Farewell to Oklahoma City

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The Oklahoma City Barons played their final game last night, falling by a single goal in the seventh game of their second-round series against the Utica Comets. After five seasons, the Oilers will be sending their prospects to a new AHL team in Bakersfield starting next year.

The Barons represented a vital step forward for Edmonton, a part of the team’s maturation. It’s easy to forget now the cost-cutting measures of the EIG years and the casual shelving of the Oilers’ AHL affiliate; it’s almost as easy to forget what a disaster the team’s first crack at a minor-league team was.

A Brief History of Edmonton’s Recent AHL Teams

40-Dubnyk-14

We might as well start in the summer of 2004.

Edmonton’s AHL team, then known as the Roadrunners, was based out of Toronto at the time. However, the team’s lease was terminated after the company which ran the Roadrunners for the Oilers failed to meet rent payments.

Edmonton made the best of a bad situation, bringing the team to Alberta for 2004-05. When the entire NHL season was lost to a lockout the presence of the club (rebranded as the Road Runners) provided Oilers fans with professional hockey, albeit not NHL hockey. After one season, the team was disbanded, and a paragraph from one of Robin Brownlee’s pieces of the time nicely illuminates the situation:

Now, the AHL board will vote on approving suspension of the franchise, despite insistence by the Oilers in recent months they were committed to keeping the team here through next season.
“I’m not going to comment on it,” Road Runners GM Scott Howson said from Toronto. “Nothing’s going to be said today.”

The Oilers did suspend their AHL franchise, and for two seasons would loan their prospects out to the farm teams of other NHL clubs – Montreal and Dallas and Pittsburgh. Finally, in 2007-08, Edmonton reached an affiliation agreement with the Springfield Falcons to ensure their prospects had a single home with development as the prime objective.

It was a disaster. The Falcons went 84-118-38 over three seasons, employing three different coaches (Kelly Buchberger, Jeff Truitt and Rob Daum) over that span. There was no continuity behind the bench and there was no success on the ice.

Worst of all, there was no development. In 2006-07, the coaching tandem of Todd Richards and Dan Bylsma ran Pittsburgh’s farm team, which had a half-roster of Oilers players; in that one season they coached two skaters (Kyle Brodziak and Tom Gilbert) who would go on to have NHL careers of 200 games or more. In three seasons in Springfield, Edmonton produced just one player who would hit that mark; goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

For two years, the Edmonton Oilers irresponsibly farmed their prospects out to other organizations, leaving their development system in the hands of their rivals. For three years after that, they managed to make that system look preferable to having actual control of their own prospects. There are a lot of reasons the team’s rebuild has been so long and so ugly, and this incredible AHL incompetence certainly ranks among them.

Oklahoma City

Steve Tambellini

Steve Tambellini takes a lot of fire for his performance as Edmonton’s general manager, and deservedly so. But he was one of three men primarily responsible for repairing the Oilers’ broken AHL system. In his first year on the job, he saw an AHL affiliate installed in Oklahoma City, brought in veteran help for his prospects, and hired Todd Nelson to coach.

Todd Nelson

Nelson would go on to coach the team for nearly its entire five-year run, bringing stability to prospects who were used to seeing a revolving door of coaches. He’d leave part way through that fifth season, promoted to the NHL level, where his fine work continued.

(The third man is Daryl Katz. His ownership of the Oilers hasn’t been successful to date, but it’s not due to a lack of resources.)

The Barons went 202-132-50 over those five years, making the playoffs in each campaign and on two occasions making deep runs. The team’s most successful season was 2012-13, when the Barons fell in the third round to Detroit’s affiliate in Grand Rapids; Grand Rapids would go on to win the Calder Cup in the next round, with that seventh game against OKC the lone time in the 2013 playoffs that it faced the prospect of elimination.

How well did the team develop its prospects? It’s still a little early to say. Some players (most notably Colin McDonald) were salvaged in OKC after struggling badly in Springfield; others (like Mark Arcobello) came out of nowhere to play in the majors. Jeff Petry stands as the team’s most accomplished NHL’er so far, with Magnus Paajarvi also hitting the 200-game mark, but with many players like Oscar Klefbom, Anton Lander, Bogdan Yakimov, Martin Marincin still firmly in the mix it will take years before we can really assess how well the Barons did in that department.

What is clear is that from a hockey operations standpoint, Oklahoma City was where the Oilers stopped being embarrassingly bad at providing a home for their prospects. It’s where Edmonton figured out how to build an AHL team, where it found a coach with some staying power and where it finally had some success on the ice.

On a Personal Note

The Barons will always be a special team for me. My unbelievably supportive wife and I moved at our own expense to Oklahoma City in the fall of 2013 and stayed there until March 2014, covering each of the team’s home games. I’ve previously covered tournaments (such as the World Juniors) but this was the first time I had so much access to a professional team on a day-in, day-out basis.

Barons V.P. of Communications Josh Evans made the whole exercise possible; I wouldn’t have been able to cover the team without his support. My pressbox comrades, Mike Baldwin of The Oklahoman and Carter Baum of the Barons were unfailing helpful and provided invaluable assistance, especially given my own inexperience. I was really blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of the Barons’ staff, players and the front office personnel from both OKC and Edmonton during my time there.

I’ve leaned heavily on four people both before and since for my Barons news, and I’m going to miss their regular coverage of the team. Play-by-play man Jim Byers was a joy to listen to and a class act in person. Writers Patricia Teter, Neal Livingston and Eric Rodgers have kept me informed even from a distance and all offered helpful advice to a Canadian kid moving to an American city.

Of all the people I met in Oklahoma City, I learned the most from Todd Nelson. He was incredibly generous with his time and his knowledge, far more than I could have expected or hoped for, and I learned a lot as a result.

My deep thanks to everyone who made the experience so memorable, including many I’ve failed to mention by name here. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • BlazingSaitls

    Well it just happened. The euphoria from the past few weeks just got a gut check. I tuned into OilersNow to listen to some good hockey talk and instead of that all I heard was Drew Remenda drool, fawn, and spew McLellan worship.

    Excuse me, I have to go clean the puke from my mouth. *Edited- Don’t get me wrong. I am stoked on McLellan as much as the next guy but the thought of listening to Drew Remenda re-live his Sharks days endlessy, irks me. Yes we get it Drew, you covered Sharks for many years and are friends with McLellan-can we just get past that please?

    Ohhh, I better add something relevant to the subject at hand.
    Farewell OKC.

  • dougtheslug

    I start to get sweaty, restless and the rage starts to rise when I see the hopeless incompetence of the old regime documented so clearly and concisely. Why did I ever pay major league prices for what has been a minor league product for more than a decade.

    And then I remind myelf that every stupid decision, every hiring based on nepotism rather than merit, every lost season, has led us to this point: a competent front office, a veteran coach, and our personal lord and savior, blessed Connor. And I pause to give thanks to them all, Howson, Tambo, 6Rings, MacT. Thank you for this.

  • ubermiguel

    Lowe and Tambo both deserve credit for rebuilding a non-existent farm system. Moving the Road Runners for the lockout was a pretty smart move too; we got to see a few young Oilers keep playing and the EIG got a few bucks in their pocket. I recall Lowe saying the EIG didn’t want (couldn’t afford) a real farm system.

    Another piece of our lousy development system was the lousy scouting. What few spots we had on other teams or on bad teams we couldn’t fill with quality players.

    @Willis that wife of yours sounds like a keeper! Covering a pro-sports club for a whole season is a pretty cool job, even if only for one season.

  • I hope hockey makes its way back to OKC. Even if it’s a team affiliated with a rival NHL team, doesn’t matter. I will always be fan of OKC hockey because of the Barons. They will be missed.

  • Saazman

    “Of all the people I met in Oklahoma City, I learned the most from Todd Nelson. He was incredibly generous with his time and his knowledge, far more than I could have expected or hoped for, and I learned a lot as a result.”

    Nice post and a great comment! I have heard nothing but great things about this man and it seams like he may be the odd man out in Edmonton right now. I think it’s crazy that the coach had that big of an impact in your life. Well done Jonathan!

    • Nelson was really good to me. He was patient and even-keeled, even after disappointing losses, and he happily explained things when I objected. He made himself available for questions and interviews and just generally made my job much easier.

      From talking to his players on and off the record, the impression I get is that my experience with him was far from unique. Everybody I talked to stressed his ability and patience as a teacher and communicator; as far as I could tell he had the respect of his team to a man.

  • BorjeSalming-IanTurnbull

    The Cali situation will be great for development of the young Oilers. Bakersfield has a great fan base for hockey and the travel time for the team playing within California makes a lot of sense.

    I watched 40 odd games of the Barons and it was sad to see the crowd even for play-off games.

    I think the players will enjoy the short drive to Santa Maria to hit the beach……nice

    • lorne57

      Have you been to Bakersfield? It’s considered among the worst cities in America. Players commented they loved how OKC had a vibrant downtown with everything they entertainment needed in that downtown area. To now going to a city with Worst air quality in the country and have to make a 1 hour drive to get to anything worthwhile.

  • There is considerable value in covering a team and the people around it live and and in-person on a daily basis. You learn what makes the people you are writing about tick and you pick up nuances you cannot when writing from afar. Simply put, you get to know them.

    That doesn’t change the facts or the results, but it can lend context and puts something more than numbers to names and faces. That’s an edge for any writer.

  • TKB2677

    Here is hoping the new minor league team in the new west division that is supposed to play less games, practice more and be more about development will have less of the C.J Stretch, Brad Hunt, Matt Ford, Brad Winchester, Richard Backman’s who may help your minor league team win games but have no future in the NHL and take valuable time away from the real prospects. Maybe the Baron’s would not have gone as far but how does it help Brossoit’s development by sitting on the bench while career minor league goalie Bachman takes a lot of the starts. Brad Hunt is a hell of an AHL point producing Dman but does having him playing top 4 mins on all the special teams help the development of any of the Oilers prospect Dmen? How does playing 31yr old Matt Ford or 34 yr old Brad Winchester over say a Moroz help his development? Maybe those guys were playing better than Moroz but who cares Moroz is 21, still developing and may have a chance. Those 2 are never making it.

    • justDOit

      It’s a fine line between winning and development.

      What development will the prospects get, if they lose all the time, and never see the playoffs?

      Also, Brossoit’s playing time was probably perfect this year – he was too young to be thrown into a starting position in the AHL. Having a good goalie like Bachman to lead the way, I’m sure Brossoit picked up more than a thing or two from him.

      Next year will be Brossoit’s time, and Bachman might make a case for NHL backup out of training camp. He was brilliant in the playoffs.

    • pkam

      I guess the other article about Nurse answers your questions best. Should we put Nurse in NHL next season without proper mentor and shelter to develop if he is ready?

    • I’m not sure that’s true.

      Springfield took the ‘throw them to the wolves’ approach; in the first year seven of the team’s top-eight scorers were 23-or-younger and in the second year all eight hit that threshold. None of those players turned into NHL’ers, though naturally a lot of that has to do with the quality of the players themselves.

      There’s an obvious value in getting players ice time, but the more I look at this, the more I wonder if the benefits of increased ice time are outweighed by the negatives of advancing players before they were really ready.

      I don’t know if you can force things before they’re ready. There’s value in having heavy competition for ice time, value in having veterans to show the way and value in introducing these players to responsibility gradually.

    • pkam

      Its called “competition”. I’ll bet $250(I need my Mcdavid jersey) that making our prospects earn their spots motivates them more to be better players. The AHL may be a development league but it is still pro hockey so rushing them into AHL minutes is no different than rushing them in NHL minutes

  • CMG30

    I’m with Doug on this one. It really burns to think that bad decisions made by the EIG are STILL haunting this club. Good for Tambi as he rebuilt the farm system. If only he would have put as much effort into building the NHL franchise as he did with the farm system.

    We can talk about the Detroit model or the Chicago model till we’re blue in the face but the reality is that without a steady stream of cheap, competent talent forcing it’s way onto your roster a franchise has NO future.

    • lorne57

      EIG is the reason we still HAVE an NHL team in this town. They did the best they could with the financial resources they had. Bringing in an owner with deep pockets is what helped us get a farm system back on line.

      Comments like that really piss me off!

  • ubermiguel wrote:

    @Willis that wife of yours sounds like a keeper! Covering a pro-sports club for a whole season is a pretty cool job, even if only for one season.

    It’s fair to say I’d still be selling oilfield chemical if not for her. And as fun as that was, it’s nowhere near as fun as this.

  • Johnnydapunk

    Very nice article Mr Willis, Im always interested in the views from different perspectives and must have been an interesting time in Oklahoma City.

    I will give Katz credit in really building a solid foundation for the Oil to develop players and owning the minor league franchise is huge as it allows back room personnel as well as players develop in an organic way if that makes sense. With the new AHL setup, I’m hoping that players will develop a bit more as the league direction has changed a bit.

    I also do wonder if the OKC fans were also Oiler fans or how they viewed the Oil?

    If I may ask, do you plan to relocate to Bakersfield to cover the Falcons as well?

    Anyways it must be a bit of a bittersweet feeling as it can’t be nice to lose the team you support to another city.

  • TKB2677

    I agree you need to dress a few vets but I looked at who played all the playoff games for the Barons who are strictly AHL guys.

    Forwards:
    Williams,
    Winchester,
    Ford,
    Stretch (9 games),
    K. Jones,
    C. Jones,
    Winquist,

    That’s 7 guys, more than half of the forward roster devoted to pure AHLers. None of those guys are listed under the Oilers “In the System”.

    R. Hamilton, C. Hamilton and A. Miller all played 10 games and are the only guys that are listed as Oilers prospects. With R. Hamilton realistically being an AHLer. So in reality, only 2 Oilers prospects played all of the playoff games. There were other actual Oiler prospects that played various games.

    Playing 8 career AHL forwards in all the playoff games is way more than just sprinkling a few vets to help out the kids. Most of those guys would have been playing big minutes as well. That’s 1 player short of having 3 out of your lines of players that will probably never play in the NHL. R. Hamilton is the only guy that might play the odd game due to injury.

    • pkam

      Have you checked how many young Oilers forward prospects are in OKC and are not injured during the playoff?

      They even played the kids that came off the juniors playoff like Kyle Platzer and Greg Chase.

      And without those vets, the team was once leading the western conference in February, but were hit hard by injuries and almost fell out of the playoff. A few veterans were picked up during that stretch.

      As far as I know, Yakimov, Kessy, Ewanyk, and Pakarinen are all injured. Perhaps you can tell us who they didn’t play enough.

  • TKB2677

    I feel bad for the Barons die-hards. They’ve done everything to support them and to keep them there. I know people down there who have said that the news in the city haven’t anything to promote the team. I’ve had someone tell me that when the Barons were one game away from the AHL finals the news showed a 20 second clip. Imagine if the media in OKC bought into it…

  • Philosiphil

    Jonathan,

    Great piece. Hearing the story behind the story is always revealing. Some guys get all the luck – writing about pro hockey and a wife that gets it…:-)

    Quick question, speaking of prospects – I see Mitch Holmberg playing for the Sabres ECHL affiliate. Was he released, not signed, or traded? Did we miss a prospect similar to Tyler Johnson here?

    Both high scoring WHL players Johnson 115 pts in last Jr. year; Holmberg 118 pts both undrafted from Spokane Chiefs; similar in stature as well.

  • Canadian Hockey Fan

    Has anyone heard of any rumors of AHL teams moving to Canada. I know we have 3 right now, but it would be cool to see one in Saskatoon and either Abbotsford or Langley. I think each Canadian NHL city should have their AHL team in Canada. Only the Oilers, Sens, Canucks, and Flames don’t.

  • Assistant Captain

    Longtime reader, first time poster….

    *Holmberg’s rights were traded by OKC to Rochester in an AHL deal although Holmberg was with Bakersfield at the time and being used very sparingly.

    *AHL in Canada – Jets moved their club to Winnipeg but could be trying to move it to Thunder Bay if that arena project ever takes off. Saskatoon’s WHL team has new ownership so I suppose they could work on something. Most likely Vancouver moves their AHL team from Utica to Abbotsford after 2015-16 season.

    Longterm I’d say Canadian AHL expansion will depend on how well the California clubs do in the new West Division. If it fails to catch on, you could potentially see Edmonton put its team in Saskatoon or Fort McMurray, and Calgary move its team North too.

    I don’t think the AHL in San Jose experiment will last long. If the West Division shows signs of working, watch the Sharks move their team to Utah, and maybe Colorado move its team in-state.

  • Dwayne Roloson 35

    Kind of sad to see them go. I really followed the Barons because it was nice to have our own affiliate.

    Some great games were played and some interesting players played for them. Alex giroux, cheechoo, omark, rajala…among others. IIRC omark and rajala both had 5 goal games.