Edmonton Oilers Assistant General Manager Keith Gretzky sat in front of a room full of Condors season tickets holders last Friday evening with a smile on his face.
And why not?
The Condors, with a handful of true NHL prospects on their roster, were flying high with 10 straight wins and those sitting in front of him were in a good mood.
“When I first got into the organization three years ago I knew their depth wasn’t great,” Gretzky said of the Oilers. “It starts with drafting. Last year, most of you guys were here when Craig MacTavish (Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Oilers) tried to explain that to you and things weren’t going so well. I have the cushy job this year.”
Later on Gretzky pretty much summed up the difference between being an also-ran in the AHL (which the Condors were for their first three years in the AHL) and a team that is now among the frontrunners.
“Last year we didn’t have one drafted forward play in Bakersfield,” he said. “That’s a big hole to fill. You are just adding guys at that time. Now we’ve started to fill the cupboards.”
Those young prospects, and a group of motivated veterans, helped lead the Condors to another two wins over the weekend and the team heads into Wednesday’s home game against Stockton having won 12 in a row.
Undrafted second-year player Joe Gambardella and rookie Tyler Benson, a second-round pick by Edmonton in 2016, lead the team in scoring with 38 points. Benson is tops among rookies in assists with 30 and Gambardella is tied for fifth in the AHL in goals with 23.
Rookie Cooper Marody is close behind with 35 points and is third in the league in rookie assists with 26. Then comes veteran Josh Currie who has topped the 20-goal mark for the third straight season and currently sits at 21. First-round draft choice Kailer Yamamoto has 10 points in 17 games.
Defensively, the entire group has played well. Caleb Jones has improved dramatically since his rookie campaign but the biggest surprise may well be Logan Day, who is on an AHL contract and leads defensemen in scoring with 27 points, 18th best in the league.
Then there is rookie goaltender Shane Starrett, who has won 10 straight and has vaulted to the top of AHL leaderboard with a 2.28 goals-against average (1.60 in his last 10).
Marody, Yamamoto, Gambardella, Jones and third-year pro Patrick Russell have all spent time with the Oilers this season but currently are with the Condors.
“As an organization we believe it’s important that kids learn to be a pro and be down here,” Gretzky said. “(The NHL) shouldn’t be handed to them. It’s a big thing I believe in. You have to earn it. You should deserve to come up, not that we want you to come up. That’s our goal.
"Look at Benson’s stats as an example. But the best thing is to keep him down here. We also know he’s missed a lot of hockey (due to injuries in junior). Every player is different, but our goal is to keep guys down here and let them learn to be a pro.”
Gretzky also pointed out that if the players are in the AHL, it’s generally because there are deficiencies that get exposed at the higher level.
“That’s why we made the decision with Yamo, especially,” Gretzky said. “You can’t be up and down like a yo-yo. I told him when I sent him down that he’s smart and gritty but he’s got to get his scoring back. It’s important to have that at the next level. You have to bring more than one thing when you’re in the NHL.”
That said, change is the one constant at the AHL level.
And with the Oilers needing to clear cap space to get veteran defenseman Andrej Sekera back in the lineup (currently on a conditioning loan to the Condors) and the upcoming trade deadline on Feb. 25, there could be moves that affect the Condors.
“We don’t want to give the future away, that’s No. 1,” Gretzky said of the trade deadline. “Our future is the kids, just giving away anybody is not in our cards right now.
“There may be some other guys called up here and there but we believe the kids have to be here.”