Thursday, July 24, 2014

Dallas-Texas Connection Grows with Scrimmage Announcement

Francis Wathier and Stephane Robidas battle
in the 2009 edition of the Dallas v. Texas
matchup. (Credit: Ron Byrd/Texas Stars)
I've been out of the country for the past week in Toronto. Yes, I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame and that post will be coming soon. For now, recapping the biggest story of the last week....

The whispers and rumors of the last month were verified this past week when Jim Lites confirmed that the Dallas Stars would be visiting the Cedar Park Center for a practice and scrimmage as part of their preseason training camp in early October.

The Stars will open training camp in Fort Worth, as they did last season, and then play a slate of preseason games. After their final game on September 30th, the club will head to Cedar Park for a practice on October 3rd and a scrimmage between the Texas Stars and Dallas Stars on October 4th. Lites noted that both teams will be taking the game seriously and it will include referees as well. It's a great tune-up for the AHL club as they start their schedule and helps Dallas keeps its legs under it during the week between the end of the preseason and the start of the regular season.

This is the second time such an event has happened. Before the first season, Texas hosted the Dallas club in the "Bud Light Battle of the Stars". For a taste of that game, take a look at this Dallas forward lineup:
Ja. Benn – Ribeiro – Morrow
Eriksson – Richards - Neal
Ott – Modano – Petersen
Brunnstrom – Wandell - Sutherby
One player remains in Dallas from that roster. The names above have been replaced now by names familiar to Cedar Park fans: Sceviour, Roussel, Garbutt, and Eakin. That doesn't even include your defensemen, who weren't listed in gamesheets I could find.

The game also helps to reinforce the 'team of the Southwest' message that the Dallas Stars are pushing. This game, combined with yet to be announced marketing events around it, will help raise the profile of the NHL club in Austin.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cameron Gaunce's New Two-Way Deal Begs the Vet Question

Cameron Gaunce (Credit: Josh Rasmussen/Texas Stars)
News broke quite late on Friday that Cameron Gaunce had been re-signed by Dallas on a one-year deal. The team did not release details, as per policy, on the 'wayness' of the deal. CapGeek had confirmed by this morning that it is a two-way deal. Gaunce's long-term future in the organization is more than a little muddy now.

Gaunce will qualify as a veteran under the AHL's veteran rule next season for the first time. Also qualifying for Texas and already under contract are Travis Morin and Maxime Fortunus. The signing of Gaunce puts an interesting question to the Stars' management. Where do you 'spend' your remaining veteran spots? The Stars already have two on defense but only one on offense. Does Texas get Derek Meech under contract to provide even more veteran savvy at the blue line?

More important than signing another on defense is getting someone else on offense. It's not like Travis Morin is all alone in terms of skill, but his likely linemates, McKenzie and Ranford, are only second-year players. Both exceeded expectations in their rookie years and could suffer sophomore slumps. Where the Stars need more depth is veteran wingers. With the losses of Kevin Henderson, Colton Sceviour and Mike Hedden from last year's squad, there is talent but not a lot of experience on the wings. Next year's crop does not feature a single LW or RW with more than 76 games of regular season AHL experience.

So who's out there? The top unsigned AHL winger is Aaron Palshuaj, according to the Citizen's Voice Free Agent Big Board. He also made $175,000 last season on contract to Carolina in Charlotte. Dallas is close to the NHL max on contracts (50), having used their most recent one to lockdown this year's top pick Julius Honka. This includes anticipated contracts for RFAs Dillon, Glennie, Roussel and Eakin. However, Honka's contract only counts if he plays in the professional ranks this year (in Europe or North America). I'm guessing the Texas Stars would ask for Dallas's assistance to meet a 175k price tag.

Is Texas rolling the dice without more veteran forward clout?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Francis Wathier Still Waiting on Destination for Next Season

Francis Wathier (Credit: Clint Trahan/Abbotsford Heat)
Long-time Texas Star Francis Wathier is still searching for his destination for the coming season. After being reassigned midseason by Dallas to Milwaukee, Wathier played out the season with the Admirals and now has hit free agency.

I tweeted about our conversation earlier today on @100degreehockey, as you can read below.

Wathier is the only remaining unrestricted free agent who played in Texas this season who has not found a destination for next season. Fortunus is signed to Texas. Chris Mueller and Cristopher Nilstorp will continue their careers elsewhere. Toby Petersen has retired.

No Drama as PHPA, AHL Agree to Extend CBA for One Year

Fortunus: "Both parties were pretty satisfied with the way the league is going."
Maxime Fortunus (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
If you were expecting drama and fireworks around the AHL collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations this summer, you are probably going to be disappointed. Then again, that lack of fireworks is a good thing for labor negotiations and keeping the top development league in the world up and running for another season.

"Our CBA was up this year, but the league had an option to renew it," said Texas captain Maxime Fortunus, who has served as a PHPA player rep for five years. "This year was pretty easy for us. Both parties were pretty satisfied with the way the league is going. It made their life easier, and ours too, to just renew it."

The current AHL CBA went from 2010-2014 with an option to extend for 2014-15. The Professional Hockey Players Association is the equivalent of the NHLPA in the negotiations and consists of players in the AHL, ECHL and CHL. Each CBA is negotiated with a specific league. For example, the ECHL CBA was just renegotiated last summer and extends until summer of 2018.

A contentious NHL CBA negotiation led to a lockout that consumed half of the 2012-13 NHL season. A number of factors put the AHL CBA in a great situation to avoid any sort of drama and keep things that way in the future.

"You don't speak about the same revenues," said Fortunus. Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) was a huge piece of the gap in talks on the NHL CBA. "The NHL is a big business. We're a big business of our own but the revenues aren't the same. It's easier to make it work in the AHL than the NHL."

Finally, Fortunus gave kudos to the league president for his willingness to listen, "Dave Andrews is pretty good with the players. He's understanding and willing to listen and understand our needs, which is what the players want."

It appears that the option to extend is just a one-year deal and will force a renegotiation of the CBA next summer either way.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

AHL Makes Big Changes to OT for Coming Season

Overtime wins will have new wrinkles this season. (Credit: Rob Ferguson)
The bane of the shootout may be on its way out after the AHL made big changes to overtime format today. First, the league has lengthened the overtime period to seven minutes, instead of five. Further, to encourage scoring the final four minutes of the seven minute OT will be skated at 3-on-3. If no winner is determined, the shootout will still occur but is limited to just three skaters per team. The new rules also add a dry scrape of the ice to the pre-OT procedure and force the teams to switch sides. The 'long change' has been shown to increase offense in OT in the NCAA.

"It revolves a lot around what the NHL wants to try," said Texas captain Maxime Fortunus via phone late Thursday. "They don't want to change the whole game."

As Fortunus suggests, AHL rule changes often presage NHL rule changes. This one has to have everyone buzzing. With every point being crucial, this change puts more emphasis on the overtime period as opposed to the shootout. Theoretically, the lengthened OT, the move to three skaters per side in the final three minutes will increase the chances of the game being decided in overtime instead of a shootout.

Unlike the Winter Classic games, which saw a whistle blow mid-play to change sides, the change from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 will happen at the first whistle after the 3 minute mark of the OT. That could happen at 3:01 or at 6:59 depending on play.

"I think that's a pretty good rule," added Fortunus. "3-on-3 hockey is the best. You get a lot of room. It'll be great for the fans and the players."

One other interesting note is that if you've gotten used to watching thrilling home OT game winners from your "home team attacks twice" seats at the CPC, that won't be happening anymore. The switch of sides in OT will put all potential regular season OT wins on the zamboni entrance side of the ice.

Two other changes were made as well. Automatic game misconducts will be handed out for players with two fighting majors in a game. This is a reduction from the previous three. Additionally, any player with three majors for the same infraction will also get a game misconduct. That's pretty rare though.

Finally, the 'no bucket' era is over in the AHL. Players who lose their helmet during play and do not immediately put it back on or exit the playing surface will receive a two-minute minor. It's a safety rule and it makes sense. It will be very interesting to see the interpretation of 'immediately exits the ice' applied in real-time though.

Here are the full text of the rule changes:
Rule 85 (“Overtime”)
  • During the regular season, the sudden-death overtime period will be seven minutes (7:00) in length, preceded by a “dry scrape” of the entire ice surface.
  • Teams will change ends at the start of overtime.
  • Full playing strength will be 4-on-4 until the first whistle following three minutes of play (4:00 remaining), at which time full strength will be reduced to 3-on-3 for the duration of the overtime period.
  • If the game is still tied following overtime, a winner will be determined by a three-player shootout.

Rule 20.4 (“Major Penalties”)

An automatic game misconduct will be applied to any player who has been assessed two major penalties for fighting or three major penalties for any infraction in the same game.

Rule 9.6 (“Helmets”)

A player on the ice whose helmet comes off during play will be assessed a minor penalty unless he immediately (a) exits the playing surface or (b) puts the helmet back on with the chin strap properly fastened.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Taylor as Texas Assistant Made Official; AHL Divisions Announced

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Collecting a few stories here in one quick post. First of all, the Texas Stars made the hiring of Karl Taylor official yesterday afternoon, announcing that the Winterhawks assistant would be joining Derek Laxdal in Cedar Park next season. Laxdal's Oil Kings and Taylor's Winterhawks battled for the WHL championship in the finals this year. 100 Degree Hockey first reported the expected and now confirmed hiring on Monday.

Additionally, the AHL has announced the league's divisional format for next season. The Stars will once again see their division-mates change as Abbotsford departed British Columbia for Adirondack. The former Houston Aeros, now the Iowa Wild, join in their place, reuniting the short-lived South Division from 2012-13.

Here's the full division lineup with discussion after:
Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division
Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles)
Portland Pirates (Arizona)
Providence Bruins (Boston)
St. John’s IceCaps (Winnipeg)
Worcester Sharks (San Jose)

Northeast Division
Albany Devils (New Jersey)
Bridgeport Sound Tigers (N.Y. Islanders)
Hartford Wolf Pack (N.Y. Rangers)
Springfield Falcons (Columbus)
Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay)

East Division
Binghamton Senators (Ottawa)
Hershey Bears (Washington)
Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia)
Norfolk Admirals (Anaheim)
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh)

Western Conference 
North Division
Adirondack Flames (Calgary)
Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal)
Rochester Americans (Buffalo)
Toronto Marlies (Toronto)
Utica Comets (Vancouver)

Midwest Division
Chicago Wolves (St. Louis)
Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit)
Lake Erie Monsters (Colorado)
Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville)
Rockford IceHogs (Chicago)

West Division
Charlotte Checkers (Carolina)
Iowa Wild (Minnesota)
Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton)
San Antonio Rampage (Florida)
Texas Stars (Dallas)

A few notes:

  • The West's North Division members will never have to step foot on a plane to get to a divisional game with Adirondack in their division now. Nice setup.
  • Lake Erie makes the Midwest division's road trip a little longer, moving their center to the East a bit as they replace Iowa
  • Adirondack, which is further East than about half the Eastern Conference, is in the West. It's a stopgap until things move West in 2015-16 for sure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Goalie Jussi Rynnas Signs With Dallas, Expected to Backup Campbell

In what might, at first, be a head-scratcher move, the Dallas Stars signed goalie Jussi Rynnas (RUNE-ahs) out of SM-liiga on a two-year deal. While terms were not disclosed, it is assumed this is a two-way deal.

Those who have been around the game for a few years will remember the name as the one-time 'next big thing' for Toronto. He played three career NHL games with the Maple Leafs but has a 31-33-5 record with the Marlies over three seasons. He now returns to the AHL after playing last season in Finland.

At first glance, it might seem to be a confusing deal. If Dallas Stars' GM Jim Nill wants Jack Campbell to be the bonafide #1 in Cedar Park, why sign a guy who could easily be a #1 himself? Quite simply, it's because Campbell will be in his first year as a professional #1. In case of injury to Campbell or elsewhere in the system above him, the team needs someone they can rely on to start games at this level. It's safe to say that Rynnas will not play more games than Campbell with Texas unless there is an injury to Lehtonen, Lindback or Campbell himself.

Additionally, this move probably signals the end of Josh Robinson's time with the Texas Stars. "Robo" was looking for a solid AHL backup job and Dallas now has four goalies under contract filling up the potential backup spot he wanted. He will likely go elsewhere in the AHL, if not overseas.

Here's the release:
Dallas Stars General Manager Jim Nill announced today that the club has signed goaltender Jussi Rynnas to a two-year contract. Per club policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Rynnas, 27, logged a 28-5-7 record in 40 regular-season contests with Karpat of the Finnish Elite League (Liiga). Rynnas led all Liiga goaltenders last season with a 1.51 goals against average and a .939 save percentage, while he finished second in the league with nine shutouts and third with 28 wins. He also appeared in three postseason games with Karpat, posting an 0-3-0 record with a 2.57 GAA and an .881 SV% as his club went on to win the 2014 Liiga championship.

The 6-foot-5, 212-pound native of Pori, Finland has appeared in three career regular-season NHL games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, going 0-1-0 and stopping 39 shots for an .848 SV% and a 3.85 GAA. Rynnas also spent three seasons with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League (AHL) from 2010-13. In his three AHL seasons, the goaltender earned a career record of 31-33-5 with a 2.64 GAA and a .910 SV% with eight shutouts in 73 regular-season games with the Marlies. In addition to his time in the AHL, Rynnas spent part of the 2011-12 campaign with the Reading Royals of the ECHL, posting an 8-5-1 record with a 3.21 GAA and a .914 SV% with one shutout in 14 games with the club.