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Holding No. 1 pick, Oilers turn focus from free agent market to minors

OKLAHOMA CITY - Kevin Lowe has a new master plan for taking the Edmonton Oilers back to the proud days of the franchise's past.

It starts with the No. 1 pick in next month's draft, earned by having the NHL's worst record this season, and also includes an increased emphasis on developing players through the minor leagues while spending less on free agents.

Lowe, the Oilers' president of hockey operations, laid out the plan Wednesday as he visited Oklahoma City to unveil the new identity of the franchise's American Hockey League affiliate. The team, which will replace an affiliate in Massachusetts, will be known as the Barons.

"We've got to get back to what we did for a lot of years," said Lowe, who was promoted in 2008 after eight seasons as general manager. "We've got to get back to our basic principles of drafting and development, get out of the free agent business."

Edmonton made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006 as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but has missed the playoffs each year since—bottoming out by going 27-47-8 this season.

"It's a best-case scenario in a difficult time, and that's the way the system of sports is designed, right? When you have that kind of year, at the end of the day you get rewarded with the best player," said Lowe, who won five Stanley Cups as an Oilers player from 1984-90.

"We've found over the last decade that, except for the last couple years, we've been a competitive team but there wasn't really a year where we were considered a contender at the start of the year."

Going through the worst of seasons made Lowe and the Oilers realize how much they needed to change. A string of injuries, including to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin—the team's big free-agent acquisition last off-season—and to right-wing Ales Hemsky, forced the issue after what Lowe called "a couple of troubling years."

"It just seems to be in recent NHL history that the only way you become a contender is you have to go to the back of the bus for a while and regroup," Lowe said. "We had a pile of injuries this year to key players and in some respects—having been at this for 10 years now—it's a blessing in disguise.

"It's almost like something hit us in the side of the head and said, 'OK, if you guys can't figure this out yourself, then we're going to do it for you.'"

Lowe said the Oilers had a new plan for success, to a certain degree modeled after the Chicago Blackhawks' ability to build around draft picks Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. He also plans to hire a general manager based out of Oklahoma City—the franchise's top minor-league affiliate—who would be in charge of scouting out players other franchises might have missed.

"We've got to draft and develop here, more focus on resources spent toward development that will ultimately filter up to our team in Edmonton," Lowe said. "To me, that's the formula of success. So, that bodes well for Oklahoma City here. We're definitely going to focus on spending more money on the development side of things."

The Barons will begin playing at an upgraded Cox Convention Center in October after a full year without minor-league hockey in Oklahoma City. The Blazers of the Central Hockey League folded last year.

"I think they're going to see a lot of that fast-paced play," said Bob Funk Jr., the owner of Prodigal LLC, which operates the Barons. "It's not the brawling type of teams that you had in the past. They're hockey professionals. These are guys that want to get to the NHL."

Lowe said the placement of the AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City "couldn't have come at a better time," as Edmonton goes through a rebuilding mode energized by the first selection in the June 25 draft.

"Getting the first overall pick is not the end all, be all. But we also have some good recent selections, guys that standing on their own merits are going to be good hockey players," Lowe said.

"If we were just relying on the first overall pick to sort of drag us out of the ashes, that's not going to happen."

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