On a surprisingly cool Monday morning in downtown Oklahoma City amidst ongoing construction there was familiar sound seeping from the open doors to the Cox Center. A sound that has been unpleasantly absent for nearly two years. The swoosh of ice, a hard whistle, and the clang of pucks against the pristine glass; hockey has begun once again in Oklahoma City. The young and the old gathered together for the first installment of Barons training camp.
In a modest crowd of around fifty people, the Barons training camp began with an almost non-stop barrage of warm-up drills and led into an almost hour-long full throttled scrimmage. The crowd was quiet but diverse. There were some in suits and ties, a few in Barons paraphernalia, one in a Red Wings tee, another in a Bruins cap, and even a Ryan Smyth jersey. From oldest to youngest, there appeared to be a quiet excitement as coaches Nelson and Fleming drew up coordinated drills for both the white and blue teams. You couldn't help but relish in the adventure that many of these players have journeyed through the last year. The drafts, the camps, the tournaments, the re-assignments all led to this pivotal moment at the Cox Center where they could potentially make a home and a name for themselves.
Broken down into two teams, Blue and White, the players' competitive edge that we had heard was so vibrant in Oilers training camp immediately was noticeable here in OKC. In the crowd of familiar faces lie some not so familiar ones. And whether you played in the ECHL, CHL, WHL, IHL, QMJHL, or any other abbreviation-heavy league you sensed the time was now to show your stuff. With a roster featuring nineteen forwards, eight defenseman, and three goaltenders, the pace was bound to be fast and furious. There were a couple of players I had eagerly awaited to see play, and while some showed bright, others were a little disappointing.
In net, Beau Erickson and Wayne Savage formed a tandem for the blue team that seemed nervous from the get go. Once the jitters wore off they played surprisingly well. On the other side, Bryan Pitton, the lone white team goaltender, proved to be the most consistent and quite honestly at first glance the more desirable goaltender. Pitton was quick to the puck, stayed in position nicely, and even covered a rebound or two. He clearly has the vision and focus to be a decent goaltender within the Oilers organization. His only downside might be his stick side coverage which was exposed more than once.
Among the forwards, several arose to the occasion like the impressive Jesse Gimblett who maneuvers well for a bulky 6' 2" forward. His strides are long and he plays a very good defensive forward position when needed. Like Gimblett, Matt Marquardt has great presence as a forward at 6' 3". He is quietly agressive, stealthy at times, with a quick shot that doesn't lack the heat, but certainly his accuracy needs some work. Even a few under-sized forwards managed to be noticeable. Matt Pierce and Mark Arcobello positioned themselves to put on a wrist-shot clinic that made the goaltenders seem slow and unprepared for the onslaught.
The D-men that played well included Mike Egener, Jordan Bendfeld, Anthony Aiello, and Steven Vanoosten. All were aggressive, finished their checks, and protected their zones very well. And just for a split moment when it seemed Vanoosten and Egener might get into a little scrum, they got ahold of themselves and remembered "it's only day one". Bendfield really strung together some nice shifts that resulted in great passes for him and even better scoring chances for his team. He might have a nice career in Oklahoma City.
I hate to be hard on one player in particular, but it has to be said that Milan Kytnar continually underwhelmed in all aspects of his game. At center he appeared to be too reserved, especially for a guy that is trying to make the team. He'll probably get the opportunity to play with the Barons, but has proven his prospect sheet doesn't lie. He doesn't score, he plays defensively most of the time, and he lacks the aggressiveness to go further in his career. You can't help but root for the Slovak, but he sure didn't win any supporters on this opening day of camp.
In the end, it was a great day for Oklahoma City hockey. Coming from someone that watched the Central League for years, the pace of today's training camp was indeed as advertised...it was fast. And like so many other fans, seeing developing players in a developing organization will make the choice to move the team to OKC that much sweeter.
Even as I write this article more players are making their way to Will Rogers International with hopes of continuing their career in Oklahoma. A 'Copper & Blue' favorite Teemu Hartikainen along with Johan Motin, Jake Taylor, Brad Moran, and Gregory Stewart have been given the nod to head down south. With the addition of these players in camp, the atmosphere will continue to be electric. I can only hope that the next couple of days are as exciting as the first.