For those who paid attention to the Oklahoma City Barons this past season, it will take all of two sentences to explain why Curtis Hamilton has dropped down the list considerably from where he was in the last Top 25 Under 25 this past January. I'm rather long-winded, so I fully expect to take much more than that.
Hamilton had what could easily be called a disastrous season. That said, he still ranks among our top 25. So, is there reason to hope for a significant step in the right direction for the young winger next season? After the jump, We'll take a look at his difficult year and consider whether it is indicative of what we can expect going forward or if there the reasons for optimism heading into his second pro season.
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The 2011/12 season is likely one that Curtis Hamilton will not look back on favourably any time soon. His rookie year as a pro started off with a bit of an up-hill battle as a first year player trying to earn minutes on a team designed to compete for a championship. With veteran scoring forwards like Ryan Keller and Josh Green, returning young players Teemu Hartikainen, Linus Omark and Phil Cornet, not to mention fellow AHL rookie Tyler Pitlick competing against him for ice-time, Hamilton was going to have to earn every minute of his ice-time while at the same time adjusting to the size and speed of players at the professional level. It didn't go well.
Both Pitlick and Hamilton struggled greatly in the first half of the season. In the second half of the season, opportunity began to present itself in the form of injuries and in a cooling of the streak of luck Phil Cornet rode to an AHL all-star appearance. Pitlick was able to make the necessary adjustments and deliver a much more promising second half, but just around the time there may have been some opportunity for Hamilton to show if he could do the same, he injured his knee on February 22nd and it put an end to his season. He finished the year with 5g-6a-11p in 41 games before the injury.
While I will state for the record up front that I don't think many expect Hamilton to have the offensive upside of Pitlick and that I don't expect that he would have started producing offense at a high level in the 2nd half this season, I think the loss of the back half of his rookie year in the AHL is what has had the biggest effect on Hamilton's status in that he was not able to show if he could adapt to the pro game and perform better in the final 30 games of the year. With Teemu Hartkainen the previous year and Pitlick this season, improved play over the course of a full schedule gave those watching a sense of optimism for the following year. It's not a given that Hamilton would have adjusted in this manner as well, but with the opportunity taken from him by injury, all we are left to reflect on is his poor first half.
Furthermore, I personally believe that Hamilton was a guy that Todd Nelson and his staff didn't really know what to do with last year, even when he was healthy. In prepping for this article, I spoke to a few people more familiar with the Barons than I am and there seemed to be some agreement that because the team had both the mandate to develop players for the Oilers, but also to win, Curtis Hamilton was not always placed in a role that was optimal for his development and that he was bounced around the line-up while the coaches tried to find a role for him. Not something I imagine can be easy for a kid trying to get acclimated to a new league and new team at the same time. That said, I'm a big believer in the fact that it is the responsibility of the player to force his way through the door if there are none open for him and Hamilton certainly didn't do that before he was hurt. I would really have liked to see what he could have done in March and April and into the playoffs if he had stayed healthy.
So, what does this mean going forward for the former Saskatoon Blades standout? Well, it means he's got a heck of a lot of work to do, that's for certain. However, the stars appear to have aligned in a manner that will give him the chance to get back on track next season. With Keller and Green not re-signed, Omark not expected to play in OKC next year for one reason or another, Hunter Tremblay moving on to the St. John's Ice Caps and the possible full-time promotion of Magnus Paajarvi and/or Hartikainen to the NHL as well, there will be a great deal of opportunity for Hamilton to move up the depth chart in OKC next year.
I don't believe that offense will ever be his calling card at the NHL level, but he will certainly need to prove he can produce at a higher level if he ever hopes to have a chance at an NHL career. I'd expect that Hamilton's style translates to a Fernando Pisani kind of player that is strong defensively and on the penalty kill while chipping in some secondary offense 5v5. To prove himself capable of a role like that, Hamilton will need to produce some strong possession numbers, get some time on special teams, and learn to shoot a lot more.
The good news for Hamilton is that I think he is very capable of delivering the kind of season that he will need to get back on the road to an NHL roster spot and that with some of the road in front of him cleared away this summer, he should have an opportunity to do just that. I get the feeling that there is a general sense of good will towards this player and that the organization wants to give him a chance to show what he can do. That could be a misperception on my part, but based on his draft +1 season and his 2nd round pedigree, I'd bet he sees a lot of opportunity in the first 40 games of the Baronds season next year.
On a personal level, I'd like to see all of the Oiler prospects do well, but I've got a soft spot for Hamilton and I really hope he bounces back. I believe that he has the potential to become the kind of role player that helps teams win championships. Strong possession game, PK ability and some degree scoring touch. Young players like that are hard to find and if Hamilton can reach become a player like that at the NHL level for the Oilers, then they will have found a keeper. He's got an awful long way to go though and there are no excuses for his poor season last year. It was a big step backwards and it is on him to prove it was only a temporary setback.
The consensus among our panel seems to give the impression that my opinions may be shared by my fellow writers. All eight of us had Curtis Hamilton within 3 spots of one another and I'd bet that like me, they are eager to see how he responds in 2012/13. While his first year with the Barons was certainly disappointing, I'd consider more of an incomplete grade than one of total failure. That said, his ability to rise to the challenge will go a very long way in determining his status within the organization in the years ahead. If he does well, I'd expect to see him back up in the teens the next time we gather for these rankings. If he doesn't, I'd wager this may be his final appearance on the list.