With the news on September 15th that the NHL would be locking out its players, many of those players have joined teams in various parts of the world in an effort to stay on the ice and stay sharp in the event a season can be salvaged.
Another large number of players have been assigned by their NHL clubs to start the 2012-13 season in the American Hockey League until the lockout has been settled. Most AHL teams in the league bolstered their lineups with NHL calibre players that would not be available to them under normal circumstances.
The team that is perhaps benefiting the most is the Edmonton Oilers affiliate, the OKC Barons. The Barons have received an impressive influx of talent from the parent club including Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With news that Taylor Hall is also scheduled to join the club, no other AHL team can come close to boasting a trio like that.
While that group alone would probably make the Barons amongst the favourites, they also have a deep AHL lineup behind them. Oklahoma City returns a team that won the Western Conference last year with 99 points and lost out in the Western Coference playoffs to the Toronto Marlies.They return the majority of last year’s roster including key players such as Marc Arcobello, Josh Green, Philippe Cornet and Yann Danis.
The only key piece that will not be returning is leading scorer Ryan Keller, who is playing for Geneve Servette of the Swiss A league. While he will be a significant loss, one would have to think that scoring can be made up by some of the new additions.
Here’s a look at some key pieces at each position.
The obvious names here: Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins certainly have the ability to tear the league up and there is no reason to think they won’t.
A couple of other names to keep an eye on are Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton. Both 2010 Oiler draft picks, both had tough starts to their pro careers last year, but then went in different directions in the second half. Pitlick’s game improved and progressed and he became one of the Barons better forwards in the Calder Cup playoffs. Hamilton continued to struggle and was a healthy scratch on some nights. Both are in the Oilers top prospect group and are expected to take a next step in their progression this season. Look for Pitlick to be a key contributor and Hamilton to bounce back in his second season.
The other name to watch is Magnus Paajarvi. The Swedish speedster has all the tools and had big expectations placed on him a couple years ago when he broke camp with the Oilers, most of which he hasn’t lived up to. The lockout could be a blessing in disguise for him, where he can prove that he is the player the Oilers thought he was when they drafted him.
Perhaps the biggest name on the Okc Barons defensive roster is also the most talked about name on the Oilers group as well, and that is Justin Schultz. Schultz is one player that could really benefit from the lockout. Starting in the AHL will give him a chance to get his feet wet and accustomed to playing the pro game. While all accounts say that Schultz is very mature and a well polished and can’t miss prospect, he faced an uphill battle of pressure and scrutiny entering the NHL season. In OKC he will log plenty of minutes and potentially a top pairing defenceman. He is also by far the most offensively gifted defenceman on the roster.
Colten Teubert maybe the most NHL ready defenceman on the roster and aside from Schultz would likely be the first OKC D-man called up to Edmonton should there be a need. He got into 24 big league games with the Oilers and returns to the AHL this year to continue his progression and hone his skills awaiting his next opportunity. A big, physical defenceman who plays with an edge will provide toughness and leadership for the Barons roster and log big time minutes.
The one lock for the roster and the number 1 spot to start the season is last year’s team MVP Yann Danis. An AHL all-star, Danis was the Barons best player on most nights. He will be back between the pipes and once again an integral part of the Barons lineup.
The second spot on the depth chart will be between Olivier Roy and Tyler Bunz. Roy may have the inside track as he is in his second year of pro and is coming off a strong year. Playing the majority of the year with Stockton in the ECHL, Roy was terrific and also impressed in a brief 128 minute audition in OKC.
Bunz is the reigning WHL Goaltender of the Year and coming off a spectacular junior campaign. Ideally he would follow Roy’s path and cut his teeth in Stockton, but Bunz may have something to say about that.
While Oklahoma City may be one of the top contenders, there are plenty of other strong teams and many that will also have impressive NHL talent in their lineup.
The Syracuse Crush (formerly Norfolk) the affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning were last year’s Calder Cup Champions and will return a very similar roster to last year’s title squad. They will also get Brett Connolly and Keith Aulie from the NHL roster.
Philadelphia’s farm team, the Adirondack Phantoms have gotten as much an infusion of NHL talent as anyone. They have added Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Zac Rinaldo, Eric Wellwood and Erik Gustafsson from the Flyers and bring back their top two scorers from last year in Matt Ford and Jason Akeson to form a formidable squad. Players like Schenn and Couturier who gained valuable NHL playoff experience could be invaluable to the Phantoms
Last year’s runner-up, the Toronto Marlies, return one of the deepest rosters in the AHL with top scorer Mike Zigomanis back to lead the charge. They boast top young talent such as Nazem Kadri, Joe Colbourne and Carter Ashton up front and get a major injection on the back end with Jake Gardiner coming down from the parent club.
The Rochester Americans (Buffalo affiliate) could also be a team to watch, and the key could be Cody Hodgson. A top six forward for the Sabres, Hodgson will once again go down to the AHL and centre the Amerks top line and be a key to their success. He will be joined by NHL talent Marcus Foligno, Corey Tropp and Luke Adam. They also have one of the better defence groups led by Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan and will be joined by newcomers Mark Pysk and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc from the CHL.