There’s a problem down at the Plante

Jonathan Willis
October 29 2012 04:32PM

The Oklahoma City Barons beat Texas 4-2 on Sunday. They did it without Alex Plante, who for the third time in seven games sat in the press box and watched. For a Plante, a first round draft pick, third year professional, and a guy with NHL games under his belt each year he’s been a pro, this is not a welcome development.

Oklahoma, as a development team carrying a ton of extra bodies, is going to healthy-scratch players every once in a while. On defence, four players have been a fixture in the lineup: the top pairing of Justin Schultz and Martin Marincin, and right-side options Colten Teubert and Taylor Fedun. Three others have rotated in and out of the lineup: Plante, rookie rearguard Brandon Davidson, and AHL’er Dan Ringwald.

It’s difficult to fault head coach Todd Nelson for making the decisions on the back end as he has. Each of the three scratches has done things to earn a brief break from the lineup.

Davidson has been the best of the three, and he’s only been a scratch for a single contest so far. In his first season in the AHL, Davidson has at times struggled, particularly with the speed of the game. Still, he has a nice blend of skills – he’s not a bruiser but he plays his opposition hard and at 6’2”, 205lbs he has the frame to be effective doing so. He’s also a smart player, generally making good decisions with the puck (though he sometimes fails to make them quickly enough). He needs some work and may or may not eventually make the NHL grade but in the early going he’s managed to get some clearance from Plante and Ringwald.

Dan Ringwald is Alex Plante’s direct competition for the last spot in the top-six, and so far the two are more or less neck and neck. Ringwald has some advantages – most notably that he’s a left-shooting defender, which means that when he’s dressed Taylor Fedun does not have to play on his off-side. On the other hand, Ringwald isn’t really a prospect – he’s 26, on an AHL deal, and over the last two seasons has played twice as many ECHL games as AHL games. He shouldn’t be a guy that Plante has trouble staying in front of (Plante got some help on that score on Sunday, as Ringwald was a turnover machine against Texas).

Plante should be ahead in this battle easily. He’s in his third year of AHL competition now, and has been thought of highly enough to be recalled by his NHL team. He’s a first round pick, he just turned 23, and he’s thought of highly enough by his teammates that he has a letter on his jersey. He’s a combined plus-27 over 114 games since the team moved to Oklahoma.

Instead, Plante’s basically keeping even with Ringwald. Both had dressed for four of their team’s seven games. Both have had up and down performances – reliable one night, disastrous the next. This isn’t where Plante’s supposed to be – at the very least, he’s supposed to be a dependable veteran for his AHL team. Instead his miscues have him in and out of the lineup.

The good news is that Plante will have opportunities to get back into the lineup. Ringwald’s performance on Sunday all but guaranteed that the ex-ECHL’er will take a seat when the Barons play next - a stretch of three games in three days, starting November 2. Given the compressed schedule, it would be surprising if Nelson didn’t continue to rotate his defenders.

It’s early enough – as I’ve said, Plante’s played just four games – that this could be an aberration. Perhaps Plante’s dealing with an off-season injury. Maybe he’s just a slow starter. But aberration or not, this sort of performance costs Plante – it costs him playing time now, and given that so much of the Oilers’ NHL brain trust has been watching these early season games it may cost him in the future as well, because he simply hasn’t looked like a legitimate NHL prospect to date this season.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.