The dust has finally settled on Round 2 of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Oilers defensive prospect Ethan Bear and the Seattle Thunderbirds will face-off against the Kelowna Rockets in the Western Conference Championship.
Bear has recorded three goals and added six assists for nine points in nine playoff games.
Western Conference Championship— Seattle Thunderbirds (@SeattleTbirds) April 17, 2016
GM 1 4/22 at Vic/Kel
GM 2 4/23 at Vic/Kel
GM 3 4/26 at Sea
GM 4 4/27 at Sea
Defending their 2015 WHL Playoff Championship title, the Rockets look to make the advance once more, this time without Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl in their lineup.
The Rockets alumnus was a pivotal piece in their ranks during the 2014-15 WHL season and 2015 post-season run, scoring 10 goals and adding 18 assists for 28 points in 19 games.
Meanwhile, Oilers goaltending prospect Keven Bouchard and the Moncton Wildcats will take on the Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL semi final series.
- BLOG: Russian forwards evaluated
- BLOG: Fleming gives insight on young defence
- BLOG: Success and disappointment
- BLOG: LaLeggia pleased with improvement
- BLOG: Hunt sees growth in Condors
- BLOG: Condors miss playoffs
- BLOG: Khaira reflects on season
- CONDORS RAW | Gerry Fleming
- CONDORS RAW | Joey LaLeggia
- CONDORS RAW | Dillon Simpson
- CONDORS RAW | Jujhar Khaira
- CONDORS RAW | Brad Hunt
A pair of Russian forwards spent part of the 2015-16 season down in the American Hockey League with the Oilers affiliate. Anton Slepyshev and Bogdan Yakimov each played over 35 games for the Bakersfield Condors.
Slepyshev opened the season in Edmonton (11 games, one assist), but was assigned down to Bakersfield. It took him some time to adjust to his new surroundings in his first North American season.
The winger seemed to find his groove in the month of March. He had a stretch of games in which he recorded three goals and four assists for seven points in seven games. He finished the season with 21 points, including 13 goals, in 49 games for the Condors.
“I think Slepy got better as the year went on and I think you’ll see more offence from him next year,” said Condors Coach Gerry Fleming, who spoke with Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now Tuesday. “It’s always tough when you don’t understand the language, different culture, the game is a little bit different here with just the size of the ice and the way the philosophies are. It took him a little while to adapt to that but I think there were signs toward the end of the year that he does have that club in his bag and he’s got a good skill-set. He’s big, he just needed time to get comfortable.”
Yakimov had much more of a rollercoaster season that saw him return to the KHL for 11 games and then the playoffs before returning to Bakersfield to finish out the year. He finished his 2015-16 AHL campaign with 15 points (5-10-15) in 36 games. This came a year following a promising first North American season in which a strong rookie camp put him right in the thick of the top end of the Oilers prospect pool. The return to Russia could be seen as a bump in his development road, but his return was encouraging for the Condors and the Oilers.
“Double-edged sword there,” said Fleming. “He thinks that going back helped him not only physically but mentally. He says it’s a different game, they play a little bit differently. Maybe a little more skill-set is required so maybe you have to be focused on that. He came back and kudos to him for coming back and trying to help us. He was good on draws for us down the stretch. Obviously, we’d like to see a little more offence from him but it wasn’t from lack of trying, that’s for sure.”
The Bakersfield Condors rolled out a largely young and inexperienced lineup this season, especially on defence. The Oilers American Hockey League affiliate played host to several young blueliners in either their first or first few professional seasons. Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming provided his breakdown of some of those young players when he spoke to Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now Tuesday.
Joey LaLeggia enjoyed a fruitful career at the University of Denver. The 23-year-old played five games as a pro last season when his collegiate career ended, but this was his first full year in the AHL.
The defenceman had to spend time playing forward several games due to injuries and call-ups, but the Condors and Oilers are pleased with his progression. He finished the season with 27 points (8-19-27) in 63 games.
“I think Joey got better as the year went on,” said Fleming. “He’s a good player with the puck, but he expanded on that. He was walking the line a little bit more, he had more poise with the puck and his defensive game got better and better. There’s still areas in his defensive game, because he’s a little bit of a smaller guy he’s got to get a little bit stronger but overall we liked his progression and like where he’s at right now.”
Another former collegiate defenceman enjoyed a very promising second pro season in the eyes of his coach.
“Dillon Simpson, I thought overall, was probably our most consistent d-man all year long,” said Fleming. “I don’t know where to begin. There’s so many improvements in his game that have happened not only this year but last year as well. He doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s low maintenance, he’s a good leader and he assumed that responsibility this year. I think more time for Dillon and hopefully he gets some games up and down next year to see where he’s at. He was great for us all year long.”
Simpson spent four years at the University of North Dakota. The 2011 fourth-round pick finished this season with 20 points (4-16-20) in 57 games.
Jordan Oesterle is a name very familiar to Oilers fans, as he spent 17 games with the big club this season and drew much praise from the Edmonton staff. The second-year pro posted 25 points (4-21-25) in 44 AHL games with the Condors and returned to them late in the season.
“Before he left he was playing a really high level of hockey at this level, and he came back and picked up right where he left off,” Fleming said of the college free-agent signing out of Western Michigan. “He was a big part of our push down the stretch here especially over the last weekend.”
The Oilers invested a first and second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft to acquire 2012 fourth-overall pick Griffin Reinhart. While he spent half his season with the Oilers, Fleming and the Condors did get a chance to work with the blueliner for 30 games. There were positive signs upon his late-season return to the AHL.
“Griff, when he came back, I thought he played a lot heavier,” said Fleming. “There was times we’d show him the importance of that aspect of his game and being consistent with it. I thought when he came down he played a lot more physical.”
Another year of development has paid dividends with some of the Oilers defensive prospects.
“There were some good signs,” said Fleming.
The Bakersfield Condors would like to be sitting in a playoff spot right about now, but unfortunately they fell just short of that goal. But for their bigger goal and the bigger picture, there were successes this season.
As the American Hockey League affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, the Condors main purpose is to develop the NHL club’s young prospects and prepare them for life in the NHL. The staff down in California takes great pride when they are able to tell a player they’ve gotten the call-up.
“Ultimately, that’s our job is to prepare these guys to play in the NHL,” said Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming. “We had pretty much all of our guys at some point or a majority of our guys play in the NHL and contribute or perform well up there. That speaks volumes to the reception they receive down here. People don’t understand that coming to these games and watching these guys develop is a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish here. In that respect, it was a positive thing. But at the end of the day, you’d always like to make the playoffs, and I think that experience of going into the playoffs and learning how to win and playing those games is a huge part of their development.”
Players like Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl began the year on the farm, but earned call-ups and stuck with the Oilers the rest of the way, taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself with injuries to the parent club. Prospects like Jujhar Khaira and Jordan Oesterle took advantage of their opportunities as well and were able to turn heads on the Oilers first-year coaching staff. Laurent Brossoit earned time in the NHL after an All-Star campaign down in the AHL.
That being said, all of the call-ups this season left the Condors fighting for their playoff lives and struggling to piece together a full roster. But that’s the life of an AHL team, and through the disappointment there were successes.
“I don’t think it’s a question of frustration,” said Fleming. “I am disappointed for the guys because they do put the sacrifice in and the hard work and the time and details that need to go into getting into the playoffs. But at the end of the day, their ultimate goal is to play in the NHL and contribute to that team and to further their careers. They all want to play in the NHL. At the end of the day, we’re here to service the Edmonton Oilers. They want us to make the playoffs because it is a big part of their development. To see the amount of guys we had move up and progress in their careers was rewarding.”
Oilers goalie prospect Keven Bouchard and the Moncton Wildcats clinched their QMJHL quarter final series against Gatineau 4-2 with a 7-2 victory in Game 6 Monday night.
The 20-year-old netminder stopped 22 of 24 shots Monday, helping the Wildcats secure victory and advance to the semi final.
Bouchard finished the series playing 352:21, while posting a 2.55 GAA and .907 save percentage in six games.
Bouchard was selected 183rd overall in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
Reflecting on his first professional season, Bakersfield Condors defenceman Joey LaLeggia is pleased with his growth.
“There’s a lot of learning that had to be done this year,” he said. “There was an adjustment period but I do like the way I finished the season. I think I made a lot of strides and I’m excited going into next year.”
A season of up and downs for the Oilers AHL affiliate team saw LaLeggia’s versatility challenged, stepping out of his comfort zone to take on the role of wingman when needed.
“I think everyone’s goal is to come in here and play in the NHL and to become the best player they can possibly be,” said LaLeggia. “I didn’t get to play in the NHL [this season] but… I am very happy with the strides I made in my game this year.”
Heading into the off-season, the blueliner said he plans to alter his fitness regime slightly.
“I think I need to lift a little more weights than usual… but without doing so much that I lose my speed and my quickness.”
With the Bakersfield Condors season now come to a close, defenceman Brad Hunt said that in looking back, he’s been impressed with the growth he’s seen in his younger teammates.
“It’s good to see the first and second-year guys come in and you see them develop throughout the year,” said Hunt. “It’s awesome to see guys like Joey [LaLeggia] and [Jujhar Khaira] take the steps towards the right direction, even Oesterle getting up [to Edmonton] and playing as well as he did.”
The veteran player, recalled by the Oilers for seven games this season, recorded 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points in 57 games with the Condors.
The blueliner is now preparing himself mentally for the next stretch as he navigates his unrestricted free agent title with an open mind.
“Just [going to] wait and see what happens,” said Hunt. “That’s the business part of it. I’ve never been in this position before, I’ve always been a restricted free agent, now I’m an unrestricted free agent. But I was treated very well within the Edmonton organization and I’ve got to thank them for the opportunity that they’ve given me over the past three years. It’s something that I’ll never forget.”
It’s the first time in five consecutive seasons that the Oilers AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors will not take part in the post-season run for the Calder Cup.
“It’s a frustrating way to go out,” admits Condors forward Jujhar Khaira. “It’s pretty sad but I think at the same time it’s good to see, our team’s pretty young here and it’s good to see where everybody’s at, and next year, I think everybody’s going to come in with confidence and we’ll see what happens.”
Although their season ended Saturday, the Condors finished on a high note with a three-game win streak and a 31-28-7-2 record.
“Obviously, we wanted to make the playoffs but I think that the team made some good strides at the end there that went in those last three games, that’s for the fans,” said Condors defenceman Brad Hunt. “They showed us support all year and it was a great atmosphere in there and that’s a tribute to the fans.”
Another season of hockey has come and gone for the Bakersfield Condors.
As Saturday saw the Oilers AHL affiliate wrap up their 2015-16 season on Saturday with a win against the Grand Rapids Griffins, Monday was one filled with departures and goals for next season.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Condors forward Jujhar Khaira. “I thought the fans out here were great, the weather’s great for sure, I had a lot of fun. Just playing with that kind of crowd and that kind of excitement it was a lot of fun.
Khaira, who was recalled by the Oilers this season for 15 games this season, recorded 10 goals and 17 assists for 27 points in 49 games with Bakersfield.
“It was a good year,” he said. “I had a lot more confidence this year than last year, just going to take the same thing, go into the summer and have a strong summer, then come back and even have more confidence.”