100 Degree Weekly: Defensive Rotation to Build Confidence and Riley Tufte's Emergence

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

[Ed. note: Seeking names for his column. All the best have a name (e.g. 32 Thoughts).]

Texas got their first chance to come out of a series with more than two points and came up with just the pair this past weekend in Cedar Park. It was an excellent chance given that the IceHogs were on the last game of their season-long six-game road trip. Ultimately, the Hogs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, and never looked back.

Defensive rotation

Keen observers of this past weekend's games will note that defenseman Ben Gleason had three assists on Thursday night and was then out, a healthy scratch, on Saturday. In any other world, you'd assume Gleason had done something wrong in Thursday's outing to take a seat on Saturday. Neil Graham says that couldn't be further from the truth.

In chatting with Texas's head coach before Saturday's game, he said the club knew before the series even started that Gleason would come out for Ryan Shea on Saturday. It's part of the defensive rotation that has seen Gleason and Shea alternate games so far this season. Graham has a lot of names to shuffle into the lineup and wants to make sure that no one feels that a single mistake can take them out of the lineup for an extended period. That leads to fearful, tentative play. Instead, Graham and defensive coach Maxime Fortunus are setting a simple rotation. If you're in tonight, you're out the next game.

It takes a special sort of player to sit the bench as the seventh defenseman and come in on a moment's notice.  I'm reminded of William Wrenn in 2013-14, who played limited games as the seventh D-man but was always ready as if he'd played every game all season. Then assistant coach Doug Lidster had a similar time in his NHL career and was able to coach Wrenn along to great success in that regard.

This is a good way to get players playing and also ensure they aren't put in a situation where they are playing afraid, afraid of making a mistake that will send them to the press box for a week.

Riley Tufte's Early Season Emergence

Forward Riley Tufte was a 2016 first-round draft pick for Dallas but now approaches 100 AHL games played without an NHL game, or recall, to his credit. He's already one-third the way to his 2020-21 statistical achievements with 2-1=3 in just 6 GP.

Graham is seeing big strides from the forward this year as he says Tufte is playing to his strengths more. His puck possession has improved and is taking the puck directly to the net. He had breakaways in both games against Rockford, scoring on one of those. Graham noted, "He's really putting himself in good opportunities and then making hard power moves to the net."

Tufte's line with Josh Melnick and Fredrik Karlstrom has been an engine in the past two games. Far from the typically sheltered or lesser-used fourth line, the combo has been able to roll fluidly with the other three lines. In Thursday's game, Graham noted postgame that his squad was flowing so nicely that he wasn't even concerned about line matching; it was just getting the next line up over the boards.

The point still remains that Tufte is a big man with big expectations given his draft position. This year is absolutely make or break for him. In talking to him after Thursday's game, he is definitely feeling it this season and has the pieces in place for that breakout season.