While the Jussi Jokinen signing this morning was the first genuinely noteworthy free agency move for the Oilers this offseason, there has been a few moves that should help the AHL squad in Bakersfield in 2017-18.
This article will recap the strengths of the Condors from the 2016-17 season, then look forward to see how they’re aiming to shape up for next year.
Below is my assessment of the keys to the second half of the Condors’ 2016-17 season, which I wrote, but didn’t publish, at the conclusion of the season, because I was a Condors employee at the time, and unable to blog about the team.
Season Review: Keys to the Condors’ Strong Second Half
The 2016-17 hockey season was a wild one for the Bakersfield Condors. From early-season offensive struggles, to an unforgettable outdoor game, and a late-season playoff race, the Condors’ 2nd AHL season certainly wasn’t lacking in the drama department.
This year’s edition of the Condors improved upon the 2015-16 club by one point, earning 72 in 68 games. Their 33 wins was also a two-win improvement over last year’s club, who picked up nine points via OT/SO loses.
In the early parts of the season, a playoff push looked unlikely, as the boys struggled to score goals out of the gate. Four of the Five leading scorers from the 2015-16 edition of the team had left over the offseason. Fan favorite Ryan Hamilton was the only returning player who had cracked the 30-point plateau the previous year.
Hamilton’s line, which featured Taylor Beck and Jujhar Khaira, produced offense early on. But outside of that, the Condors struggled to score. Fortunately, reinforcements were on their way.
The following players were instrumental in jump-starting the Condors’ offense, and elevating a team that played to just a .433 points % through November, to the level of a playoff contender down the stretch.
Lander scored the ‘Teddy Bear Toss’ goal in front of a lively crowd on November 26th, his first home game as a Condor. He never looked back, as he went on to lead the AHL in point-per-game (min 10 gp). His 25 goals and 55 points led the club, as did his +20 plus/minus rating. He’s a huge reason that the team sported a .557 points % from December, on.
The former University of Denver Pioneers standout made a mid-season position change, from defenseman to forward. He did so about as smoothly as I’ve ever seen. The converted defender used his speed, vision and puck-skills to become one of three Condors to notch 20 goals in 2016-17, despite starting the season on the blueline.
Puljujarvi, a 6’4” Finn, who, at 18, is more than three years younger than any other Condors regular, recorded 12 goals and 28 points in 39 games. Averaging 0.72 point-per-game in the AHL, as an 18-year-old is no small feat. The trio of Puljujarvi, Laleggia, and Lander, was the most dangerous line on the team at times. Despite his moderate success, the fact that he didn’t dominate at the AHL level suggest that a return to Bakersfield next year certainly isn’t out of the question. The most recent AHL comparable would have to be William Nylander, now of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who scored 32 points in 38 games with the Marlies in 2014-15. He, like Puljujarvi, was under 19 for the entire season, a rarity in the AHL. He returned to the Marlies in 2015-16 and scored 45 points in 37 games before being called up to the big club. I could see a similar year for Puljujarvi in 2017-18.
2016-17 was an amazing season for the former ECHL Condor. Currie, 24, had never recorded a 20-goal season as a pro, in either the ECHL or AHL, before this year. He managed 22 in 2016-17, good enough for second on the team, behind Lander. Those 22 goals included two 2nd half hat-tricks, the 2nd of which coming on the final game of the season, where he scored all three Condors goals in a 3-2 overtime win over the first-place San Jose Barracuda.
Currie, who once had a 100-point season in the QMJHL, has improved offensively in each of his four professional seasons. Look for that trend to continue in the future.
Griffin Reinhart and Jordan Oesterle
I’m combining the two members of the Condors’ top defense pairing here. Having Oesterle in the lineup for most of second half surely helped the Condors climb out of their early-season offensive hole. But like any great defensive tandem, one’s offensive success is often linked to the other’s defensive conscience. Oesterle, a 2017 AHL All-Star, lead all Condors blueliners in scoring, despite missing 24 games due to injury and time spent in the NHL. His stable partner, Reinhart, scored the biggest goal of the Condors season, the overtime winner against Ontario in the outdoor game.
Reinhart’s goal capped off a strong 2017, where the Condors played their final 40 games at a .563 points % (compared to .482 in the 28 games in 2016). Winning that game, in front of the largest crowd in Condors history, in the pouring rain, seemed to galvanize a then-mediocre club, into the playoff contender that they were down the stretch. Who knows how the season would have gone differently, if not for Reinhart’s heroics, under the lights at Bakersfield College.
Looking Forward to Next Year
The most obvious takeaway from my end-of-season assessment, with regards to the upcoming 2017-18 season is: Yikes! Arguably the team’s three most valuable players – Lander, Reinhart and Oesterle – are no longer in the organization.
It also seems as though, despite the Jokinen signing, the Oilers are planning to have Puljujarvi play a major role on the NHL roster next season. Unless there are more moves aimed at improving the right-wing depth at the NHL level, we have no reason to believe the organization sees the young Finn anywhere but in the NHL in 2017-18.
The Condors will likely feature some highly touted prospects, as newcomers, on their blueline next season. Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha all finished their junior hockey careers in 2016-17, and all three may find themselves in crucial roles on the Condors next season. It remains to be seen whether the likes of Bear and Jones can replace Reinhart and Oesterle. There may be some growing pains, but, at the same time, the younger duo are likely better pro prospects at this point, so it’s in the organization’s best interest to have them play big minutes in the AHL next year.
The real issue in Bakersfield will be the team’s ability to put the puck in the net. Yesterday’s re-signing of Currie to a minor-league deal will help for sure. It seems likely that he and Laleggia, who is an RFA and has been issue a qualifying offer, will be called upon to be main offensive producers again. But I question whether the impact of the team’s other 20-goal scorer, Anton Lander, can be replaced.
If Lander can be replaced, it won’t be by a single player, but rather by committee. Since the start of free agency, the Oilers have signed Mitch Callahan, Ty Rattie, Grayson Downing, Brad Malone and Brian Ferlin, as new forwards, who seem destined for Bakersfield in 2017-18.
Four of these five new additions have spent time in the NHL over the past three seasons, with Downing being the only exception. Here’s how each of them has done in the AHL since the beginning of the 2014-15 season:
Callahan – 113 points in 176 games (0.64 ppg), also won a Calder Cup last year.
Downing – 70 points in 120 games (0.58 ppg)
Ferlin – 34 points in 78 games (0.44 ppg)
Malone – 28 points in 71 games (0.39 ppg), was a full time NHLer with Carolina from 2014-16.
Rattie – 93 points in 143 games (0.65 ppg)
That’s a significant upgrade in forward depth. All five new additions seem capable of competing for a spot in the Condors’ top six for next season. Obviously a few returning players, such as Ryan Hamilton, Josh Currie and Laleggia will keep their lineup spot, so these acquisitions seem poised to insert offensive talent throughout Bakersfield’s lineup. As I mentioned, none of these guys is going to produce like Anton Lander or like Puljujarvi if he stayed in the AHL for another year. But there will be more scoring prowess throughout the lineup.
If the Condors get a breakout season from one or more of their new additions, it could be enough for them to finally break through to the Calder Cup playoffs that have eluded them for their first two years in the AHL.