The American Hockey League All-Star game is a healthy mix of young and old players, prospects and journeymen, spry and aging. Some call it a rag-tag group, but I prefer referring to it as a snapshot of a league caught in two very different places. On one hand, we do see a large population of older players that have been through the ranks of the ECHL, AHL, and occasionally the NHL. They succeed at the minor league level, but for one reason or another, haven't met the criteria for earning full-time big league jobs. They are fun to watch, they are usually the fan favorites, but nonetheless, they are what they are. On the other hand, we have the exploding prospects. The guys that are young, vibrant, inconsistent at times, but ultimately entertaining. Their stay is short, but exceptional. They are the future faces of the NHL's 3rd and 4th lines that are merely months, weeks, or even days away from playing in the top hockey league in the world. We understood the both sides of the All-Star conundrum last year when Alex Giroux and Linus Omark represented the Barons a season ago (with Colin McDonald eventually filling in for Omark who was steadily in the NHL).
As I digest the Oklahoma City Barons club, and glance longingly at their tops in the West stat sheets, I begin to peel back the layers of each position. Who is really worthy of being named to the American League All Star team? Even I was surprised at who was the best in OKC.
This conversation has to start with Philippe Cornet. Not the leading point scorer for the Barons (no, that belongs to Ryan Keller with his 19 points in 26 games), Cornet has been a goal scoring wizard. He owned the top goal scoring spot in the league for nearly two months and is currently in third place with 15 goals. The two gentlemen ahead of Cornet on that list have 16 and 17, and this trio can swap places almost nightly. What makes Cornet's goal scoring frenzy so amazing is that he's done so after taking only 43 shots. Here at Copper & Blue we've mentioned his incredible turnaround (here & here) after last season, but he's both tailored his game more appropriately in front of the net, and been given top line treatment for most of the season. He's not scored a goal since November 26th when he added two, so his tear through the league has slowed. Along with the slowing pace, he's somewhat dinged, and has been out of the lineup the last two games. And although Ryan Keller is the point grabber on the team, the AHL All-Star voters like to reward goal scoring especially to youngsters. Thus I'd cast my vote towards the improved Philippe Cornet.
The most surprising of the impressive is Alex Plante. Through the first three weeks of the season he was arguably the worst defenseman on the squad. The penalty taking, construction cone nicknamed Plante had some wondering how much longer his stay in copper and blue would last. Then a crazy thing happened. He got the first defensive call-up to the Oilers where he showed well in two games, recorded an assist, and remained a +1. He returned to the Barons a slightly more determined player. He's now listed as the eleventh best player, in regards to +/- in the entire American League. His +11 is matched by forward Ryan Keller as the best on the Barons, but considering where Alex Plante has been in years previous, this stat is remarkable. Up until last nights tangle with the Texas Stars he was also riding a three game point streak and a two game goal scoring streak. Yes, I'm still talking about Alex Plante. Coach Todd Nelson has lamented about the "big guys" improvement citing his skating. In practice sessions, the coaching staff harps on defenders to simply "move your skates, move your skates, move your skates". Coupled with a disciplined lean, and a suddenly interesting defensive pairing with former Calgary Hitmen teammate Dylan Yeo, Alex Plante is gaining momentum. Although his improvement might be short-lived, we'll bask in his progress, and name him the defensive representative for the Barons.
When the season began, we saw the stat sheets of two Barons goaltenders. On the left we had David LeNeveu, who'd taken a recent dip in his stats in Springfield last season, but had a lot of experience at the collegiate, American league, international, and national league levels. His stat sheet was as diverse as it was erradic which led Barons fans to speculate that he was the number two guy. Then Yann Danis was signed, and he'd fill the "Martin Gerber" role as the steady netminder that brought a heavy dose of consistency.. Through the first half of the first half, our thoughts were confirmed, Danis was indeed the number one, and LeNeveu was the number two. Coach Nelson, from day one, vowed to run with the goaltender whom had the hot hand. Sometimes that was Danis, but of late it's been LeNeveu. Suddenly the Barons find themselves with two goaltenders in the top ten in several statistical categories. Danis is sporting seventeen games started with twelve wins and four losses. Sandwiched in those twelve wins are two shoot out victories. His goals against is good enough for ninth in the league at 2.22. LeNeveu is slightly better than Danis, but with five fewer starts. Twelve games have earned a 7-3-1 record, but with a goals against average barely over two. Both tenders have identical save percentages (.927), and Danis has pitched two shutouts and played thirty minutes short of a thousand. The tandem is the best in the league, and with a few short weeks left before Christmas, they've been prone to flip flop in the standings week-after-week. LeNeveu played a really ugly game last night, and was pulled in favor of Danis. However, David was gaining steam up until that point, and certainly could continue to dominate moving forward. Choosing a goaltender as a Barons All Star representative in a league where goal scorers get eyeballs and defensemen are hard to critique, would speak volumes to the defensive system Coach Todd Nelson has put in place. I'd move Danis into the ballot box, with LeNeveu getting consideration.
The votes will be cast soon, including those by the fans, for the American League All Star team. I've chosen Cornet, Plante, and Danis to represent the Barons for the 2012 All Star Classic in Atlantic City in late January. Certainly a lot could change in the coming weeks, and cases could be made for others on the squad. Ryan Keller has been impressive as a goal scorer and play maker. Kevin Montgomery is gaining ground as one of the most solid, intelligent, and puck-moving defensemen in the minors. LeNeveu is capable of being great, both with his posture in the net, and his posture on the stat sheet. So as we move closer to the voting period, keep an eye on the minors. You just might be surprised who emerges as the best in the American League.