The Bakersfield Condors are about hit a critical junction of a season that is barely three weeks old.
It’s far too early to consider it a do-or-die situation, but with two of their best players flying out of the nest and landing in Edmonton, the Condors have to show some pluck as they play their next five straight games away from Bakersfield and against divisional foes.
The journey begins this weekend when the Condors head to the Lone Star State for a Friday-Sunday double-dip against the Texas Stars (Dallas). They head back to California after that but it’s only for a quick pit stop to re-pack and get a couple of practices in before heading to Stockton (Calgary) on November 6th and then San Jose (SJ) on November 8th. They wrap up the excursion in San Diego (Anaheim) for a third clash with Dallas Eakins’ Gulls on Veteran’s/Remembrance Day. The Condors don’t play in Bakersfield again until November 14th.
Six games into the season, the Condors are tied for last place in the Pacific Division with San Jose. Both teams have five points off two wins and a shootout loss which is one point better than Stockton, but with the league’s unbalanced schedule, winning percentage rates ahead of points. Bakersfield and San Jose have a .417 PCT while Stockton is at .500 by going 2-2 through just four games.
Through a half-dozen games, the Condors have managed 16 goals and given up 20, the bulk of which came in two games – a 5-0 shellacking by the Ontario Reign and a 6-5 shootout loss in San Diego. After this past weekend’s two outings – another loss to the Reign (5-4 in Ben Scrivens’ debut with the Condors) and a 3-0 victory over San Diego – the Condors will forge ahead into the start of the road trip without defenceman Darnell Nurse and forward Iiro Pakarinen. While their respective stats aren’t overwhelming, it’s quite within reason to believe that the Condors are now without their two best players. At the very least, Nurse and Pakarinen were/are two of the Oilers top-four prospects in Triple-A.
Nurse’s statline isn’t eye-popping with just one assist in six games especially considering fellow rearguard Brad Hunt has seven points (all assists). But Nurse has been the Condors best overall defenceman, and Hunt is what he is – offensively gifted at the AHL level but an all-around defensive liability.
“If I was recommending a guy, I’d have said Darnell. He has been our most complete player. He’s moving the puck more quickly (and making fewer long rushes with it). He’s making good reads.” – Gerry Fleming (Edmonton Journal)
Pakarinen provides the Oilers with some skill up front and a level of feistiness that is particularly important for a team not blessed with an abundance of forcefulness up front.
That duo’s departure leaves sizeable holes for the Condors but as much as the local fans loathe losing talent, the farm team’s job is to produce players for the club at the top of the ladder. The Condors can’t replace Nurse. The best they can hope for is to get a little more out of the likes of Jordan Oesterle, Joey LaLeggia, and even Nikita Nikitin, though that’s a tall order.
In Pakarinen’s absence, the Condors will need a bump from two veterans – Ryan Hamilton and Phil McRae – plus two prospects – Leon Draisaitl and Jujhar Khaira.
Hamilton, who mustered 37 points for OKC last season, has accounted for just two goals so far this year. The same goes for McRae, a free-agent signing and former St. Louis prospect.
The Oilers pay types like Hamilton, McRae, Andrew Miller, and Matthew Ford for leadership and proven AHL-level production. Ford has done his job (3-2-5 in 6 GP) and so too has Miller (2-3-5 in 6 GP) who got the first call-up of the season but stayed just the one game in Edmonton. The other two need to pick up the pace.
Draisaitl has arguably been the best Condors forward in at least three games this season, though the result has been only one goal and one assist. On the plus side, there have been instances when his physical presence and overall skill package are very evident. The right move was made leaving him in Bakersfield while Miller and Pakarinen earned call-ups. Draisaitl looks good as a developing power centre and he needs more time to be groomed into that role. Figure on a McDavid/Nugent-Hopkins/Draisaitl trio down the middle in 2016-17.
Khaira has played centre and left wing so far this season, putting up three points. A recent formation had him riding the port side next to Bogdan Yakimov and Braden Christopher. Khaira needs to combine his size and aggression with point production.
The Condors are going to have their claws full with the 5-2 Texas Stars who have lit it up with 30 goals through seven games, the second-highest total in the entire AHL. Their top scorer Devin Shore is putting up Cy Young numbers with 8-1-9 in seven. Rookie goalie Maxime Legace sits with a 2.03 GAA and .931 SVP.
In the Nest: The San Diego Gulls are the Condors’ longest-tenured rivals having clashed in the West Coast, East Coast (ECHL), and American Hockey Leagues. They are 1-1 against each other so far this season, and they’ll meet 10 more times this season. Last Saturday in Bakersfield, the Gulls and Condors combined for 141 penalty minutes, 99 of which came during a third-period line brawl that resulted in nine game misconducts (Kale Kessy, Joey LaLeggia, Mitch Moroz, and Josh Winquist got the boot for the Condors) … The Oilers’ ECHL affiliate had a rough go on a three-game road trip in Florida. The Norfolk Admirals lost all three games – 6-1 to the Florida Everblades and a pair of 6-3 setbacks to the Orlando Solar Bears. Greg Chase leads the Admirals with three goals while Marco Roy is pointless but has been in three fights.