|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)|
With a lack of preseason games and a locked-down training camp, tomorrow's game against Iowa will be the first chance anyone outside the organization gets to view and assess the 2021-22 Texas Stars. By all accounts, it looks to be a very strong year for the AHL club.
Putting aside the numerology of the Texas Stars team, which tells us that they will go to the Calder Cup Finals this season just as they have done every four years for their entire existence, this team does have a legit shot based on the depth of the roster. Top to bottom, this team is not playing around. Let's do exactly what Texas GM Scott White does and build from the net out.
When Dallas signed Braden Holtby this summer, it was a huge signal that the net would be overstuffed in Cedar Park this season. Already sporting a highly-touted Adam Scheel and veteran Colton Point, Texas now adds Jake Oettinger as well. Last season, Oettinger didn't hit the AHL roster once with Ben Bishop out for the entire season in Dallas. He fared pretty darn well as a rookie, lining up a 2.36 GAA with a 11-8-7 record and 0.911 SV%.
Dallas needs Oettinger ready for callup duty and ready for the future of the Dallas net. He will get a huge number of starts and every one will be a winnable game for Texas simply with his presence in net. It's a huge win for Texas fans, who have not gotten many blue-chip goalie prospects over the year.
Meanwhile, Adam Scheel comes into his first season with an ATO experience that put him through the wringer during the COVID year. My estimation would be that Oettinger and Scheel essentially split starts with Point coming in occasionally during tough stretches on the schedule. Scheel's 0.912 SV% in 12 games of a rough season last year eclipses any of Point's SV% totals in his pro career, having never topped 0.900 in any year at any level.
Let's start this category with the veteran heft that was signed over the summer. Alex Petrovic brings 263 games of NHL experience and 215 AHL games to boot. Last season, Ben Gleason and Joe Cecconi were the most veteran defenders. Taking nothing away from them, there were a lot of moments where a stout, experienced defenseman of Petrovic's calibre would have been useful as a steadying presence. When you add Andreas Borgman as well, there is a significant veteran presence that puts the team in a much better place of confidence and teaching for the younger players.
And speaking of teaching, Texas also adds Maxime Fortunus behind the bench. Having a former All-Star defenseman guiding this blue line will be an instant value-add for the team.
Almost sneaking in under the radar is Thomas Harley, who is back in Texas for more seasoning to his game. It's clear he can score at this level, but now he, as so many other defensemen, needs to continue rounding out his defensive game. It may have been the only thing holding him back from the AHL's top defenseman award last year. If I were to place a bet (and assuming he stays in the AHL all year, which he probably won't), Harley would be one of my top picks for the Shore Award in April.
Rounding out the rest are a crew of players all with previous experience on this very team. Even the least experienced among them, Max Martin and Dawson Barteaux, got an entire season last year in the AHL. Texas will open their season without a single rookie on defense, which is a wild concept for a league so focused on teaching and development. Defense figures to be a strong suit for this team based on that, but it could also be a challenge as it was last year if things don't solidify in terms of pure defense.
Once again, let's start with the veteran signings. The biggest one is the presumptive captain Curtis McKenzie on a two-year deal. Since leaving Texas in 2018, the former Rookie of the Year took tours with Vegas and Vancouver but spent both of those tours in the AHL (to great effect, mind you). McKenzie's Wolves went to the Calder Cup Final in 2019, losing to Charlotte. The veteran of nearly 500 pro games figures to be an instant punch of power on the power play. His veteran presence will also be a steadying element for a roster of forwards that is, unlike the defense, sporting quite a few rookies or at least North American rookies. Jeremy Gregoire also adds 334 games of AHL experience to assist McKenzie on the vet leadership front.
Before we get there, McKenzie is not the only former Rookie of the Year on the roster. Riley Damiani returns to the Texas Stars. Generally, RotY winners play at least 20 games in the NHL the next season, and I have confidence that Damiani will get that chance. However, for now, he is an instant top-line center for this team and PP1 fixture. His key point of adjustment at this level will be two fold: (1) how does he adjust to not having Adam Mascherin on his line? and (2) can he continue to perform as team's surely have him circled on the whiteboard?
Yauheni Aksiantsiuk, Oskar Back, Frederik Karlstrom, and Jordan Kawaguchi are all lacing them up for their first season of North American professional hockey on Saturday. Kawaguchi got some ATO games last year, but this is still the green part of the crew.
The rest of the roster have all played in the HEB Center at some point in the past few years. Some were in Dallas or on the taxi squad for most of last season (Caamano, Gardner, L'Esperance and Dellandrea) while the rest were in Texas last season (Felhaber, Louis, Melnick and Tufte).
When you look at the entire roster, it is easy to be confident from a playoff perspective. This could be a special team. This is the first year that head coach Neil Graham has had that role under the normal cadence and structure of a hockey season, starting with Dev Camp and Traverse City and culminating in Texas training camp. With the addition of Fortunus to the already established assistant coaching talents of Travis Morin, this coaching staff seems ready to accelerate this roster ahead.
In the scenario that Graham finds himself in, I'd certainly feel like the last two years weren't the fullest expression of his abilities as a coach, given all the caveats and exceptions he has dealt with. It feels like this team is ready to take off the restrictor plate and hit max horsepower this season. The investments that Dallas has made in the team echo this sentiment. It could be a very fun season for fans.