The OKC Barons wrapped up their short two-game preseason over the weekend, and before playing those games I chatted with Nelson about how he will use his NHL-caliber players.
This is a huge opportunity for the Oilers to discover who might be capable of playing with Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins whenever the NHL returns.
JG: Normally at this time of year in training camp you would have around the same amount of bodies, but a lot of them would be guys from the East Coast League or the CHL. Now, you have 32 or 33 guys that are all Edmonton products and most of them will be playing in the AHL. How did that change what you did in the first few days of camp compared to the last few years?
TN: I think the biggest thing was that we got right into system work and started working with the guys about how we’re going to play out there. So the first three days we were able to work on our systems, get right into it. Starting tomorrow we’re going to have two scrimmage sessions, and be get ready for two exhibition games on Friday and Saturday against Houston.
In previous camps we have had some players from Edmonton down here, some of the younger guys that got let go earlier from Edmonton, and so it was kind of tough to implement systems at that time. So you pretty much start scrimmaging right off the start, trying to see what some of these other players from different leagues have to offer. That’s the biggest thing, just trying to get into practice mode and getting the guys prepared for games.
JG: I had Jordan Eberle on the program on Friday, and he mentioned you told him that you’ll play him and Nugent‑Hopkins together to start. Do you expect that to last?
TN: Yeah, for sure. We’ll keep those two guys together. And then we have a bunch of different combinations we can use with them on the left side. I think a lot of people want to see what Magnus Paajarvi can do on that left side with them. We have option, Hartikainen of course is in the mix. But I think for the first part, we’ll keep those guys together, and I don’t really see us breaking them up.
*** My thoughts***.. Paajarvi needs to take advantage of this opportunity. It is very rare for a player who isn’t a regular NHLer to get to play with NHL players, but not have to face NHL opposition. Paajarvi will never have a better scenario to get comfortable playing with RNH and Eberle. If the Oilers are going to be competitive in the coming years they will need their support/complementary players to be better. Paajarvi needs to show he can contribute 5×5 with these two.
JG: What about your second line?
TN: Well Jason, I have so many different combinations. I’m looking at the board, and arguably your fourth or fifth line could be slotted anywhere on there. But right now, we have Hartikainen, Green, and Pitlick as a line. That’s a situation where we want to see Tyler Pitlick take the next step, play in a top‑six role. And I think playing alongside Josh Green and Hartikainen should help him out, and he should see some benefits from that.
JG: And then Anton Lander would be your third‑line centre?
TN: Most likely the way it kind of stacks up, although Anton and Josh could probably flip spots as well. We have a bunch of different combinations. We also have Chris VandeVelde. So when you look at the wingers on those lines, we have Curtis Hamilton, Antti Tyrvainen, Dane Byers, Phil Cornet, Tanner House. We also have Mark Arcobello that was our second leading scorer last year. So we have tons of different combinations. We have guys like House and Arcobello that can play the middle. Tyler Pitlick can play the middle. So it’s just a matter of trying to find the right fit and see what works and just trying to find just enough ice time for everybody.
*** My thoughts***… It’s nice to hear that Pitlick will get an opportunity to show if he has offensive skills. If he isn’t at least a 50-point player this year, the chances of him becoming even a 40-point guy in the NHL are very slim. If you can’t produce in the AHL, it is extremely rare that you’ll produce in the NHL. I like using Lander in the 3rd line slot, because when, or if, he is ready to play in the NHL I see him slotted in there first. His overall game is his best attribute, and I think he’ll be the guy who eventually replaces Horcoff. He’ll take key draws, kill penalties and face tough opposition.
JG: Where does Dane Byers fit in and what will he add to your team?
TN: I think he’s been a captain for the last three teams he’s played on. He’s a big, strong guy. He’s not afraid of the rough stuff. He’ll take on anybody. So we have grit there. He won’t be the only one though. Antti Tyrvainen and Tanner House can bring some of that as well. Josh Green is a big guy. We have this mentality here that we have to have a wolf‑pack mentality. Something happens; we’re all in there to help each other out. So I don’t see that as being any kind of an issue. We have guys that can take care of that role.
JG: What about on the defence? Justin Schultz, any ideas who you’re going to pair him up with?
TN: Well, I had plans for Marty Marincin to play with him, but he’s going through some shoulder pain. He has some tendinitis in there, so he hasn’t skated the last couple days. I’m not sure if he’s going to be ready for opening night or not, but that’s who I kind of have slotted for them. And then after that, there’s different combinations we can use. I had Taylor Fedun paired up with Colten Teubert, Alex Plante with Brandon Davidson. We also have Teigan Zahn here and Danny Ringwald, so we have options if Marty Marincin is not able to go.
JG: You mentioned a few young defencemen. Martin Marincin would be one and Brandon Davidson. What do you like about their game, and what’s going to be the aspects both of them need to work on?
TN: With Brandon, I love his compete level. He came to camp in tremendous shape. He’s a good kid. He works very hard. I think for him it’s just refining his game. I think defensively he’s very strong. One aspect we can work on with him is just moving the puck quicker, snapping a pass on the tape a lot quicker. Stuff like that where he needs to improve to get up to pro speed, but he has the head for making the good first pass and finding options. So that’s just something that as we go along here we’re going to have to work with him and just go from there.
As for Marty, I like the way Marty played for us last year when he came to us. He was outstanding with his defensive play. He had a great stick. He’s a tall, lanky guy that has tremendous range. He has an excellent shot, and also he moves the puck very well. He’s a very good defenceman, and I’m just disappointed that he got a bit banged up, but once he comes back, I’m expecting big things from him.
JG: Has he put on some weight?
TN: Yes, I think he put on about five pounds, five pounds of muscle. His body fat stayed the same, which is good. He’s in good shape, and I think it’s just a matter of time. Once he keeps on growing and develops into a man, he’s going to continue to gain some weight with muscle, but he looks extremely good.
*** My thoughts***… Marincin’s biggest issue is his strength. Will he be strong enough to play in the NHL. Last year was a wasted year for him. He didn’t get the proper diet or training in the summer and didn’t show much, if any, improvement in his overall strength. Scouts have told me they feel he’s got "something," that makes them believe he could be an NHLer, but everyone of them is concerned if he can become strong enough. I’ll be monitoring his progress closely this year.
JG: Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn are in the league this year, Henrique and Larsson are in the New Jersey system, the Charlotte Checkers have Jeff Skinner and Faulk and many others on that deep Carolina farm team. There’s a lot of skill down in the league this year. Do you think having that influx of young talent changes at all how the game will be played in the American League?
TN: Like you mentioned, I think it’s going to be a lot more skilled. That’s pretty apparent, but from a coach’s standpoint, I’m not going to change anything with the way I coach. It’s definitely going to be a high‑end league. Having these players down here is going to raise the level. I think having these players down here is going to help make the younger prospects a lot better as well because they have to compete against better players. So I think it’s a positive situation for development for every team in the league. When you look at our team, from having our guys practice against guys like Jordan and Ryan and Justin, it’s only going to make them a lot better hockey players. So we’re very excited about that. Obviously we want the NHL to resume playing, but right now it’s not happening, so we’re going to make the best of it and try to make our players better.
JG: Jordan Eberle mentioned how he was hoping to get some penalty killing time. He said the one aspect of his game he wants to work on the most is improving his defensive side of the game. How will you work on that with him, and will you use him on the PK?
TN: Actually, I talked to both him and Ryan today, and I was talking to them about just ice time in general. I said ‘look, I would love to play you guys 25 to 28 minutes a game, but I have other players I have to develop as well.’ They understand that. They’re good people, and they’re just happy to be here playing hockey and being part of a team.
Regarding the penalty killing aspect, I talked to both of them. I told Jordon there’s guys that have roles on this team and I’m going to spot him in on certain penalty‑killing situations. Both players mentioned there are things that they have to work on. Jordan mentioned his defensive game. So did Nugent‑Hopkins and he also mentioned needing to work on draws. So there’s certain little things that they want to work on down here, which I think is fantastic. I think as a coaching staff, what we have to do is help them work on those situations and through videotape and going through things in practice, that’s where we can correct some things and help them out with this.
*** My thoughts***… This illustrates why those two will be solid NHLers. Some wondered if Eberle or RNH would be disappointed having to play in the AHL, and of course they aren’t. I wrote earlier how Jason Spezza benefitted from his 2004/2005 AHL stint due to the lockout, and I expect Eberle and RNH will be even better because of this opportunity. It’s also nice to see that Nelson, and hopefully the entire organization, realize that the development of Pitlick, Lander, Hartikainen, Paajarvi is even more important. The Oilers need at least two of those guys to become regular NHlers.
JG: Todd, last time we spoke, you mentioned you’re going to use Justin Schultz on the point on the power play and Nugent‑Hopkins on the side boards and then Eberle. Who will take up the other two spots on the PP?
TN: Well, once again we have options. Hartikainen comes to mind at the front of the net, as well as Josh Green. On the goal line, we have an option with Magnus Paajarvi. We’ll just see what fits. Since it’s a development league, I believe in having two power play units, and so there are options with the second unit as well. I’m going to start with putting Harti in front because he did a pretty good job for us last year. Josh Green or Magnus Paajarvi can be down on the goal line. I think they’re both interchangeable.
JG: How many guys do you plan to keep on the roster? Will you have a 23‑man roster, or will you expand it?
TN: In the American League, you can keep as many as you want, which is nice for this situation. Usually we keep about 23. This year, I think we might end up keeping 24, 25, depending on the situation. I think after training camp we have to see what the best step is for each individual. Is it more beneficial for a player to be staying here, practicing with us, and being in the lineup one night, out of the lineup the next night?
Or option B, is maybe going to Stockton and playing tons of minutes and getting their confidence. So I think for each player on the bubble like that there’s a different scenario, and I think as an organization we have to see what the best fit is. We’ll probably discuss that as camp keeps on going on here.
- After their two pre-season games the Barons made a few roster moves. They released D-man Trevor Ludwig and forward Justin Maylan and Eric Hunter from their tryout agreements. Hunter played in Erie of the AHL last year, before spending four years with the U of A Bears. He likely would have lasted longer if there was no lockout.
- Goalie Tyler Bunz was assigned to Stockton in the ECHL over the weekend. He’ll be the main starter and next year he’ll likely battle Olivier Roy for a spot in OKC.
- The Barons assigned Phil Cornet, Tony Rajala and Teigan Zahn to Stockton today. That leaves them with 26 players in camp. They start the regular season this Friday.
- In case you were wondering why Eberle and RNH didn’t play in either exhibition game this past weekend, it’s because the team didn’t see the need for it. They were no reason for them to play. They’ll be ready to go Friday.
- Do we need to change our attitude about hockey in Canada? I think we do. Read here.