In July of last year, the regular staff of Oilers writers at Copper and Blue dissected the game of then-WHL player Tyler Pitlick in their Top 25 Oilers Under 25 yearly installment. For all practical purposes, the kid slipped six spots in a single year going from #7 to #13. There was also some concern about a nagging ankle injury and his offensive play inside a pool of really strong goal scorers. What I took away from that ranking and subsequent commentary was that Pitlick was a pretty fragmented player. He has natural giftedness, but hasn't quite lived up to his potential as he turns pro.
October rolled around and Tyler Pitlick hit the Oklahoma City roster with a lot of eyeballs keeping tabs on his progression. Through 33 games as a Baron, he's about where I expected him to be in terms of goals scored, assists given, and +/- earned. Coming off a seemingly successful year in Medicine Hat where he earned 62 point in 56 games, he's only managed 4 goals and 5 assists while on the farm in Oklahoma City. With a few healthy scratches, some minor injuries, and a disjointed spot in the lines, Pitlick continues to be one to watch moving forward both for the Oklahoma City Barons and for the parent club in Edmonton. Why? Simply because the sink or swim mentality probably kicks in a bit quicker knowing that he's surrounded by a lot of young players in an organization that is still hitching its future success on the play of the young.
So without further hesitation, here's the details on Tyler Pitlick's rookie season.
Big. Strong. Quick.
I've seen Pitlick play in almost all of the 33 games where he hit the roster. He makes that 6' 2" nearly 200 pound frame seem much larger. The off-season has done this kid some favors. He's gained a few pounds and indeed throws that weight around. He's never steered away from a big hit on the boards, and his fore-checking abilities are some of the brightest on the Barons squad. Couple that size and energy with speed, and Pitlick is a real talent to watch on the ice. And although he hasn't played a lot of center, that wide presence down the middle can indeed be a thing of beauty.
The game of hockey, even in the minors, is so heavily burdened by puck possession that when a player coughs up the puck a lot, it's noticeable. For Pitlick, his puck-handling skills are decent. He can make a pass accurately most of the time. It's when he gets into those heated situations where he has to dangle the puck or make a sneaky pass that catch him at his worst. I've not expected him to be the stick wizard that Linus Omark or Teemu Hartikainen have been because he's just not that kind of player. I do, however, expect him to protect the puck when in the offensive zone. For all the puck removing he does against opposing teams, he sure has many pucks removed from him as well. This probably stems from a quicker, stronger, more determined game in the American League, but it's something that needs to be addressed. In the sporadic Barons practices that I've attended, he gets a lot of time one-on-one in handling drills as well as being placed with quick linemates. Coach Nelson sees some potential, but also sees some much needed work.
In The Lineup
This is where I'd normally place whom Pitlick's most common linemates have been through the 33 games he's played. But in reality, he's had almost even amounts of time with nearly every forward package on the team. One thing to note is that he's playing a lot of right wing and left wing, much as he did in the WHL. Still listed as a centerman, he seems to fare better on the edges. This is a direct result of three things. He seems more relaxed around the edges. His game has favored quickness and hard hitting. And his errors with the puck have cost him dearly in the brief moments he's played at center. Do I like him at the center position? Sure. Does he seem to play better on the left or right? Absolutely.
Pitlick has also gained some ground on the power play unit. This also means that he's slowly started to get more consistent and more potent scoring lines. This has slowly nurtured his +/- which got into the double digits around Christmas, but has floated back to around -8. Through consistency and better playmakers surrounding him, Pitlick is starting to find a little better rhythm offensively even if he hasn't scored in bunches.
As the mid-season mark in the American Hockey League has now come and gone, Tyler Pitlick will need to have a really solid second half. Much like the other rookie forwards on this squad, if you can't find your niche quickly you might get lost in the shuffle. Tanner House and Hunter Tremblay, by comparison, have found that niche in the team and really begun to prove their value. Right now, outside of bulk and speed, Pitlick is getting lost in the pool of better statistical players. But then there's that thing called potential.
In the most recent Top 25 Under 25 poll, the concern was that Pitlick might be finding success merely on a squad in the WHL that was pretty stout. He wasn't at the top of the scoring sheet, but had a bang-up of a season. So it begs the question, is Pitlick the product of those that are around him? More than any other player on this team, he's the guy that has this tendency. The Barons are winning and were the dominant team in the first half of their season. However their record in one goal games stands at 14-7-2-3, two goal games at 5-3, and three goal games at 3-0. That's a lot of close, one goal games. This team doesn't score an absurd amount of goals, but they don't give up a lot either. In this system, it's tough for Pitlick to score because there isn't much scoring going on to begin with. We've now seen Coach Nelson deliver two seasons of Barons hockey that relies heavily on its goaltenders and defensemen to protect a lead. For the most part, it's been successful. But for guys like Pitlick, adjusting to a defensive style of play will be the key to success.
In conclusion, Tyler Pitlick is a big, strong, and quick skater that likes to be tough around the boards. He's a fast asset on the powerplay, but really struggles with protecting the puck at the most crucial moments of the game. Overall health doesn't seem to be an issue. He'll need to continue to tweak his play to fit within the confines of a system that doesn't lend itself to open ice scoring.
For an additional read on Tyler Pitlick, check out Derek Zona's interview with him in December of 2010.