Under head coach Todd Nelson, the Oklahoma City Barons have been a consistently competitive club in the American Hockey League. However, many of the Edmonton Oilers’ young prospects have struggled to make the jump to the professional level. Is Nelson finding the right balance between winning and developing players?
A few weeks back, Nelson was asked a question along this line during an appearance on Oilers Now. Here’s what he told host Bob Stauffer:
It’s a very delicate balance, Bob. One form of development is just the player himself, physically, learning the pro game, just trying to manage his life as a pro. The second part of it is, I think having success is a form of development. I think you have to balance it, you can’t go after wins all the time, of course everybody wants to win. In our case this year we never really dressed in our eyes at the time over the course of the season our strongest lineup every night. We had certain players that didn’t deserve to come out but we had to get players in so they could develop. Besides the skill development and learning the pro game, I think winning’s a form of it as well. Let’s face it, if we go into a situation where we’re losing a lot here, and a player’s good enough to play in the NHL, how’s he going to bring that winning attitude to the big club?
The Rookie Pros
How well have graduating forwards done under Nelson? To try and answer that question I’ve turned to Gabriel Desjardins’ NHL equivalencies. I’ve taken the points per game performance from each of Nelson’s first-year pros, projected it to the NHL, than projected it back to the AHL. The “Expected” column shows how many points we should have expected each player to score given the number of AHL games they’ve played; the “Percent” column shows how close they came to meeting that mark.
The picture painted is bleak, but I think it tends to overstate things (I’m also a little worried about survivorship bias – NHL projections are based on the players that make the jump from a league to the NHL, which suggests that on the whole they’re better than the group that jumps to the AHL).
Of the players on this list, I think there can’t be much in the way of complaint about anybody over the 80% mark. That’s a very strong group of first-year AHL’ers (and Kristians Pelss). Additionally, I’d suggest that defensive forwards like Tanner House and Chris VandeVelde likely scored the way they did due to situational usage – as older players on a college team, they were placed in offensive situations that they simply don’t have the ability to play at the professional level.
The most concerning group on this list are the major junior forwards. Aside from Kristians Pelss (who didn’t play that many games), every junior age forward Nelson has taken as a rookie pro has struggled early on – and most have found themselves consigned to depth roles. Milan Kytnar and Philippe Cornet fit this description, but the poster boys are Ryan Martindale, Curtis Hamilton and Tyler Pitlick – all reasonably high draft picks, all major scoring options in junior, all profound disappointments early in their professional careers.
Should that be placed at Nelson’s feet? To some extent, probably. However, Ryan Martindale wasn’t much better in the ECHL than he was in the AHL (and it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t given opportunities in AA hockey). Milan Kytnar is playing in the KHL and isn’t scoring any better than he did in the AHL. Cornet has emerged as a scorer but Pitlick and Hamilton haven’t been any better in year two than they were in year one – and it’s hard to blame Nelson when guys like Rajala and Cornet are blowing past them offensively. Both Cornet and Rajala started in the ECHL, both played their way into a spot on the Barons and then played their way into offensive minutes.
Looking at this list of players, I tend to think that Nelson could perhaps place more of a premium on getting minutes to Oilers draft picks than he does. With that said I come away thinking that by far the lion’s share of the blame for the Oilers’ poorly developing prospects lies with the players themselves; if Pitlick and Martindale and Hamilton want to play NHL hockey, they have to start by playing better AHL hockey than Philippe Cornet.
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Recently around the Nation Network
With Toronto’s first playoff run in ages over, it’s time to assess the club and make decisions on returning players. Over at Leafs Nation, Cam Charron argues that Tyler Bozak should have played his last game as a Maple Leaf, because Phil Kessel plays just fine without him:
Kessel’s point rates are similar, presumably because it wasn’t really until this year that he started generating a tonne of assists. But when somebody other than Bozak is setting him up, his scoring increases by 26%.
Click the link above to read the whole piece, or feel free check out some recent pieces here at Oilers Nation: