By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
Coming off its greatest season since the rebirth of hockey in Tulsa 27 years ago, the Oilers will have a familiar look during the 2019-20 ECHL season. Heading into training camp, Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations Rob Murray had signed 12 players from last season’s team that won the franchise’s first Mountain Division and Western Conference championships.
“On paper, I’ve got us equal to last year,’’ said Murray, winner of the ECHL’s General Manager of the Year award. “But that could change quickly depending on who we get from our affiliates. You never know how it will shape up, but from top to bottom, I think we’re equal.’’
Murray agreed that the farm system can be volatile, especially around playoff time. Two years ago, call-ups decimated the Oilers’ roster heading into postseason. Last season, a plethora of talent arrived due to parent club injuries and other factors. After winning a team record 42 regular season games, Tulsa made a serious push in reaching the semifinal round last season before losing to Toledo in seven games.
Murray said team character was a major difference between his first and second seasons in Tulsa. With much of the same personnel returning, he expects quality behavior again.
“There were no cliques in the locker room. We were a team with a dedication to being professional,’’ Murray said. “Every guy wants to get to the next level and we showed that last year. We had no problems that I had to take care of and that spoke volumes. My first season there was some pouting going on, but our guys now won’t stand for anybody who won’t toe the line.’’
Murray praised his players for knowing and accepting their roles in his system. He said there are no prima donnas, no glory hounds.
“Tanner Kaspick came down last year and knew his role was as a third-line center,’’ said the coach. “His bread and butter at our level was working hard. Last year we were better from top to bottom. There were no weak links. We had three strong lines and the guys understood their roles.’’
Perhaps no one grasped his situation better than team captain and ECHL first-teamer Adam Pleskach. The veteran finished second in league scoring with 75 points, first in goals with 38, first in power play goals with 14 and first in shots attempted. Left winger Jared Thomas added 65 points and was first among rookies with 44 assists.
Despite the return of many mainstays, others have moved on. Chris Forney signed elsewhere, Dylan Bredo and Scott Heneger retired, Stephen Perfetto was unsure of his hockey future and Alex Dostie was looking at the AHL. However, Murray is still confident in his roster heading into the season.
“From the first year to the second year, we had a pretty brand new team,’’ he said. “I’m obviously more familiar with our guys this season and they are more familiar with me and my systems and expectations. We’ll have a straight jump into training camp and there shouldn’t be any question marks going into game one.’’
Two years ago, Murray got a late start after taking the Tulsa job in June and the Oilers finished just two games above .500. Some fans were concerned after he came to town from Alaska with a glowing resume. The 2018-19 campaign more than lived up to Murray’s billing.
“I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove to anybody,’’ he said. “I wanted to put together a good team for the fan base and provide an entertainment level they can really enjoy. Going as deep into the playoffs as we did goes a long way for the players because if you’ve never done it, you don’t know how to do it.
“We had a fantastic season winning the regular season championship. We were neck and neck with Idaho and Utah and we gutted it out. We got the wins we needed and ended up winning the division (90 points to 88 for Idaho). At times we had a team, looking at the roster, that should have won the championship. We overachieved at times and that’s what you want your team to do.’’
If there is one word to describe Tulsa’s season, Murray said it’s “consistency.’’ The Oilers led the ECHL in average shots per game at 36.04 and also in shots allowed at 26.08. Returning goalie Devin Williams ranked No. 1 in the league, giving up just 2.12 goals a game while recording a .916 save percentage.
“Our goaltending was strong and on defense, Bredo and (Eric) Drapluk didn’t start strong, but they got better and better every game,’ said Murray. “Dostie and Perfetto made a huge difference late in the season. They were as good as it gets at this level. It was the luck of the draw. We were lucky to get those guys from our affiliates. They made a difference in our season.’’
Perhaps the major improvement Murray seeks this season is more overall muscle. He’s counting on several newcomers to help.
“We might have been a little small and in the playoffs it was hard for our smaller guys to compete. We need to be more physical,’’ Murray said. “Cam Knight (6-1, 195) is a bigger guy and John Teets (6-3, 205) is back and we’re not sacrificing skill or speed in getting bigger overall.’’
Also adding beef for Tulsa is enforcer Mike McGee (6-5, 235), Connor Moynihan (6-4, 209), Arizona State rookie Jake Clifford (6-1, 198) and Steven Kaunisto (6-0, 200). Murray said he has “high expectations’’ for forward Danny Moynihan whom he tutored in Alaska and he mentioned the hoped for offensive contributions of rookies Craig Puff (Vermont), Canon Pieper (Maine) and Darius McDonald (American International).
Now all Murray has to do is mesh all his talent into a winning unit, just like he did last year.
“We had consistency with a great work ethic all year long. There weren’t too many games where we were not in it,’’ said Murray. “Every game last season, win or lose, we battled hard and had a chance to win. Regardless of the guys we’ve got coming back, we’ve got to continue getting better and better. One of the things I’ve heard from other coaches is that we play the same way every night. They (players) know that regardless of what game it is, it all goes back to our work ethic.
“Our goal last year was making the playoffs and we’ll start with that goal again. With our team, nothing is guaranteed. Idaho and Utah will be good again, Allen will be better, Rapid City has an affiliate this season and Wichita has a new coach. We’ve just got to go out and play and go from there.’’
For Murray and the Oilers, consistency remains the name of the game.
By GLENN HIBDON