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
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.
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.
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.