It's the time of year where a couple of things happen in hockey leagues. First, you begin to really deal with injuries. On the farm in Oklahoma City this has been the case over the last month. Antti Tyrvainen, Josh Green, Teemu Hartikainen, Gilbert Brule, Linus Omark, Phillipe Cornet, and Andrew Lord have spent time on the IR within a four week span. All our offensive players, all are important to the team. Some have been out for a lengthy period (see: Lord hasn't played a game all season), others for smaller periods of time (see: Green, Hartikainen, Omark, Tyrvainen), and still others for either unknown reason or fatigue (see: Cornet, Brule). And yet, the team remains in first place in the entire American League heading into a much needed Christmas break.
It's also the time where the lines begin to take shape. Regardless of injury, we start to see some commonality amongst the offensive lines as well as the defensive duos. The trend towards top scoring lines, and fourth line grinders becomes a little more vast. Both are still incredibly important in of their tasks, but the gap between offensive prowess and shutdown indeed gets large.
Coach Todd Nelson is a tinkerer, but with a progressive eye. In one had, he has a knowledge of who can score the best together. He knows a gifted forward when he sees one, and he's not afraid to parade them at the top of the lineup. On the other, he knows there is a need for "encouragement" of players who might not have fully realized their potential, but with some nudging and quality minutes in the lineup, they can emerge beautifully. Rarely does Nelson make mistakes in the lineup. He scrambles just enough to be effective, and isn't above changing on the fly. Many times this season he has changed the lines midway through a game. Always tastefully done and in a timely manner, the team embraces this as part of the system. And it's working to near perfection.
Since Thanksgiving the team has seen a lot of change. The two scoring heavies, Omark and Hartikainen, are still out of the lineup, but inching closer to returns. In their absence, the team has taken the greatest leaps towards shaking up the lines and pairs. Add to the mix suspensions of Josh Green and Kirill Tulupov, callups of Cameron Abney and Ryan Martindale, and the biggest headline grabber in the form of MPS/PRV/Magnus/Paajarvi and suddenly the team looks vastly different within a four week period. On the farm, and subsequently on the Oilers, things can change quickly.
Before we take a look at the most common lines and defensive pairings, a few house-keeping rules. First, I threw out a game before Thanksgiving, as well as one from earlier this week. Why? Simply because there were no officially reported lines, and both took place on away ice. Thus, the data I could have concocted might have been slightly off. Second, I'll remark on those that have only played a few games towards the end of this post, but don't be alarmed by the lack of Paajarvi, Abney, and Martindale - they just didn't get tons of ice time in this period. Third, I did not compensate for in-game changes. For several reasons, but mainly because it's nearly impossible to track these things with the confounded AHL Live that is the scourge of Satan.
There is no question in my mind, and in the mind of fans, that there is a top scoring line. Six of the ten game lineups that I tracked featured a top line of Philippe Cornet, Mark Arcobello, Ryan Keller. That 60% would have been 100% except that Cornet got a little banged up around the second week of December and hasn't played since. The coaching staff loves these three together and even in Cornet's absence have kept Arcobello in the center and Keller on the right. The three have combined for 27 goals and 19 assists through roughly half of the season.
In Cornet's absence, we've only seen Arcobello and Keller disturbed once, and we have Magnus Paajarvi to blame for this. Nelson clearly wanted Magnus to succeed alongside sturdy line-mates and stuck him with Chris Vande Velde at center and Ryan Keller on the right. It worked because those three were champs of the scoring chances through the two games in which MPS was in the lineup.
Surprisingly, outside of Cornet the player with the most ice time alongside Arcobello and Keller is Ryan Martindale. Once again, put the newcomers in situations where they won't get abused too much, and watch them survive. I say survive, because he was on the top scoring line against some really solid competition. Through two games he posted a -1, despite his first game-time AHL showing.
I love mentioning the grinders because the possibilities are pretty exciting among the Barons. At center a few names come to mind, mainly Milan Kytnar, Ryan O'Marra, and Chris Vande Velde. All three have rigged lines of grinding potential to some great success. The upswing is that they can also score. And they can create offense coming out of the defensive zone, and that's priceless for a crew of shutdown players.
The wingers that land in this category feature three really nice rookies; Tanner House, Hunter Tremblay, and Curtis Hamilton. Still trying to find their places away from the puck, these three guys are very strong on the puck and excellent around the boards. Not punishing hitters, they are known to finish their checks without costing their team positional accuracy. Triston Grant and Antti Tyrvainen have fallen into the "grinder" niche at times, and both play instigator roles very nicely.
Second Tier Scoring
The Barons are so naturally talented and so well coached that nearly any line could score on a given night. However, there is a second tier of scoring outside of the first line. That secondary scoring seemingly has Josh Green down the center and a rotation of four on the wings. Those four are Tyler Pitlick and Gilbert Brule on the right, and Curtis Hamilton and Triston Grant to the left. Outside of Green and Grant, the other three have negative plus/minus stats because they don't seem to get much consistency even at the second tier scoring. Couple that with youth and some bad moments on the power play, the two rookies have had rough half seasons on paper. Nonetheless, Pitlick and Hamilton know how to create offense, they've just not been given enough time in one spot to see that mature. The coaching staff is very high on Tyler Pitlick, as I am. He's quick, sharp, and a increasingly fantastic passer. Hamilton, who leans towards a shutdown guy in the lineup, is very smart with the puck.
The second tier of scoring is indeed a nightly crap shoot, but one that plays both ways beautifully.
With the defenders the wiggle room isn't quite as drastic below the top. Taylor Chorney and Bryan Helmer would be classified as "first defenders" in my cramped brain. Bryan Helmer, and his AHL-only contract, is the solid, no-risk-taking defensive player that really excels in the minors. He's the QB1 on the power play, and moves the puck to the appropriate spot. Taylor Chorney seems to be the younger equivalent of the same player. He's the only really strong, forward puck-moving defenseman the Barons own. He's not afraid to shoot, makes few mistakes, and keeps the play always in front of him. They have played together nearly 90% of the time over the ten game period, but it's interesting to see how the coaches adjust for opponents. Prior to this ten game stretch, and most likely after, it isn't uncommon for both Helmer and Chorney to get pairings with bruising defenders in the vein of Kirill Tulupov and Dylan Yeo. A sugar and spice comparison that compensates in a yin and yang sort of fashion.
Kevin Montgomery, the second best defender on the Barons in the +/- category, is quite the player. He shares time between Alex Plante and rookie d-man Ryan Lowery. He seemingly makes players better. The second half of the 10-11 season, he paired with Colten Teubert and instantly had chemistry. With Teubert playing a lot of time in Edmonton, he latched on to both Plante and Lowery to prove his worth. He's a very smart defensive player, and needs a real contract moving forward.
Another common pair is Alex Plante and former Calgary Hitmen buddy, Dylan Yeo. Yeo, who was brought over from the Ontario Reign is on the lean side, but very aggressive on the puck. He doesn't skate exceptionally well, but moves very well away from the puck and into the passing lanes. The two can really frustrate opponents. Ultimately, with Colten Teubert's return, Plante will play alongside him as the "NHL friendly" pairing.
In all, this is a solid defensive group at the minor league level. They do give up some goals, but can really frustrate power play units.
The Lines & Pairs
Here is how I'd rank the most common lines and pairs within the confines of the current lineup.
Philippe Cornet - Mark Arcobello - Ryan Keller
Triston Grant - Josh Green - Gilbert Brule
Hunter Tremblay - Ryan O'Marra - Tyler Pitlick
Curtis Hamilton - Chris Vande Velde - Tanner House
Insert when needed Milan Kytnar
Taylor Chorney - Bryan Helmer
Kevin Montgomery - Ryan Lowery
Dylan Yeo - Alex Plante
Insert when needed Kirill Tulupov