The ultimate goal — a Calder Cup Championship — remained elusive, but by any other standard the Bakersfield Condors met or exceeded all expectations in the just completed season.
There were major changes for the Condors heading into the season, starting with an almost all-new coaching staff headed by 13-year NHL veteran assistant Jay Woodcroft, who was embarking on his first season as a head coach at any level.
In an interview prior to the season-opener last October, Woodcroft was asked how important it was to field a winning team in Bakersfield, which failed to make the American Hockey League playoffs in three straight seasons.
His answer: “I believe my mandate is to develop hockey players for the Edmonton Oilers and to win. And I don’t believe they’re mutually exclusive. I believe you can do both. I think winning and developing go hand in hand. I believe it’s going to be the job of this coaching staff to create an environment where our players get better every day and I believe if we do the necessary things, if we stay on track and harp on effort and attention to detail, that winning will be a byproduct of doing it right every day.”
As for winning, the Condors were the regular-season Pacific Division champions (42-21-3-2), the fourth-best winning percentage (.654) in the AHL. They won their first-round playoff matchup against Colorado before falling to San Diego in six games in the Pacific Division Finals.
As for development: Five players who started the season in Bakersfield — Cooper Marody, Patrick Russell, Joe Gambardella, Josh Currie and Caleb Jones — made their National Hockey League debuts. In addition, forward Tyler Benson and goaltender Shane Starrett were named to the All-AHL Rookie team and the All-AHL second team.
As for getting better as the season progressed: The team stormed from out of a playoff position to the top of the Pacific Division with a memorable 17-game winning streak.
On Jan. 12 in Colorado the Condors, who had fallen to the Eagles 6-3 the previous night, won 2-0.
At that time, it was nothing more than a much-needed win, the first in six games and only their second in the last 10.
A few days later, after another win, Woodcroft downplayed the rough stretch, saying that for the most part he liked the way his team was playing and the effort.
“We’ve found it difficult to get wins this month (but) it wasn’t for a lack of effort or a lack of try,” Woodcroft said. “We’ve had a lot of that in our game but we’ve had some tough lessons taught to us about closing games out and finding ways to get wins.”
The Condors, who has been finding ways to lose, found ways to win. And win. And win some more.
A 6-5 overtime win in San Jose on Jan. 21 gave the Condors a modest five-game winning streak, their longest of the season. A 6-2 win in Ontario on Feb. 2 made it 10 straight and the Condors were rolling.
A 2-1 overtime win in Ontario on Feb. 16 ran the streak to 15 and on Feb. 25 the Condors won their 17th straight, beating Tuscon 3-1 in Tucson.
It became the second-longest winning streak in the 83-year history of the American Hockey League.
The streak, during which the Condors trailed for just 49 minutes in more than 1,000 minutes of hockey, came to an end with a 1-0 loss at home to Iowa on Feb. 28.
Coming of age for Starett
The Condors came of age during the streak during which 27 different players participated in at least one game.
No one was better during that run than netminder Starett, who won 14 of the games. Starrett started the season as a backup to veteran Al Montoya and did not get his first start until the ninth game of the season.
Starrett finished the season 27-12-2 with the third-best goals-against average at 2.33 and a save percentage of .918.
Starrett faltered a bit in the playoffs, being pulled from games against San Diego twice, but back in late September no one in the organization had Starrett penciled in to be the workhorse in goal.
“It was a good year for me,” Starrett said. “I’m proud of what I accomplished and what this team accomplished.”
Breakout seasons for many
But Skinner was just one of many Condors who had impressive seasons.
Second-year defenseman Caleb Jones bounced back from a troublesome rookie season (-25) to put up 23 points in 50 games, finishing plus-16 and playing 17 games with Edmonton.
Winger Joe Gambardella had a team-high 29 goals and 48 points total in 50 games and played 15 games in the NHL.
And sixth-year pro Josh Currie was a feel-good story. He had 41 points (27 goals) in 53 games and got a long look with the Oilers, playing in 21 games.
Rookie Benson led the team in scoring with 66 points and fellow rookie Cooper Marody, who had six games in the NHL, was second with 64 points.
Defenseman William Lagesson, playing his first year of pro hockey in North American and known for defense, showed an offensive upside with 27 points.
During certain times of the season the top two lines of Gambardella-Brad Malone-Russell and Benson-Marody-Currie were simply dominant.
To a man, players usually thanked their teammates for any personal success and that continued after the season.
“None of the success I’ve had comes without my two linemates that I’ve had all year, Brad Malone and Patrick Russell and also the whole entire team itself,” Gambardella said before leaving for the summer.
The bar has been raised
Condors fans got to witness playoff hockey for the first time since the 2013-14 season when the Condors lost in the Western Conference Finals at the ECHL level and they responded in impressive fashion.
Bakersfield averaged 7,023 for five playoff games, nearly 2,000 more than they averaged for the regular season.
And the future for continued success appears bright.
Malone, Russell, Gambardella, Starrtett, Mitch Callahan, Ryan Stanton and Tyler Vesel are all at the end of their NHL contracts. It will be interesting to see how many of those players are resigned by the Oilers and which ones may fight for an NHL job to start the season.
Jones certainly looks ready to make the move to the NHL fulltime and fellow D-men Ethan Bear and Laggesson are knocking at the NHL door as is Evan Bouchard, who joined the Condors for the playoffs and had eight points in eight games.
Up front, Gambardella, Benson, Currie and Marody will all be looking to spend time with the Oilers.
It all adds up to a new look for next season, although there will be a good number of familiar faces to the fans.
And the pipeline will be delivering more quality rookies, such as center Ryan McLeod, a second-round draft pick in 2018, who had three points in five playoff games and defenseman Dmitri Samorukov. Samorukov, a third-round pick in 2018, has had an impressive final season of junior hockey, helping his Guelph Storm advance all the way to the Memorial Cup.
“We laid a ground work for the future of this organization,” said Woodcroft. “We wanted a high level of hockey being played.”