The Bakersfield Condors clinch a playoff spot

Across Oil Country all eyes are focused on the Edmonton Oilers and their looming playoff season, and rightly so. That being said, there are still important Oilers updates outside the NHL, most notably with the situation surrounding the Oilers most closely affiliated team, the Bakersfield Condors.

Plainly, the Condors clinched a playoff spot this week, with the AHL mirroring the NHL schedule to a degree, and a handful of games remaining on their regular season schedule. To understand how this achievement impacts the Oilers at large, one must take a larger scope to conceptualise its significance.

AHL’s flexible format accommodates the NHL

Because the AHL is largely at the mercy of the NHL, its operations are much more fluid. From the players in the league at any given point, to the schedule and format of the league itself, nearly every aspect of the AHL is in a state of flux. As such, even for NHL fans who understood how the AHL operated at some point in the past five seasons might need to update their understanding.

From a formatting perspective, the AHL is divided into four divisions, but has embraced a somewhat alternative method to dividing those divisions, and ultimately the playoff format. The divisions all have varying numbers of teams: the Atlantic (8), North (7), Central (7), and Pacific (10).

Each division has its own expanded three round playoff system that gives first round, conceptually equivalent to a play-in round, that affords varying numbers of byes for top teams. Each of the rounds have a varying number of games, eventually declaring a division champion, forming the final four teams that will compete in the Conference Finals and the Calder Cup Finals.

Condors currently in the fifth position

Currently the Condors sit in the Pacific Division’s fifth seed, sure to be part of one of three first-round series in the Pacific. This series will be a best of three, followed by two best of five series until the division champion is named.

Within the Pacific Division standings there exist some defined tiers. The Calgary Wranglers (Calgary Flames) and Coachella Valley Firebirds (Seattle Kraken) are fighting for the lone bye atop the division. The Colorado Eagles (Colorado Avalanche) and Abbotsford Canucks (Vancouver Canucks) are equidistant from the tier in front of them as they are the tier behind them.

The Condors sit atop a tier that extends to a non-playoff spot, in front of the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings), Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona Coyotes), and the San Jose Barracuda (San Jose Sharks). The Barracuda still have a mathematical chance to catch either the Reign or the Roadrunners, but with only four games remaining this hope is dim.

Condors have some promising players

Like every AHL team the Condors have had to navigate their top players being promoted to the NHL, as the team enjoyed its fair share of short lived but exceptional contributions. Perhaps, like the Oilers, the Condors roster stabilised and began producing elevated results around the start of the 2023 calendar year. The Condors run up the standings was largely thanks to the torrid pace of prospect Raphael Lavoie, who emerged as a legitimate top line AHL scorer around that time.

Now joined by fellow prospect Dylan Holloway, the fantastic news for Oilers fans is that the Condors success is highlighted by the play of two players that will be pushing for NHL jobs next season.

The group is supported with its fair share of AHL talent, top line players who have seen their NHL aspirations fade with time. This level of player has a home on every AHL roster, but the play of Seth Griffith, Justin Bailey, Jason Demers, Cam Dinnen, and Calvin Pickard are not to be forgotten in the Condors success. These players are not on the radar as potential NHL call ups, this year or next, but are all great players in their own rights.

As prospects get older they can find themselves becoming a part of this group, as Tyler Benson, James Hamblin, and Markus Niemelainen are high level contributors who weren’t able to prolong their brief NHL auditions this season.

Perhaps most relevant to the Oilers future are the younger players on the Condors roster, despite their current impact on the Condors play. Rookie AHL forwards Xavier Bourgault, Tyler Tullio, and Carter Savoie all showed varying signs of success, at the very least surging in their first seasons as professionals. All three will have a strong chance to continue their development this summer and return to the Condors as higher level contributors next season.

If their surviving this season can become thriving next season, any of the three might be much closer to an NHL roster spot in the near future. If all goes according to plan the trio might have a good shot of making the 2024–25 roster out of training camp.

The defence is without a highly regarded prospect, especially with Philip Broberg promoted to the NHL and Michael Kesselring traded to the Arizona Coyotes. As evidenced by recent NHL call up Vincent Desharnais players can make the jump at non-traditional points of their careers, especially when their game is not centred around offensive production.

In goal Calvin Pickard has and is operating as the starter. However, prospect Olivier Rodrigue has carried his fair share of the load, posting similar results to the veteran in a similar number of games, 27 to Picard’s 35 at this point of the season. This represents a significant step forward for Rodrigue, whose results were less than ideal last season.

There is hope that Rodrigue can continue developing, perhaps taking the Condors starting job outright next season. The fact that Rodrigue is already performing at a similar level as a legitimate number three NHL goalie is an accomplishment in itself. It might be a year or two, and an unfortunate circumstance above him on the depth chart, but to have a young, ascending option in the system is significant for the Oilers.

The bigger picture

The Condors are playing their best hockey of the season, but will be underdogs in their first round playoff series regardless. More than a deep playoff run, the fact that the team is clearly of a good atmosphere, right laying meaningful games and coming together is the important takeaway here. This type of environment is ideal for earning high leverage opportunities for the prospects on the roster, and maintaining it for the younger players who will join the team in the future. The hope is that this will instil good habits and motivation that these young players can take into their summers, ultimately propelling their development upwards.

Though top prospects exist outside the AHL, a strong AHL roster might be a sign of future success for any given NHL organisation, a metric of good health. This might be different for each organisation. This acts as an accomplishment for organisations with strong NHL and AHL franchises as much as it might be an indictment of those with weak performances in both leagues. The fact that the Condors success is being propelled with large contributions from legitimate NHL prospects speaks to the bright future that the Oilers currently have.

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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