The American Hockey League season begins this week. None of the 30 teams are stocked with as much talent as the Oklahoma City Barons.
With 16 players returning from a team that was the No. 1 seed in last year's Western Conference playoffs, the Barons would be pegged as one of the top contenders.
Mix in three on-the-rise stars that will play in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout, and the Edmonton Oilers' Triple-A affiliate is an AHL Dream Team.
When AHL coaches, players and general managers have been asked which team benefits most from the lockout, Oklahoma City usually is the first team mentioned.
“This is very special, a unique situation,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “It probably will never happen again to be quite honest. I'm very excited to have those players here. It's going to be a lot of fun.”
A handful of young NHL stars are sprinkled around the AHL during the lockout, but no team has a trio like the Barons, who have NHL No. 1-forward-line caliber players.
Jordan Eberle has scored 119 points, including 52 goals, the past two seasons with Edmonton. He played in last year's NHL All-Star Game.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, is coming off a showcase rookie season in which he scored 52 points in 62 games. He is a future All-Star with a high hockey IQ that will rack up a ton of assists.
Justin Schultz, a defenseman who was a two-time All-American at Wisconsin, makes his pro debut in Oklahoma City. Schultz can impact the offensive end, especially on power plays.
“I think there will be a lot of pressure on this team,” Eberle said. “Going into the season, we're probably ranked No. 1 or one of the top teams in the league because of the success they had last year and the players we've added.”
Once the lockout ends, others will follow Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Schultz to Edmonton. Some immediately. Some later in the season.
“It's a good chance to keep building our chemistry,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously, there are quite a few guys coming down from Edmonton. We all get to kind of grow up together, come together as a team.”
Regardless of how many games the Barons win during the lockout, Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini said it's a huge benefit for the organization.
“It's exciting to have our young players here together,” Tambellini said. “We were at the point we weren't going to attract the top free agents. (Rebuilding), we knew we'd have to develop our own players first. The process the past couple of years has been drafting and building the roster.
“A lot of these players are still 19 and 20 years old. By the time they're 22 and 23, they'll be men in the NHL. Right now, they're very young. For them to have a chance to be together in Oak City is so good for us.”
They're young, but it's a roster loaded with NHL experience.
Left-winger Taylor Hall is another No. 1 overall pick who could join the Barons in a month. Hall is awaiting word to resume hitting following shoulder surgery. OKC's roster a month from now could have 13 players that have combined to play in nearly 1,000 NHL games.
Because of the NHL lockout, the Barons' normal No. 1, 2 and 3 lines move down a slot. OKC's fourth line should be formidable. Players sent to Double-A Stockton would make some AHL rosters. The Barons are so deep they could overwhelm teams with thin rosters.
The challenge is the Barons will get everyone's best shot.
“For sure,” Nelson said. “Besides having those guys here, we would have had a target on our back because we had the best record in the Western Conference last year. It will be interesting to see how we deal with it.”
Oklahoma City opens the season Friday against Lake Erie in Cleveland. The Barons home opener is Oct. 19 against San Antonio.
“We have a lot of skill on this hockey club,” Eberle said. “But I think our best attribute is how hard we work. A great quote is ‘work beats skill if skill doesn't work.' That's definitely the mentality we have to take.”
The Barons potentially could have 13 players that have played in the NHL:
NHL games, player
341 Josh Green
147 Jordan Eberle
126 *Taylor Hall
121 Magnus Paajarvi
62 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
56 Anton Lander
50 Yann Danis
29 Teemu Hartikainen
24 Colten Teubert
17 Chris VandeVelde
14 Dane Byers
10 Alex Plante
2 Philippe Cornet
* currently not on roster