|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
Continuing last season's trend and with these season's baseball-style schedule, I'll be doing previews per team instead of per game. This one is a little longer as it also serves as season preview.
Welcome to the weirdest season of Texas Stars hockey we will likely ever see. With limited fans at home and mostly none on the road, the Stars embark on their 2020-21 campaign with a roster no one would have expected and circumstances far beyond anything we’ve experienced before.
While the media will be allowed at the H-E-B Center, I have made the personal decision for me and my family that I will not be attending any games this season. I will work to ensure the same standard of coverage for those games that I am able to cover, but with the departure of Ryan Pennington, family obligations and the general pandemic stresses that all of us are facing, I will not be able to cover every game live. I ask for your patience and grace as this season progresses. I also ask that you show patience and grace with everyone generally. Everyone is fighting their own battle, and it costs us nothing to be kind.
Texas currently has 15 rostered forwards, 8 defensemen and 3 goalies. Without an ECHL affiliate for the season, the Stars are likely to carry a heavier load than prior years. I fully expect Texas will carry three goalies for most, if not all, of the season, along with eight defensemen and most of those forwards.
When Ben Bishop went down in Dallas, it seemed like Texas would have the services of Landon Bow to anchor the net with Jake Oettinger backing up in the NHL. Fortunately for Bow but unfortunately for Texas, the taxi squad is where Bow now sits. Instead, the Stars are leaning on Colton Point and Tomas Sholl as their tandem. Between the two, they have a total of eight AHL games played, all Point’s.
Flatly, the strength of the Stars this season is not in net. Point has a 2-4-1 AHL record with a 3.80 GAA and .860 SV%. Sholl could emerge to challenge him in the role, however. He’s not played an AHL game but was a top performer in the ECHL, earning the league’s Goalie of the Year last year. OVerall, he has a 68-20-9 record in the ECHL and boasts a 2.07 GAA and .930 SV%.
Point will get the chance to own the net. However, Sholl beat Point out for the net in Idaho and is well-positioned to do it again if the latter does not start out the season well.
The shiny object on defense is, without a doubt, Thomas Harley, a first round pick who is only in the AHL due to the OHL not playing games yet (or perhaps at all) this season. Harley’s development may not have ever gone through Texas if the OHL were playing games. He figures to get significant playing time in all situations, especially the power play.
I have no clue what the pairings would look like, but I think it might be more useful to sort the list by who is likely to be in every night and who will shuffle in and out of the healthy scratch list. The always-in list for me is Thomas Harley and Ryan Shea. Honestly, I could see any of the rest getting nights off to rotate in bodies and keep everyone playing. Obviously NHL contracted players get priority over Max Martin and Luke Martin, but it’s still a carousel. (Rest of the list is Dawson Barteaux, Ben Gleason, Jerad Rosburg and Joe Cecconi)
There are, frankly, not a lot of names that are familiar to Texas fans here. Only seven of the fifteen forwards on the roster have played for Texas before. Right off the bat, it’s clear that Texas is weak down the middle. Tanner Kero and Joel L’Esperance are on the taxi squad, leaving just a few natural centers on the roster, only one of which is a returning Star from a full-year contract: Josh Melnick.
It seems folly at this point to attempt to predict four lines. The notable items here include the ATO players, Antonio Stranges and Nick Porco. Both of them are Dallas picks who would be in major junior this season otherwise. I’m curious to see how they can hang with the AHL crowd, which is significantly older than their usual competition. Also notable will be the growth of bottom-six players from a year ago. With more opportunity comes more responsibility. Riley Tufte and Tye Felhaber need to shift gears and become top six players if they want to keep the NHL dream alive. The return of Adam Mascherin from season-ending injury is also going to be something to watch. He was having a down sophomore year compared to his rookie season. The team will be counting on him to do great things on offense to bolster this group.
Weird schedules are no big deal to the AHL regulars. 3-in-3 weekends and 4-in-5 stretches make the legs ache and stretch rosters thin with injury. For comparison, Texas will play 38 games in 99 days this season. Last year, they were slated to play 76 games over 190 days. The Stars will actually play fewer games/day on average by just a small amount this season compared to last. Were the club to maintain the typical season schedule, they would have four fewer days to complete the 38 game slate.
If the schedule can limit travel, limit transmission and ultimately lead to more games played, it’s a good thing. Many things about our world will change after this pandemic, but I think this baseball-style schedule has legs and could get a lot of traction in future seasons, pandemic or not.
The big unknown
It’s the first day of the season, and we’ve already seen two AHL games postponed as of this writing due to COVID protocols. A ‘successful’ season for the Stars will no doubt involve many wins, but as much as anything, the season could be called successful if Texas is able to finish it. Playing all 38 games will be a gargantuan task.