The Edmonton Oilers haven’t had much success developing players in the AHL in recent years. Jujhar Khaira played 133 AHL games over parts of three seasons before making the team last year. Kyle Brodziak is a great example of how to properly develop a player. He was drafted in 2003. He played one more season in Moose Jaw in the WHL, and then when he was 20 he debuted in the AHL with the Edmonton Roadrunners.
He played two more seasons in the AHL, with 16 NHL games sprinkled in during that time, before becoming a regular NHL player in his fourth season as a pro. He scored 14 goals and 31 points as a rookie. This is now his 12th NHL season and he has been a steady bottom six player for his entire career.
The Oilers will need to ensure they develop some players in the coming seasons, and for the first time in a long time they seem to have many players in the system who have the potential to become useful NHL players in the future. Their development will be crucial as the Oilers try to round out their roster over the next three to five seasons.
The Bakersfield Condors have played six games this month, but are currently in a stretch where they only play three games in 20 days. They lost 2-1 in Tuscon on October 13th, lost 5-4 in San Diego on October 20th and defeated Stockton 8-2 on October 27th. They are 3-3 on the season and have outscored their opponents 24-17. They are back in action on Halloween and then start a more balanced schedule with eleven games in November.
With six days between games for the past few weeks it has allowed Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft a lot of practice time. And while the players don’t love the lack of games, the extra practice time can be very beneficial to their development.
Jason Strudwick and I spoke with Woodcroft on late last week about the practice time, Tyler Benson, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, Cooper Marody and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Jason Gregor: You’ve probably been working on your golf game more than anything right now — you guys aren’t playing any games right now!
Jay Woodcroft: Yeah, it’s been a different couple of weeks for sure. Kind of an anomaly in our schedule where we’ve only played one game last week and then one game on Saturday night this week. It is different but at the same time we’ve had two really good weeks of practice, two really good weeks that we dedicated to development. That’s not just going through practices to do drills, but actually to develop our skills. We’ve separated players by positions and worked specifically on individual skill development. We worked a lot on special teams. We’ve tried to use the schedule to our advantage because as you guys know, sometimes you get the schedule and sometimes the schedule gets you. So we’ve tried to do our best to maximize our opportunity on a daily basis.
Jason Strudwick: How’s it been for you as a head coach and getting the players to buy into this strategy as good work time to prepare for all of the games that will come soon?
Woodcroft: Yeah, it’s been extremely valuable, not only for me Struds but our coaching staff to get to know our players and to make sure that we are instilling NHL style work habits in practice. I have to say they have given us their full attention, attention to details and their effort. They’ve done a good job of trying to implement everything that we are trying to instill. We’ve had a couple of very, very good weeks of practice.
Gregor: From what you saw of Ethan Bear last year with the Oilers for eighteen games, what do you like more about his game now?
Woodcroft: Well, he showed up into camp in very good shape which was something he wanted to dedicate himself to in the summer and he did. He came back in good shape, and scored well on his testing results, had a strong rookie camp, carried that into main camp, essentially made the opening roster with the Oilers and then when [Kris] Russell got healthy he moved on to the Bakersfield. For me when he came down, he came down with the right mindset, the right attitude, he came down to work on his game and he knew we were there to help him get to where he knew he wanted to be. He’s played two games for us, got a little nicked up in the second game so we didn’t play him in the last game, but he played I think twenty five, twenty six minutes that first night. He has a real strong first pass out of our end. He got pucks up quickly into our forwards’ hands. Was able to slide to the line very well and played in every situation both power play, penalty kill and overtime three-on-three.
Strudwick: Tyler Benson is a player we get questions about all of the time. Where do you see him at as far as his development and where what did he spend time on the past few weeks in practice?
Woodcroft: I think these last two weeks have been a very, very good time for players like Tyler. We worked on small nuances of the game, professional work habits, and things for forwards that sometimes go unnoticed by the public but are keys to winning games. Things like board work, things like raps and jams around the panes, making sure that you make a decision at the blue line, all of those types of little stuff that goes into winning hockey games and rounding out your personal game.
Tyler, as you said, has a real strong work ethic. I think the fact that he’s one hundred percent healthy, has him feeling really good about himself. He’s played the bulk of this season with us on a kid line with Cooper Marody, before he was called up, and Cameron Hebig. They are one of our best lines, playing a ton in every situation. Tyler is off to a good start with his professional career.
JONES OFF TO GOOD START
Gregor: Caleb Jones was another player who came into camp in the best shape of his life. He put in a lot of work. What about the decision making parts of his game? Developing players is different in the American League level because their mistakes aren’t talked about as much by media, fans like they are at the NHL level. When you are working with these guys, how has your approach changed now that you’re clearly at more of a developmental stage compared with being at a purely results stage?
Woodcroft: Well, two parts to that question. The first part for me, I understand that these players, especially at this level are far from finished products. It’s our job as a coaching staff to put them into these situations for them to succeed, to understand mistakes are going to be made, but it’s about learning from mistakes and giving these guys the tools they need to be successful, not only at this level, but also when they take the next step to the National League.
Caleb has been a very good player or us. He’s playing top minutes, before [Kevin] Gravel got called up. He was playing with Kevin against the other team’s best players. He runs our number one power play unit which I think is top-two in the American Hockey League. He plays on the penalty kill, which is a top-five penalty kill in the American Hockey League. He’s playing big minutes and is an important piece in what we have going on down here. I’ve seen real growth in his game through five games.
Gregor: You mentioned the power play, so he’s on the first unit power play with Bear or is Bear on the second unit?
Woodcroft: So Bear is on the second unit because Caleb has been here right from the start and found chemistry with guys like Marody, Benson, Hebig right off of the bat. We’ve had success with that. When Ethan came down we put him on a different unit with Josh Currie and we’ve been fortunate to have both units going. As I said, Ethan didn’t play last game because he’s been dinged up, so it’s been a great opportunity for Caleb to assert his offensive game, his ability to quarterback a power play, to be the key transporter of the puck up the ice and his ability to get his shot up through the ice. He’s working on that on a daily basis and he’s had very good success in that side of his game thus far.
**Bear missed the first two games due to being with the Oilers. He played two games, but then missed the past two with a minor injury. They are hoping he will return soon. In his absence, Jones has looked really good. Jones is the best LD prospect the Oilers have and I’d expect he gets a few games in the coming years. Jones can play both sides which helps his cause.**
Strudwick: Cooper Marody is up with the big club right now, but what are your impressions of his game and what you’ve gotten to know about him in your time together?
Woodcroft: Cooper is a very good hockey player. The word I would use to describe him is ethereal. He thinks the game, he is working every day at his professional habits, the details that go into games. He has been working on his skating. I think he is a good skater at this level, but there is still room for improvement. At this level, he finds himself in a lot of the positive clips that coaches seem to find. Lots of scoring chances, protects the puck well in the O-zone and like I said, he has the vision to be able to a play, he’s got the skill.
FIND GAME IN AHL?
Gregor: Having been in Edmonton for the last few years and now in the American League, I think you know about Jesse Puljujarvi’s game, you talked to him a lot about working on things. Obviously, young guys all want to score. When they’re a scorer, or a top pick, they all want to produce, but at the NHL level very few guys can produce points every game, so you have to find another way to make an impact. He did go down in the American League at 18 and and then spent ten games down there last year as well. You see your young guys down there now as well. Do you think it is easier for a guy to find his game in the American League than it would be in the NHL?
Woodcroft: Well, I think that is a tough question, Jason. I think every player is a different case with regards to their personal development. I know that — and I can only speak to the guys that I’m working with right now — I know there is, especially these past two weeks I’ve had, more time from just an individual skill development, the ability to work on pieces of the game on a daily basis where sometimes in the NHL it is game day or a team practice day. But with the 68-game schedule in the Pacific Division in the American Hockey League, I think it’s real beneficial for the young players in our system that they not only get to play in a man’s league in the American Hockey League, but they get to work at their craft with solid practice time, not only on the ice, but off of the ice as well.
It’s a good time for these players to get up to the strength requirements of NHL hockey. We’re very fortunate here to have a good staff, not only with Dave Manson running our D and J-F Houle working with our forwards, but our off ice crew of people and our facility we have for these young players to work out off of the ice with our strength coach Patrick Love is second to none at this level. I think it’s really beneficial for our young players.
Gregor: There is more practice time in the American League. You have 13 years of NHL coaching experience so do you think that it gives you an advantage as a coach when you are working with those young guys on those two, three, four consecutive practice days to know the little details which will help them get to the NHL because you have seen it firsthand, where other coaches are coming up from the WHL, NCAA or AHL?
Woodcroft: I think so, the ability to work on the minutia of your craft is there in the American Hockey League just because of the schedule. And like I said, the rigours of an NHL schedule are a lot of, its game day, practice day, or travel day. The ability in your personal reservoir of energy gets used up a lot in game days and practice days are to work on a lot of times working on team games, so the benefit of the American Hockey League schedule is that you can work on individual skills. I can tell you that for me, my personal experience as a coach it’s been very rewarding to see some of these young guys progress over this last month. You can see them adding layers of nuances to their personal game. They’ve been sponges with the information our staff is trying to relay to them. I really like our team spirit and the pace that we’re playing the game at.
The Condors PP is second in the AHL at 30.8% with eight goals on 26 opportunities. Both units have produced. Cameron Hebig has four goals on the top unit, while Josh Currie has three assists on the second unit.
The Condors PK is 4th at 88% allowing three goals on 25 kills.
The Condors have a good mix of prospects who could become NHL players in Jones, Bear, Benson, Lagessson, Vesel and Skinner, and some solid AHL vets like Brad Malone, Kevin Gravel, Keegan Lowe and others who can be leaders for the young players and help them become more consistent.
Marody will likely go back down at some point, because he needs to be playing games. The Oilers could recall Brad Malone to be the 14th forward. Marody and Jesse Puljujarvi sat out in Chicago, and both of them are better off playing. I know the Oilers want to get Puljujarvi back in the lineup, but I still believe some time in the AHL playing top unit PP and a lot at 5×5 would benefit him.
Some quick updates on other Oilers prospects.
Skinner (third round, 2017) started his first AHL game and won 8-2. The Condors just recalled Shane Starrett from the ECHL so Skinner could be going back down. Skinner is 3-0 in the ECHL with a .928sv%. He is having a solid start to his pro career.
Olivier Rodrique (second round, 2018) is 8-4 with a .896sv% with Drummondville. A scout texted me that Rodrique has been solid. He is only facing an average of 24 shots a game, which is low. He has played the fifth most minutes among goalies, but has faced the 15th most shots. Scout said he has played much better than sv% suggests.
Ryan McLeod has 2-12-14 in 12 games in Mississauga. Reports are he has played well and could easily have a few more goals if he buried some chances.
Kirill Maksimov has 11-9-20 in 15 games in Niagara. He and Akil Thomas are leading them offensively.
Ostap Safin was traded to Halifax in early October, but he got injured in his second game and hasn’t played since. No update on when he might return.
Dmitri Samorukov has 0-5-5 in 13 games with Guelph. He has played okay according to an OHL scout.
Filip Berglund has 2-3-5 in 12 games in Sweden. The right-shot D-man has a solid start to his season and is looking good.
Joel Persson has 1-4-5 in 12 games in Sweden. He is very offensive-minded and smooth with the puck. He is the unknown commodity for me. His defensive play is a concern, but his vision and puck moving are very good according to scouts. He is someone to keep an eye on.