Bill Scott. April 1, 2011 (Photo: Courtesy of Steven Christy. All Rights Reserved.)

Part III: The OKC Barons – The Team and its Young Prospects

Bill Scott, the General Manager of the Oklahoma City Barons, sat down with me last week to talk about his job as the G.M. of the OKC Barons, the team and its young prospects, and hockey in Oklahoma. This third part of four segments focuses on the team – its past and its future, its prospects, the Oilers and how the team evolves each season. There is something very satisfying about watching a team from its inception. As one fan, Denton Johnson, aptly summed it up at the end of this past season “It is truly an honor to watch this team.” Today, the OKC Barons are heading into their third season, a relatively short life span, however for fans watching this team grow, expand, evolve and even stumble a bit at times, it has indeed been an honor.

Interview with OKC Barons G.M. Bill Scott – August 28, 2012

PT: Now that you have been here a full two seasons with the Barons and you are preparing to go into your third, how would you grade the franchise at this point?

Bill Scott:  I don’t know that I’d ever put a letter grade on it, but from our team’s perspective, we’re headed in the right direction. I don’t think you can ever be satisfied until you win the Calder Cup and even at that point you are not going to be satisfied until you win it again. For us – our goal the first year [was to make the playoffs] – the Oiler’s affiliates had not made the playoffs in a number of years prior to coming to Oklahoma City. We were fortunate enough to get some good veteran players that year, and those players were brought in before I was even here for the most part. They did a great job at stocking us and we made the playoffs. That was the big goal – give these players, the future of the organization, a taste of the playoffs – because the Oilers had not been there in a few years and neither had their farm teams. That was a big plus for us. Now, were we satisfied where we ended up finishing? No, we thought we could have gone a lot further in the playoffs. It certainly left us wanting more.

Going into year two, there was a much different make-up of our team. We had a lot of guys we were familiar with, guys who came in toward the end of the year, Tanner House, Hunter Tremblay, guys like that, who were a bigger part of our team this year. And we didn’t have as many veteran players as we did the year before, or close to veteran players. We were a younger team, more inexperienced team, but we had great leadership – Bryan Helmer, Ryan Keller, Josh Green, and Yann Danis, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for his leadership on the team as well. We had a really good year.

We felt like it was one of those years where in the Conference Finals it just didn’t go our way. We weren’t dissatisfied with the effort, we thought our guys gave everything that they had, and Toronto got the bounces in that series and they had some outstanding goaltending certainly. We fired a lot of shots at them but we couldn’t get much through. Sometimes you run into a hot goaltender like that.

But that’s one of those things that our guys said in our exit interviews, that they all were ready to get going again. They were ready for next season because they got an even greater taste of what it was like to go that deep into the playoffs and have that kind of excitement around their team, knowing that we were that close to winning a championship. Whereas the first year we were almost satisfied getting in, to some degree; the second year it was even more so. You could see the guys were hungry and passionate, ready to come back.

Just by looking at the contracts of the players around them, they knew we were going to have our core group back for this year. So they are ready to go. They’ve been ready since we lost in Toronto, which is really exciting for our guys. I think from the hockey side, it’s been good, but we always want to get better. We want to have as many NHL prospects ready to play in the NHL here as possible. We are certainly not going to rush anybody into a situation, but we want to make sure that Edmonton has players who can come in and play roles right away, or take over roles at that level. From that side I think we are on the right track, but we want to keep getting better and our goal this year is the Calder Cup again.

Certainly from the organization standpoint I think we have done a great job. It’s never easy coming into that first year of a team. Things come at you fast and furious. But I think we’ve done a great job and we are out in the community a lot. I think we’ve done a great job advertising, we’re on TV, radio, and billboards around the city. I think there is much more of a buzz now. I know we talk about it as a staff and in the locker room – how we showed up here in August 2010 and everybody didn’t quite know who we were. We were the new hockey team but people weren’t sure who the Barons were. Now our head coach walks around the city and gets recognized by people automatically and that’s a good thing. Our staff and our office has done a great job at getting us out there and giving us the support we need on that side and I think we are just going to continue this momentum. We have a great staff here in the office to continue that momentum and I think it is only going to get better and better as we go along.

PT: Yes, fans are beginning to see that as well.

Josh Evans [Director of Communications]: It took some time, as Bill said. At the start, there were a few of us here who had worked with the old team [the Blazers] and we, to be honest with you, were set in our ways and it came fast. At times it was like spinning plates, and it was all we could do. Now that we’ve had that season, we have a better feel for it, a better feel for the way they want to operate, and how to utilize the players. We can sit down and make a plan, rather than shooting from the hip. That’s going to happen, there is still going to be a little bit of that, but you have to be able to sit down and say okay – let’s just talk about appearances, in the month of October it’s going to be busy because we’ve got practices so we only have two days, but in November, this week looks good so I can go to Habitat for Humanity and say we will come out on this date. We can go to the school on this date. Working from a plan works better than reacting.

Bill Scott: The one thing I’ll say too, I obviously haven’t worked for every organization, but I have seen them peripherally working in the league office and the amount of effort that our staff puts into keeping our fans happy – our season seat holders, with the season seat holder parties, the Christmas party, and end of year party. I think some of the benefits that our group gets are phenomenal and our staff is dedicated to that group of fans obviously. We want to continue to attract more fans as well, and I think we are going to do that certainly. But from my perspective, from knowing what I’ve seen in other organizations, I think we do a top notch job of that for our fans for sure.

PT: The Barons made the playoffs both seasons, and this past season the team made it into the Conference finals. How do you build a team with such high performance and at the same time carry out your primary mandate of developing young players for the NHL?

Bill Scott: I think it starts with drafting, and Steve [Tambellini], Kevin [Lowe] and Stu [MacGregor] up in Edmonton have done a phenomenal job at drafting over the past couple of years. You have to work with what you are given to some degree and the way our team is right now, the draft picks and the prospects are a huge part of our team. That certainly helps. When you’re given good players it makes everyone look good and it makes the staff look good on our end.

But at the same time, our coaching staff knows that we need to give these guys ice time, we need to allow them to make mistakes, and find a good, well-defined role for each player on our team and hopefully that role is what they will mirror in the NHL. You don’t need a guy pretending to be a first line player here who clearly as a prospect is going to be a third or fourth line player at the NHL level. You need to prepare them for that role because that’s how the Oilers are going to use them. So for us, there is certainly a balance of those two things.

In the American League, as we talked about before with recalls and injuries, there’s some luck. I hate using that term luck, but there are some things that have to go your way during the season as well to go that far. I’ve seen a lot of good teams run into recall issues and injury issues where you look at the end of the year and you think if they had been healthy they would have been a tough team to challenge. We were in pretty good shape last year. Obviously, we had a couple of injuries near the end with Colten Teubert out, Hunter Tremblay out, Josh Green missing time in the playoffs, and that certainly hurt. Those were good, important players for us. But when you are that far into the playoffs the other team has injuries too. And Toronto certainly had their injuries as well. Those things happen. That’s hockey and you just need that right mix to get all the way sometimes. There is that line of trying to win and trying to develop, but I think with the group that we have, we are fortunate, and we should be able to do both. There should be no reason that we can’t win and develop at the same time.

This year we are certainly going to be younger on defense than we’ve been, but you know what, we’ve got really good prospects. We are excited about the guys who are coming in. Brandon Davidson had a great overage year there in Junior; Captain of his team, lots of points, and he’s got some offense, but I think he is going to give us some toughness and do some dirty work for us back there as well. Martin Marincin’s got a world of skill at his fingertips. He’s a big guy, he’s got to get thicker and stronger, but he’s a very smart, headsy player. Taylor Fedun could be here this year. Obviously he lost his season last year due to his injury, but he was having an unbelievable camp in Edmonton that year. He had a great track record at Princeton, that’s why he was signed as a free agent; he’s not a draft pick, he’s a free agent signing that our guys found. And he is a really, really smart, intelligent player – obviously going to Princeton, you can kind of expect that out of a guy like that.

We are really excited about the talent we have coming in and obviously we’ve still got some players. Colten Teubert could be here, Alex Plante could be here, Danny Ringwald we’ve signed, so we’ve got a good group of guys. Another player we’ve signed out of a Canadian college to an AHL deal is Teigan Zahn, and he had a great track record in the WHL. He was Rookie of the Year in the Canada [West University Hockey] last year – a defenseman. We feel like we’ve really got a good group of guys coming in. They might be a little bit green to start, but that’s what the first half of the year is for – for those rookies. We always tell them by December you’re not rookies anymore. It’s away you go, you are a part of the team now.

PT: For fans in OKC who have been watching some of these young prospects, it is very exciting to begin to see their progression up through the system. But, as you said, we have a very young defensive group. Do you think the team is strong enough in defense?

Bill Scott: Absolutely. You look to guys who have been around a couple of years – if Alex or Colten are here, they are two or three years into their deals now, so you ask them to take on more responsibility on the leadership side and they should help bring those younger guys along. That’s part of their job as teammates who have been around for a couple of years. It is something I think that just goes with the territory and the guys understand that. The longer you are around, as you start to see new faces in the locker room, that means it’s your locker room. It’s your time to take a leadership role.

Two years ago the Oilers reset the way they were going to go about their drafting, their system and organization, and now we are seeing the players come through who were drafted a couple of years ago, so it is exciting. Jeff Petry is now up in the NHL. He did a great job for us and obviously played his way into a role up top as well, and that’s what we want to see from our guys. We want to see them graduate and go up there.

As we go along here, we are going to have more and more guys on the cusp of going up and they are each going to have their own defined role at that level. That is something organizationally when you look at the personnel that you have, you’ve got to figure out do you need a veteran guy much longer at the Oilers, or do you have a guy coming in from OKC who needs one more year, or half a year, and he’s going to take that role up top.

So that’s what we want to do. We want to bring those guys along and give them more responsibility this year certainly. I think our team is still a young team but we’ve got a little more experience than we did last year. We are going to be a little bit older up front than we were last year. On the back end we’ll be a little younger, probably more talented though. There are going to be growing pains with that and we are prepared for that.

We are going to have a good goaltending duo with Yann Danis and whoever ends up being with him, either Olivier Roy or Tyler Bunz, they are both outstanding prospects. Olivier had a great season last year in Stockton and played well for us when he was up here, and Tyler Bunz was goalie of the year in the WHL. So we are in a really good situation in that way, where you have good players coming and you can fill those holes and hopefully we can then fill some holes up top that they will have down the road.

PT: At this level we have many very young players who are just entering their first professional season of hockey – some are not even old enough to legally drink alcohol yet – and many are experiencing living on their own for the first time in their lives. Your job is to develop these young players for the NHL. How do you balance their professional development with that aspect of personal development?

Bill Scott: Yes, and I think it is about having conversations with the guys – just getting to know them. Knowing what their habits are. What they do on a daily basis. Are they guys who stay up late at night? Do they roll out of bed and come straight to practice? Or are they someone who gets up at 7 in the morning? They have their breakfast, watch a little bit of TV, get some work done and then they come to the rink. So you want to understand each player individually and where they are at and what’s new for them. You get guys who are homesick – some guys may not have lived away from home. And that’s certainly not something that fans normally see but it is a reality. These guys are young – 19, 20, 21 years old – and it might be the first time away from home for some of these guys and that is an adjustment. Even for the toughest guys on our team. So you need to get to know your guys really well. You have to gain their trust on that side of it.

You want to make sure they are eating the right things. Guys coming out of Junior usually have had billets, so they’ve had someone cooking for them, doing everything for them. So going to McDonald’s every day for lunch is probably not a great idea. The Oilers do an outstanding job in the summer at their development camp of providing those types of resources for the guys. They take cooking classes, they give them almost a miniature cookbook, and these are meals they’ve helped create and they are easy to make. All these guys can do it. They take them grocery shopping, so they know what to look for on labels, what’s good for them, and what isn’t good for them. So the nutritional aspect is huge. Because even if you are working out and you’re doing a lot of activities, you still need to eat right to be in good shape, otherwise it’s going to wear you down both physically and mentally.

Our organization puts a lot of resources into that side of it. They understand that it is a big adjustment to these guys. Sleeping habits – a lot of these guys may not be used to playing three games in three nights. Busing overnight from San Antonio to come to back and play here. So, what’s the best way to sleep? Should you sleep on the bus, should you sleep when you get back, and is there such a thing as too much sleep, or should I only get eight hours? What are all those answers and they are questions that guys usually don’t want to ask. They assume you should know, so there is a little bit of fear there in asking and looking dumb. But the organization does a great job at answering those questions before they are even asked.

It is something you need to monitor on a daily basis and our coaches do a great job of that, getting to know the players right away. Our trainers do a great job. We are a big family in our locker room and we always want to know if you do have a problem, if you are homesick, whatever it is, let us know because it might be affecting your play. And if you’re not playing well, we might think you are just not giving the right effort, and that is going to look bad on you. So it is better to open up and let us know what’s going on in your life so we can help you through any problems or issues, and also be happy for you when something good is happening in your life.

That’s kind of the way we approach it and I think it works well. The biggest thing is that it always takes a little bit of time to gain their trust. But as we’ve gone along and as these guys have been drafted, they see us around. Our coaches work that development camp [in Edmonton] in the summer so they get to know them even before they are here in Oklahoma City. We see them every year at rookie camp before training camp in September so the earlier you can build those relationships with the guys the better.

PT: This is all hypothetical at this stage, however if an NHL lockout takes place, what could fans potentially expect to see in OKC this coming season? You recently talked about this with Dan Tencer

Bill Scott: We are waiting for the NHL to tell us. As I said in that interview, we don’t want it to come to that. We want the NHL to play. They’ve got another meeting today and hopefully they make some progress. Until the NHL tells us that there may be a lockout then we really don’t have any say on what can happen. Speaking to what happened last time, in 04-05, the NHL essentially sent out guidelines to teams about what players would be allowed to be sent down and the teams had to follow those guidelines. Those rules could completely change, if it gets to that point this year, we just don’t know. And hopefully we don’t have to find out. I don’t really have any information on who might be able to play. If it was anything like last time, usually it is players on entry level contracts, and players who do not require waivers. Those are kind of the two main groups of players who were eligible last time, but we have to wait and see what would happen in that case.

PT: In the case of a lockout, would anything change in the NHL 50 contract scenario and how it might apply to the AHL?

Bill Scott: The NHL is allowed 50 contracts and they can only have 23 players on their active roster at a time. The contracts could be players who are in Junior, who were reassigned back there or back to Europe, something like that, or we have assigned players to Oklahoma City or Stockton. You just have the limit on 50 contracts. So nothing would change in that scenario. We’ve operated all summer as business as usual and we expect it to be business as usual. We’ve got our guys signed and so nothing would change and certainly not from the contract perspective.

PT:  Regarding AHL contracts – there are no limits to how many can be signed, is that correct? Other than the obvious – space, money, etc.

Bill Scott: Yes, there is no limit, no salary cap, or anything like that on AHL contracts. You basically are protected from a team signing too many because everybody has an affiliation agreement so the NHL is going to want their prospects to play. So you don’t normally see an AHL team sign 25 players, just because there isn’t room for those players, otherwise they are mostly going to be in the ECHL at that point, and you are paying a lot of guys to play in the ECHL, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Some teams sign more than others. Every affiliation agreement is different. Some teams are provided more players by their NHL club than others, therefore they do sign more AHL contracts. So it really depends upon the individual situation, but there are no salary limits or anything like that on an AHL contract.

PT: It is always hard for fans to see some of their favorite players move elsewhere – but it is understood that this is a business and the goal for an AHL team is to develop their NHL affiliate’s prospects. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of an AHL team’s role and where AHL contracted players fit into a roster.

Bill Scott: Yes, sometimes it’s difficult at the end of the year. You’ve had guys who you’ve gone through the whole season with, but you also know that you’ve got two prospects who are going to come in and you have to make room for them, because they are good prospects. So it can be difficult on that end from a personal standpoint, for these guys who you really like. You might really like them as players too, and you’d like to bring them back, but it just doesn’t fit. It just doesn’t work. It’s a numbers game, and our guys understand that.

It’s not a fun thing, but it is part of the business and it’s one of those things where the player pool that comes through your organization varies depending upon where your organization is as far as trying to make the playoffs, things like that obviously. If your goal is to win a cup, and that’s where you’re at, you’re right on the cusp of that, you’re probably going to make some trades where you might trade away some draft picks, therefore that year you are probably not going to have as many draft picks, so two years down the road you’re not going to have as many guys coming through your system. And at that time, you’re probably going to sign more AHL contracts. It’s cyclical.

The way it works right now with our organization we are at a spot where we’ve got a lot of prospects, we’ve signed a lot of our NHL contracts, and you always need to give yourself a little bit of wiggle room there in case there is some sort of emergency. For us, we don’t sign a lot of AHL deals right now. We didn’t expect to sign as many as we did last year, but injuries, recalls and waiver claims, different things like that forced our hand into doing it and it ended up working well. We had a pretty good team out of the whole deal.

Those guys that you are usually signing to AHL deals, if they are coming out of the ECHL they are looking for a chance, they are looking for an opportunity. Dylan Yeo is just a perfect example of a guy who had been with Hershey for a few years, bounced around between Hershey and the ECHL, didn’t have a deal going into last year and signed in Ontario in the ECHL. We gave him an opportunity, and to his credit he took the ball and ran with it. He was outstanding for us and we would have loved to have brought him back, but we didn’t have the space at this point, and he got himself a great deal. A lot of the time we can provide that opportunity for other guys. Are we going to enjoy playing against him next year? No. It will be great to see him, but that’s one of those things and we are very happy for guys like that. You want to see your guys succeed. And if we can provide that platform for a player where we just don’t have room for him and he goes and gets another great contract with another team we are very happy for them.

PT: Do you anticipate any more signings prior to training camp?

Bill Scott: I don’t anticipate anything right now. But, that can always change.

PT: In the case of a lockout, do you expect to see more players joining training camp here in OKC? Players who might have appeared in Edmonton for training camp?

Bill Scott: Potentially. We haven’t gone down that road with the Oilers yet. We are just taking it day by day and waiting for the league to tell us what’s next. As I said before, hopefully it doesn’t come to that. But, there certainly could be some potential for that.