For the second consecutive season the Oilers American Hockey League affiliate, OKC Barons are in the 3rd round of the AHL playoffs. The Barons lead the Red Wings farm team, Grand Rapids Griffins 2-1, with game four tomorrow night in OKC. Earlier today Todd Nelson joined Robin Brownlee and I on my radio show to get an update on his team and specifically the play of Tyler Pitlick, Teemu Hartikainen, Taylor Fedun, Martin Marincin, Toni Rajala, Marc Arcobello and Ben Eager.
Gregor: How has Ben Eager played?
Todd Nelson: I think that we’re seeing Benny’s best hockey of the year. He took it to a whole new level for playoffs. He has playoff experience from winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago, and he brings that experience to our hockey club and you can just see how he ramped up his play.
He was very involved last night. He scored a nice goal to get us off to the races and then he came to the aid of one of our players and he did a good job with that. I’m really happy with how he’s playing. He’s doing a tremendous job on the forecheck. As you know he has good skating ability, where he can close the distance really quick, and also he plays physical. So right now I definitely like the way that he’s playing because when Benny is on the ice, Grand Rapids are definitely looking over their shoulder.
Brownlee: We’ve seen better players than Ben Eager have their careers end because they just lost the edge, or the desire or the drive or circumstances didn’t go their way. I was wondering if that was the case with him, or is he now a guy who’s saying with his actions ‘I’m not finished.’?
TN: Yeah for sure. First off, his attitude has been great since he first got here. Off the start, I think it was a bit rough for him, because we had so many veterans where I was rotating him and Hordichuk out of the lineup. It’s kind of tough to play in that situation. But now he seems to be in a groove and he definitely has the fire in his eye; he wants to see us win a championship. He was part of one; he knows how special it was. I was talking to him just the other day, and he said this feels like when I was in Chicago.
So he feels good, he feels very good about what’s going on here and you can just tell by the way that he’s playing that he’s energized, he’s playing with passion, and that’s great to see because he’s doing a great job for us and hopefully that continues.
Gregor: One player who could have an impact with the Oilers next year is Teemu Hartikainen. Is consistency still the biggest concern with him? Have you had a conversation with Hartikainen, is he the kind of guy you need to light a fire under every now and then?
TN: [laughs] Actually I have plenty of conversations with Harty. He’s one of those guys that has to be pushed once in a while, and all you have to do is get in his ear. Before the Grand Rapids series I told him, ‘look Harty you have a whole other gear that you’ve got to give me here as we start the series.’ And he said okay and he’s done that.
He’s a guy that has to be prodded a bit but he also responds. He’s a very proud hockey player. I think that in this series he’s been very effective and if that continues we have a good chance. He does such a good job for us down low, he’s hard to play against, he wears other teams down, but like you said, he needs to be consistent. I need to have a conversation with him just to see where he’s at, to prod him, but he’s good for us.
He has been pretty consistent and we want to see him be consistent because given the opportunity up top, he has to be consistent there and quite frankly he wasn’t he was on and off. So he has to learn to do that at the higher level, but right now he’s been doing a pretty good job of that here.
Brownlee: Todd, you talk about being in his ear, he’s clearly a young man with a lot of potential. He has size, he has nice hands, and he can cycle the puck. Aside from the talks you have with him, do you have any veterans in that room who have taken the time to pull him aside and do what you’re talking about and maybe impress upon him that he can play in the National Hockey League is he plays to his strengths on a nightly basis?
TN: Yeah for sure, besides [Jonathan] Cheechoo and Josh Green, they are always trying to lead by example, also being vocal in those situations. A guy like Darcy Hordichuk,a guy who hasn’t played a whole lot in the playoffs, he’s played three games, but he cares just as much as anybody else about how this team does. It speaks volumes for both Benny and Hordi to come with great attitudes. Hordi knows that he’s not in the lineup now, but he goes around to a lot of guys. He’ll get to Tyler Pitlick, he’ll talk to Hartis, and he’ll say, ‘look this is what you have to do to be effective.’ And he says, ‘you know what, life’s tough in the minors and if you don’t do these things that I’ve asked, then you guys will be stuck here.’
It’s great having those veteran guys that who can echo what you’re saying as a coach, and I think that coming from your teammate that it definitely does have impact. So Hordi has been doing a great job helping out the younger guys.
Gregor: Let’s talk about a few of those other young guys. How has Tyler Pitlick’s game developed?
TN: He’s been very strong, very strong. I’m happy with the way that he’s been playing. He’s finishing checks, and if he’s not finishing checks, he’s first on loose pucks. Right now with the way that he has been playing, he’s extremely hard to play against. He’s been playing with Josh Green and Chris VandeVelde, a pretty heavy line. They started the last couple of games and they did not fail me. They’ve been getting pucks in deep, they’ve been playing physically.
But Tyler’s really amped up his game. Tyler could have had three points last night. He had opportunities, the goalie made some good saves, but he’s playing the way that we want him to play. He’s just using his speed, and he’s using his physicality. He understands now, and he has to continue to understand, the more physical he plays, the better he does play and points will come.
Brownlee: Here you are, making another run deep into the playoffs, when the players file onto that ice they’re feeling successful, they’re feeling the pressure of the playoff series and what it takes to actually win, not just talk about it. How much value is there in that for these young prospects?
TN: I think that there is tremendous value, I really do. I think that if you become successful at one level, you’ll bring it to the next level. Having our guys go through what they went through last year, we have that experience now. We were in the same position as we were last year and we want to take it further. And the guys understand that. I think that it’s very valuable to go through this because quite frankly if you’re not winning in the minors, when you get called up to the big club, how do you expect to be able to help the big club win? I’m a firm believer of that and the guys are all relishing the challenge.
Last year it was uncharted territory for a lot of our guys, but now when you watch our guys practise and the way that they conduct themselves in the room, it’s just like another day in the office and they say to themselves ‘well we’re playing tonight, we might as well win.’ They have a great attitude and they’re learning so much. Right now it’s fun, obviously when you’re winning games it is fun, but as you mentioned there’s pressure in the games and the guys are learning how to cope with that.
I was really proud of the guys in the first series against Charlotte. We’re down 2 games to 1 and we’re playing in their building and we had to win the next 2 games to survive. The message was we can’t be afraid of dying here; we have to go after this. If you’re afraid to lose, you’re definitely going to lose. You’ve got to want to win, and you can’t be afraid to lose. So leave it all on the line. If you’re going to make mistakes, make them big, and the guys responded.
They went out there and played, they played loose and they had a great two games. The guys learned from that. Every time that we’ve faced adversity the guys have overcome it. I’m very proud of the guys and that has to continue because we’re definitely going to face adversity in the next week or so.
Gregor: I’m not sure if Rajala fits in Edmonton because of how many young, skilled guys they have, but where do you see him and [Mark] Arcobello going? Are these two young players who are emerging and developing into players who could be NHL players down the road?
TN: Well I’ll tell you one thing; I wouldn’t give up on them. Both guys are improving as we speak. I’ll have to get on Toni for the game [Wednesday] night because he wasn’t on the scoresheet, (laughs). That was the first time, I think, in the whole playoffs that he hasn’t generated a point. He’s played great.
The thing is that those guys are progressing nicely. They’re skilled guys, and as you know, smaller players can play in the National Hockey League now. I would not write these guys off, I’m telling you. It’s only Toni’s first year over here, playing in the American Hockey League. I feel that he’s going to get better and stronger.
Arcobello has improved since the first season. He started in Stockton, and came to us at the end of the year. Last year he had a great season, and this year he’s followed up with a banner season. With the way that Edmonton’s built, it may not be the right fit, but there are other teams that are looking. Both guys are playing well, I’m very happy with the way that they’re progressing and once again, that has to continue.
Gregor: Todd, on the back end you’ve got Taylor Fedun who’s a little bit older, coming off of a broken leg and I know that earlier in the year you said that his foot speed was a little bit of an issue. He’s played well, and you’ve got young Martin Marincin, a highly touted draft pick who is just getting stronger and starting to develop. Do you think that either one or them is ready for a serious shot at the NHL next year or do they need more AHL seasoning?
TN: Well, first off, they’re both playing great. I think they’re contributing offensively and they’re playing well defensively. We have them paired up together. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing against the other team’s top line, they do a great job. I think that moving forward to next year that if they progress and continue to get stronger over the summer, I think that there is an opportunity in Edmonton. I’m not saying they stick up there, but they can definitely have their share of games if they keep developing the way that they are. But I like the progression of them and once again it’s only their first year, but the way that they’ve come along is promising.
They are two guys that had 30 points apiece, and didn’t play for the first part of the season, so that’s pretty impressive for two young defencemen. They’ve been having a good playoff run here.
Marty Marincin has been very consistent as of late. He’s definitely learning as we go along. Same thing with Taylor Fedun, he’s moving his feet well, he’s back to where I think that he was at training camp a couple of years back.
If the opportunity does arise, these guys are getting ready for that opportunity and they are very excited about the way that things are going.
Brownlee: Todd, who if anybody from the organization is tracking you through the playoffs, and have you had a chance to talk to Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe and get some feedback based on what they or other organizational people have seen through the playoffs to this point?
TN: Well right now, throughout the rounds, we have someone representing the organization up at every game. On the road we might have a couple of pro scouts. We have Rick Olczyk down here as we speak, Craig MacTavish has been in contact with us, and actually he’s been pretty busy with the combine and the World Championships and all of those things and he made the comment to me that was pretty funny. He said, ‘I’d love to come and watch you guys play, but I don’t want to mess anything up!’ He’s definitely keeping tabs; he’s very excited about the way that things are going.
There is always a representative here at every game. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the road or at home and if we keep on progressing the way we are, and if we end the series the way that we want I think that we will get a lot more attention from a lot of different people up in Edmonton.
Gregor: Do you have an update on Tanner House after last nights’ play?
TN: Well Tanner House got hit hard. I think that it was a cheap hit; it was a blow to the head. He was concussed, he was knocked out for 5-10 minutes. He came to, went to the hospital and got checked out. There were no other injuries, just a concussion. I talked to him today; he looks great and says he feels good. His jaw is a bit sore but he is doing pretty well. I think that he’s just a little bummed out that he’s got to go through the protocol for concussions. But the thing is that he looks good and everything and coherent and all of those things, just a matter of going through protocol with this concussion thing.
- I wonder if a good playoff run will earn Eager another look with the Oilers? His play on the ice and his advanced stats were horrendous in Edmonton last season, but I don’t see the Oilers buying him out. I suspect he’ll be back at camp, and he will have to battle for a spot.
- If I’m the Oilers I keep Fedun and Marincin in the AHL for another season, and I only bring them up in case of an injury. Both need to keep developing and I don’t believe it makes much sense to add more youth to the roster next year.
- While it is nice to hear that Hartikainen responds when the coach prods him, however, if he’s going to be a regular in the NHL he’ll need to be self-motivated. Very few coaches have the time or interest in constantly "talking" to a player about giving their best effort. Hartikainen needs to find that on his own.
- In theory it makes sense for the Oilers to bring in a veteran coach, but if it is a former head coach I think the Oilers are adding more drama to their room. They’d be better off to bring in a veteran assistant coach. He’ll have just as much experience, but he won’t have the head coach persona.
It took less than four days to sell out our 3rd annual Ultimate Sports Fan Package, and in doing so we raised $10,000 for MS. A huge thank you to those you bid and to all the sponsors who donated the great prizes.
This year’s winner will get the following: Valued at over $6,000.00
- A pair of tickets to the Oilers home opener in October.
- A pair of Edmonton Eskimos season tickets.
- A beer fridge and beer for a year from Big Rock Brewery.
- A signed Jeremy Roenick stick. It is a brand new, he only used it twice.
- $500 at vivo ristorante. Every good sports fan needs a good pregame meal.
- 20 tickets to Oil Kings opening night game, and you will get an Oil King of your choice to come to your backyard rink or minor hockey practice for an hour. (Player on the roster on November 1st).
- A pair of Edmonton Rush season tickets.
- You and five of your friends will tee it up at The Ranch Golf and County Club with Meg Storms and Mark Spector and you’ll go in style in a Blue Sky Limo.
- $1,000 in cash from The Jason Gregor Show.
We will do a reverse draw live on my show next Thursday. Good luck and thanks for getting involved.