The Oilers were part of a major announcement involving the American Hockey League on Thursday in San Jose, CA. As part of a “monumental shift in geography” five teams well relocate to California, forming a Pacific Division.
Anaheim will purchase the Norfolk Admirals AHL franchise and move them to San Diego. Calgary’s affiliate will move from Glens Falls, NY to Stockton. The Los Angeles Kings will relocate Manchester to Ontario, CA while the Sharks will bring Worcester home to San Jose. The Oilers will move their Oklahoma City franchise to Bakersfield.
Having all five teams geographically close to one another makes for easier travel and development gains, according to Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe.
“We’re really excited,” Lowe said. “It’s been a few years coming. From a development standpoint, we had a good experience in Oklahoma City. Great city, great people. Not as many went to the game as we would have liked, but in terms of the location of Bakersfield it has the potential to be a great hockey market, a great American Hockey League market. It already has had great success in the ECHL. The geography of it and where it’s located, relative to the other franchises, is a big plus for us.”
Development is the primary objective, and it’s something Lowe feels will benefit under this new arrangement.
“It’s really going to enhance our development,” Lowe said. “The Canadian teams are a little further away. We won’t have the luxury of driving down the coast to see our American League team but we know that the players are really going to benefit from the proximity of the teams. Presently, we’re in Oklahoma City and it’s a wonderful city and we really enjoyed being there but our closest opponent was a six-hour bus ride away and the rest of the teams were pretty much a flight away so this is really going to enhance development for our players. The big thing in development in hockey, and I guess it’s the same in other sports, is to have practice time. When you’re flying around all the time across the country, you eliminate practice days. We anticipate possibly somewhere between 20-25 extra practice days, and in a season that’s roughly 180 days that’s a big percentage of time for the development of these young players.”
The Oilers organization feels they’ve build a solid foundation for development in OKC. They say their emphasis on that part of hockey operations remains firm in Bakersfield.
“I think the same recipe with a little extra spice,” Lowe said. “There’s no question we firmly believe drafting and developing will be our lifeblood and we really feel things have gone well in Oklahoma City in terms of the development part of it. We’re working on the drafting part. Simply the geography, at this point, we anticipate the players will have perhaps as many as 25 additional practice days that they didn’t have in Oklahoma City. That in itself is a huge bonus for the hockey club.”
Lowe told me there haven’t been additional hirings or moves involving personnel in Bakersfield or for development as of now.
“We’re just sorting all that out,” Lowe said. “It’s been in discussion for a long time in terms of us formally making a statement that we wouldn’t be going back to Oklahoma City. That just happened recently so now we’ve got to sort of get everything aligned. We have to find a place for our east coast team. We have ECHL coaches, American Hockey League coaches and staff so we have to figure all that out in the next little while.”
What can add to the success of minor league franchises is the availability of a nearby rival. With the American Hockey League’s new Pacific Division, five teams will enter California, giving the league some competitive battles looming in the future.
Three California NHL clubs, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, now have their affiliates in close enough proximity to help grow fan excitement. For the Oilers and Calgary Flames, it is also an opportunity to ignite a new Battle of Alberta— AHL edition.
“The fact that Calgary’s farm team (is close by), who we haven’t played a lot in recent years, our team will be playing them now,” Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe said. “That’s going to benefit (the players) and you’re going to have a high-level rivalry with the three California teams who have been successful in the NHL. Usually, that means that they’ve had good success in terms of their player deployment and player development. We have our hands full but we’ll be ready for the challenge. Ultimately, it will benefit in terms of the improvement in our players.”
Lowe also spoke to the geographic proximity of the teams benefiting development, due to less practice days taken up by long travel.
The Bakersfield ECHL franchise has been featured across the internet and on national and international news outlets due to their unique promotions and in-game entertainment. From Gettysburg Address, Seinfeld or Hobbit themed jerseys to cemetery headstone giveaways, the Condors in the ECHL have been anything but mundane.
Throughout their relationship with the Oilers, having been purchased by the NHL club a year ago, Bakersfield has maintained autonomy when it comes to their unique entertainment.
“The Oilers have given us the autonomy to do things and the Oilers purchased us because of some of the things we do,” Bakersfield’s President Matthew Riley said.
Now that Bakersfield will house the Oilers AHL affiliate, as part of the league’s new Pacific Division, the antics don’t have to stop.
“We want to be able to continue to do what we’ve done in the past and now just do it at a higher level, just one step away,” Riley said. “I’ll just say now we’re going to have more fun.”
The Oilers hope it doesn’t change much either.
“We hope it doesn’t change,” Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe said. “Matt Riley, who has been with the Condors and runs the business operations, has been there for 17 years. He’s a bright guy and really understands and respects the game of hockey. We’re going to encourage Matt to keep doing what he’s doing. Our fans who happen to be in California, Oilers fans, who want to see the American Hockey League team, go to Bakersfield. You never know what you’re going to see.”
In addition to providing family fun, Bakersfield will now see an increased emphasis on developing young future NHL players.
“We’re certainly focused on family entertainment and being involved in the community and those will remain our focuses and now bringing this accelerate level of play to the ice where nine out of 10 who play in the NHL played in the AHL,” Riley said. “Now the fans will get to connect and see those guys on TV and say, ‘Hey, I knew that player.’”
Riley couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s pretty thrilling.”
With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins still absent (All Star Break), the line combinations are as follows:
Taylor Hall left the ice early with an apparent injury but he has since returned.
In their first practice back at Rexall Place since the All Star break, the Oilers felt they put forth a good effort. The message to the players when they first hit the ice was to focus on continuing to make gains through good practice habits.
“Once again, focus on the practice,” Interim Coach Todd Nelson said. “We wanted to have good execution, have a high tempo and that’s what we saw today. I was happy with it.”
“I think the message today was to get back to what we were doing,” Benoit Pouliot said. “We played well in Washington and the game before that too so we’ve just got to get back to it and get our legs going. It’s been a good four or five days since we’ve been on the ice. Practice was good, quick and intense. We’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
The lone negative from practice today was when Taylor Hall left the ice with an apparent leg injury after getting hit with a puck. He returned to test it out but then left again. Nelson says he fully expects Hall to be fine and play tomorrow against Minnesota.
Jordan Eberle feels there are differences in the way this team is playing now versus the beginning of the season or previous years. Under Interim Coach Todd Nelson, the Oilers are 5-4-2 in the last 11 games and have played some competitive hockey.
“I think more than anything, we’re more confident about our game,” Eberle said. “We’re playing better as a five-man unit. I think systematically, from a viewer standpoint too, I know a lot of people came up to me during the break and said, ‘you guys look like a team. You’re playing as a unit together.’”
Eberle says the Oilers have an opportunity to finish out the season strong and potentially generate positive momentum heading into next season.
“We’re starting to find an identity here,” Eberle said. “I think we’re starting to play a little bit better and with a couple of results the last little bit, if we can finish the season strong then I really like where we are heading into next season. It’s really an opportunity for us to keep playing well and feel confident about what we’ve got going next year.”
On January 20, the Oilers hard fought efforts brought them a shootout win over the Capitals in Washington, D.C. It was a win the players were genuinely proud of, with they way they stuck together, came back and pulled it out in the end.
So when faced with an All Star break immediately following a rush of good vibes, would the players welcome the break or wish they could keep going?
“It always creeps in your mind a bit, but it was a good break for everybody,” Interim Coach Todd Nelson said. “The guys seemed recharged and energized and, like I said before, I liked the way our practice went. Sometimes your first practice back after time off gets really sloppy but today was not that case. It was a pretty good day.”
The Oilers returned to Edmonton on Monday for their first practice since the morning of their win in D.C. Some of the players had wished they could have played some more before the time away, but all of them are feeling refreshed.
“I was talking to my dad on the way home (after the Capitals game) and I wasn’t really ready for a break,” Jordan Eberle said. “It was more that we were excited. Hockey is really fun again. When you’re winning games, that’s how it is. But that being said, you get to take a breath, you get a little bit of a mental break and you can come back here with some jump. Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off.”
Benoit Pouliot was in the group of players who welcomed the time away, despite riding high after the win.
“I think it was nice for everyone,” Pouliot said of the break. “I don’t think it will break up anything. The whole league is in the same situation as us. I think everyone enjoyed their four or five days off and now we’re back on the ice today. I don’t think it’s going to mess anything up. We’ll just be back tomorrow against Minny and be ready.”
The Oilers selected William Lagesson with the 91st pick in the 2014 draft. Now the defenceman has selected his next career stop. Lagesson has committed to play college hockey at the University of Massachusetts.
Lagesson, playing in his first USHL season, has 12 points (1-11-12) in 25 games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He leads all their defencemen in scoring.
Lagesson played for Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Championship.
The Oilers are on the ice for practice just outside of Washington, D.C.
The Oilers are on the ice for practice this morning at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.
The line combinations are as follows:
The Oilers are working on dump ins and shooting drills.