Tulsa Affiliation Primed to Impact Player DevelopmentJul 1, 2020
By Joe Spurrier and Andy Zilch/SanDiegoGulls.com
After two seasons without an official ECHL affiliation - and the organization assigning players to various clubs throughout the league - the Anaheim Ducks and Tulsa Oilers of the ECHL recently signed a multi-year affiliate agreement.
Following the 2017-18 season, Anaheim found itself without an ECHL affiliate after its four-year agreement with the Utah Grizzles concluded. With only 26 ECHL clubs, and 31 AHL and NHL teams, not every team has an affiliation agreement.. An obvious choice for the Gulls to loan players the last two years was Tulsa because of the proximity and reputation of its head coach, Rob Murray. The 53-year-old AHL Hall of Famer will embark on his fourth season with the Oilers and his 13th consecutive season as a head coach. Murray previously served in the same capacity with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL (2011-17) and Providence Bruins of the AHL (2008-11) before making his way to Oklahoma.
In his first three seasons with the Aces, the team captured the Henry Brabham Cup for the best overall record during the regular season. The ultimate achievement was realized in 2014 when Murray and the Aces seized the ECHL championship, the Kelly Cup. When the Aces folded after the 2016-17 season, Murray was named Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations of Tulsa, where he recently developed a strong relationship with the Southern California hockey organizations. In 2019, the ECHL named him its General Manager of the Year after leading Tulsa to its first division title in 43 years. With the established connection over the past two seasons, it was sensible to put pen to paper and make it official.
“Well I’ve enjoyed my relationship with both Anaheim and San Diego over the last two years,” said Murray. “Just throughout the two years, we’ve had a great relationship. I hadn’t met Bob [Ferguson] until training camp of this last year. I went out to Anaheim to attend San Diego’s training camp. I hadn’t even met him face-to-face until then, but we started talking right around the end of January, Bob brought it up to me whether I’d be interested in [Anaheim] being the main affiliate and it kind of went hand in hand with the fact that St. Louis moved their farm team from San Antonio to Springfield, Mass. we were already talking about doing an affiliation. It just synced very well, and we were just able to make that transition really quick.”
Tulsa’s affiliation with the St. Louis Blues was the reason why the Ducks were unable to make it official until today. The three-year relationship ended this past season, opening the door for a new team to partner with the ECHL club. Having St. Louis as a primary affiliate along with the Ducks and Gulls loaning players posed occasional challenges for Murray and his players’ time on the ice.
“I think both teams were understanding of that. At the end of the day it’s based off performance,” said Murray. “I think the trickiest situation this past year was the goaltending because we ended up getting [Olle] Eriksson Ek for the majority of the season and also Evan Fitzpatrick from St. Louis and then I had my own returning goaltender because two years ago, we didn’t have a goaltender from Anaheim’s organization, so this year we had Olle. That kind of jammed things up at the goaltending position because Devin Williams, who was my ECHL contracted goalie, is probably one of the better free agent goalies in our league.”
“Knowing my experience in the [ECHL], the reason I carried three goalies is inevitably you lose a goalie,” added Murray. “I just kept waiting for that to happen, but nobody really got hurt at the NHL level or at the American League level where we lost a goalie for a good bunch of time, so we ended up having three goalies for the majority of the season. I guess that was the trickiest part.”
That minor obstacle should become less tricky with the Wednesday announcement of the multi-year affiliation agreement between the clubs. The Toronto native collected 4-15=19 points with 111 penalty minutes (PIM) in 107 career NHL games with Washington (1989-91), Winnipeg (1991-96) and Phoenix (1998-99). However, Murray carved out the majority of his on-ice legacy in the AHL, recording 161-312=473 points and a 2,940 PIM in 1,018 games. Named to the AHL Hall of Fame in 2017, Murray currently ranks second in both games played and penalty minutes.
Regardless of who Murray is coaching, his team mantra creates a reputation around the league. He expects the same intensity from his players but with a different note, and it all stems from two words.
“Hard work,” explained Murray. “When it’s all said and done, honest effort is what I’m looking for on any given night. I think it’s a cliché used too much in hockey, but I want my team to play fast and have a lot of quick transition, allowing the defensemen to really jump into the play to create offense. I do still like that element of toughness, but within discretion. I don’t want a team that’s undisciplined that just thinks that’s what I want.
“I think there’s a misconception sometimes with the way I played the game that guys just figure that’s what I want and it’s not, it’s a full package,” continued Murray. “You can play a heavy, strong, physical game with discipline in your game and that’s what I expect out of our guys. I’ve heard people compliment my coaching style as, ‘Murray, you guys work so hard.’ Win, lose or draw, as long as I get an honest effort and guys have given as much as they can, that’s my expectation of my players. That’s probably the best way to explain or critique my coaching style.”
This mindset spreads throughout the locker room and assists greatly in the development of his players on their goal of furthering their hockey careers. In addition to his coaching style, there is a strong similarity that the ECHL provides to players looking to advance their career, similar to the AHL. That factor is the ability to gain playing time and confidence.
“I really think, and this isn’t a slight on the American League or anybody, but players need to play,” Murray stated. “You look at the younger guys like [Deven] Sideroff, [Brent] Gates Jr. and even Jack Kopacka, at times, they were sitting in the stands. It’s hard to get into a groove when you’re in and out of a lineup and I understand, that’s the depth of the San Diego Gulls. They had extra players and somebody had to sit out every night or multiple nights. I think when they come down to us, we only play with 16 skaters, so on any given night, we have 10 forwards and six defensemen. Just by default, these guys are getting 20 minutes of ice, if not more. I’ll try to double shift them almost. Where the advantage of that is, is they just get to play and they get their confidence level up.
“That’s hard when you’re playing five to six minutes a night in the American Hockey League to basically prove yourself and I know as a player,” Murray explained. “When I was in the American League, I got called up to the NHL, I mean it’s a different step and yet, the last thing I want to do is make a mistake on the ice so I played timid. This allows guys to come out and not worry about making mistake, just go out and play and bring what you were supposed to do. Are you supposed to be a scorer? Are you supposed to be a tough guy? Are you supposed to be a banger and a checker? Do what you’re supposed to do at our level, hone your skill and be a better player once you get to the American League.”
The postseason also adds a certain element that can propel a player to grasp playing time and excel in high pressure situations. This complex situation can greatly impact a player’s confidence and bode well for the offseason training and simple awareness of what their game entails and what is expected of them at the AHL level.
One recent example of this is Gulls forward Alex Dostie. The Drummondville, Quebec native dressed in 37 games with the Gulls during the 2018-19 season and amassed eight points (4G/4A). He matched that same point total in just five games with Tulsa and became eligible to continue his development on Tulsa’s postseason run. Dostie went on to leads the Oilers in postseason goals (14) and rank second in scoring (24) in 20 Kelly Cup Playoff games in 2019. He also ranked second among ECHL leaders in goals and third in scoring..
“He was just fantastic for us, his attitude, playing ability, just everything. He was a dynamic player at our level for sure,” Murray said of the 23-year old forward. “We ended up going to the Conference Finals against Toledo that year and lost in Game 7. Dozer [Dostie] was a main cog in our success. His experience of having that ability to play and just playing as much as he did for me, I think it really transitioned into his season last year where the compliments I got were, ‘this guy is a different player now. He’s got a confidence that he didn’t have before.’”
Dostie started his third professional season with San Diego, recording a career-high 11 goals and 15 points in 40 AHL games. His 11 goals were tied for fourth on the Gulls and the center also saw a career long three-game goal streak (3-0=3, +3) from Nov. 27-30.
“For me that’s fulfilling when you see guys step out of the ECHL,” continued Murray. “Alex Dostie wasn’t a mainstay, he was only [in Tulsa] for a short time, but in that time, he definitely took advantage of his opportunity and got his game back to what it should be and to where they expect him to be going into training camp this season. He had a great training camp and he was a much more consistent player for them than he was the season before.”
This past season, San Diego forwards Deven Sideroff (18 games), Brent Gates Jr. (25 games) and Jack Kopacka (five games), defensemen Hunter Drew (five games) and Steven Ruggiero (57 games), and Eriksson Ek (27 games) each spent ample time honing their game with Murray in Tulsa. Despite playing in just 25 games with the Oilers, Gates recorded 10-10=20 points and a +6 rating. Kopacka saw five games of action and tallied 4-4=8 points, leading the club in points-per game (1.60) and recording a five-point game Dec. 13 vs. Wichita (2-3=5). In addition, San Diego defenseman Scott Moldenhauer spent his first full season in the AHL, posting four assists in 37 games after helping Tulsa to the Conference Finals in 2019.
As the agreement officially commences, the winning atmosphere with the combination of development is on the forefront for Murray and the Tulsa Oilers. This repetition mirrors the San Diego Gulls attitude to developing players to become consistent players in Anaheim with the Ducks. The partnership has already shown the fruits of its labor and will do so for years to come.
“This is a great opportunity for me and the organization,” said Murray. “One of the biggest things for me is that I’m going into my 10th year at this level and I’ve been affiliated with different teams – St. Louis multiple times, Minnesota, Calgary and Vancouver. I’ve never had a multi-year deal and Anaheim was the one, and it wasn’t me that asked for it, they asked if I’d be interested in a multi-year deal, which to me, that just shows me their commitment to Tulsa and to me and our organization.”