Why is Oklahoma struggling?

Jonathan Willis
December 28 2012 10:31AM

With Oklahoma’s win over Texas on Thursday, the team’s record moves to 15-10-4, one game over 0.500. While it’s better than the other side of the win/loss line, it isn’t what was expected out of a team that has (for most of the year) boasted a trio of high-end NHL’ers up front, the AHL’s best player on the blue line, and the reigning AHL goalie of the year.

What’s the problem?

Honestly, it’s a difficult question and despite watching this team from day one I don’t have a solid answer. I have some ideas, but that’s it.

Depth. This is an area where the Barons have had some problems, both up front and on the blue line. There has been a lot of talk about how prospects like Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton aren’t getting power play time and so there needs to be an asterisk next to their absurdly low offensive totals, but these are guys struggling to tread water in depth roles. Pitlick and Hamilton are both minus players in largely third-line minutes; Lander’s performance has surged since being assigned regularly to the top-six but he was a minus player earlier in the year.

On the blue line, Justin Schultz currently sports a plus-14 rating, meaning that the Barons are minus-8 when he is not on the ice. With rookie Martin Marincin imploding, the team’s top left-shooting defenceman these days is ECHL call-up Nathan Deck. Colten Teubert has added muscle but has been just okay defensively; Taylor Fedun has had good moments and bad moments. Schultz might be the league’s best player, but the supporting cast is anemic.

The penalty kill. Given the talent on the team, it should be unsurprising that the Barons are lethal with the man advantage. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional penalty kill has given everything back: the Barons have the best power play and the worst penalty kill in the AHL. The strange thing is that in 2011-12 the Barons had the league’s second-best penalty-killing unit, and on paper a group that includes Chris VandeVelde, Anton Lander, Dane Byers, Tanner House and Magnus Paajarvi should be strong in that department.

The limited impact of the individual. It’s pretty hard to harshly critique any of the four stars playing in Oklahoma. Justin Schultz is the presumptive AHL MVP at this point, and if he wasn’t Jordan Eberle would be. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is plus-7 and better than a point-per-game player; after a slow start coming back from surgery Taylor Hall has scored nine times and added 14 assists over his last 15 games.

But while all four play big minutes for Oklahoma, the team has used 33 different players. Even in a feature role, they aren’t on the ice all the time, and even the best stars can’t make up entirely for a weak team.

The Bottom Line

Despite the weaknesses on the roster, there’s no way the Barons should be mired near the playoff bubble. The penalty kill should not be stuck in last place. The second-tier prospects should not be collapsing the way they have. Dane Byers should not be a five point guy. A team that has boasted Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Hartikainen and Paajarvi as five of its top six for the majority of the year should not be struggling the way it has. The Barons have been handed a huge advantage this year, and they appear to be squandering it.

A farm team is supposed to find the balance between winning and development. The Barons aren’t winning enough and outside of the phenoms they aren’t looking especially good from a development angle either. It’s a problem.

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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.