A year ago today, the Bakersfield Condors were celebrating a 2-1 overtime victory over the San Diego Gulls in the second round of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs. That wasn’t going to repeat itself this spring, the Condors were not making the playoffs, but no one cold have imagined that hockey would be on hold a year ago.
Hope was held onto that the AHL, like the NHL, would try and finish the season and play the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs. That dream died on Monday, when the league officially announced the cancellation of the 2019-20 regular season and 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Condors are now set to enter a new era under head coach Jay Woodcroft. Woodcroft, who has done a great job in each of the last two seasons developing players, is extremely likely to return.
The players he will coach are likely to be very different.
The Condors were an on-ice disappointment to fans in 2019-20. After wining the Pacific Division and making the playoffs for the first time in 2019, the Condors fell back to earth in 2019-20. There were a few reasons for that.
First, the club lost arguably its best defenseman from a season ago. Ethan Bear graduated to the NHL, making the Oilers out of training camp. Caleb Jones only played 14 games for the club, joining Bear with the NHL team.
Defenseman William Lagesson and winger Kailer Yamamoto also both left the Condors for the Oilers. Standout forward Cooper Marody suffered an early injury and never quite recovered, while starting goaltender Shane Starrett also got hurt early and never fully bounced back for the team.
The Condors, overall, served their purpose. They promoted some key NHL players (Bear, Jones) and a few depth pieces (Lagesson, Patrick Russell, Tyler Benson at times) to the show. It might be hard to take for fans, but that is the purpose of an AHL team. Not to win, but to develop players for the NHL.
GM Ken Holland has already gotten to work forming the 2020-21 Condors. They’ll be an interesting group to follow, especially for Oilers fans.
Shane Starrett was an all-star and had a terrific 2018-19 season. Injury, however, ruined his 2019-20 campaign. Starrett, a pending UFA, is unlikely to be back. Stuart Skinner, arguably the club’s top goaltending prospect, took over the starting job and improved as the season went along. He’ll play a big role for the Condors in 2020-21 as he continues to develop.
Olivier Rodrigue, the 62nd overall pick in 2018, is turning pro and will need ice time in 2020-21. Expect him to shuffle between the Condors and ECHL Wichita.
Dylan Wells also returns for the 2020-21 season, and will be an RFA at the end of the season.
Goaltending is likely to be very similiar to what it was a season ago. The Condors will need some internal improvement.
It’s possible that Evan Bouchard’s time in California is done. The 10th overall pick in 2018, Bouchard’s offensive skills have been NHL-ready since the second he was drafted. His defensive game and skating, however, needed a little improvement. By all accounts, he got that improvement a season ago under Woodcroft.
It’s distinctly possible that Bouchard makes the Oilers out of camp and fills the third-pairing right side role that Matt Benning has filled the last few seasons.
Dmitri Samorukov will return and will be the top prospect to watch on the Bakersfield blueline. He’ll be joined by Finnish defenseman Markus Niemelainen, a 2016 third-round pick of the club who recently signed his entry-level contract.
Theodor Lennstrom, signed recently from Sweden, will also come to North America next season. The offensive defenseman, who shoots left, is likely to start in Bakersfield. Keegan Lowe, the captain, and Logan Day are both slated to hit the free agent market. Day is likely moving on, but there is a chance that Lowe signs an AHL deal like Brad Malone recently did.
Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson are at a crossroads. Benson made his NHL debut this past season and largely looked solid in seven games with the Oilers. He had 66 points (15-51-66) in 68 games as a rookie in 2018-19, and 36 points (9-27-36) in 47 games this past season for the Condors. The two-way forward needs to make the jump sooner rather than later.
Marody’s footspeed has been an issue, even though the offense has been there since turning pro. Health is also a key factor for him. Marody only appeared in 30 games this past season for the Condors, scoring just 17 points (5-12-17).
My bet? Marody remains in Bakersfield while Benson opens the season with the Oilers in a bottom-six role.
Other than that, Oilers fans should be paying attention to Kirill Maksimov, Ryan McLeod and Raphael Lavoie. Lavoie, a volume shooter who can score, will be playing his rookie professional season. McLeod, meanwhile, brings speed and two-way ability to the table. His offensive numbers don’t pop, but he might not be far off from making the NHL.
Veteran Brad Malone will return on a two-year AHL deal, while feel good stories Jakob Stukel and Luke Esposito are also back on AHL contracts.
Holland has been using the college free agency route quite a bit this spring to augment the Condors. Forwards Blake Christensen (AIC), Devin Brosseau (Clarkson) and Liam Folkes (Penn State) are all signed for the upcoming season. James Hamblin, from WHL Medicine Hat, is also on an AHL contract after finishing his junior career.
The stacked 2018-19 edition of the Condors is a thing of the past. That said, the 2020-21 edition should be an interesting one to follow. Although the high-end prospects have mostly graduated, this Condors team could have a number of future Oilers in Samorukov, Lavoie, Maksimov, Lennstrom, McLeod, Skinner and Rodrigue. Not all of them will make it, but these gentlemen represent the best bets.
There will be a lot of easy to root for players on this team too. The college free agents are always interesting to track, and this Condors team will have plenty of candidates. Can Woodcroft get one or even two of them onto the NHL radar?
It’s a different era down on the farm. We’ll see how the Oilers complete this AHL roster.