Thursday, July 2, 2015

Fortunus, Gaunce Find Homes; Texas Quiet on Day 1

Two years in Iowa? Not bad.
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
The first day of free agency was quiet for the Texas Stars. They announced the signing of two rookies but otherwise were pretty mum on the whole signing front. Dallas only signed Patrick Eaves, who will affect the depth in Texas by taking up a spot in Dallas, but that was the only UFA move for the club. Dallas also announced a two-year deal for Curtis McKenzie, an RFA who had already been qualified.

Meanwhile, the moves were fast and furious for many of the top players on the AHL 100 list, including a few former Stars.

Cameron Gaunce was the first to go. Gaunce, who was looking for more NHL time, signed on with the Florida Panthers. The Panthers aren't as deep on the blue line as Dallas, so he may get that chance in South Florida. If not, the Portland Pirates are really stacked up now with the signing of Gaunce, Regner and McKenna. They will make a run for it in the playoffs this season, I think.

Maxime Fortunus found a job very quickly (for an AHL contract) in free agency. Late in the day, the Iowa Wild announced that he had been signed to a two-year contract. Two-year deals are rare in the AHL, which tends to go year-by-year with contracts. However, Fortunus is a special player, as evidenced by the lengthy bio writeup the Wild gave him, and this is his second two-year AHL deal in his career.

Other former Stars to find homes on day one included goalie Richard Bachman (Vancouver/Utica) and forwards Chris Mueller (Anaheim/San Diego) and Dustin Jeffrey (Arizona/Springfield).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Texas Stars Add Two Rookies on Day 1 of Free Agency

Zack Kamrass (Credit: Idaho Steelheads)
It's not a ground shaking move, but it's something. The Texas Stars have announced this morning that they have signed two players to AHL contracts for the coming season. Both are rookies coming out of the collegiate ranks.

Defenseman Zack Kamrass, who played six games at the end of the season with Idaho, is the first player. He played four years at Massachusetts-Lowell, tallying 13-51=64 in 147 career games. However, in just six games with Idaho, he tacked on 2-3=5. The former USHLer is a Georgia native, interestingly.

Forward Cam Braes is a player in the Derek Hulak mold. He played a full WHL career and then joined the college circuit. During his time with Lethbridge, he actually played with Colton Sceviour if you want perspective on his age.

You'd expect both of them to play most of their games in Idaho.

Here's the release:
The Texas Stars, American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL's Dallas Stars, announced today the team has signed rookie forward Cam Braes and rookie defenseman Zack Kamrass to AHL contracts for the upcoming 2015-16 season.

Kamrass (KAM-rihs), 24, joins the Stars after completing a four-year college career at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defenseman appeared in 147 career games for Lowell and recorded 64 points (13 goals, 51 assists). After his final collegiate season ended, he made his professional debut competing in six games for the ECHL's Idaho Steelheads, tallying five points on two goals and three assists. The Atlanta, Ga., native appeared in six playoff games for Idaho. Kamrass also skated two years for the Sioux Fall Stampede of the United States Hockey League from 2009-11. He recorded 39 points (six goals, 33 assists) in 110 contests.

Braes (BRAYZ), 24, begins his pro career with Texas after completing a three-year stretch at the University of New Brunswick. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound forward tallied 69 points (26 goals, 43 assists) in 82 career games for the Varsity Reds from 2012-15. The Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia, native also competed in 350 career games over five seasons in the Western Hockey League between the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Moose Jaw Warriors. He notched 239 points (116 goals, 123 assists) over his WHL career. In 2010-11, Braes scored a career-high 61 points in 71 games for Lethbridge on 31 goals and 30 assists.

What to Expect from Free Agency (Texas Stars Edition)

Derek Hulak, #61 on the AHL Top 100 Free Agent List
(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Free agency: a day so Canadian that it is literally on the same day as Canada Day.

But seriously, it's time for all those expiring contracts to come off the books as the mania of creating a successful team for 2015-16 continues. The Texas Stars will have a part in this as NHL, AHL and ECHL contracts all expire at the same time. With many spots to fill, the question has to be: what should you expect from free agency for the Texas Stars?

July 1st, the first day of free agency, is unlikely to bring any big signings for the Texas Stars. When do those free agents who will be Texas impact players sign on the dotted line?

Two seasons ago, Chris Mueller was signed on July 8th, 2013, one of the earlier AHL-destined signings. That was an NHL deal though, so that is a factor. Greg Rallo did not sign until August 1, 2014 for last season. Derek Hulak was on August 14. William Wrenn, who spent much of the year either as the 7th D or in Idaho, signed on August 25.

Further, many players are signed by Texas on AHL/ECHL two-ways and not announced until training camp. Last season, Jesse Root and Mike Dalhuisen fit this mold.

In summary, players in free agency who are expected at the AHL level don't sign today. Far from it, in fact. So, the long slog to figure out the make up of the 2015-16 Texas Stars will continue far past today.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

AHL Free Agency: Who is the Right Backup for Jack Campbell?

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Yesterday's news on the signing of Antti Niemi to a three-year deal unquestionably solidified the goalie position in Dallas. There will be no battle for the backup position as there has been in prior seasons (Raycroft v. Bachman; Rynnas v. Lindback). Niemi and Lehtonen will form a 1-2 punch in Dallas that Nill and Co. hope will put them back into the postseason.

The other bit of information that dribbled out on the signing conference call was the fact that Jack Campbell is expected to play 60 games this coming season for the Texas Stars.* That bring the question of who is the right player to push along and backup a young goalie with a heavy workload like that.

Luckily, Texas has some instructive blueprints that they can look at around the league. Very few goalies jump from juniors right into the NHL and many of the most successful goalies in the league today had a season exactly like the one Jack Campbell is facing this year in the AHL. Prove you can be the guy, and we'll give you a shot.

Analyzing other successful NHL goalies' AHL backups
So who were the guys behind those guys? What are we looking at for a prototypical 15-20 game backup?

First sample case is Corey Crawford. Despite what you might think about his comparison to Chris Osgood or his impact on the Blackhawks ability to win on a nightly basis, he has two Cups and you don't so that settles that.

Crawford had a few seasons where he played 50+ games in the AHL, four of them. Campbell may need another season or two after this one to really hit his stride before rolling up to the NHL, based on those numbers.

In his first season, Crawford played 60. Mike Brodeur and Sebastien Caron took most of the load behind him with 19 games total. He had alright numbers that season but got better in Rockford, which is where we'll concentrate.

In his first year there, he played 55 games with Wade Flaherty getting into 31 of his own. Flaherty, who is now the Jets' goalie coach, was a long-time league veteran. He won the Butterfield Trophy in 2004 with the Admirals and had several backup stints in the NHL, most notably with San Jose and the Islanders. We'll call this prototype 1: veteran with accolades and NHL experience.

The next year Flaherty retired and the Hawks brought in some scrub named Antti Niemi from Finland. Niemi vaulted Crawford on the depth chart and won a cup with the Hawks in 2009. This is a risky one, but we'll call it prototype 2: European goalie with possible NHL dreams.

The final year Crawford had a goalie named Joe Fallon as his backup. Stars fans know Fallon from his time in San Antonio. He was, at the time of his Rockford stint, a rookie. This is prototype 3: low-experience goalie just along for the ride.

Next, let's look at the most recent AHL season of Jake Allen. Allen shut down skaters all over the Western Conference en route to the 2014 Baz Bastien award (AHL top goalie). He had a familiar face as his backup, Matt Climie. This is prototype 4: AHL veteran journeyman.

 I also looked at Corey Schneider for comparison but his backups fit into one of these categories: Curtis Sanford (#1), Daren Machesney and Karl Goehring (#4).

What prototype is right for Jack Campbell?

First of all, let's list these out.
  1. Veteran with accolades and NHL experience
  2. European goalie with possible NHL dreams
  3. Low-experience goalie just along for the ride
  4. AHL veteran journeyman
Texas already tried #2 (Nilstorp and arguably Rynnas) without much success. Given that Campbell is still relatively young comparatively, I don't think you want #3 either. In each of those cases, the goalie in question is one year away from the NHL and had already played a 'full load' season of 50+ games. It's not clear Campbell is there yet.

So that leaves a veteran goalie with accolades and NHL experience or an AHL journeyman veteran. Either way, you need someone with experience who is probably on the downside of their career.

Possible goalies

With help from yesterday's AHL Top 100 Free Agent list, here are the top available goalies according to our combined efforts: Richard Bachman, Mike McKenna, Michael Leighton, Tom McCollum, Jeremy Smith, Yann Danis, Scott Clemmensen, Dan Ellis, Rob Zepp, John Muse, David Leggio, Scott Munroe.

I don't think the Stars would sign Richard Bachman or Dan Ellis based on past experiences.

The top candidates for a prototype 4 goalie are Mike McKenna and John Muse. Texas fans aren't familiar with McKenna as much anymore unless they follow him on Twitter. He moved out East after sometime with Peoria in the early going. He's a solid goalie in the #1 spot, so you wonder if he wouldn't prefer somewhere he can get that workload and the shot at the NHL.

John Muse is familiar for Texas fans from his time in Charlotte. Just under 30 games this year behind Drew MacIntyre. He could get a similar workload in Texas behind Campbell. Charlotte, if you'll remember, was not great this year. He was 10-12-2 with a .916 SV% despite that.

Prototype 1 is Michael Leighton. He went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost with the Flyers, so he has a lot of NHL experience. He took a lot of the load in Rockford this year as Scott Darling and Antti Raanta bounced back and forth to the NHL. He shut down Texas in the playoffs and had a .920 SV% in the regular season. Not bad. (Leighton was re-signed by Chicago two hours after this story was posted)

Scott Clemmensen is a good former NHL backup and now potential AHL veteran backup. He might be looking for a more expanded role or the shot at an NHL backup job somewhere. However, you can't argue with his .918 SV% with Albany. Just signed on to be the Devils goaltending development coach.

Another prototype 1 goalie that isn't on the top 100 list is Jason LaBarbera. he went 9-16-7 on a bad Norfolk Admirals team this year. He probably would be OK with the limited role that an assignment to Texas would provide. One note is that he is over 35, meaning he would have a 35+ NHL contract, if he was on an NHL deal.

Of course, you never know where a player might come from in free agency, but these are some top options to consider.

* - If Campbell was on one of the California teams, you'd have a backup playing eight games in a season under that scenario. Woof...

Monday, June 29, 2015

AHL Top 100 Free Agents -- The Big Board

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
When Jonathan Bombulie announced earlier this year that he was taking a job in Pittsburgh to cover the beat of the NHL version of the Penguins, one of the things that he left behind was his yearly AHL Free Agent “Big Board” which is a massive list of minor league hockey players ranked, 1-100 and beyond, that debuts right before the start of NHL Free Agency.

Well, thanks in part to the efforts of many, it lives on.

This massive, massive project, doesn’t get completed without the help of a broad spectrum of bloggers and journalists alike, from nearly every corner of the American Hockey League. Jason Iacona (Chirps from Center Ice) connected with several bloggers from throughout the AHL and what you see today is the efforts of those who lent a hand in typing up a capsule on a player from the Eastern Conference that the Western Conference never sees, or vice versa.

Before we get to the list of the Top 100 Unrestricted Free Agents, thank you to the following people…

Stephen Meserve from 100 Degree Hockey, who created the spreadsheet that everyone contributed to as well as his thoughts on the Texas Stars free agents.

Nathan Mallett from Runnin’ With the Herd, who laid the groundwork for the Top 100 list and contributed greatly to the capsules of the San Antonio Rampage as well as other teams.

Heath Sorey of Beneath the Scope, who went above and beyond the call and provided capsules for not only the Anaheim prospects of the Norfolk Admirals team he blogs for, but several other AHL teams.

Special thanks to Daniel Lavender (Admirals Roundtable) for his contributions on Milwaukee, Matt Trust (Chocolate Hockey) for Lehigh Valley and Hershey, Tracey Lake (Thoughts Inside the Box) for Albany, Eric Rodgers (Tend The Farm) for Oklahoma City, Darryl Hunt (210 Sports) for Worcester, Jenni Probst (Chasing Checkers) for Charlotte and Chris Roy (Maine Hockey Journal) for Portland.

We all hope that you enjoy the list. After the jump, dive into the Top 100 AHL Free Agents Available, then the “Best of the Rest” list below. Note that any Restricted Free Agent not tendered a qualifying offer will be added in on future edits, most likely starting tonight or by noon tomorrow, when the market goes live.

Dive in…

Rank Name Pos 14-15 Comments
1 Andy Miele C GR Elite AHL scorer. Led a loaded Grand Rapids team with 70 points.
2 Chris Bourque F HFD Perennial AHL All-star was 5th best in league in points.
3 TJ Hensick C HAM Veteran that remains a premier AHL scorer who can score 20 goals in his sleep.
4 Dustin Jeffrey C BRI Perennial AHL all-star who changed the complexion of the forward group. 23 points and a plus-14 in 20 games after the trade for Cory Conacher.
5 Cal O'Reilly C UTI Prolific AHL scorer re-discovered the offense and led the Comets in scoring.
6 Chris Mueller F HFD Another 40+ point season for longtime AHLer
7 Bobby Sanguinetti D UTI Total package offensive defenseman who thrived under Travis Green's system in Utica.
8 Chris Conner LW HER AHL vet not slowing down at age 31, still well over a point a game producer. Still as fast as he was five years ago.
9 Conor Sheary F WBS Led Wilkes-Barre in points in regular season (20-25-45) and in playoffs (5-7-12)
10 Joe Whitney LW ALB Has lead in team scoring all 4 seasons, made his second All Star appearance, and got his first NHL goal with New Jersey on New Year's Eve. Not bad for a 5'6" undrafted free agent.

AHL Free Agency: Who Will Step Up as Veteran Defense in Texas?

(Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
Looking at a rough sketch of the Texas Stars' current lineup for next season reveals a few glaring issues that need to be solved before the season kicks off. Both of them will likely be solved in the next few weeks with the start of free agency on July 1st.

The first issue is the lack of a veteran defenseman.

Since its inaugural season, Texas has always placed a premium on veteran defense. With the longer development cycle of a blue liner, it's important to have a stalwart presence on the backend to make sure those players develop properly. Also, you need someone who can get out there and play heavy minutes when the inevitable minor issues crop up with younger players and the situation is too important to risk it.

Since the beginning, Texas has had Maxime Fortunus. The Stars' most-recent captain was informed earlier this summer that he would not be brought back by the club. With the departure of Derek Meech to Europe and the likely departure of Cameron Gaunce to find NHL work elsewhere, Texas has no one in its lineup with more than 68 games of AHL experience.

In fact, the old-timer of the group currently expected in Texas is 19-year old Julius Honka.

So now the Stars need at least two veteran defenseman with another AHL-ECHL guy to serve as the 7th man. Let's talk options.

The first two options are in-house. Cameron Gaunce wants to find a place in the NHL where the depth chart isn't so stacked and he has more of a chance to play at that level. However, maybe if the money is right, they can convince him to stay in Texas.

The other option is Scott Valentine, who started the season in Idaho last year due to contract issues with Nashville. Essentially, the Predators had qualified Valentine but then decided not to sign him. That meant he had to sit out the NHL season unless he could find an independent minor league team to sign with. That was Idaho. Scott White had to do negotiating with Nashville to get him to Texas even. Now that he is free and clear, he can sign an NHL or AHL deal with any club.

Looking outside, some of the big names you might want are already taken. T.J. Brennan re-upped with Toronto. Brad Hunt was extended by Edmonton. Here's my top three targets for free agency for the Texas Stars:

1. Bobby Sanguinetti

Coming off a career year where he should have won the Defenseman of the Year award, according to this writer and many others, Sanguinetti is a great option for the Stars. He has deep playoff experience with Utica now and scores in bunches. Here's waht Sean Shapiro wrote about him in our joint blog about the Shore Award:
"He’s a solid defenseman in all three zones, a catalyst on the power play and penalty kill, gobbles up ice time, and he makes a good Utica Comets team even better. Utica is one of the AHL’s top defensive teams, even though they’ve used four goalies this season, and Sanguinetti is their leader."
2. Will O'Neill

The IceCaps D-man was impressive this season (10-38=48 in 72GP) and showed well two seasons ago when Texas defeated St. John's for the Cup. He was a 7th round pick and has never cracked the NHL lineup in four seasons. He's unlikely to do that with Texas, but he could be a very well-compensated veteran for the team.

3. Steve Oleksy

Depending on what Oleksy sees out there in free agency, a trip to Central Texas could make sense. He spent time in Idaho before being snatched up by the Capitals to play three seasons split between Washington and Hershey. This past year he only had one game in the NHL, wore an "A" for the Bears, and upgraded it to a "C" mid-season.

If the connection is to be made, it will have a lot to do with the Stars' head coach, Derek Laxdal. Oleksy began his stint in Idaho during Laxdal's final season there. They went to the Kelly Cup Finals together that year and fell to Cincinnati. Oleksy isn't going to be a flashy D-man -- he only had 4 goals in 68 AHL games this season -- but he will be a consistent presence for the younger guys.

Friday, June 26, 2015

What to Expect from the NHL Draft From a Texas Stars Perspective

Devin Shore (Credit: Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
The hockey world pivots from the NHL Awards to the NHL Draft tonight in Sunrise, Florida. This year's top pick has been known for several years. Connor McDavid, widely touted as 'The Next One', will be the prize of the draft, selected by Edmonton. Jack Eichel, no slouch himself, is expected to be #2 for Buffalo. Lower down the order, the Dallas Stars pick at #12 overall. In all, the Stars have six picks, one in each round except for the third.

To figure out when players are expected to hit the AHL, let's take a look at when the Texas Stars 2014-15 squad was drafted.

(Note: I've left out a number of free agent and veteran players like Fortunus, Morin, Meech, etc.)

Year Round Overall Rookie Late season add?
Scott Glennie 2009 1 8
Curtis McKenzie 2009 6 159
Jack Campbell 2010 1 11
John Klingberg 2010 5 131
Jamie Oleksiak 2011 1 14
Brett Ritchie 2011 2 44
Mattias Backman 2011 5 146
Matej Stransky 2011 6 165
Jyrki Jokipakka 2011 7 195
Radek Faksa 2012 1 13
Ludwig Bystrom 2012 2 43 Yes Yes
Devin Shore 2012 2 61 Yes Yes
Esa Lindell 2012 3 74 * Yes
Gemel Smith 2012 4 104 Yes
Branden Troock 2012 5 134
Jason Dickinson 2013 1 29 Yes Yes
Mattias Janmark 2013 3 79 * Yes
Cole Ully 2013 5 131 Yes Yes
Julius Honka 2014 1 14 Yes

* - Not a rookie due to games played overseas but first year in the AHL.

So if you look at this chart, you can expect that players drafted this year in the 2015 Draft will start to filter into the AHL as ATOs in 2017 and have a bigger impact in 2017-18.