Imagine the NBA having a lockout the year the Thunder moved to Oklahoma City from Seattle. Now imagine young players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook being allowed to play in the minor leagues during the lockout.
That's the scenario for the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, who will begin the season with three of the Edmonton Oilers' young stars, cornerstone players in the organization's youth movement.
* Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 19, scored 52 points last year in 62 games as a rookie with Edmonton.
* Center Jordan Eberle, 22, has appeared in 147 games with the Oilers the past two seasons.
* Defenseman Justin Schultz, 22, was a star at Wisconsin who will jump straight to the NHL.
“It's a great opportunity to have these high-profile picks on our roster,” said Barons general manager Bill Scott. “These type of players usually bypass the American Hockey League. Their talent level is that high. Their hockey IQ is that high.
“For us to have these players to showcase their skills in Oklahoma City and be a part of this team is really a unique opportunity for fans of our sport, even casual hockey fans. If you wanted to see players like this, you would have to go to Dallas for an NHL game.”
While NHL players are locked out, they can only sign AHL deals if they finished last season in the AHL or are still on three-year entry-level contracts like Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle.
Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, might have won the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL's top rookie, last season if he hadn't been sidelined 20 games with a shoulder injury.
“Some people compared him his draft year to Wayne Gretzky,” Scott said. “He's a very creative, very savvy player. He's usually two or three steps ahead of everyone else. He sees things before they happen.
“He's not a big guy or a physical guy, but he's one of those guys who outthinks the opponent, makes great passes and is always in the right spot.”
Eberle, a first-round pick in 2009, selected 22nd overall, is in the third and final year of his first NHL contract. He's been a consistent scorer on the NHL level for two seasons.
“Jordan is a goal scorer,” Scott said. “He has incredible hands and can do amazing things with the puck. If you YouTube his first NHL goal, you get a feel for what he can do with the puck.”
Schultz, originally drafted by the Anaheim Ducks, was pursued by nearly every NHL team after he used a loophole to become a free agent this summer. He signed with Edmonton. Schultz is an offensive defenseman who can impact special teams.
“When you score a power-play goal, more often than not you win the game,” Scott said. “Teams are so even it can put you over the edge. Guys that have been skating with him this summer rave about his ability.”
The 30-team AHL will receive a boost in talent and exposure similar to the 2004-05 lockout, when attendance increased in many cities.
The Barons might benefit more than any other AHL team. The roster already was stocked with 16 players that played in Oklahoma City last season, when the Barons made a run to the Western Conference finals.
“Having a couple of guys who have had success on the NHL level will be perceived as an advantage,” Scott said. “We were going to have a very good team this year without those guys. We'll have a big target on our back.”
NHL contracts are frozen. Players with NHL experience like Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle will receive AHL contracts of $75,000.
Other young NHL players will play in the AHL during the lockout. Jeff Skinner, the face of the Carolina Hurricanes who won the Calder Trophy two years ago, will play for the Charlotte Checkers. New Jersey center Adam Henrique will play for Albany.
The lockout will have a trickle-down effect. Some players that will play for the Barons after the lockout will start the season with the Stockton Thunder in the East Coast Hockey League.
Edmonton last made the playoffs in 2006. The Oilers have had the No. 1 overall pick the past three years. Edmonton is viewed as a young team with a bright future led by three cornerstone players that will play in the Cox Convention Center during the lockout.
“Certainly we all wish the NHL was playing,” Scott said. “Whether it's a couple of weeks, a couple of months or the whole season, we don't know. But to be able to perform with some of their future teammates in Oklahoma City and develop some chemistry with them will benefit everybody.”
Barons key dates
Sept. 30 — Training camp begins
Oct. 5 — preseason game vs. Houston
Oct. 6 — preseason game vs. Houston
Oct. 12 — Regular season opener at Lake Erie
Oct. 19 — Regular season home opener vs. San Antonio
Barons ticket information
The Barons have a variety of ticket packages available that range from group rates to 7- and 11-game individual packages and full season tickets for all 38 home games.
Call the Barons' front office at (405) 232-4625 for more information, or log on to okcbarons.com.
Admission to the two preseason games, Oct. 5 and 6 against the Houston Aeros, is free to the public with donation of goods or funds to Infant Crisis Services in Oklahoma City.
Suggested donation items include sippy cups, baby bottles, new or gently used toys, Good Start formula, diapers, baby shampoo, baby lotion, pacifiers and coats sizes 2T-6.