Mid-Week Practice Report: Notes and Quotes on Stranges, Bourque and Damiani; ATO Signee Keaton Mastrodonato

Antonio Stranges (Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

With a rare day off work, I had an opportunity to visit Texas Stars practice on Tuesday.

It was a well-timed visit as the Stars welcomed their first amateur tryout of the season, forward Keaton Mastrodonato from Canisius College. Mastrodonato just finished a four-year career where he was team captain and put up 36 points in his senior season of 42 games.

He got a rookie lap at practice with a chorus of enthusiastic stick taps. The process of working an ATO into the lineup is not an easy or quick one. Unlike football where there is a playbook you can go dive into, hockey is a game of fewer set plays and more flow.

"We have a theme and an identity in which we play. That's probably the most important," said head coach Neil Graham after practice. "We will show [him] our structure of each zone and our systems of each zone, both with a tech pack as well as video and then a lot of that stuff is the reps we do in practice.

"So you'll see it on paper. You'll see it on video. You'll get reps at it in practice, but it's not something you can expect turnkey and overnight they understand everything right away."

Graham expects Mastrodonato to be a healthy scratch on Friday to observe his first AHL game and then the situation from there with the team and his absorption of the material in practices will dictate when he plays his first game. The Stars have a good set of reserve bodies at forward right now and aren't as worried on that front even with the loss of Fredrik Karlstrom.

One of the forwards stepping up is Antonio Stranges. He jumped in on the first line on Saturday to great effect but was a healthy scratch on Sunday in favor of Riley Damiani.

As with all young players, it's the play away from the puck that is a continued point of improvement for Stranges. He had an excellent game on Wednesday against CV and then followed it up with a goal against Chicago on Saturday. He found his way into the lineup because of his daily work ethic in practice. Graham inserted him as a spark for the top line, and it clearly worked.

Damiani, who traded the scratches with Stranges, is a former Rookie of the Year who is struggling more this season to put up points. The point Graham emphasized with Damiani is that no one's development path is linear. There are peaks and valleys.

"He's been really trying to focus on aspects of his game and rounding out certain parts of his game to make himself in NHL option on the regular. When that happens, there's times where other areas dip a little. I think he's learning how to balance out the importance of certain areas, turn weaknesses towards strengths. At times [when doing that], you can hit a little bit of a rut or blockade."

Graham emphasized his coachability and openness to continuing to improve his consistency, adding that you have to get him into the lineup to let him run and grab that opportunity as well.

(Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)

Another highly touted prospect on the forward radar is Mavrik Bourque, whose early success was muted through the fall as he hit the ever-present wall of joining a league of men for the first time. Since Christmas, his play has steadily improved with 25 of his 36 points coming since the holiday.

"Expectations are so high for these kids coming in, especially a player like Mavrik. When you look at him, you just expect immediate results. One thing that our organization is very good at is realistic expectations and not rushing players and allowing that development process to work."

Graham added, "You have to keep in mind as well as, not only is he coming from junior hockey. He's coming from Quebec, where the primary language is French. So you're learning your English, now full time you're living on your own with no billets , you're learning how to cook and provide for yourself full time. And while that's not unique to any of the other prospects in that situation, there's a heightened expectation around a player like Mavrik Bourque.

"While you're learning all those things away from the rink and in practice and daily routines, everyone also expects things to happen immediately. And what's impressed us is his ability to not lose focus on what's important. He's figured out all those things away from the rink. And while doing that, you've seen the translate to the ice."

Texas has its next chance to clinch the playoffs tonight, despite being idle. If Chicago takes any sort of loss against Grand Rapids, both Texas and Milwaukee will clinch. If not, the Stars can control their own destiny this Friday against San Jose.