Minutes after his team skated off the ice for the first time this season, Oklahoma City Barons coach Todd Nelson received some good news.
Edmonton, the parent club of the second-year American Hockey League team, had just announced that it had assigned 11 players to OKC.
The news didn't necessarily change the coach's outlook. It just added even more optimism to a season that's already beginning with a great deal of expectations.
“Last year, we took a step in the right direction by making the playoffs,” Nelson said. “But with our early exit, that's unacceptable. Our expectation is to make the playoffs and go after the Calder Cup.”
Welcoming in additional bodies now is a luxury that improves a camp roster that Nelson believes is more talented than last year's squad that eventually finished 40-29. It also adds experience to a group that will be extremely young.
Most importantly, six of the 11 players finished last season on the Barons roster: forwards Chris VandeVelde, Tanner House, Philippe Cornet, Milan Kytnar and Curtis Hamilton, as well as defenseman Alex Plante. The Oilers also assigned defensemen Ryan Lowery and Kirill Tulupov, forwards Tyler Pitlick and Ryan Martindale and goaltender Olivier Roy.
“Last year, we didn't have all those guys in for quite awhile,” Nelson said. “So getting these guys in here, getting them settled, getting them ready for that first game is very important.”
The return of some familiar faces is expected to speed the learning curve of this year's squad, while also offsetting some challenges the Barons were expected to face in essentially having to start from scratch with an overhauled roster. When the Barons opened camp Monday, they saw only four players who had worn an Oklahoma City uniform last season: forwards Andrew Lord, Mark Arcobello, Hunter Tremblay and defenseman Bryan Helmer.
Now, Nelson, who said the team will carry a maximum of 23 players, can find comfort in knowing he has a familiarity with nearly half his roster.
“As a coaching staff, we know what kind of players we're getting,” Nelson said. “We know the players a lot more than we did last year. Last year, it took me awhile just to figure guys out just because I was new to the organization.”
Nelson should be assisted by the Oilers employing the same system. The returning players already have a feel for what to do. The rest will be left up to the coaching staff and the veteran players.
“Our coaches are great,” said Lord. (There will be) a lot of video; a lot of boardroom (time) going over the Xs and Os. And then early on in the season here in practices there will be a lot of system work.
“I definitely think the guys that have been here…have to hold everyone accountable.”
Helmer, the oldest player at 39, said the team has a good mix of young and old. The biggest hurdle, Helmer said, will be players adjusting to roles and buying into the system.
“They're probably going to go through some growing pains, but hopefully we get those out of the way quick and settle down,” Helmer said. “If we can all get on the same page, we should be pretty successful.”
The key will be how soon the Barons can click.
“The first half of the season in the American League is always the most important,” Helmer said. “If you can get off to a fast pace and get some wins under your belt and get some confidence, it'll take you into the second part of the season and on into the playoffs.”