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Ryan Martindale, Cameron Abney, Brandon Davidson, Dan Ringwald, and Olivier Roy at Open House. (Photo: Courtesy of Noah Geopert. All Rights Reserved.)

The AHL hockey season debuted on Friday evening and from the games I watched over the past two days, the NHL lockout has certainly made a difference. There has been a great deal of hype associated with this season due to the influx of NHL players and much of it has been justified. The level of play and speed of the game has certainly been bumped up. The “AHL” players – those players already assigned to AHL clubs prior to the NHL lockout – have upped their game into one much faster and smoother. However, there are still more than just a few growing pains.

The OKC Barons, the most hyped team in the league this season due to their addition of the Edmonton Oilers “young guns” – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz, and soon to arrive Taylor Hall – had a rough weekend. Friday’s game was the first time Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle played with the team in a game scenario since they were not included in the Barons two preseason matches, and it showed. Along with that, Lake Erie gets full credit for being very prepared to face the loaded Barons team.

Earlier this summer while compiling the possible Barons roster the single most glaring issue I noticed immediately was the youthfulness of the majority of this team. There is a glut of young Oilers prospects coming into the AHL at the moment and while they certainly are much more highly skilled, they lack the necessary experience. And to be perfectly honest, this is exactly what the AHL is all about. It is intended to develop young prospects into NHL players. Bruce McCurdy, a writer at the Edmonton Journal Cult of Hockey blog commented on Twitter this weekend that the Barons team was “Long on talent, short on experience.” Precisely.

Add to that the stellar record of the Barons traditionally dropping their season opener and after Friday’s game, a loss to Lake Erie 1-2, that record is now 3 for 3. Looking for a positive, this season is not as bad as their two previous opening seasons. The first season they dropped their opener to the Houston Aeros 6-3 and the following season they lost in a crushing and embarrassing defeat 7-0 to the Texas Stars. And they still found themselves in the playoffs both seasons. It reminds me of the slow start for more than a few NHL teams every season – the Vancouver Canucks come to mind immediately.

As reported by Jonathan Willis and others, Friday’s game was the game the Barons should have won, and Saturday’s game, a win over Lake Erie 3-2, was the one they should have lost. Saturday’s first two OKC goals were sheer luck as far as I could tell, but regardless of luck or skill, the goals still count. As Neal Livingston jokingly remarked on Twitter after Friday’s game: “Why win the first game? We have to ease Oilers fans into winning consistently. Don’t want the bends now do we?”

The Barons have always had Power Play issues and yesterday’s game was no different with their 0-7 PP record. Ouch! The penalties bit them in the butt, and perhaps the most bothersome to me – something that has bothered me since earlier this summer – is the lack of veterans on the team. Green and Byers are the two veteran forwards, but there is really no equivalent on the defensive end. Am I worried about Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle? No. They will settle down very quickly and we will begin to see results. They are too skilled to do otherwise. However, the young defensive players will just require more time to gain experience. Yes, the team has Plante (age 23) and Teubert (age 22) who have played a few NHL games (34 between them), but this is an extremely young defensive core. They are as a group highly skilled and Justin Schultz has proved his worth to the Oilers in the two preseason games and two season openers in Cleveland. Keep a watch on this kid. He is impressive!

In September, OKC’s G.M. Bill Scott talked about the young prospects when I interviewed him: “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.”

He continued: “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 ….”

Am I still hopeful about a Perfect Storm in OKC? Absolutely! The pieces are all there, but will it be easy? Not on your life! It will be an incredibly tough, hard grind to the end and the Barons will need to solve a few of their more glaring problems with the penalties and power play. Give these young players a couple of months’ trial by fire experience, let the chemistry build and you will see a powerful juggernaut by the end of the season.

Unless the NHL returns …. and even then, I see this team heading to the playoffs.

P.S. – Antti Tyrvainen, please get well SOON. The team could certainly use a bit of that powered up feisty play we saw during training camp.

Other Musings

Dylan Yeo, former OKC Barons’ defenseman, was scratched in the Toronto Marlies season opener. I assume it was the Marlies depth which pushed him out since he is scheduled to play in today’s game vs. Lake Erie.  Many OKC fans are missing Dylan this season!

Kirill Tulupov, former OKC Barons defenseman, was signed by the KHL team Avtomobilist on Oct. 11th and played his first game with the team October 13th. Tulupov’s Army is happy to see him back on the ice and will be cheering for him, even with the 11 hour time difference.

Triston Grant, former OKC Barons scrappy forward, had his 5-minutes for fighting in the Grand Rapid Griffin’s game on Saturday vs. Hamilton Bulldogs. The Griffins lost Friday to the Milwaukee Admirals (3-2) and Saturday’s game vs. the Hamilton Bulldogs (4-3).

Hunter Tremblay, former OKC Barons forward and short-handed goal specialist, had a goal (with ONE shot recorded!) in the St. John’s IceCaps game on Saturday. The IceCaps lost to the Springfield Falcons 2-4.