Bakersfield’s Bumping Blue Line

It was a roller coaster ride kind of season for the Bakersfield Condors. Fans watched fifteen players that have filtered through their American Hockey League system dress in an Edmonton Oilers uniform this season. The former Condors included some very important playoff performers for the Oilers such as Matt Benning, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Kassian and Darnell Nurse. The darker side of the equation is that since the relocation from Oklahoma City to Bakersfield in 2015, the west coast fans have yet to see playoff action. The team ranked twentieth in the league in winning percentage and struggled with injuries all season.

While the primary concern for Bakersfield was putting the puck in the net, their defense excelled ranking fifth in goals against. This blue line is about to experience a complete shakeup which will likely include the insertion of four rookie defenders and the departure of a handful of veterans.

Out the Con-door

The most notable departure from Bakersfield’s blue line next season will be Griffin Reinhart. After a year of seasoning in the minors, his game has improved by leaps and bounds. Footwork and assertiveness were pinpointed by Oilers management as components of his game that needed to be improved and he did that. If Reinhart remains the property of Edmonton next year, he will be on the NHL roster come October. As the Oilers currently appear to be positioned heading into the expansion draft, I would make a strong argument that the Vegas Golden Knights will take Reinhart as their selection from Edmonton.

Griffin Reinhart (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

With the injury to Andrej Sekera which could keep him out into 2018, some believe unrestricted free agent and AHL all-star Jordan Oesterle will see an opening. Oesterle has proved in small doses he can compete at the NHL level but I would not count on the Oilers having him full-time next year or frankly, bring him back on a new contract at all. The Condors will also lose over 400 games of AHL experience in Mark Fraser and four-year veteran David Musil, who finished the year in the Arizona organization.

New Kids on the Block

The Oilers organization has vastly improved in terms of depth on their blue line throughout their entire system. This is no better reflected than seeing star Western Hockey League defencemen Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones making the jump to professional hockey in the fall. Jones is that classic steady, stay-at-home defender that doesn’t quite show as much flash as his brother Seth in Columbus but has been extremely effective up to this point in his career. Bear, on the other hand, quarterbacks the power play for the WHL champion Seattle squad and won WHL Defenceman of the Year.

Oilers and Condors fans hold some high hopes for the aforementioned duo but there are another two that are rather unfamiliar names. Ziyat Paigin is a towering 6-foot-7 defender who was drafted as a seventh-round draft pick by Edmonton in 2015. Paigin played the previous four seasons in Russia, therefore, the adjustment to North American size ice may be a struggle. Another rookie will be former Niagara Ice Dog, Ryan Mantha. Mantha, another massive specimen at 6-foot-5, had an absolutely stellar year putting up 58 points in 65 games and earned himself a contract with the Oilers after the New York Rangers opted not to sign their 2014 fourth-round draft pick. The Oilers signed Swedish defenceman William Lagesson to an entry-level contract but assigned him to Djugardens in the Swedish Hockey League for next season.

Piecing it Together

If the Condors decide to go the traditional lefty-righty combinations on their three pairs, they still have a couple of gaps to fill. Jones and Paigin shoot left while Bear and Mantha shoot right. The open gap on the right side is expected to be filled by Mark Fayne, who has a year remaining on his contract and will be used as a mentor in the system. The opening on the left side will likely be Dillon Simpson, who is currently a restricted free agent but should get qualified. This leaves Ben Betker as an extra or tweener from Bakersfield to their ECHL affiliate, Norfolk.

The Condors have their tentative group of six on the backend as it stands but with so many young faces, do not be surprised if Condors’ brass takes a long look at a couple veteran AHL defenders who are free agents. The list of qualified defenders includes Michael Kostka, Chris Butler or Nate Guenin. Bakersfield will have some tough decisions to make come training camp with all the new faces and constant turnover that the AHL provides. In the big picture, the Oilers organization has to just be happy that they have defencemen come through the system that finally forces management to make tough these tough decisions.