BENTON’S BLOG: It’s Not Midnight

Tuesday, 01.08.13 / 2:13 PM
By Mike Benton

[Fade into animation; cue romanticized Disney music and glittery sound effects]

“And at midnight, the carriage turned into a pumpkin, the horses turned into mice, the coachman into a rat and gown into rags … AND OH NO! THERE GO CORNET, RAJALA, AND …”

STOP.

With Philippe Cornet, Toni Rajala and more helping engineer the Thunder offense into contention for the top record, I’m sure there’s a Thunder fan or two not liking this to the story of Cinderella, except it’s at the “winner’s ball.”

Now, the lockout’s over. It’s the greatest thing our sport could experience outside of seeing your favorite NHL team win the Stanley Cup. You can’t help but feel happy – especially for the players who get to move up (as said this morning on air by a good friend of ours, Bethany Crouch).

What ambition would players have to play for in the area of career advancement if there was no NHL?

With the lockout ending, it means 30 teams who employ players of the highest skill level get to go back to work. That means there’s a lot of “trickle up” going on (if you pardon the expression) around this league:

Alaska Aces: Scott Gomez, Nate Thompson, Joey Crabb and Brandon Dubinsky are getting ready to leave.

Idaho Steelheads: Justin Dowling (second in ECHL scoring) and Austin Smith (tied for fourth with 19 goals) have been yanked up to their AHL affiliate in Texas.

Ontario Reign: so long Paul Mara (signed to an AHL deal with the Minnesota Wild), Devin Setoguchi and Kyle Clifford.

Orlando Solar Bears: Ryan Reaves is heading back to the St. Louis Blues.

San Francisco Bulls: they’re saying goodbye to their assistant coach, Ryane Clowe, along with former San Jose Shark teammate Torrey Mitchell.

Utah Grizzlies: they’re already parting ways with Trevor Lewis and Colby Armstrong.

As for the Thunder? Up in the AHL, the Oklahoma City Barons have enjoyed the services of Edmonton dynamos Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz.

That means there are holes to fill.

Up go Cornet, Rajala, and Ryan Martindale as expected.

The question at the beginning of October faced many teams: do you stack your roster with NHL veterans (see the Alaska Aces, who had four) and reap instant rewards?

Or, do you hold out like the Las Vegas Wranglers and Bakersfield Condors, who had none and in spite of their combined record of 23-40-7, see the talent level thin out now with their opposition and roughly half a season still left to be played?

You may question the Thunder offense and its capabilities now. Don’t worry. The Thunder are in the middle of that risk/reward game as mentioned above.

They didn’t aggressively sign established NHL talent looking for work, but were aided through a fruitful affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers. Rajala, a former World Junior Championship rockstar and Cornet, who led his AHL team in goals last year, were assigned to the Thunder with these goals: produce, improve and thrive during the unique conditions that clouded the sport during the labor dispute.

Did they ever achieve those goals. They combined for 61 points. Rajala played in 29 games. Cornet was in 18 of them.

Yet, like the high flying teams they’re battling with in Alaska, Idaho and more, the depth is now tested. And based on numbers, there’s plenty of it around Stockton.

Five of the top seven scorers on the Thunder began the season with ECHL contracts:

Yannick Riendeau (over a point per game)
Justin Maylan (leading ECHL rookie scorer)
Harrison Reed (at a point per game)
Eric Hunter (signed to an AHL deal in November with OKC)
Mike Little (20 points in 29 games as a defenseman)

Let’s also not forget the emphasized responsibility on promising offensive talent like Matt Reber, Gabriel Levesque, Phil Mangan and Matt Bergland – all brought in with a bright future to be offensive weapons but have had to manage 36 of their 49 combined points at even strength this season.

That means 73 percent of their offense had to be earned in some of the most taxing situations – full strength hockey.

Sure, it’s not guaranteed that the above names will be here for the whole season. The point: there’s plenty of firepower to ensure that an offensive system (recruited and built by Matt Thomas) that has averaged nearly four goals per game all season doesn’t skip a beat.

In the meantime, the pinnacle of our sport’s level of skill – the NHL – is back.

It’s time to celebrate its return, those who get to move up and the window of opportunity for those still here with a chance to advance.

Mike Benton has served the Thunder as television and radio play-by-play announcer since the team’s inception. Got a question or comment? Follow Mike on twitter at twitter.com/Benton_mike

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