October 25. October 25. October 25.
Now that's out of the way, let's talk some serious T-Town hockey. Prepare yourself for the third annual "Official Tulsa Oilers Preview."
Why is it such a pleasure to write this particular piece? Let me count the ways. The front office is cooperative. The players exude professionalism. The fast-paced, hard-hitting, puck-slapping, adrenaline-pumping action is a must-see-in-person event. This year mix in the BOK Center and voila! Tulsa shoots and scores!
Hockey is infamous for its minor infractions. Penalties if you will. If a referee were reading my earlier previews, he would have given me a game misconduct. A linesman would have whistled me offside.
The point being I've fallen for the "coach speak" time and time again. Last year the stars aligned. A deep run in the Central Hockey League was on the cusp. An All-Star squad was strewn together. What could go wrong? Chemistry -- team chemistry. More on that topic to follow.
If you can't trust a coach and player for an honest assessment, who can you trust?
I'll attempt to skate down the ice and give an honest preview of the upcoming Oilers campaign with my head on a swivel.
At the very least I'll attempt a no-look pass on this power play.
"I think for sure we're going to have a top team this year," said head coach Dan Hodge.
He is a native of Boston, drafted by the NHL's Bruins in 1991. He donned the "C" on his sweater with the Oilers in the 2005-2006 season, his final season of professional hockey.
"I'm not building a team just to compete for the playoffs. I'm building a team that's going to compete for a championship. I don't want to just make the playoffs. Anyone can make the playoffs. I want to win a championship," he said.
A championship banner in the BOK Center would spice up the decor. The last time the Oilers captured the William "Bill" Levins Memorial Cup was the 1992-1993 season.
The past few years Butch Kaebel ran the team from behind the bench. It's been a rocky ride for the team and the fans with more ups and downs than a tilt-n-puke ride at the fair.
Sometimes a change in voice is needed to rejuvenate the players. Sometimes it's a complete overhaul including a new philosophy and system that is required.
After an abysmal start last year (5-10-1), Coach Kaebel left the bench. Coach Hodge took the reins mid-season. A strong finish led the organization to give coach Hodge the jig full time.
"You look around major sports right now and when people take over half way through (the season) and they don't get to pick their own players, it's a pretty tough situation to get into. We were behind the eight-ball pretty much," said the coach's younger brother and center Brendon Hodge.
"He worked as hard as he could. He did the best job you could ask of him to do. This year, he emphasized to me right when he got the job that he was going after defensemen," explained Brendon.
Defensive hockey evokes thoughts of the clutch-n-grab or the left-wing lock. Boring. In this instance, the only aspect of hockey more boring than a defensive tussle is losing to Wichita, Mississippi or, ugh, Oklahoma City. Repeatedly. Bring on the D!
Defense will be the priority this season. "You've seen in the past we haven't been able to take care of our own end. We've been lacking. Last year we struggled so hard on being defensive minded," said coach Hodge.
A solid core of guys is returning this season. They've bonded with coach Hodge and understand his game plan. This should eliminate the awkward, slow start the team suffered last year.
The difference in philosophies between the previous coaching staff and the current is crystal clear. Smallish, quick-skating defenders are a thing of the past.
"We'll be more physical. I've got some guys that know how to fight," said coach Hodge. "They can handle themselves."
Statements like the one above will go a long way in achieving an early season goal of the organization. The front office is striving to sellout the opening night contest against the Oklahoma City Blazers. October 25. October 25. October 25.
Physical presence on the back end and pugilistic prowess are nice but can they keep the opponent from lighting up the lamp?
Enter the best pair of goalies this franchise has sent between the pipes in years. Kevin St. Pierre and Guy St. Vincent will battle during the training camp for the number one goalie spot.
"They are going to push each other. Neither is coming in as number one. Hopefully one will take the reins and run with it," said coach Hodge.
A year ago, St. Pierre came to Tulsa with much fan fair. His resume was impressive, but the team's early season slide coupled with a wrist injury set him on the back burner.
Enter waiver-wire claimee Guy St. Vincent. The Canadian-born puck stopper earned a 10-6 record while stabilizing the defensive zone. The defense in front of the goaltenders last year was shaky at best and non-existence at worst.
"It makes your job a little more challenging. You kind of have to rely a little more on yourself. Toward the end of the season you got comfortable with the situation and have to adapt. Not having the best defensive core in front of you doesn't make your job a whole lot easier," said St Vincent. He admitted the process starts up front with offensive players willing to back check.
In a perfect world the forwards back check, the defensemen play the one-on-ones and two-on-ones while the goalie concentrates on regurgitation the rubber biscuit. The chain of command broke down last year. Coach Hodge is determined not to let this happen this season.
"Whether your last name is Christian, Hodge, St. Pierre... if you're not ready to go, you're not going to play. We can't have a slow start like we did last year," said coach Hodge emphatically.
Both goaltenders mention Patrick Roy as a goalie they pattern their games after. St. Pierre is one of the elder statesmen on the team. He is 33 years old. He is motivated to prove he is not an over-the-hill goalie. Considering he recovered from losing a finger, the left-pointer, I'm guessing a wrist injury won't affect him this season.
St. Vincent on the other hand is the young buck. He started last season with the Rocky Mountain Rage. He was placed on waivers figuring to be picked back up by the Rage. A couple of injuries and here he is.
"To be honest, I was just looking to play hockey where ever it was. I came in early December to help them out. I had a few good games. Tulsa showed interest. I gave Tulsa a shot and here I am playing again this year," said St. Vincent.
Re-signing St. Vincent was another of coach Hodge's priorities at the end of last year.
The other priority was upgrading the defensemen. Watching opponents skate freely in his own zone was sickening. The Oilers rolled out top lines last year knowing they were fifth or sixth defensemen on other squads at best.
Coach Hodge used a few connections from his playing days to bring in Jason Lawmaster. Hodge and Lawmaster won a championship in Peoria several years ago. Hodge will lean heavily on Lawmaster this year. He believes Lawmaster will solidify the defense.
I'm sure he will lay the law. See Jason Lawmaster versus Steve Pelletier on Youtube. Now.
A few more back-end guys to keep an eye on are Kevin Hansen, Ben Chaisson and Cody Hamilton. Youtube Hansen and Chaisson. We can't forecast how they will mesh but we can make one prediction for the opposition. Pain. October 25. October 25. October 25.
Yes, we're talking about scoring. Stopping pucks, defensive posture and back checking are like the batter for the cake. An offensive player whizzing the puck to the back of the net is the icing on top.
"I've got enough guys who can put the puck in the net," said a confident coach Hodge. The Oilers retained the services of former CHL MVP and ex-NHLer Jeff Christian.
A year ago his numbers dwindled to 83 points. After the rough start suffered by the whole team, his points-per-game average shot up to one per contest. "It was just the chemistry of my linemates. We didn't click," said Christian.
The Oilers secured the services of former Blazer Mike Beausoleil. The two have been skating during the summer. "You can pick up on little things. You know he's going to be the right fit for you. He's got great offensive skill and he's going to score. I love to make plays. It's going to work out," said Christian.
"Last year it seemed like the team recruited a bunch of guys that had All-Star on their resume and thought this is going to be great.
"We got off to a bad start as a team primarily because there was no chemistry in the locker room. As the year went, we made changes not only in the front office and behind the bench but also with players and we seemed to gel more at the end of the year," he added.
Several returning Oilers should ease the feeling out process on the ice. Kai Magnussen, Lucas Burnett, Kevin St. Pierre and Guy St. Vincent add stability to the organization.
"The guys they're bringing back this year are the guys that proved themselves. Not only do they want to be in Tulsa and be part of Oilers hockey but also do what it takes (to win). That's why we want to have these guys back," said the right wing snipper.
At 38 years old, Christian said his body and mind are ready for the grind. He may not engage in many fights (only four or five last year) but, judging his teammates fighting acumen, he may not have to throw down. Besides, anyone who punched NHL agitator Matt Barnaby a few times is a hero in my book.
Talking with the Oilers from top to bottom gets you fired up. In fact, we should just hand these guys the championship based on the internal hype. The addition of Mike Beausoleil is the biggest boon to Tulsa's scoring since Gus Malzahn introduced his pass-wacky offense at TU.
However, these guys still have to lace'em up and put in the work. "I could talk to you for eons about how good I'm going to be this year but you never know how it's going to turn out. I don't have a crystal ball in front of me.
"I'm going to work my hardest. Our goal this year is to get in the playoffs and make a run. Now it's up to us to go out there and perform," said Brendon Hodge in his best "son of a NHL Stanley Cup Champion" and "brother of the coach" voice.
It Will BOK
How do you recruit minor league hockey's crème de la crème to Tulsa?
"The biggest help is the arena. It's helped out a lot. People want to play there," said coach Hodge. It's a sentiment echoed throughout the organization.
So let's get this straight. The Convention Center wasn't getting it done on the recruiting trail. Interesting.
The BOK Center figures to overshadow the team's on-ice performance to start the season. That's a given. They are hoping the newness of the arena lures new and old fans to give the Oilers a look-see.
"That rink is the best rink in our league and one of the better ones at the AAA level. We're excited about it," said coach Hodge. They are banking on a high-level of play bringing patrons back to the Center.
Of the 130 or 140 events the Center wants to host in a given year, the Oilers fill a minimum of 32 dates. "That doesn't count playoffs," reminded coach.
One issue, and it's a small one, is the BOK's busy schedule. The Oilers will not skate at the rink until the night before or morning of the first home game. October 25. October 25. October 25.
"It's unfortunate, but when a city has a new arena it's going to be booked with shows. The players won't get to enjoy it as much on a daily basis.
"Having said that, it's going to be a lot nicer to play in an arena like the BOK as opposed to the Convention Center. Everybody associated with the team is very excited about the facility," said the experienced Christian.
"I've played in some great arenas - some NHL arenas and this ranks right up there with all of them. It's going to be a lot better for the players but also a lot better for the fans. Comfort and amenities, video replay, everything is going to be so much better," continued Christian.
Brendon Hodge went so far to say he'd put the BOK Center up against Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and the Fleet Center. Yes, even the Bostonian marvels at the structure Tulsa has provided this team.
"Our locker room is just gorgeous. The whole rink is going to be great. The ticket office is saying there is going to be a big crowd on opening night to see Oklahoma City. It's just a great feeling to be driving to a rink and pull up to that structure at the BOK Center," he said.
Hopefully you know the opening home date at this point. Buy a ticket and help Tulsa break Oklahoma City's current CHL attendance record. If you like the product, buy more tickets.
Visit www.tulsaoilers.com for more information.
"October 25 can't come soon enough," said Brendon.
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