Future Watch: Chris VandeVelde
24-year-old hopes experience & new opportunity paves path to the NHL
|Chris VandeVelde has scored 5 goals & 18 points in 57 games this season (Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Capable call-ups helped fill the void. Insert Chris VandeVelde.
The Moorhead, MN, product, 23 at the time, was thrust into action, assigned with a most challenging role as a rookie whose season had been spent with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons.
Posting 12 goals and 16 points in 67 regular-season games with them, he pivoted the Barons' own-zone need, but struggled to maintain the standard he'd set in four seasons at the University of North Dakota, amassing a team-low -17 rating among a primarily in-the-black squad.
Upon his promotion to the bigs, it seemed as though his defensive struggle had become a thing of the past. In a 12-game audition that could hardly be described as a cup of coffee, VandeVelde potted a pair of assists and was counted upon as the Oilers' go-to man to line up against other teams' top lines.
No, really. Rookie or not, he was the guy whose number was called by Head Coach Tom Renney. As the season drew to a close, No. 54 was playing upwards of 20 minutes a night, with a career-high coming on Apr. 5 vs. Vancouver when he tallied 23:28; an even rating and a clean, 50-percent record on the dot helped put a stamp on a memorable evening that ended in a 2-0 shutout win over the Canucks.
VandeVelde was then returned to Oklahoma City after the Oilers' season came to an end, notching a goal in six post-season games against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Healthy bodies and key additions such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Eric Belanger meant there was a pileup at the centre position, one that VandeVelde was unable to overcome at camp. As such, he's spent the entire season in OKC but has come along nicely because of it.
"(Head Coach) Todd Nelson has done a great job in developing us all," the 24-year-old said just before bussing to Peoria for a Wednesday night battle with the ninth-place Rivermen. "Individually, I think I've done a good job and have made good strides from last year."
In 57 games this year, VandeVelde has surpassed his 2010-11 point totals with 18 on the year; but, perhaps most impressively (and importantly), his plus/minus has improved considerably with a -4 mark.
"I've been working on my defensive game big time," he explained. "It's my position out there, and being a solid two-way guy [is important]. I think I can still improve my offensive numbers, but the big thing has been improving my plus/minus like I have. It's good to see.
"The Oilers talk to my agent all the time and he's said only positive things, so that's good. They like how I'm coming along, it's good to hear, and maybe in the next couple seasons I will have improved enough to make the jump to the NHL."
While VandeVelde recognizes that his scoring totals will have to improve before getting a full-time shot in the NHL, his main strength has already been on display. In his quick stint in Oil Country last season, the 6'2", 190-pound middleman posted a better-than-most, above 50-percent success rate in the faceoff circle.
"I've been coming along pretty good here," he said. "I just need to keep winning faceoffs, be solid, be reliable and who knows what can happen."
Not only can it (anything) happen, it already has. Ryan O'Marra, the Barons' heart and soul as a vocal and by-example on-ice leader, was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for puck-moving rearguard Bryan Rodney.
Insert VandeVelde once more, as his role has since been elevated.
"A little more PK time," he said about how his responsibilities have altered, "but I'm still taking those big draws. When Ryan was here, and near the end of games when we had the lead, we were both on the ice. Now there's more emphasis on me taking the draw and having some other new faces out there with me."
As difficult as it is to say goodbye to a good teammate, especially when he was so instrumental to the Barons' success, it's status quo in the AHL; player movement, via trade or through promotions to the NHL, happens all the time and it's incumbent on the rest to come together to help mend the gap.
It's that can-do attitude that's helped Oklahoma City retain the league's No. 1 overall spot for most of the 2011-12 campaign.
"We've all grown, we've got way more depth than last year," VandeVelde explained. "We've really come together as a team and that's why we've had so much success.
"We're capable of a lot," he added. "We've got a great team. We're dangerous when we play a solid 60-minutes and we just play a simple, hard game. That's what Coach Nelson has really preached to us -- when we play simple, we're hard to beat."
In a results-oriented business, the Barons have done that, losing only 17 regulation-time contests this season, while capturing victory in 35. It's only the second season to be played in OKC, but the mood is arrow-up as the baby copper and blue look to embark on a lengthy post-season run.
One that VandeVelde will help guide through his experience and leadership, gained in Edmonton and Oklahoma City, down the middle.
"Guys love coming to the rink. We just have a lot of fun. It's hard work, but we all have a good time and get the work done, and it's really been paying off."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
Prospect Stats Updated as of Wednesday, March 7, 2012.
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