TULSA, OK – There’s no better analogy for the 2016-17 Tulsa Oilers: The season was a very strange trip indeed.
All of the good points were there back in October with a coach who eclipsed a huge benchmark in ECHL history, a solid corps of returning players and several key acquisitions that the affiliates wanted to be brought along in their careers. It was as good as a team could expect at the very beginning, and the Oilers took quick advantage when the season began.
The Oilers, led by the scoring line of Dan DeSalvo, Emerson Clark and Christophe Lalancette along with a solid goaltender in Winnipeg Jets prospect, Jamie Phillips, the team raced out to a 6-0-0 start, advancing to 11-2-0 through thirteen games in mid-November.
Then things started to happen that were good for the individual players’ careers, but not so good for the Oilers. DeSalvo got the call from the Manitoba Moose he had been waiting for two weeks before Thanksgiving. First, he was on a tryout, then eventually signed a standard player contract that would see him finish the year in the AHL.
While it’s subjective to say that DeSalvo’s departure was a back-breaker, it did interfere with the early season chemistry of the club. It’s fair to say that team chemistry was an Achilles heel of the club throughout the season, and if there was a watermark where that started showing its ugly head, it was in mid-November.
That fact was evidenced in December when the fast start began to wane. A steadier number of players were seeing call-ups to Manitoba, prompting head coach Christie to juggle his lines and players to plug the holes.
Problem was that the players Christie had brought in to fill the holes, he knew he was going to have under-performed and that hurt the club as the altitude of the regular season started to approach its zenith.
Tulsa won only four times out of ten games in the final month of 2016, netting only nine points out of 20 in play. Ominous numbers that were indicating, among other things, that the lug nuts on the bus were coming loose.
The other Achilles’ heel for the Oilers in the regular season was a brutal road schedule after the dawn of the New Year. Through the final four months of the season, Tulsa played sporadic home games. In January, the team played three home games, and in March only one.
The exception was the month of February that featured a season-long eight game homestand, but by then, there were a few catastrophic events that had taken place that placed the team closer to the bubble of missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
It started in the crease when Phillips left the team on call to the Moose straight from the ECHL All-Star Game in late January. He, like DeSalvo before him, would finish the season there and it began a conga line of goaltenders in the Oilers net of sorts. None of whom could provide the kind of stability behind the defense that Phillips could.
It effectively exacerbated the previously mentioned chemistry problem and inhibited any late-season heroics to get them into the post-season.
As a result, the make-or-break gut check of eight home games in February fell short of expectations along with the team playing what Christie called “pond hockey” during the month-long road trip through March. The Oilers accumulated only five points in the standings, which consisted of one win, two shootout losses and an overtime loss during the home-stand.
Needless to say the Oilers, who at one time led the league—the ENTIRE league—early on, finished in fifth place in the ECHL’s Central Division with a record of 27-37-6-2, 62 points and out of the playoffs by more than ten points. It was a bitter pill for the Oilers faithful to swallow to be sure, but a familiar one.
It’s hard to say what, if anything should change for the 2017-18 Tulsa Oilers.
All of the elements remain in place, at least as of this report, for the team to rise above seasons like they had in 2016-17 and it starts with the man behind the bench, head coach Christie.
Christie, a proven winner and the current titleholder of the winningest head coach in the history of the ECHL, must be retained. It would be foolish for the Oilers front office to send him packing. The infrastructure above him at the administrative level needs to loosen up and allow him to do what he does best, and with that situation in disarray, it’s hard to comment on exactly what that might entail.
The parent clubs In the NHL and the AHL need to improve. More so with the Moose in the AHL than with the Jets in the show, but that isn’t necessarily something Christie can dictate. Despite this, there has to be raw talent with ink on a Winnipeg contract that needs development and bringing them to Tulsa should be a priority.
In the end, the 2016-17 season was a rough one, but the team can recover and learn from it. The summer awaits, and when October rolls around, the Tulsa Oilers will return and hopefully things will turn out better.
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