A new coach (Rob Murray), affiliation (St. Louis Blues) and an emphasis on a fast and skilled squad that can play an exciting, up-tempo style offer fresh optimism for the Oilers.
After a disappointing second half left the Tulsa Oilers outside the playoffs last spring for the second straight season, the club made some significant changes that have raised the optimism level surrounding the team considerably.
Gone is former coach Jason Christie and along with him, the team’s affiliation with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Setting a new tone for the organization is new head coach and director of hockey operations Rob Murray. Since arriving, he has negotiated a new affiliation deal with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues.
The 2017-18 season, the Oilers’ fourth in the ECHL and 66th overall, sees them move from the Central Division into the Mountain Division. They will still play their usual rivals often, as they face off against the Allen Americans 13 times, the Wichita Thunder and Kansas City (formerly Missouri) Mavericks eight times, and the Colorado Eagles on nine occasions.
The Oilers open the season Oct. 13 at the BOK Center against Kansas City.
Murray boasts an outstanding resume, both as a player and a coach. He played 109 NHL games over the course of a 16-year professional career, most of which was spent in the top-rung American Hockey League (AHL), where he is in the Hall of Fame. He has also been a head coach and an assistant in the AHL and spent the last six years coaching the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, where he won the Kelly Cup championship in 2014.
When Alaska ceased operations following last season, Murray became available and was hired June 7.
“Rob’s a heck of an acquisition for us, a very experienced hockey guy,” says Oilers general manager Taylor Hall. “When we were looking for a coach, Rob, considering his experience and his success, was head and shoulders above any other candidate. We’re just honored that Rob chose to join our team, because I’m sure he had a lot of different options out there. I think that speaks volumes about Tulsa and our arena and our hockey history.”
Several holdovers from last year are back, most notably 29-year-old forward Adam Pleskach, who will begin his fifth season in Tulsa. Also back are defensemen Dennis Brown, Eric Drapluk and Chris Joyaux, with many other spots to be determined. The new starting goaltender will be Jake Hildebrand, who played for the Indy Fuel last season, and in 2016 helped the Allen Americans win the Kelly Cup.
Murray is looking to build a fast and skilled squad that can play an exciting, up-tempo style.
“I think the team that I’ve always tried to strive for, my coaching philosophy, is a very structured system, yet I want to play a fast game,” Murray says. “It’s nothing new in today’s hockey, but you got to be able to skate; you got to be able to play fast. I think my record shows that people would assume that I’d want a bunch of tough guys on the team, yet fighting is getting to the point where you don’t need who guy any more. You need guys who can play, and that are going to stick up for each other as a team.”
The affiliation deal with the Blues came about because Murray is old friends with Blues assistant GM Kevin McDonald and had an affiliation with them for couple of years in Alaska. It could potentially end up being much more beneficial to the Oilers than the previous arrangement with Winnipeg because, unlike every other NHL team, the Blues don’t have their own dedicated AHL squad this season. Instead, they will be sending players to two different AHL teams, the Chicago Wolves and San Antonio Rampage, which are both managed by other NHL organizations. Perhaps an extra higher-end player or two who doesn’t find an AHL spot could wind up in Tulsa.
“I think when it all shakes out, we’ll get the guys we probably would have got if they had an [AHL] affiliate,” Murray said. “But you never know. I think it’s a unique situation. Right now, we’re their only affiliate. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.”
The biggest positive right now is that Murray took on the responsibility of coaching the Blues’ prospects at the annual NHL rookie tournament in September, a task usually assumed by the team’s AHL coach.
“That’s exciting because I feel that has incorporated this organization with them a little bit more,” Murray says of coaching the prospects. “When you have an affiliation at this level, you’re usually at arm’s length. You’re all the way ‘down there,’ and what happens with us doesn’t really pertain to the NHL team.”
Hall also believes it gives Murray added exposure to some Blues prospects that he wouldn’t normally get.
“For them to be involving Rob in evaluating their players and going up to this camp is huge,” Hall says. “A lot of teams have a staff in place and our coaches never have any involvement. That’s another reason why we wanted to hire Rob — he’s been around, he’s worked with everybody, he’s got those kind of relationships, so it just shows we chose the right guy.
“Hopefully, when he’s up at St. Louis’ camps, he’s going to find some great, young talent up there, maybe guys who aren’t quite good enough to sign a Blues contract that maybe Coach will bring back with him.”
Of course, affiliations are always a tricky business with pros and cons. The Oilers will receive some good players they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to, but the flip side is that once those players become guys they rely upon and need to win games, they could be recalled at a moment’s notice. That happened with Winnipeg in each of the two previous seasons.
“I think you have to be open-minded to the idea that there’s going to be a flow in and out and just kind of embrace it for what it is,” Hall says.
“You can’t guarantee that they won’t [be called up], but that’s the nature of the game,” Murray added. “And I know there’s complaints from the fan base, ‘Oh they stole your players.’ Well, that’s what you signed up for. It’s unfortunate, but that happens.”
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