|(Credit: Ross Bonander)|
After a year that fell just short in all three levels of the organization, there has been a lot of talk of taking the next step across the opening two days of Dallas Stars training camp in Cedar Park. In Dallas, the next step is more incremental than in Texas. The NHL club re-racked with most of the same players and even made some key upgrades, such as a one-year deal with notable scorer Matt Duchene.
For AHL Texas, it's not that easy.
The success of the AHL team and a confluence of expiring UFA deals meant that a lot of players who were key cogs in the success in Austin last year are elsewhere now. Riley Tufte, Rhett Gardner, Tanner Kero, Riley Barber, Ben Gleason, Fredrik Olofsson, Ryan Shea and others all found better paydays or better NHL chances, they believe, elsewhere.
And so in come the kids. Catching up with Texas Stars captain Curtis McKenzie Friday at camp, he is ready for the re-rack and believes this will be a strong squad based on just the first two days in camp.
"The skill level's extremely high. As with all the young guys, it seem to be every year that it's getting higher and higher. The talented is definitely higher than it's ever been."
Entering his 12th professional season, McKenzie inked a two-year AHL deal over the summer to continue serving as the veteran glue for this young group, as well as chipping in points as well. His 54 points last season put him second on the team behind Barber.
"I'm excited for this team seeing all these young prospects. The skill level is very high, so it'll be really fun. We just want to do what we can to help advance them to the next level."
McKenzie spent the summer bouncing between his wife's family and his own in Minnesota and British Columbia, respectively. While he appreciated the break from the summer heat, there was no respite from the training plan to keep on track with the goals he has for the season.
"You can't take a break nowadays. It's every day you've got to find something to do to get better to be ready to go with the young guys. Every camp the intensity just picks up that much more. The first two days of drills gets a little harder and the pace is always up. I think everyone's a little sore after after the first two days."
Dallas and Texas players alike will spend today doing community events around Austin. With Sleep in Heavenly Peace, players will build bunk beds for families in need. McKenzie will head out with another group to the Central Texas Food Bank.
Sunday is the main event though, and it's still unclear if McKenzie will get the nod. He's hopeful, however.
"I haven't heard, but I have no hopes on it. It'd obviously be a lot of fun to play."
McKenzie acknowledged that it'd be really cool if Dallas played NHL guys who played here starting out like Roope Hintz, Jake Oettinger and Jason Robertson, as well as captain Jamie Benn or his brother Jordie.
Either way, McKenzie is excited for NHL hockey in Central Texas.
"We have obviously a great, great hockey support here in Cedar Park. Hopefully this gives them the chance to see some of the top talent in the world. And you know, I assume everyone's really excited and it'll be a great crowd because it always is here."