On a Saturday night in January things could get a little heated inside Rabobank Arena and not because it’s still 80 degrees at game time.
The Bakersfield Condors are a cornerstone of the AHL’s new Pacific Division, and despite its freshness, the loop might just provide Triple-A hockey with some of its most-fervent rivalries. The Condors and the rest of the California contingent are North-to-South all roughly within about six hours apart, and by playing a reduced scheduled almost exclusively against each other, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be some testy feelings as the season wears on.
The Condors (Oilers) are surely going to get their feathers ruffled by the Stockton Heat (Calgary), San Diego Gulls (Anaheim), Ontario Reign (Los Angeles), and San Jose Barracuda (San Jose) and they’ll need to be able to bite back when things boil over.
Bakersfield’s muck and muscle is likely to come from a short list of providers, none of whom would be considered enforcers but instead grinders with some edge. They should be able to hold their own when challenged straight up or when coming to the aid of a teammate.
One of primary players fitting the bill is former Edmonton Oil King Mitch Moroz.
Moroz finished his junior run with Oil Kings in good form, netting 63 points highlighted by 35 goals and a +25 rating during the 2013-14 regular season plus 19 points in 21 playoff games. On top of that, Moroz racked up 156 penalty minutes during the regular season, another 40 coming in the playoffs. In total, Moroz’s junior numbers read 213 regular-season games, 64 goals, and 429 penalty minutes.
He could hit, he could fight, and he could put up some points.
It hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for Moroz which can be easily attributed to the fact that he was a second-round pick who had no business going that high.
If memory serves, the Oilers got rattled on the draft floor when rumors began circulating that the Philadelphia Flyers were eyeing Moroz. The Oilers, who badly needed to get some size and truculence in their system, might have panicked with the vision that a player fitting that description and playing for the junior team they owned was going to get away from them. So Moroz was grabbed with the 32nd overall pick, probably about 30 picks sooner than he should have been selected.
Last year, Moroz made his professional debut and led the Oklahoma City Barons with 169 PIMs. His nine points in 66 games was a failed expectation, though his physicality as a 21-year-old earned him high regard. Case in point, as he rookie he didn’t hesitate to take on a guy like Mike Cornell who was six years older and had three years of pro experience under his belt, or Richard Clune who was a 28-year-old with more than 100 games as a Nashville Predator and 14 with the Los Angeles Kings.
He’s a big Teddy Bear
Kale Kessy came to the Oilers organization via a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes who had made him their fourth-round pick (111th overall) in 2011.
Unfortunately for Kessy, he’s also been derailed under the Oiler umbrella as he missed all but 17 games last season due to a knee injury. But in those 17 games, he muscled up 61 PIMs. Kessy is ticketed for a return to Bakersfield where he endeared himself to Condors fans in 2013 when he scored the goal that triggered an avalanche on Teddy Bear Toss Night only 33 seconds into a game against Stockton.
Besides being injured, Kessy was acquired in exchange for Tobias Rieder, an Oiler fourth-round pick in 2011 – four picks after the Coyotes had selected Kessy. Rieder was a smaller-than-average skilled winger which the Oilers felt they had enough of in their system so the deal was made. Rieder spent only a season-and-change in the AHL and burst onto the Arizona scene last season picking up 21 points in 72 games, including two shorthanded goals coming 21 seconds apart against the Oilers.
Prior to his knee injury, Kessy was improving as an overall player while still showing eagerness to drop the mitts. Most dutifully amongst AHL bouts was a doubleheader against Keegan Lowe, the son of Oilers President of Operations Kevin Lowe, in November 2014.
Chase-ing his way
Like Moroz last year, Greg Chase will be entering his freshman year in the AHL, and while he’s more of an agitator than fighter, Chase undoubtedly will get under enough skin that he’ll have to back it up.
If Chase can develop as a shift disturber who can contribute offence in spurts, the Oilers will surely have mined its most hidden of all gems. Chase was virtually passed over in the 2013 draft, shockingly lasting until Edmonton’s seventh-round selection at 188th overall.
Chase was a common thread every time the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings hit Defcon 1. Chase’s last year in junior was mostly spent with the Victoria Royals after a fallout with the Hitmen, but he still chipped in 59 points and 59 penalty minutes, plus one the season’s most spectacular goals.
The Condors might get some additional help in the toughness department should the Oilers decide to demote Luke Gazdic. That’s probably wishful thinking but the Oilers do have Lauri Korpikoski and Rob Klinkhammer on the left side of the bottom six, and could potentially shift Mark Letestu over to the port side. Jujhar Khaira’s development will be focused on offence but he’ll have to contribute physically as well. And the Oilers still could sign 6-foot-2, 230-pound draftee John McCarron whose numbers dropped off at Cornell University but he might bring something of interest with that bulk.
Moroz won’t have fellow ex-Oil King Travis Ewanyk riding shotgun, as he was shipped to Ottawa in the Eric Gryba deal. If Moroz can put 20 points on the board and be the team leader in PIMs, his stock is surely going to rise. He and Kessy are long-range prospects. Moroz’s second-round selection will always be a hindrance because no matter how far he gets, it’s not going to be where a second-rounder should land. If Kessy makes it to the NHL, it will be as a fourth-liner and he’ll need continued improvement to his skating to reach that goal.
Chase, despite his draft spot, has the best shot of the trio all because he’s got the spit and vinegar the Oilers haven’t had since, well, maybe as far back as Esa Tikkanen. Three years from now, Chase could be a valuable third-liner who notches points here and there, but more importantly, raises hell with the opposition and makes the soft-for-ages Oilers tough to play against.
Aye, Aye Admiral: The Oilers Double-A affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, have recently signed a good chunk of the crew who were part of the ECHL Bakersfield lineup last year. Leading the pack is last year’s Condors captain Jordan Kremyr (team-high 24 goals in 57 games) plus Josh Currie, the second-leading scorer from 2014-15 (42 points in 71 games).
Also re-upped were third-leading scorer Jonathan Lessard (third with 41 points in 60 games), late-season addition Andrew Radjenovic, and defenceman Gabriel Levesque who had the team-lead with 15 fighting majors, California native Joe Marciano, and 2014 Condors Teddy Bear Toss Night hero Chase Schaber.
The Admirals also inked goalie Philippe Cadorette and former L.A. Kings draft pick Mike Pelech.