Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Gameday Preview: Stars at Oklahoma City Barons, Game 1

Texas Stars
48-18-3-7, 106 pts
#1 Western Conference
atOklahoma City Barons
36-29-2-9, 91 pts
#8 Western Conference
Series tied 0-0

April 23rd at 7:00 PM
Cox Convention Center, Oklahoma City, OK

Welcome to the 2014 Calder Cup Playoffs. It's been a long slog to get here. Training camp in Dallas, training camp in Texas. Preseason in Dallas, preseason in Texas. For some, preseason and training camp in Idaho as well. 76 games of a regular season that saw these Texas Stars finish with a franchise-record 106 points.

League MVP, rookie of the year, division champs, conference champs, league champs. Checks all down the list.

Best home record, top five road record. Franchise record 12 game home win streak, 11 game overall winning streak, and 13 game point streak. Yup, got all those.

Alright, now take all of that and put it in the rear view mirror. Texas certainly is doing just that.

Mike Hedden (Credit: Steven Christy)
After last season's 4-1 series defeat at the hands of these same Oklahoma City Barons, the Texas Stars know that there is nothing handed to them for having the number 1 by their name in the standings. It was seemingly inexplicable for the Stars to lose out to the Barons after the season they had last year. If you want a recap of how that felt, read my Game 5 postgame from last year.

More reading on that series here and here. I think the Stars are going to need some of the things that bit them last year to turn the other way to win this series.

Injuries
Last year it turned out that five of the top six forwards were battling some sort of injury in the series. Right now with some time off over the last two weeks, it looks like Texas is mostly healthy. The health of Brett Ritchie is the biggest question mark for the club. He definitely slots in with Justin Dowling and Mike Hedden if healthy. If not, that's a 48 point player out of the lineup and one who has been red-hot at times in the year, having a seven game point streak snapped by the shutout in San Antonio two weekends ago.

This goes both ways though. Mark Arcobello has 10 goals and 18 assists on the season in just 15 games played. He hasn't suited up for the Barons since March 15th though, due to a shoulder injury. Multiple sources have reported on Twitter that Arcobello could be in for Saturday's Game 2. All the more reason for Texas to make sure they are geared up for tonight's game to pounce on a club lacking a big threat on offense. The Barons will also be missing newcomer defenseman Darnell Nurse, who will also be a possibility to return on Saturday according to Coach Nelson.

Best players being the best players
Last year Matt Fraser had zero points in the series against OKC. Chiasson had just one, an assist on the meaningless final goal of the series to make it 5-1 Barons. This season, Travis Morin, Curtis McKenzie and the aforementioned Dowling, Ritchie and Hedden are the top active scorers in the season series for Texas. If they are successful, Texas is successful. If not, well, the Stars have a pretty good basis of secondary scoring. However, a series where those five players are severely limited in their offense is not one the Stars would be favored to win.

That brings up the next point...

Goaltending
Last year, Yann Danis had the Stars' number. The Stars were outscored 16-4 in the Cox Center. Cristopher Nilstorp wasn't really to blame for the score against either. Texas wasn't giving him a lot to work with on defense. Rebounds were the order of the series and blue liners were not clearing out Barons skaters or the puck.

This year, despite having nine goaltenders on the roster over the season, Coach Desjardins believes the Barons have had the 'most stable' goaltending in the league thanks to former Star Richard Bachman. In 52 games, he had a worse than usual 2.99 GAA and 0.908 SV%. However, it was his consistent effort that gave the Barons 26 of their 36 total wins on the season. Against Texas, he is 4-5 this season in nine games with a 3.11 GAA and .916 SV%.

On Texas' side, any word on the goaltending decision is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Jack Campbell is 2-0 against the Barons this season; Nilstorp is 5-3. Campbell is 12-2-2 this season and has been otherworldly at times for the Stars. Then again, Nilstorp hasn't lost in regulation since February 17th. We probably won't know anything until tomorrow's morning skate.

Other notes
  • Starting on the road is of course less than ideal, but to a man the Stars said that those were the cards they were dealt. Their job is to show up and win the games, regardless of time, place, or circumstance.
  • Texas holds the season series advantage at 8-3-0-1. However, as I said at the top, none of that matters anymore. It's playoffs.
  • Both teams should look to stay out of the box, as OKC has the third best power play in the league. Texas is first.
  • The PK stats might favor Texas if it comes down to it though. The Stars are third best in the league overall and on the road. OKC is fourth worst at home and third worst overall. Maybe if Texas can goad overall PIMs leader Pinizzotto into taking some undisciplined penalties, that would work to their advantage.
  • Texas signed Dallas second round pick and goaltender Philippe Desrosiers to an ATO. He will play the black ace role for Campbell and Nilstorp, getting a feel for the team and giving them a break in practice. He won't play.
Stars injury/call up report:
Mueller, Jeffrey, Nemeth (call up)
Hulak, Ritchie (questionable)
Klingberg (out, hip surgery)

I'm going to remove Colton Sceviour from the call up list for good. If you want more explanation why, read this.

Website: okcbarons.com
Blog: Tend the Farm
Newspaper: NewsOK's Barons Hockey
Twitter: @OKCBaronsHockey

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No, Colton Sceviour Is Not Coming Back for the AHL Playoffs

The oldest picture I can find of Colton Sceviour because nostalgia
(Credit: Chicago Wolves)
I feel like this is a topic that is going to come up a lot, so I need to write something that I can refer people to in the future.

Colton Sceviour is the games played leader all-time for the Texas Stars. He is tied with Morin for goals scored all-time at 99 and somewhere in the top five in most other meaningful offensive categories. After an All-Star season in the AHL, he was recalled to the NHL to play for Dallas. He earned himself a two-year one-way deal with the NHL club, and he's got a goal and two assists in the NHL playoffs.

And no matter how much he might be worth as an assignment to the Texas Stars, he won't be joining the team if the Dallas Stars finish their playoff run before Texas.

The reason why is his waiver status. If Sceviour were to be sent down, he would have to pass through NHL waivers. You can read more about those in the 100 Degree Hockey Glossary.

Put yourself in the shoes of another team. If you had the chance to claim a player like Sceviour at the price he is being paid ($600k in year one and $700k in year two), wouldn't you jump at it? He has three points in three NHL playoff games. That's a pretty good value.

Now put yourself in Dallas's shoes. Would you risk losing Sceviour to another organization to send him down? There's almost no way he isn't claimed.

For those reasons, Colton Sceviour is a Dallas Star, regardless of how the NHL playoffs go for Dallas. Period.

A note on all other potential assignees

Dallas and Texas will have to have a conversation about the health of the players when Dallas's run ends, according to Coach Desjardins. However, Chris Mueller, Dustin Jeffrey and Patrik Nemeth are all eligible for assignment. Mueller and Jeffrey must pass through waivers.

Making a claim on either of those two is not a smart play for another NHL club, since they are both free agents on July 1. Claiming them would do nothing but prevent them for playing for Texas in the playoffs. Sports are cut-throat but teams wouldn't give up their waiver spot to do that.

Patrik Nemeth is waiver exempt as a second year player.

Step-by-Step: Stars’ Captain Maxime Fortunus Leads First Place Texas into Playoffs

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
My feature on Texas Stars captain Maxime Fortunus published today on TheAHL.com ...

Draft day came and went for Texas Stars captain Maxime Fortunus in 2001. The La Prairie, Quebec, native led his major junior squad in defenseman scoring that year and helped them to the second round of the QMJHL playoffs. The fifth year Texas Star, a member of the original squad back in 2009, has taken a step-by-step approach and gotten his chance at the NHL with the Dallas Stars organization while leading his AHL club to the league’s best record.

“I tell guys, it doesn't matter if you're drafted or undrafted,” said Fortunus. “If you do your job on the ice, you'll get your shot. You have to make people believe in you. I took the long road to the NHL, and it was all about little steps and getting better every year. If I get better every year, I'll get my chance.”

Getting started in the pro game, thousands of miles from home

Fortunus’s long and winding road to where he is today started in 2003 in Lafayette, Lousiana, with the ECHL’s Lousiana IceGators.

“After my 19 year old season in the Q, I could have come back for another. We had a pretty good run in the playoffs, and we were pretty good. I decided it was time for me to leave the junior game and get to the pro game as fast as I could. That was the best way to get my game to where I could get a shot in the NHL. I got a chance to go to training camp with the Minnesota Wild. Then I went to camp with the Houston Aeros, and they signed me on a two-way deal in the American League. I started the season in Louisiana.”

Continue reading on TheAHL.com ...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Media Day Notes: No Game One Starter Yet; Klingberg, Ritchie Out

Doug Lidster and Willie Desjardins (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
As the Lone Star state's hockey attention turns to the American Airlines Center this evening, the Texas Stars also held playoff media day today. With TV in the house, the questions were mostly generic things that readers of this blog and frequent visitors to the Cedar Park Center have heard asked and answered before.

However, here are some of my takeaways from the day:
  • Coach Desjardins would not name a game one starter in net. He has always stated that he likes to pick one guy and go with him. This season, however, Cristopher Nilstorp and Jack Campbell have been so good that he has had to alternate starts between them. Nilstorp hasn't lost in regulation since February 17th. Before last Saturday, Campbell hadn't lost in regulation since March 12th. They are both playing amazingly well this season. What's the edge? Nilstorp was in net for the elimination against OKC last season and is 5-3 against them this year. Campbell is 2-0 this year against OKC. I don't think we'll know until morning skate on Wednesday.
  • Coach Lidster said definitively that defenseman John Klingberg is 'out' at this time. He could probably help this team in the playoffs after what we saw from him late in the season, but it is overall better for him to make sure his injury issues recover and nott o push it. Texas has seven defensemen without Klingberg. Depending on how Dallas' series goes, they could add Nemeth by the end of the first round. Lidster pointed out that Nemeth was obviously in Dallas for a reason and that his return would make a strong D corps that much stronger.
  • Derek Hulak was participating in practice but was still in a red no-contact jersey.
  • Brett Ritchie was not in the building and is apparently on crutches. No word on his return potential.
  • With regard to potential return of Mueller, Jeffrey and Nemeth, Desjardins indicated it would be more of a conversation than an automatic assignment, based on their health.
  • Curtis McKenzie does not think he is the right person to babysit for Travis Morin. Also he feels assistant equipment manager Jorge Lopez is the X-factor in the playoff run. Seriously though, it's McKenzie's first pro playoff run where he will be getting into games. He is excited to get away from the college one-and-done format and play out longer series and excited to play after acting as more of a black ace last year.

AHL Commissioner Says Second, Third Rounds Could Move to Five Games; Talks AHL in Houston, West Coast

AHL president Dave Andrews hands out the AHL MVP Trophy to Travis Morin.
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
With the Texas Stars earning a total of eight end-of-season trophies, the American Hockey League commissioner and president, Dave Andrews, was in town to present the trophies and plaques. It was also a chance to talk to the league boss about many of the topics swirling around the AHL these days. He had thoughts on the potential west coast relocation of many teams in the league, the future of hockey in Houston, the potential for an All-Star game in Cedar Park, advanced stats in the AHL and a very interesting take on the future of five-game playoff series.

Potential for Pacific coast relocation and importance of a deep development system

Since the last time I spoke with Andrews, the league has been rolling strong with thirty teams for four years now. Andrews said it was a long-time goal to get to thrity teams in the league and matchup one-to-one with the National Hockey League.

"It's probably more important for the NHL for every team to have a full development system, which they did not have until we got to 30 teams. When you look at the numbers in the NHL, we're close to 90% of the players who have come through our league. This year alone, we've had 360 players called up to play."

"One of the stats I looked at recently, I think we've had 6,000 man-games played by AHL recalls in the NHL [this year]. If you think about that, it's a lot of games played by AHL players, which points to the need to have a good deep system for every NHL club. We are fortunate to get the best players outside the NHL, and they are playing hard to get to that next step."

To the point of each team having its own deep development system, Andrews feels that the Texas Stars are one of several model franchises in the league with regard to geographic setup.

"This is one example of how well it can work. There are other examples in the league if you look at Toronto or Providence and Boston. It is an advantage for an NHL team to have their players close"

With the recently announced departure of the Heat from Abbotsford, conversations have again popped up regarding the league's potential to create a Pacific or West Coast Division to create a situation more like the Dallas-Texas connection for teams such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix and Anaheim.

"There is a fair amount of truth behind [those rumours]. At the same time, there's a lot of conjecture that isn't accurate. We have been involved in a process over the last two years or so starting with eight of the NHL teams that are Western based moving down to about five of them that are active right now who are looking to get closer to the Pacific coast at some point. Recently, it's heated up again, and we've been looking at what the process will be and how it might take place and the timelines."

"We still haven't identified markets, and neither have they in terms of where they would like to place teams on the west coast. We haven't really understood what the timeline is likely to be. We're closer to it happening, but we're not sure when and if it will happen. There are a number of hurdles. We're not going to create more AHL franchises so to relocate five at one time or more perhaps is a very significant challenge. I would say there's half-truths in some of those stories and half wishful thinking."

Further, Andrews does not feel like adding a West Division will have to necessarily restrict scheduling. AHL scheduling is already heavily rivalry-based. No team plays every other team in the league. The goal for the AHL office is to put together a schedule that is best for player development and that ownership believes is best for their business interests.

Rick McLaughlin, Scott White and Andrews with the Kilpatrick Trophy
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Returning AHL hockey to Houston 'not on the horizon'

Regarding travel, the Texas Stars certainly would have an easier travel schedule if it weren't for the departure of the Houston Aeros this past offseason. Unfortuantely, Andrews does not see a future for AHL hockey in Houston right now.

"I would love to say that we saw a future for the AHL in Houston. In order to do that, we need a facility that we can play in. As I'm sure you know, leaving Houston wasn't high on the list of priorities. Houston was one of our most successful franchises in the league. The three teams in Texas have been really successful over the last number of years, so to lose one of the top franchises and move them out of Houston was not something the Minnesota Wild or the AHL wanted to see happen. We didn't control the building. The Houston Rockets do, and they determined that they didn't want a professional hockey team in the building. "

He was also able to add some color to the contingency plans the Wild explored to keep the team in Houston.

"The Wild looked carefully for other sites that they might be able to use, including one of the rodeo facilities and trying to retrofit that as a hockey arena. It just wasn't viable. Would we like to be in Houston if we could find a 7000 or 8000 seat building in Houston? We sure would. It would be great for the Texas Stars, and it would be great for San Antonio as well. I don't know that that is on the horizon."

Expanding the five-game series to rounds two and three?

The Stars are preparing for a playoffs series that will see them start on the road in OKC despite winning the league's best overall record. Andrews talked through the economics of the decision, which has less to do with travel costs than you might think.

Moving to [first-round] best of five was a decision that was made two or three years ago. We reduced our schedule to a 76 game schedule, and in doing so we expanded the length of the season to try to recapture the revenue by getting more weekend dates. In doing that, we obviously pushed ourselves back further than we wanted to be from a playoff point of view. So the way we recapture that time was by moving to best of five in the first round."

The American Hockey League ends their regular season a full week after the NHL and ECHL, which does put pressure on the league to catch up with the other two. The Texas Stars are a good example of the weekend date revenue bias that Andrews mentions. In Sunday through Thursday games this season, Texas averaged just 4,603 fans. On Friday and Saturday, they greeted an average of 5,697 fans.

Andrews actually sees the league moving to more five-game series in the future.

"If I were looking at what I think the future holds for us, I would believe that we may play shorter rounds in the playoffs in the future in the second and third rounds. I don't think you'll ever see it in the fourth round and probably not the third. There's some sense that a best of five second round may make sense as well. We've had good success with the first round playing mostly weekend dates. Playoff sales are tough. We don't have a lot of lead time to sell. It's challenging for our teams. Fewer games and better dates is always a good format."

Other notes...
  • When asked about the potential for an All-Star Game in Cedar Park, Andrews put the pressure on Rick McLaughlin, who was standing nearby in the room, smiling and saying, "I think Rick would really like to have an All-Star Game."
  • On advanced stats, Andrews noted that league VP of PR and communications, Jason Chaimovitch, is a huge stats geek and would love to get the league more involved in those things. He added, "I expect that most people who are diehard sports fans connect with stats, trying to analyze the game and understand it in a better way. As that begins to unfold in hockey in a more meaningful way, I'm sure we'll try to be a part of that and participate in it."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Travis Morin Wins Sollenberger Trophy as League's Top Scorer

Travis Morin accepts the league MVP award last night
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Now that the season is over, Travis Morin can lay claim to one more award, the John B. Sollenberger Trophy, as the leading scorer in the AHL. Morin finished the year with 32 goals and 56 assists for 88 total points. He was also named the league's MVP on Friday. Morin has led the league in scoring from Game 1 to 76 after putting up four points in the opening night game against Chicago.

Fellow Texas Star Colton Sceviour led the league in goals for a time before his recall to Dallas allowed Charlotte's Zach Boychuk to overtake him for the Willie Marshall Award. It is the second time that a Texas Star has finished second in league goal scoring. In 2011-12, Norfolk forward Cory Conacher scored a hat trick in the final game of the season to pass Texas' Matt Fraser and beat his goal total by two.

Here's the release:
The Texas Stars, proud American Hockey League affiliate of the Dallas Stars, announced today that center Travis Morin has won the John B. Sollenberger Trophy as the leading scorer in the AHL.

Morin, who was voted the winner of the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player this season, led the league in scoring wire-to-wire after notching four points for Texas on opening night. He finished with 88 points (32 goals, 56 assists) in 66 games played for the Stars, doubling his 44-point output from a year ago and helping Texas to the best record in the AHL. The CCM/AHL Player of the Month in both October and January, Morin began the season on a 10-game scoring streak and went without a point in consecutive games on just four occasions all year.

A 30-year-old native of Brooklyn Park, Minn., Morin also appeared in four games with the Dallas Stars this season, picking up an assist for his first career NHL point. In 350 career AHL games with Texas and Hershey, Morin has totaled 99 goals and 197 assists for 296 points.

Idaho Steelheads Report: Offense Lacking as Eagles Tie Series at One


John Mulhern recaps last night's 3-1 loss to Colorado...

Despite another outstanding night in net for Idaho Steelheads goaltender Josh Robinson, the Colorado Eagles increased their physical presence to even the best-of-seven first round series at one game each as the series shifts to Colorado for game three Tuesday. Goals from Kevin Young and Trent Daavettila in second period were enough for the Eagles to get a 3-1 win. David deKastrozza got his third goal of the series for Idaho. He is the only Steelheads player to find the back of the net through two games.

Colorado seems to have had the better of the play over the first two games. Outside of the first ten minutes of the first period of game one and the better part of the third period in game two, Colorado has been able to get the puck into the Steelheads zone and control attack time and puck possession.

Colorado also made a concerted effort to increase some of the post-whistle activity in game two and for the most part the Steelheads were able to skate away and avoid any penalties. Referee Nic Leduc did a decent job of keeping things under control only and calls (or non-calls) have not been a factor in the series so far. It will be interesting how things play out as the series changes cities and most likely referees. Will the teams be given the latitude they had in Boise, or will it be a more tightly called game?

I don’t think it is unfair to say that without Josh Robinson in net, this series could very well be 2-0 in favor of Colorado. But I also think it is fair to say Idaho has done a great job keeping a very explosive team off the scoreboard. It is also missed a chance for the Steelheads to be up 2-0 in the series as well. This has been an evenly played series so far and from the look of things, six or seven games is looking more of a certainty than anything else at this point.

The thing I always end up having to remind myself of after a team’s first playoff loss is that a team is not going sweep its way through the playoffs. They are going to lose and to over-react would be to blow one game out of proportion.