BAKERSFIELD, California – For those that have never been to the city before, Bakersfield, California, is about two hours north of Los Angeles and known mostly as the home of both country music legend Merle Haggard and NASCAR superstar Kevin Harvick.
In some ways, Bakersfield is like a mini-Edmonton because the area’s economy revolves around two things. One is agriculture, though unlike the Alberta farms, these are the fruit and vegetable orchards that cover the countryside.
The other is oil. This is California’s Oil Country.
And now, very fittingly, it is Oil Country on the hockey front as well.
The Bakersfield Condors are the Oilers’ new American Hockey League affiliate, the triple-A farm club to the parent major-league team. Upon originally joining the Katz Empire, the Condors were the Oilers’ secondary affiliate, the double-A landing spot to the triple-A Oklahoma City Barons. But with the western-based NHL teams pitching hard for their top farms clubs to be closer to headquarters, the AHL created a new division primarily based in California with the Oilers, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks all moving their primary farm teams to the Golden State. The Condors, Stockton Heat (Calgary), Ontario Reign (LA Kings), San Diego Gulls (Anaheim), and San Jose Barracudas (SJ Sharks) form the California contingent in the AHL’s Pacific Division along with the Texas Stars (Dallas) and San Antonio Rampage (Colorado).
There’s a good chance this division will grow in the next year or two as Arizona (if they stay in the NHL or are replaced by another geographical equivalent) and Vancouver are both thought to be looking at moving their prospects to the Pacific region.
The Condors play out of Rabobank Arena in downtown Bakersfield which features a brand-new dressing room and training centre for the new AHL team.
Just who will be using those spiffy facilities is now up for debate.
Under the guidance of former OKC bench boss Gerry Fleming, who got bumped up when Todd Nelson was promoted to interim head coach of the Oilers last season, the Condors are bound to have one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the AHL.
This current perspective roster is based on the assumptions that:
*Darnell Nurse and Tyler Pitlick stay with the Oilers at least to start the season
*Leon Draisaitl is assigned to Bakersfield to kick off the year
Anders Nilsson/Eetu Laurikainen
Brad Hunt – Brandon Davidson
Dillon Simpson – Jordan Oesterle
Joey Laleggia – David Musil
Ben Betker – Martin Gernat – Nick Pageau
Ryan Hamilton – Leon Draisaitl – Andrew Miller
Anton Slepyshev – Bogdan Yakimov – Iiro Pakarinen
Kale Kessy – Kyle Platzer – Matthew Ford
Mitch Moroz – Jujhar Khaira – Greg Chase
The only real potential goalie of the future prospect on the Oilers’ depth chart right now is Laurent Brossoit so he’ll be the No. 1 netminder for the Condors. Brossoit was a fan favorite when he was with the Oil Kings and that has endeared him to the Oiler faithful. He was also quite popular during a 35-game stint in Bakersfield in ‘13-‘14 when the Condors were the Oilers’ ECHL affiliate so he should feel quite welcome returning to California. After a somewhat ho-hum start to last season, Brossoit turned it on in the late stages, finishing with 25 regular-season wins and then pacing the Barons through their playoff run.
If he doesn’t beat out Ben Scrivens for the backup job with the Oilers, Anders Nilsson is the likely 1A puckstopper in Bakersfield. If Scrivens is traded and Nilsson goes to Edmonton, expect another recently signed Euro stopper, Eetu Laurikainen, to be the second-stringer with the Condors. If all else fails, journeyman minor-leaguer and Edmonton native Ty Rimmer might get the gig. Rimmer was solid in Bakersfield ECHL-editiion a year ago until he was sidelined due to treatment for testicular cancer.
Veteran Brad Hunt and his booming shot will be the main offensive blueliner and will probably be coupled up with Brandon Davidson who would need to see some significant roster moves revolving around high-priced veterans in Edmonton to catch on as the 7D with the Oilers. Davidson was once a long-range prospect but blossomed into earning a 12-game sojourn to Edmonton last season.
Dillon Simpson and Jordan Oesterle should make up the second pairing. Simpson, a second-year pro, and Oesterle, now in his third pro campaign, will need a strong season to see their stock rise although Oesterle slid into six Oiler games last season.
The third pairing has numerous candidates. Rookie pro Joey Laleggia has oodles of offensive talent, and despite his lack of size, is probably the highest-ranked prospect of the latter group. David Musil has yet to immerge from the prospect pool with any serious consideration although he garnered four NHL games a year ago. His length-of-stay in Oiler training camp will be a huge indicator of his future.
Martin Gernat, another ex-Oil King, has gone from interesting prospect to pretty well becoming a lost cause because of his lack of improvement primarily in the area of strength and conditioning. Gernat might lose his spot in the Condors’ nest to rookie pro Ben Betker, who would give the Condors some size on the back end at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. Nick Pageau, the best of a middling Bakersfield ECHL defensive group, earned eight AHL games last season and might sneak into a 6/7 role with this edition of the Condors.
First Line: The consensus No. 1 will be Leon Draisaitl (again, this is based on him starting the year in the AHL) and the smart thing to do is flank him with two accomplished minor-league veterans in Ryan Hamilton and Andrew Miller. Draisaitl was overwhelmed playing in Edmonton last season but recovered his game and had a stellar finish to year as a dominant force amongst junior-aged peers with Kelowna in the Western League. If Draisaitl goes from being a man amongst boys last season the Dub to being too good for the AHL in short order, he’ll be up in Edmonton by Christmas at the latest. Hamilton, who had 37 points in an injury-shortened season, and Miller, who was OKC’s leading scorer with 60 points, were re-signed by the Oilers to provide AHL-level scoring talent, veteran presence, and leadership which make them perfect bookends for Draisaitl.
Second Line: The ‘Euro Trio’ of Anton Slepyshev, Bogdan Yakimov, and Iiro Pakarinen form a very capable unit for the Condors. All three are high up on the Oilers’ prospect list with the latter two getting cups of coffee in Edmonton last season – a cappuccino in Yakimov’s case (just one game) and a grande for Pakarinen (17 games). Slepyshev, the Oilers’ third-rounder in 2013, will be making his North American debut after a 25-point campaign in the KHL. Outside of the obvious names like Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse, Yakimov, who was also a third-rounder in ’13, is probably the prospect the Oilers are intrigued by on the most. He’s a centre with offensive skills and stands 6-foot-5, 232 pounds. Pakarinen might not be long for the Condors as his abrasive style is something the Oilers covet and he could get the call if there’s a move involving Teddy Purcell, Nail Yakupov or Tyler Pitlick.
Third Line: Kyle Platzer gets the call here for the pivot spot as the rookie pro is coming off an 81-point season in junior and an end-of-year call-up to OKC. He’s progressed on regular intervals, be it in the Ontario League, his brief AHL stint or at Oiler developmental camps. Platzer should get some veteran assistance from seven-year minor-leaguer Matthew Ford, who totaled 100 points during two years in OKC. He’ll be wrapping up his career by playing in his home state of California with the Condors. The left side spot will be a derby between tough guys Kale Kessy and Mitch Moroz plus second-year pro Josh Winquist, who was far and away the best forward at Bakersfield ECHL before going up to OKC.
Fourth Line: Jujhar Khaira was once serious hopeful in the pipeline mostly because he is a centre with size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds). He’s not a lost cause yet, but he needs a huge bounce back after notching just 10 points in 51 AHL games last season. If it’s a jolt of energy he requires, he should get it from winger Greg Chase, the Oilers’ seventh-round steal from the ’13 draft. Chase has become a prospect to watch because of the shift-disturbing, agitating nature of his game with the caveat that he maintains some discipline and provides something in the offensive zone (drawing retaliatory penalties at bare minimum). One of Kessy, Moroz, or Winquist gets the left-side spot with the trailer of the trio pushed to the press box.
There will be some players at Condors’ camp that could make things interesting and put themselves into many post-practice conversations among the coaches. Included in that group will be freshly signed junior free agents Braden Christopher and Alexis Loiselle plus the sizeable John McCarron, a virtually forgotten 2012 draft pick thanks to minimal production at Cornell University. If they don’t crack the Condors lineup, they’ll certainly go a long way to making the Oilers’ new ECHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, a better team than what Bakersfield ECHL was a year ago.