As we head into the NHL’s Christmas roster freeze and the new calendar year, we can operate as if there is a mid-season review of sorts for the Edmonton Oilers’ AHL affiliate the Bakersfield Condors, despite the games played being much closer to a third of the way through the season. The Oilers bearing hope, at least, of being a contending team has most eyes rightly focused on the day-to-day minutiae of the NHL regular season.
As such, it isn’t altogether surprising to see that the Condors are not an AHL powerhouse, sitting below 0.500, far behind the pace of the Pacific Division’s playoff grouping. The overall record isn’t terrible, and considering the makeup of the team there are even some bright spots.
Not long ago the Condors found themselves firmly further up the AHL standings, but promotions to the NHL have robbed the team of some key pieces over the past year. From Stuart Skinner, to Dylan Holloway, even to head coach Jay Woodcroft, and more recently Philip Broberg, the backbone of the past Condors has migrated. This leaves the team to younger hands—the next wave of NHL hopefuls.
Most of the intrigue, from an Oilers perspective, surrounds the youngest players on the team. In particular a glut of rookie forwards are now half a season into their pro careers—an interesting measuring stick in its own right. There are of course players throughout the lineup worth keeping an eye on, as we do in our weekly Prospect Reports. Here we will be giving a brief update on some of the foremost prospects, as well as some of the more AHL specific players on the roster.
Though Calvin Pickard has a profile ideal for a strong third goalie option, some experience but a low enough profile to clear waivers, the goaltending responsibilities of the Condors have fallen to the young tandem of Olivier Rodrigue and Ryan Fanti.
A year younger of the two, Rodrigue has more tenure with the Condors. He merely survived as Skinner’s backup, at times, and looked to be behind Konovalov headed into last season. Due to the less than inspiring raw numbers, many were predicting Rodrigue as a candidate to be passed by others on the depth chart this year. Despite some muted expectations, things have developed quite swimmingly for Rodrigue this season.
Rodrigue has vastly improved his raw stats, all while taking a firm grip on the Condors starting role. Asserting himself as an AHL starter by maintaining his play would be a huge step—a crucial one should he ever approach a legitimate NHL call up. Such a season might see Rodrigue push for a role as the Oilers #3 goalie outright in time, perhaps earning a few games over the next two seasons as an injury call up, eventually leading to a shot as an NHL backup if he can continue to perform so well.
The focus this season should be entirely on his play with the Condors. Some half flirted or half joked notions about sending Jack Campbell to the AHL, if only briefly to rebuild his confidence, have been bandied about, but the truth is that none of Rodrigue, Fanti, or Pickard are in a place to push for the spot in earnest.
Fanti is in his first pro season after a strong college career. The NCAA has done a decent job developing NHL goalies over recent years, yet the jump to the AHL is still quite steep. Fanti started his year in the ECHL, where he quickly earned the starting role, before eventually being called up for AHL back up duties.
His numbers aren’t quite as strong as Rodrigue’s, yet his performance is encouraging nonetheless. The measure of a strong rookie season can be whether or not there were flashes of brilliance, but more often than not a level of consistency in proving a given player belongs in this new, higher level is a great start. We’ve seen a bit of both from Fanti in the early stages, enough to inspire some confidence in the Oilers depth at the position, and providing the Condors with a chance to win more often than not.
Now that Broberg seems to have fully graduated to the NHL, not to mention the trading of Dmitri Samorukov, the Condors blueline leaves a bit to be desired in terms of high end prospects. The relatively unheralded group is not without promise, though.
First and foremost is the play of Michael Kesselring. The right shot defender has an interesting blend of size, skating, and skill that have seen his offensive role expand, tied for the team lead in goals with eight through 23 games. From a physical standpoint, it’s easy to see the makings of an NHLer in Kesselring.
Willing and able to jump into the rush, Kesselring has provided some offence by finding shooting lanes from the point as well. These are fine traits that give Kesselring a chance at NHL viability, though any promotion to the Oilers would be more based on the progression of his defensive game.
His path lies with the Condors this season. Without many options ahead of him, at least offensively, on this blueline, the current roster challenges Kesselring to rise to the occasion, so far to some success.
Philip Kemp shares some similarities to Kesselring, in their being bigger, right shot, defencemen, but is a year older. Both have steadily improved over their time in the AHL, their third.
Markus Niemelainen and Vincent Desharnais bring some physicality and experience to the group, and veteran NHLer Jason Demers is in tow, but in all it is safe to say the Condors blueline is not turning many heads now that Broberg is in the NHL.
The most likely source of intrigue in the Condors lies within the forward group. With a healthy serving of rookies throughout, a more experienced complement of veterans have ebbed and flowed alongside. At times the lineup has included the likes of current NHLers such as Mattias Janmark, Klim Kostin, and James Hamblin, the recently waived Brad Malone, and perennial AHL scorers Seth Griffith, Tyler Benson (sorry), and the recently healthy Justin Bailey.
Needless to say it’s a deep group, but it’s perhaps not that surprising that the Condors overall results have not been as strong with so much of the initial roster now in flux with the injury riddled Oilers. The Oilers have been forced to take a long look at their depth, but it is possible that some players get sent back down to Bakersfield as the season progresses.
Xavier Bourgault, Carter Savoie, and Tyler Tullio headline a rookie group that also includes Darren Klieb, Noah Philp, and Filip Engaras. Bourgault, in particular, is living up to his pedigree, tied for the team lead with eight goals and second in points with 13 through 23 games. Considering his production and his role on both special teams, Bourgault is trending towards warranting a promotion as soon as next season.
Tullio, as usual, is not far behind, even earning Player of the Week nods for the Condors in November. While Savoie, a couple years older, has not exceeded expectations as much, the trio have acquitted themselves reasonably well to nicely in navigating the professional ranks as rookies.
Having found their footing, an increased role or level of play in the back half of the season would be a huge step, but any NHL musings should be held off until at least next summer. Ideally, the goal should be that they are all reasonable top-six AHL contributors next season, although Bourgault might be on his way to outpacing such a landmark.
The bigger picture in Bakersfield
Although few Oilers fans are concerned with the Condors lack of contention hopes, it should be hoped that the team’s quality is strong enough to provide a good atmosphere for the young players. Even earning some meaningful games in the spring, experiencing a playoff race, will serve as platforms for their development. Although players can attack the offseason in an effective way regardless, being in a focused environment is conducive to good habits.
Despite a recent lack of success there are signs that such could be the case. Perhaps, even, among a short staffed group there will be greater opportunities for prospects to take a hold of.
However, mirrored by the rebuilding state of much of the NHL’s Pacific Division, the AHL’s Pacific Division has an abundance of relatively stacked lineups. Affiliates in Tucson (Coyotes), San Jose (Sharks), Ontario (Kings), Coachella Valley (Kraken), and Abbotsford (Canucks), should naturally outclass the Condors thanks to their NHL organisation’s having been more future focused than the Oilers have been in recent years.
On top of that, programs in Colorado (Avalanche) and Calgary (Flames), are strong, leading the division in fact, despite their NHL team’s focus on the present.
Things aren’t looking good, on the other hand, for Anaheim’s affiliate San Diego Gulls. Despite being a rebuilding team, the Ducks don’t seem to have much going in the AHL. The Ducks do have some interesting prospects in general, mostly at the junior level, but the struggling NHL club should not be hoping for immediate reinforcements.
Perhaps most parallel to the Oilers and Condors are the Vegas Golden Knights and Henderson Silver Knights. Both with NHL aspirations beyond qualifying for the playoffs, their respective AHL clubs are middling but not bereft of talent. If any solace should be taken from the Condors—and thus the Oilers too—their long-term strength should be their outpacing of the Silver Knights.
In all, it’s quite unlikely that the Condors qualify for the playoffs, though internally it would do well to harbour such aspirations.