OKC: From worst to first

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:34 PM ET

OKLAHOMA CITY - It’s a trip from near-worst to first, a trip from the bottom of the standings to the top that 10 players have taken this year, some on more than one occasion.

The Edmonton Oilers hit the NHL All-Star break sitting 29th with potential for a three-peat at drafting No. 1.

But here, the Oklahoma City Barons farm team is No. 1 — first overall — in the 30-team AHL.

For the first time in the history of an Oilers AHL farm team, the Barons will almost certainly win 40 or more games in consecutive seasons.

Last year, Oklahoma City was 40-29-11. The Barons head into games here this weekend with a four-game winning streak and a 27-11-5 record.

Prior to last year, Oilers AHL teams have managed only three other 40-win seasons in their entire history, and one of those was while sharing the Hamilton Bulldogs with the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s remarkable how well this Oklahoma City team has done, considering the things they’ve had to deal with, especially the number of injuries to the Oilers and to their own club.

“Most of all it’s a testimonial to the Oilers scouting staff in drafting players and bringing in the right free agents, and our coaching staff,” said GM Bill Scott.

“On defence here this year we had to bring in five or six players for tryouts and we haven’t missed a beat.

“The coaching staff brought in a system that guys have really bought into. There were adjustments last year but it took off right away this year.

“We want to develop players here, but we want to win at the same time. Winning develops players. You get into the playoffs, you play more games. Nellie really brought in a culture of winning.”

Nellie is head coach Todd Nelson.

“What we’re trying to achieve here is to have our players graduate and bring a winning attitude up to the Oilers,” said Nelson.

“I believe winning is a form of development.

“If we’re able to play in the Calder Cup final, that experience would be unbelievable for these guys.”

The ups and downs with all the injuries hasn’t even been a speed bump for the Barons.

“They’ve had injuries. We’ve had injuries. But it’s different this year. We have a lot of depth,” added Nelson, whose team is coming off a three-wins-in-three-consecutive-nights road trip.

“The players they’re sending here can all play here. My biggest problem right now is not finding personnel, it’s finding ice time to develop them all. There’s a lot of depth with this group, and good depth.

“We haven’t just been given good players, they’re good people. All 20 guys are competing hard every night. Last weekend the Rochester Americans, in back-to-back games, and Lake Erie Monsters, before 17,000 fans in Cleveland, tried playing us physically and we pushed back.

“We have a team where somebody rises to the challenge and the guys are playing hard for each other.”

While the rebuild of the Oilers has begun to test the until-now rather remarkable patience of the Edmonton fan base, here there’s evidence the Oilers plan is progressing positively.

Creating a new AHL farm team here was a big part of the plans to begin an era of drafting and developing.

When Oilers’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe came here to announce the new franchise, he spoke about a focus on providing OKC with a top team, instead of the usual Oilers’ bottom feeder, and to develop that winning culture throughout the entire organization.

Lowe promised the Oilers would spend unprecedented funds on development going forward.

But Lowe and GM Steve Tambellini aren’t going around patting themselves on the back because Oklahoma City is in first place overall.

“It hasn’t started to translate into victories for the big club,” says Lowe. “The fans paying the freight probably aren’t too excited about having a first-place team in the AHL when they’re watching a 29th-place club in the NHL.

“A year and a half ago, all three of our teams — the NHL team, the AHL team and our junior Oil Kings — were either last or second last in their leagues. We have two of those teams up there now but with the Oilers it’s going to take a while to finally unfold.”

Edmonton’s farm club history has been horrid. But in a year and a half, it’s gone from a discombobulated mess into a top-of-the-tables team.

The unadulterated disaster of the farm system hit rock bottom when, after moving the farm team to Edmonton to play the lockout year as the Roadrunners, the Oilers went without an AHL affiliate the following year.

Before a 40-win, plus-11 for-against first year in OKC last year, the Oilers affiliate in Springfield, Mass. had 24- and 25-win seasons with minus-70 and minus-89 for-against.

Most Edmonton fans don’t really understand what the Oilers are attempting to put together with their development. And the team hasn’t gone out of its way to completely outline it because of how they hope to make it something beyond what has existed to this point in hockey.

Having a concept is one thing. But until you build it, there’s not much percentage in telling the world about it.

Hiring Scott as GM is a big part of it, too.

The former director of hockey for the AHL is an Oiler employee. He’s part of hockey operations.

“Only five or six NHL teams provide a hockey operations general manager,” said Scott, who not only looks after all the logistical details associated with the team travel, etc., and is the communications link with Oilers GM Steve Tambellini for player movement, but is also in charge of scouting the AHL and ECHL for tracking free-agent players.

“It really helps the organization to have another set of eyes,” said Scott.

“Coaches are so focused on doing things from their point of view, it really helps to have that set of eyes looking at the big picture and being down here, doing it full time.”

But there’s a bigger picture and that’s where the bigger picture man — Billy Moores — comes into play.

Three years ago, the Oilers hired former NHLer Mike Sillinger for the traditional role of director of player development. Last year, they quietly added former U of A Golden Bears coach and New York Ranger and Oiler assistant coach Billy Moores as senior director of player development, running the entire evolving project.

“Kevin and Steve already had Mike in place doing a good job,” said Moores.

“The idea hiring me was to put something in place which was more sustainable and would give more direction to the players.

“What we’re trying to do is build a relationship with our prospects and develop communication giving them information and giving them more resources,” said Moores, who has visited OKC for weeklong stretches at least once a month as does Oilers skating and skills coach Steve Serdachny.

But it’s more than having that connection with the Barons GM, coaching staff and players, it’s about having that kind of connection with players throughout the organization.

“We have 10 players in junior, three in college and five in Europe,” he said.

That’s a lot of future Oklahoma City Barons.

“We’ve never done anything like this with this kind of depth before,” said Moores.

Eventually the Oilers want to have their own ECHL club, preferably somewhere near OKC. Currently they share a working agreement in Stockton with the San Jose Sharks.

The idea is to have constant pressure from below, with players competing for ice time and moving themselves upward in the organization. While you can only have 50 players on NHL contracts there is no limit to how many you can have on AHL contracts. With a new downtown arena, they’ll have the money.

That’s all coming soon. But for the moment, there’s this. An Edmonton AHL farm team, first overall!

OKC is better than OK!

Follow me on Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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