With an ongoing, exhaustive NHL labor dispute this year, more than any other, the Edmonton Oilers were in need of a stable environment to host their top talent throughout these unique times.
Through the duration of this season's CBA struggle, the Oklahoma City Barons have welcomed some of hockey's top young players, providing crucial development during a key rebuilding era for one of the league's most proud and storied franchises.
As former first overall draft picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, NHL All-Star Jordan Eberle and rising rookie phenom Justin Schultz move to continue their journey in the NHL, they can reflect on their time in the American Hockey League with respect and fond memories.
"It's been great," said rookie defenseman Justin Schultz.
"I couldn't ask for much more. I've been playing with great players and they've taught me so much and made the transition for me real easy so… I've had a blast (in OKC) and I'm happy to move on."
"The city is great. The weather… You can't ask for much better weather. All the guys on the team were great. Everyone around the Barons organization was great to me and these guys. So, it's been fun. Going to Thunder (NBA) games or just walking around town, it's a really nice place. So we had a blast."
During their time in Oklahoma City, the players had the opportunity to connect with a smaller fanbase than they will see in the NHL and to become part of the fabric of the local community. From open house events with Season Seat Holders, to involvement with the Special Olympics of Central Oklahoma and Habitat for Humanity.
Schultz, as a rookie, had never experienced that kind of community side to the career of a professional athlete before.
"I never did stuff like we did here. We built a house and painted the house. That was a great experience to do that for people that are less fortunate so it was definitely a first for me and hopefully we can do some stuff like that in the future."
It wasn't all hammers and nails for the Oilers' youth. Their stay in OKC was all business on the ice as they continue to develop the skills and chemistry that has the potential to make Edmonton perennial contenders in the NHL.
Head coach Todd Nelson and his staff worked tirelessly to sharpen the skills of the Oilers prospects throughout this season to make sure that should the lockout end, they'd be ready to return to the NHL in midseason form.
"I think we've all improved at some facet of the game," said Hall who finished his AHL stint with 14 goals and
20 assists. "I think (Nugent-Hopkins) really wanted to become a better defensive centerman and work on his face-offs and that kind of thing. (Eberle) has just become more of a complete player and I'd like to think I've worked on my passing and my play making a little bit and also my defensive game."
The star power of these players was on full display for the fans in OKC.
Eberle remains the league's top scorer with 51 points (25-26-51) in 34 games. His 25 goals are also tops in the AHL.
Schultz is a close second to Eberle in scoring with 48 points (18-30-48), leading all defenseman in scoring and falling just two goals short of an AHL record.
Hall, who played in just 26 games this season, still ranks top ten in scoring. His 34 points (14-20-34) rank eighth.
During a time in which continued development and stability from within the organization was key, Oklahoma City stood tall to the task, taking good care of Edmonton's treasures.
"We enjoyed our time in OKC, very much so," Taylor Hall said as he awaited his flight at the OKC airport. "We had a great time with all the guys here. But we want to play in the NHL, we want to hone our skills in the best league in the world and we finally have a chance to do that now."
Now they'll get their chance to play with the best in the world once again, but OKC was not a bump in the road in their career. It was a valuable stop on a bright journey.
"There was a lot of fun things we did here. We had a great group of guys and a great coaching staff that taught us a lot and the staff here was great."
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