidedly pleased that you have distinctly and intelligently separated two different concepts: correlation and causality. You can observe a correlation, but that does not determine cause and effect. So many people don’t know the difference.

    I am glad there is a correlation, since I am tired of watching the Oilers suck.

  • Sheldon "Oilers Fan for Life!!!"

    Many of the present Baron players credit the success they are having with the quality of the present coaching staff. Are they using the same systems as the Oilers? If so the success should translate up at least some. If he is such a great coach Would it be worth paying a higher salary to avoid some NHL team poaching him?

  • I’m not so sure the bond between winning at the AHL level and winning at the NHL level is so great. I think a better way to see would be to find out how many legit NHLers AHL teams graduated and then look back to see how those teams fared in those seasons when the graduates played.

    We are so much more concerned with individual successes from AHL players than from team success that I cant tell if winning isnt connected or if I just dont care about it.

    Is it better for Hamilton and Pitlick to play fewer minutes in lesser roles on a winning AHL team or to get lots of ice-time and lose more often?

    • stevezie

      I mostly agree. The benefits of a stable farm team should be obvious, but a winning one? However, if all you look at is how many players graduate than you have to allow for the crappiness of the team they’re graduating to. Things start to get really complicated and subjective at this point.

      The simplest way to see if AHL success matter is to do what Willis did- does a winning team at one level help a team win at another level? The answer: sorta, but it’s hard to say how much or why. Farm teams are more art than science.

  • Orange-n-Blue

    I think it is important to note that correlation does not imply causation. Meaning that despite a weak correlation, the causation that is implied is even weaker. This value is found by squaring the correlation value and is not very pretty for any of the three rows.

    As a sidenote I wonder if there is any relationship between the way a non-playoff team plays in their last 15 or so meaningless games and their next season. To see if there is any basis behind this “carry the momentum forward” talk I see. Either way, I’m loving the baron’s success and I’m loving the wins down the stretch. Dubnyk is finally playing his size

  • DieHard

    Is there a correlation in the baseball world? You would think that a strong minor league system would be beneficial to the parent club. You want your young prospects earning TOI against AHL vets. If they don’t, they become a AHL vets. Drafting is key and more important than AHL success.

    • Orange-n-Blue

      The 2 sports use their minor leagues differently. You don’t often get freshly drafted 18 year olds on MLB rosters. They tend to make their way through the various minor league affiliates before getting their first chance as September callups in a lost season.

      In the NHL, your best young players generally don’t play many games in the AHL before coming to the NHL fulltime. Often times it’s your bottom 6ers that spend a lot of time in the AHL.

  • Emvee

    Prime examples of AHL are Alzner,Carlson,Neuvirth and Johansson. Despite the year the caps are having they have been looked at to fill in key roles 1-2 years after graduating from the AHL.

  • Orange-n-Blue

    Every situation is kind of unique but given the lack of important games that the parent club has played over the past few years, a deep playoff run has to be a looked at as a positive for key youngsters like Lander, Paajarvi and Teubert.

  • ubermiguel

    @ Willis; there’s a strong and steady movement in the direction that supports the theory. Definitely worth revisiting in years +4 and +5.

    My assumption is that a good AHL team provides good depth players for the big club. Maybe it’s those depth guys that are the real difference between bad and good NHL teams?

  • O.C.

    It’s not just the record that translates into winning in the show. There has to be an aura of success that demands nothing less than the very best attitudes and effort.

    That doesn’t guarantee success (e.g. Montreal) but the alternative, a laizzez faire, selfish what’s in it for me, who cares attitude is a contagious disease that is difficult to eliminate.

    It takes years to cure a team of complacency.

    Gee…that sounds familiar…

  • RexLibris

    I think that the correlation between a strong AHL club and the parent NHL franchise exists, it just isn’t a sole determiner of NHL franchise success.

    I think back to the Manitoba Moose and their dominance of the AHL for years. That team also carried on it’s roster some of those cuddly, loveable Canuckleheads we are all so fond of.

    The AHL farm team is a place where draft picks and prospects can develop a professional game against grown men and spend time seasoning.

    I love the fact that the Barons are outperforming the Heat this year and both are clubs that are laden with veteran presence. The difference is that the Barons have interspersed their roster with some of the Oiler’s own prospects in Pitlick, Hamilton, Plante, Teubert, etc. The Heat, by contrast, are making due with only a small handful of Flames hopefuls (Irving) and draft projects (Nemisz) and have had to go so far as to sign Krys Kolanos and Hugh Jessiman to try and stock up on talent.

    I actually do give some credit to Tambellini for the performance of the Barons. I’ve been scanning around the league to see where other AHL teams are affiliated and to measure that against their NHL team’s performance and for the most part the teams that are struggling to get by every year are also the ones that have poorly run AHL squads.

    Detroit is often held up as the model upon which this franchise is being rebuilt. Detroit has used their AHL franchise in Grand Rapids extremely well. The team may not be a perennial Calder Cup candidate, but they do well and they incubate the Red Wings prospects allowing them to mature under the NHL clubs tutelage.

    I have heard encouraging reports from sources like Lisa McRitchie on the Oiler’s development team and think that, while I’ll never point to the Barons as proof positive of this club’s eventual success, it is one piece in a much larger picture that will, with luck, lead this team to another championship.

    Thanks for the article, Willis.

    As for Duchene, if Greg Sherman decides to let go of Matt Duchene for Sam Gagner and someone like Curtis Hamilton, then he is really starting to spin his wheels. Were he to do that I think he would be moving very close to the example that Dean Lombardi is setting in L.A. (patience lost and frantic, almost spastic moves to improve immediately). I’d take that deal.

  • O.C.

    Perhaps it is a case of not all strong AHL clubs translate automatically into winning NHL clubs – but all strong NHL clubs require depth and development from strong and well run AHL clubs.

    Just another piece of the puzzle in other words, without losing sight of the fact that building a winning NHL team depends on far more than just building a championship AHL team.

    Your AHL team need not be a winner and i think Dellow is right that it is irrelevant how they do in the playoffs, but as an NHL team you should certainly want to see a high compete level and development from your farm…