|1||* – Abbotsford Heat||50||31||15||3||1||66||0.660||156||136||0-1-0-0||6-2-2-0||5-1||604|
|2||* – Grand Rapids Griffins||49||30||15||2||2||64||0.653||163||123||1-0-0-0||4-5-1-0||2-2||653|
|3||* – Toronto Marlies||48||28||16||2||2||60||0.625||139||127||0-1-0-0||5-5-0-0||4-2||904|
|11||Oklahoma City Barons||49||21||22||1||5||48||0.490||148||169||5-0-0-0||7-3-0-0||1-5||817|
|13||San Antonio Rampage||48||19||21||3||5||46||0.479||134||151||4-0-2-2||5-1-2-2||7-5||729|
|14||Lake Erie Monsters||47||20||23||0||4||44||0.468||121||148||0-2-0-0||3-6-0-1||4-4||1012|
While the Oilers are on their Olympic break, the OKC Barons have won five straight to get themselves back in the playoff race. I caught up with head coach Todd Nelson to get an update on his team, but mainly we discussed how some individual players have been performing.
We chatted about Anton Lander, Oscar Klefbom, Tyler Pitlick, Taylor Fedun and others. I added my own thoughts in italics.
Gregor: Anton Lander has been averaging just over a point a game for you, how is his overall game developing?
Nelson: He’s been excellent. He’s been playing a good two-way game. He’s providing some offence for us and he’s just been doing a bit of everything; killing penalties, on the power play and he’s playing with a lot of confidence. I like the way that he is approaching every game, he’s very businesslike and he’s been producing for us and hopefully that continues. I think that he’s come a long ways and I think that this year is the year where we are seeing some of the offensive talent that he has.
Gregor: He is wearing the “C”. When he was drafted he had the reputation of being a very good leader. Has his game improved since he’s had the added responsibility of being the captain?
Nelson: I think that it comes naturally to him. I think that some people maybe that’s a hindrance, but for him he’s been a leader before on different teams and I think that if anything it’s given him more confidence because he was voted in by his peers. I don’t see that every hindering him in the future, I think that he’s a natural leader that feels very comfortable with the role.
The thing about Anton is that he holds himself accountable first and then he holds everyone else accountable. So he’s very good at that and he’s vocal when he needs to be but right now his play on the ice, doing the talking and the guys have been following.
Gregor: His foot speed might be the only thing holding him back from being a regular NHLer at this point. Is this the closest he’s ever been to looking like a regular NHLer?
Nelson: Yeah I think so. I think the biggest thing with him is that when he does get the call he has to translate the game that he has here in the American League to the National League. He’s always working on his foot speed here in practice, that’s always something that he’s very aware of. He’s doing the extra work after practice to try to get his foot speed up. But along with that though, he’s playing a lot smarter game; off of the rush he’s finding good ice. He’s able to gain the blue line and make some plays so he’s come long ways with that as well versus maybe a couple of years ago just rushing the puck in a straight line where the defenceman has a good gap on him and he just couldn’t find the blue line. Now he’s finding good ice and just playing a smarter game. He’s a guy that if he keeps on continuing playing like this, he’s going to have a very good opportunity to be in the National Hockey League for a very long time.
Gregor: His competitive fire is one thing that has always impressed me. You can’t coach that, but does he try to extend that attitude to his teammates?
Nelson: Yeah exactly, because he’s very competitive. On the bench you can hear him if things aren’t going right. He wants to make sure once again that he holds himself accountable, but then everyone else. He doesn’t settle for anything that doesn’t go our way. He’s not a guy that’s going to go out and drop the gloves every game, but he’s a guy that competes hard in the corners, he’s not intimated by any means. Like I say, he’s playing a good two-way game right now and I think the other players see that and that’s why he was voted captain.
***Next year will be five years since Lander was drafted, and that is usually when you get an accurate gauge on players who were drafted in the 2nd round or later. Lander has 32 points in 31 games this year. He’s playing in every situation and he’s excelling. It is good to see him producing offensively, because if he continues to develop he could have a good chance of being a solid 3rd line C with some offensive upside. Boyd Gordon is great defensively and in the faceoff circle, but he doesn’t generate much offensively. Over the next few years, if the Oilers become competitive then Gordon is on your fourth line. Lander is the only centre in the organization that I see who has a shot to be a 3rd line centre. Next year he could start as the 4th line C, and hopefully challenge Gordon for the #3 spot.**
Gregor: Everybody in Edmonton wants to know about Oscar Klefbom. Can you update us on his play?
Nelson: He’s been playing really solid. I think that he’s been playing his best hockey since he’s come off of that injury. He’s put together a string of games where he’s been very consistent. He’s playing with confidence now, he’s winning loose puck battles in the corners, he’s very strong in those areas but the thing that I think that he has improved the most is his puck moving ability. He is playing a lot more confidently, he’s making good decisions, he’s finding options and they’re the right options. He’s definitely turning into the player that everyone thought that he was going to be. So long as he keeps that consistency up, he’s going to be fine.
Gregor: He’s another young player who had to get used to the North American style of play and also was injured. What specifically do you see in his game that you feel that is going to make him a good NHLer?
Nelson: I think that just his play on the walls and in the corners. Any time that there is a one-on-one battle, he wins it. He is very strong in those areas. Everybody is looking for a defenceman who can win those loose puck battles in the corner, maybe kill the cycle and then go and transition the puck up ice. So that’s the one thing that really impresses me.
Another thing is that it doesn’t matter how much we play him, he never gets tired. His conditioning is fantastic. I think he just changes because everyone else changes. He probably could play the whole game and he plays at a high tempo as well. He doesn’t tire, he has great stamina and he’s just a horse for us. We could play him for 30 minutes and he wouldn’t even blink an eye. All of the things that I just mentioned will help him with his career, but the biggest thing is from the start of the year is that he is moving the puck a lot smarter and a lot better. He’s making better decisions like that.
Gregor: Was that coaching or him getting more comfortable?
Nelson: I think that it’s a bit of both. I think that through video, he’s very much a student of the game, where he wants a lot of information. It was a rough go at the start of the year. It was a situation where as you mentioned, he missed all of last year basically and he got off to a bit of a rough start but that’s normal for any young defenceman, especially coming over from Europe. We’re seeing similar transition that we saw in Marty Marincin last year where this time of year was where Marty was playing his best hockey. Maybe it took him three months to adjust with his decision making process and we’re seeing the same thing with Oscar.
We have to develop and coach our players but also with that, when he’s doing the right things out there, he’s’ getting more confidence. I think that that works hand-in-hand, when you are playing good hockey, you’re playing more confident. He looks very comfortable out there. He controls the play, he’s able to make the right decisions and like I say, he’s very strong in the corners.
***I’m a big fan of Klefbom, and I loved hearing what Nelson said about his ability to win battles in the corners and that he can play a lot of minutes. The Oilers desperately need a D-man with his size and skill. I think he will pass Marincin on the depth chart, mainly because of his strength. The Oilers don’t need to rush him, but I think he’ll make a strong push to be on the team next year. It wouldn’t be ideal to have Marincin and Klefbom as two of your three left D-men, but it might happen. I’ve sensed some impatience amongst some fans and media with Klefbom’s development, but after missing most of last season with an injury and parts of this year, I think he is developing nicely. He is exactly what this team needs in the next few years; a big, strong, steady D-man who can move the puck and play big minutes.***
Gregor: A lot of fans in Edmonton felt like Fedun would be a better option than some of the guys currently in Edmonton. How has he played since going down?
Nelson: He’s been playing pretty well. I still think that there is more to give because I have seen more out of him. I think that within the last month, I don’t know if it’s the time of year, but I think that he was playing his best hockey just before Christmas and he needs to find that again. He’ll get back to that point; he’s been very good for us. But the type of player that Taylor Fedun is, I think that he’s able to maybe give just a little bit more. We’re going to be able to see that down the stretch here because he’s another guy that’s pretty competitive. I think that he’s not right at the top of his game, but he’s pretty darned close.
Gregor: What will he need to do to get to the top of his game?
Nelson: I think that the biggest thing with Taylor is battling in the corners. I saw the game that he played in Florida and he was losing puck battles on the walls and I think that’s something that he just has to get stronger and once he matures, he will get stronger on the walls. But other than that, that’s the only thing that sticks out in my mind. Obviously skating is something that everybody can improve on, but with Taylor he’s a very smart player. With his mind, his hockey sense is his greatest attribute. I think that just the wall battles and also just working on his skating.
***It is hard not to cheer for Fedun after he broke his leg a few years ago. He’ll need to get stronger and quicker if he wants to be a regular NHLer. He has the smarts to play, but very few small defenders, who aren’t offensive, stay in the NHL. He’ll need to add some strength over the summer.***
Gregor: Todd can you update us on Tyler Pitlick?
Nelson: Yeah, Tyler didn’t play the last few games because he tweaked his knee against Toronto. But he skated with us today. We’re expecting to have him back in the lineup this weekend. He’s been playing well, he’s been a plus player the last few games, he’s been producing goals and assists and he’s another player who is playing with a lot of confidence right now. He knows that if something does happen up top, if there are injuries, then he has to get ready. He has been playing very well.
***It is hard to get a read on Pitlick because he is always hurt. If he can stay healthy, I think he’ll be a player, but right now that is a big if.***
Gregor: I know Brandon Davidson did not get off to the start that he wanted, is his game starting to come around?
Nelson: He had a tough go the first three months and now we’re seeing improvement in his play and he’s back to where he was at the end of last year; he’s playing steady hockey. A lot of things that these young defencemen go through is centred around confidence. I think that with Brandon at the start of the year things didn’t go his way so you lose your confidence and also you start to struggle, but I think that he’s playing probably the best hockey that he’s played all year. He’s steady and he’s once again making smart decisions and he’s winning battles in the corner. With him, I think that he’s much more improved than he was at the start of the year, so that’s a good sign for us.
Gregor: How has Travis Ewanyk’s rookie season going?
Nelson: He’s playing a regular shift. He’s slotted in the PK once in a while; he handles that role pretty well. If there is any kind of spark that we need, he provides that. He’s starting to get it, and what I mean by that is our system. He was way off our system earlier in the year but now he’s starting to figure it out. That was very evident against Toronto; he played a very good game positionally. And that’s the biggest thing with Travis is just to get him into the right spots, and he’s starting to get it. It’s always going to be something that we work on with a young player like that. It is constant maintenance and teaching but we’re seeing some improvement in the thought process.
At the start of the year I felt that it was a situation where he was a bit lost out there, but he’s definitely improved and right now I feel very comfortable with Travis wanting to play up against any line on the other team. If they’re up against the first line, I have confidence in him that he can get the job done. It seems like this time of year for the first year players that they get more confidence after New Year’s and they start playing a lot better.
Gregor: Can you elaborate a little bit on the ‘not understanding the system’. Is it hockey sense; is it just the pace of the game where they are not reacting properly, what is it? Not with Ewanyk specifically, but young players in general, what is the hardest thing for them to grasp?
Nelson: Ah… you know what; we play two man pressure here. A lot of the players we get always play a one man pressure system if it’s a 1-2-2 or a trap, but we’re playing two man pressure and when we play it well it’s very effective. The whole thing is that it’s trust within your teammates and I think for young players coming in, if they’re not used to that sort of system they have to fail, and then once they play it well they see that good things happen, and then they have confidence in it.
That’s what we saw from Travis, I think that it was just a situation that if he was our high F3, his reads just weren’t consistently correct at the start of the year. Now he’s getting a lot better; he understands that if the puck is chipped by our pinching defenceman that he has to be our safety valve. Where at the start of the year he would just kind of watch the pinching D and then all of the sudden the guy would come off of his back and that would lead to an odd man rush against.
So it’s just reading situations in the D zone down low, because he is a centreman. He’ll be our F1 down low. You need to be working with the defence and everybody has to work together in that area because when you’re playing against creative players you have different reads you have to make. Also, off of the rush if he’s back checking hard he has to talk and communicate with our defencemen.
So all of these little things, it’s just the reads and once again it’s constant teaching from both me, Gerry [Fleming] and Rocky [Thompson] and it’s one of those things that you have to be patient with and just teach through video, and also we have to teach during the game. After a shift you have to point out things and we have to be careful that we are not over coaching because no player wants to hear what they did wrong every shift that they are out there. We have to have good communication with the player and Travis is a guy that, he may have to fail 25 times before he gets it, but now he’s starting to get it and he’s playing some pretty good hockey for us.
***Nelson did an excellent job outlining the struggles of most young players. Learning a new system isn’t as easy as many think. It takes a lot of time, and usually a lot of minutes and opportunities to play the system before players feel comfortable with it. Ewanyk plays with an edge and he isn’t afraid to stir things up. I expect he’ll get more icetime next season, and if he continues to develop he could be a 4th line, energy centre down the road.***
Gregor: Quickly update us on two young defencemen; David Musil and Martin Gernat.
Nelson: They’re coming along. I’m happy with their progress. David Musil, I think that everybody knows he has to work on his foot speed. He knows that. Some of his biggest strengths are that he is just really strong in the corners. I think that he is our heaviest defenceman. Him and Oscar, they play together, they are both heavy defencemen that play well in the corners. They do a great job on the PK. So David is progressing nicely.
As for Marty Gernat, he’s another first year player that is getting more comfortable with the speed of the game. He understands that he has to be intense every shift he’s out there. If he’s not intense he gets exposed and that’s a trait that Marty Gernat has, that sometimes he’s a bit lackadaisical out there and he’s understanding quickly that in the pro game you can’t take any shifts off.
They’re both coming along nicely and hopefully that continues.
***I’m not sure either one of these guys will play in Edmonton. The Oilers have too many other young D-men, and there isn’t room for all of them to play. If Musil can improve his skating he has a chance to be a heavy 3rd pairing D-man, because he can moves the puck well enough.***
- Marc Arcobello has seven points in three games since being sent to OKC. Even though he isn’t eligible to play games in the AHL during the Olympic break, it was still the right decision to send him down. He needed to be playing and the Barons needed wins. I’m not sold that he can be a productive 2nd line centre, so I’d rather see him keep playing than sitting in the press box in Edmonton.
- What a great first day at the Olympics for Canada. I watched Mark McMorris with a bronze and then I was on the edge of my couch watching the Dufour-Lapointe sisters in moguls. The odds of three siblings finishing in the top-12 of an Olympic event has to be more than 10 million to 1, but they did it, and then for Justine and Chloe to finish 1st and 2nd made it that much sweeter.
I remember how cool it was when I got to play hockey with my older brother for the first time. He was a better player than me, and I looked up to him, so just playing men’s league together was a rush. I can’t imagine how those sisters felt. I got chocked up watching them on the podium. It was an awesome moment and just another example of why I love the Olympics.
- Roberto Luongo is starting the first game vs. Norway on Thursday and then Carey Price starts Friday vs. Austria. Mike Babcock must already have a pretty good idea who he wants to start against Finland on Sunday. I don’t see how he will be able to evaluate his goaltenders against Norway and Austria. Unless one of them allows a horrific goal, I don’t see how he could possibly get a good read on his goalies based on how they fare against two grossly overmatched teams.
- I love hockey, but winning a gold medal in skiing, speed skating, moguls and other sports at the Olympics is more difficult because you are competing against the world. There are really only six competitive nations in Men’s hockey and only two in Women’s. Yet, we treat the hockey medals like they are more valuable. It would be great if we valued all medals equally.
- Free agency starts tomorrow in the CFL. Here is who I think the Eskimos will be targeting and why the CFLPA needs to do a better job promoting its players.
- Graham Bell is one crazy SOB. This is outstanding. Imagine if they made this a sport…Video Ski Racing.