Should labour negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA fail, and a lengthy lockout occur, the Oklahoma City Barons have the potential to be one of the most potent clubs in modern AHL history.
Let’s take a step back to the 2004-05 NHL lockout for a moment: young NHL’ers flooded the minor leagues in droves. 2001 second overall pick Jason Spezza, fresh off a 55-point season in the NHL, led the league in scoring, recording 117 points over an 80-game schedule. The third overall pick in 2002, Jay Bouwmeester, spent 2004-05 in the AHL after two full NHL seasons. The fourth overall pick that year, Joni Pitkanen, had completed one NHL season when he won the AHL championship with the Philadelphia Phantoms. Eric Staal, the second overall pick in 2003, scored at a point-per-game pace for Lowell after completing his rookie NHL season.
Other top young players also spent time in the AHL after being (relatively) established NHL players. Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron, Brent Burns, Dan Hamhuis, Anton Volchenkov, Joffrey Lupul, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Stajan all played in the minors. The Oilers sent two NHL’ers to the AHL during the last lockout: Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll both found employment with the short-lived Edmonton Roadrunners.
Of course, many players also went overseas and played in Europe. Most of those were veterans but some – such as 2002 first overall pick Rick Nash – were younger.
This Time Around
This time, the potential AHL assignments are a little mind-boggling. Taylor Hall, who has not yet played 160 games, can be assigned to the minors without needing to clear waivers. Ditto for Jordan Eberle. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has only played one NHL season; he could be sent down as well. New signee Justin Schultz, fresh off his college career, is another candidate for work in Oklahoma City. Naturally, other players – Magnus Paajarvi, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander and the like – would also play in the minors.
That’s not to say all of those guys would go – Hall and Eberle, without question, could find work in Europe if they wanted it. Likely Nugent-Hopkins could too.
On the other hand, there simply isn’t the same level of doom and gloom in CBA negotiations now as there was in 2004-05. Back then, players could head to Europe with reasonable confidence that they would be playing hockey over there for at least a few months – and with exit clauses if the NHL did fire back up midway through the year. The possibility of a full-season lockout was always recognized – after all, the owners wanted to change the very financial model of the game.
That isn’t the case this year. The NHL and NHLPA may have considerable distance to go before they agree to terms, but there isn’t the same sort of talk about flushing a full season. Most expect the league to play at least an abbreviated season.
With that in mind, will it make sense for players like Hall and Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins to pack up for Europe if a deal hasn’t been reached by mid-September? Or would it make more sense to accept a demotion to Oklahoma City and play a month or two of minor-league hockey while waiting for a deal to be finalized?
I don’t know the answer to that. But it’s interesting to image the roster that Todd Nelson might find at his disposal in October.