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  • AHL's Barons under pressure to win and develop Print
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Wednesday, 17 October 2012 23:14

    With Edmonton's "Big Three" set to be on their roster for the duration of the NHL lockout, the Oklahoma City Barons find themselves in the position of being the early front runners for the Calder Cup, as well as having to balance their success with the continued development of Edmonton's prospects.

    Since the NHL lockout began in September, one of the largest topics of discussion amongst hockey fans has been the extreme infusion of talent into the American Hockey League.

    Ryan Nugent-HopkinsAmong the AHL’s 30 teams, it’s hard to say that any squad has been the subject of more discussions than the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.

    After all, the Barons’ opening-night roster featured the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Justin Schultz. Furthermore, at some point in October, Oklahoma City will also receive the first overall pick from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Taylor Hall, who is currently being held out of action with a shoulder injury.

    “There are great expectations on our team,” said Barons assistant coach Gerry Fleming. “But those are only predictions based on what our roster is on paper. We do look pretty good on paper, though.”

    But even before receiving a substantial chunk of the Edmonton Oilers’ highly-talented young core, the Barons already looked good on paper. Oklahoma City finished last season with a Western Conference-best 99 points and advanced to the Western Conference Finals even without the benefit of Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Schultz or Hall.

    “Everybody is going to be gunning for us,” added Fleming. “We have some high-end players who were drafted high, so the expectation is definitely for them to perform. We had a great run last year, so this year, it’s about completing the mission.”

    But the Barons’ mission is two-fold. On one hand, Oklahoma City’s coaching staff of Todd Nelson, Gerry Fleming and Rocky Thompson has to try to guide the AHL’s most talented team to a Calder Cup under immense expectations.

    On the other hand, the Barons’ coaching staff also has to balance their pursuit of each and every victory with the duty of having to try to prepare every player on their roster for careers in the NHL.

    Balancing these tasks might not be as easy as it sounds,either, since giving extra ice time to the team’s top players within the demands of particular games would result in the Barons’ third and fourth-line players being parked on the bench for extended periods of time.

    “Everybody here will have their roles, which I think is part of having a good team,” said Rocky Thompson. “But we have to try to develop everybody. We can’t just play our fourth liners four minutes per game because that’ll make things that much more taxing for our top six forwards. We’re going to have to roll all four lines. Plus, if we go down and play our top two defensemen 30 minutes per night, they can only hold up for so long into the season.”

    This past weekend, the Barons started their season with two road games in Cleveland against the Colorado Avalanche’s top affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters.

    On paper, Oklahoma City badly out-classed Lake Erie in terms of sheer talent, but the Monsters’ tight checking actually had the Barons looking like a racehorse trying to stampede their way through a heavily-mudded racetrack all weekend long. In fact, it took Justin Schultz’s first professional goal to break a 2-2 tie late in the third period of the teams’ second head-to-head game to salvage a weekend split for the Barons, after the defensively-sound Monsters edged Oklahoma City by a score of 2-1 on Opening Night last Friday.

    “We have skill,” said Barons head coach Todd Nelson following Oklahoma City’s 3-2 victory last Saturday. “But hard work beats skill all the time. Right now, I feel like we’re reading too many newspaper clippings.”

    As Nelson alluded to, many of his Barons have been the subject of high amounts of media attention, both this summer and earlier in their careers.

    For example, it’s hard to find any collegiate defenseman in recent history that was more scrutinized before even playing his first professional game than Oklahoma City’s Justin Schultz.

    You may remember that Schultz, a former Hobey Baker Award nominee at the University of Wisconsin, became the center of a media frenzy this past summer when he opted to spurn the team that drafted him—the Anaheim Ducks—to sign with the Oilers and leave behind more jilted suitors than anybody since Emily Maynard chose Jef—with one “f”—on The Bachelorette.

    However, the expectations on Schultz even pale in comparison to those on Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and Eberle.

    Before this past weekend, Erik Johnson was the only former first overall draft pick—other than goalies Rick DiPietro and Marc-Andre Fleury—since 2000 to have played aJordan Eberle single game in the AHL. Meanwhile, this year’s Barons have two former first overall picks in Nugent-Hopkins and Hall who will be regulars in their lineup this season.

    Additionally, Jordan Eberle is the only player in the AHL this season who was actually an NHL All-Star last season, when his 76 points against NHL competition were more than all but two AHL players had against AHL competition last year.

    “These guys have had pressure on them wherever they’ve played, from juniors and probably even in minor hockey, because they’ve always been stars,” said Thompson. “I think we have the chance to be a strong team. But the pressures here will be no different than what they’ve faced their whole lives.”

    Of course, the most heavily dissected Barons will be the ones who will more than likely be packing their bags to go back to Edmonton as soon as the lockout ends. However, besides boasting a slew of players that could very well finish the season in the NHL, the Barons have the type of depth that seems to indicate that they’ll be one of the AHL teams least affected should the lockout end and result in the dozens of NHL/AHL refugees getting called back up to their parent clubs.

    Because even when the lockout ends, Oklahoma City will still probably have Yann Danis, the AHL’s top goalie in 2011-12, as its number-one goalie all season. And even though the end of the lockout would probably result in the call-ups of most of their—and their opponents’— leading scorers, the Barons should have the opportunity to re-fortify their roster with two of their most important players from last season, 2012 AHL All-Star turned ECHL standout forward Phillipe Cornet and team captain turned unsigned free-agent defenseman Bryan Helmer.

    “I think everything will play itself out in the end,” said Fleming. “Regardless of who’s here, we have to create a winning atmosphere.”

    “The objective is that if you have guys win in the American Hockey League, they get called up and win in the NHL,” added Thompson. “They’ll remember what it takes, the effort they put in and how they had to play together. Our job is to create a winning atmosphere in Oklahoma City, so the fortunate few—because not everybody can make it up—who make it up to Edmonton can have special times together in the NHL.”

    The Barons are next in action this Friday night, when they play their home opener at Cox Convention Center against the Florida Panthers’ top affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.

    The Barons’ quest for Oklahoma City’s first-ever Calder Cup can be followed all season long on Twitter at @OKCBarons.

    Photos by Getty Images


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    Last Updated on Thursday, 18 October 2012 00:01