AJHL Preview: Fort McMurray Oil Barons

photo via: fortmcmurrayoilbarons.ca

2017/18 Record: 42-13-5 (2nd in the North Division)

Leading Scorer: Will Conley – 80

Most Goals: Will Conley – 48

Most Assists: Curtis Roach – 36

Offseason Movement

In: Sean McCloskey (Chilliwack Bruins), Kole Gable (Swift Current Broncos), Brendan Stafford (Sherwood Park Crusaders).

Out: Owen Reith (Canmore Eagles), JC Thivierge (UOIT Ridgebacks), Curtis Roach (NAIT Ooks), Coy Prevost (Windsor Lancers), Shane Fraser (NAIT Ooks), Will Conley (Holy Cross Crusaders), Eric Szudor (Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves), Merritt Oszytko (RIT Tigers), Jordan Roy (Lethbridge Pronghorns).

The Oil Barons season came to an abrupt end in 2018 when Yannik Bertrand sealed their fate with the game-winner in overtime of game seven of the North Division Semi-Finals. It was a disappointing end to a great season for the Oil Barons who were one of the top contenders for the AJHL Championship.

They had the goaltending duo in Eric Szudor (’97) (University of Alaska-Anchorage) andChris Curr (’99), their defence was solid, and their offence had plenty of scoring options with Will Conley (’97)(Holy Cross Crusaders), Merritt Oszytko (’98) (RIT Tigers), and Reed Morison (’98) leading the charge.

Instead, Tom Keca was forced to bid farewell to nine of his players with eight of them heading to college in both Canada and the USA – one also being F Owen Reith (99) who was traded to the Canmore Eagles as part of the completion of the F Coy Prevost (97) (Windsor Lancers) trade.

Obviously, losing eight players can sting, especially with the likes of Conley, D Curtis Roach (’97)(NAIT Ooks), and ’97 F Shane Fraser (NAIT Ooks) being part of the departures; Three players who had been vital core members of this franchise for the past few seasons. Conley had the best season of his junior career falling just shy of 50 goals with 48 on the season and finished second in league scoring with 80 points. Roach was one of the best defencemen in the AJHL. Despite missing 22 games, the Saskatoon native was still named to the AJHL All-League (North) team and had 44 points which were two shy of his total from the year prior in 20 fewer games. I am a firm believer that if Roach had played all 60 games, he would’ve been a nominee for the league’s MVP and the Most Outstanding defenceman award. He’s an exceptional player who is going to dominate at NAIT in the ACAC. Then, of course, we have Shane Fraser; the captain of the Oil Barons. Fraser progressed nicely over his time up north going from seven points to 38, and then 54 in his final season. The leadership he brought both on and off the ice is something no franchise looks forward to losing. Fraser was also nominated for the Don McNabb Memorial Trophy which is awarded to the Most Dedicated Player. That nomination alone sums up him up.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Oil Barons though. They’ve got a young core of players they’ll be looking at to make significant improvements in 2019.

In goal, Chris Curr had a phenomenal rookie season after making the jump from the Midget AAA level. His numbers were amongst the league’s best in 2018 with his 2.39 GAA (6th best) and a 0.922 SV% (3rd best). Curr was nominated for the Rookie of the Year award but fell short losing out to Grande Prairie’s ’01 F Zachary Okabe (St Cloud State Huskies). It’s hard to imagine losing one of the league’s best netminders in Eric Szudor (University of Alaska-Anchorage), and then be completely okay heading into the new season knowing you still have one of the best with Chris Curr. Depending on who the Oil Barons bring in as his backup, the St Albert native could see 40 plus starts this year.

On the blueline, even with Roach, and also JC Thivierge (’97) (UOIT Ridgebacks) leaving the organization, the Oil Barons are still looking strong. Fourth-year defencemen, Taner Miller (’98) and Domenico Argento (’98) should be looked upon to haul significant minutes. Miller had another great season in 2018 hitting the 41 point mark for the second season in a row. His fellow ’98 defenceman, Argento suited up in only 38 regular season games due to injury but did manage to play in their ten postseason games. Another Baron blueliner to look out for is Ryan Conroy. He’s a ’01-born who is heading into his second season in Fort McMurray and should have a breakout season in 2019. The Chestermere native showed off his offensive potential in the postseason with four points in six games. Also lining up for them are Lucas Yovetich (’99), Gunner Kinniburgh (’00), and the recently acquired Sean McCloskey (’00) from the Chilliwack Bruins.

The forward group in Fort McMurray may be a little weaker; however, they still have enough firepower to make them a threat. Returning for his final year of junior hockey is Reed Morison (’98). Morison performed well in his return to the AJHL – after spending two years with the Kootenay Ice in the WHL – and finished second on the team in scoring with 58 points in as many games. He continued his scoring reputation into the postseason with ten points in ten games and was named the Star of the Game on three occasions. One player that came alive in the postseason was F Jarred White (’99). After an injury-plagued regular season, which allowed him to skate in only 30 games, White was second on the teams scoring list with eight points; just two points shy of his regular-season tally. If he’s able to stay healthy for the majority of the year, we could see him towards the top end of the AJHL scoring leaderboards. The addition of F Kole Gable (’98) from the Swift Current Broncos (WHL) makes them even deeper up front. Another play potentially coming from the WHL is Brendan Stafford (’00) who spent time with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last season. Back in 2017 when he was with the Sherwood Park Crusaders, Stafford played well as a 16-year old scoring 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 60 games; he also played a key role on the teams penalty kill. 

Overall, despite the losses, Tom Keca and his coaching staff still have an excellent roster up in Fort McMurray. The goaltending is there, they’ve got defencemen who can contribute at both ends of the ice and a deep group of forwards. The Oil Barons kick off their 2019 campaign with back-to-back games against the Lloydminster Bobcats followed by back-to-back games against the Grande Prairie Storm. All four of those games are at home at the Casman Centre.