Growth, chemistry the key in Swedes' development
Magnus Paajarvi & Anton Lander relish winning environment in Oklahoma City
|(Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons).
Written on murals and scattered across the concourses at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, its message certainly isn't lost on the club's newest additions.
20-year-old Magnus Paajarvi played in 105 NHL games before being sent down to OKC; Anton Lander, also 20, donned the orange and blue in 56. And while the AHL's ‘lesser league' stigma still exists with some, neither has viewed their assignment to the Barons as anything less than an opportunity.
"I don't think I was a changed player when I was called back up to Edmonton," said Paajarvi, who's bounced between Oil Country and OKC on separate recalls of late. "But there's no question I had a little more confidence. I felt as though I was playing better each game and getting back into a rhythm.
"Tom Renney and Nelly (Todd Nelson, Barons Head Coach) have been a huge help with that. I know I needed to work on some things and they're always encouraging me to, so it hasn't been much unlike the daily process of being coached. I have a good relationship with both and they're helping me to become a better player."
While Paajarvi didn't get an NHL goal (in 2011-12) until Feb. 11 in Ottawa, Lander's scoresheet success came much earlier. Prior to being sent down, he'd recorded a pair, along with four assists and a -8 rating. His defensive game continued to be the highlight, but the Oilers agreed that there was some untapped potential that could use some seasoning in Oklahoma City.
"We had a great meeting before I got sent down," Lander said. "They wanted me to come down here and work on my scoring and playmaking. They know -- and I know -- it's in there, but I wasn't able to really get it out in Edmonton. I want to work on that, but I also don't want to cheat and give up what I've developed in my own end."
Sure, it's about development. But both players have also become immersed in a new, winning, championship-chasing environment. Coming from the Oilers' 29th-place hold in the NHL's league-wide standings, the Barons sit atop the AHL's Western Conference rankings and are poised to begin a long post-season run.
While the team most certainly has skill and a lethal attack balanced across the roster, it's the squad's commitment to teamwork, a close-knit locker room budding with potential and veteran leaders brimming with chemistry, that's proven to the cub's greatest benefit.
"It's a close room. Everybody is really good together," said NHL's 10th overall selection in 2009, smiling with an ear-to-ear grin that hadn't been seen in months. "It's impossible not to notice how the camaraderie, harmony and everything like that impacts the results. It's really wonderful and a huge reason why our team is No. 1."
"From the trainers, coaches and everyone involved, the organization is really good," Lander added. "It's such a tight group, we're all buddies and I think that helps create success on the ice."
Having amassed a 39-17-9 record, it appears as though success has come natural. And with 11 games remaining on the schedule, the Barons know they'll want to head into the post-season on a roll. Getting some extra help won't hurt, of course. Lander, who has only played in three games (all on the road) since his arrival in OKC, has fully recovered from a nagging hip injury and will be good to go in Friday night's contest against the Texas Stars.
While he hasn't been able to play much, Lander has still quickly grown fond of the Oklahoma City vibe. Having his teammate and buddy close by, living arrangements -- once easy -- became a little more complicated, however. The Swedes shared a hotel room, but No. 16 got the boot when Lander's wife-to-be paid a visit.
"She'll be going home next week and he's going to move in again," he said, laughing. "We were seeing each other 24/7. It was too much. It was worse than being a married couple! But seriously, it's a lot of fun. When we wake up, we don't ever say a word to each other. We walk to the rink together without talking.
"We're tired in the morning and we talk enough at the rink. We know what kind of person the other is, so we know when to give each other some space or when to speak up. He's a great friend; my best friend, no doubt. Getting to play down here and to have the chance to maybe win the Calder Cup together, we're really excited about it."
"We're aiming for the Calder Cup, no question about it," Paajarvi added. "I think we have the team for that, I think we can beat any team in the league with the way we play. But we can't think too far ahead; it's game-by-game right now and, when we get there, it'll be about the opening round in the post-season.
"It's a cliché, I know, but we've got to take it one game at a time."
It's a mantra the 6'2", 204-pound winger has echoed since he arrived. Just like the temperature (which exceeded the 20-degree Celsius mark in Oklahoma City today), Paajarvi has been heating up. In total, he's now collected four goals and 19 points in 24 games -- improving and gaining traction once more, in a place so eager to assist.
It's about building. And whether it's about building chemistry (at the rink and away), rekindling past success, careers or extending the longevity of them, the Oklahoma City Barons are building something special as the post-season draws near.
Not only do Magnus Paajarvi and Anton Lander get to be part of it, but they're vital cogs in the club's championship dream, too; a bond like that, so expressively outlined in the pair's longstanding brotherhood and across the locker room, can't be denied.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick