I predicted a tough season, but the Texas Stars had other plans.
|(Credit: Ross Bonander/Texas Stars)
It was opening weekend, and I was chatting with someone from hockey ops about the Texas Stars season ahead. The team was looking a bit shaky in their first showing against Tucson and went on to lose both games by a single goal each.
They told me the team just needed to stay on that playoff bubble until Christmas, and then they thought it would all gel together.
Personally, I made a similar prediction on Defending Big D's Stargazing podcast, stating confidently that I thought this was a playoff play-in team with the roster turnover and the rookies that were coming in.
And who could blame me?
At the start, it didn't feel like Texas hockey. Things were a little loose. A little unformed. It might have been because we had all just watched possibly the best Stars team not to make it to the Calder Cup Finals for the past season.
So many of those names were gone. Tufte, Barber, Kero, Gardner, Shea, Studenic, Gleason, Butcher, Harley, Olofsson.
But it's the nature of the thing. Turnover is expected.
And so what started as "hold on until Christmas" has become "dominate by Christmas". The Stars lead the Central Division by four points at the break and would need a pretty drastic turn of fate for multiple teams to fall to the play-in spot.
How did I get it so wrong?
What I didn't account for, I think what we all didn't account for, was the absolute lightning in a bottle that has been captured with the pairing of Logan Stankoven and Mavrik Bourque (named Player of the Week for last week, in case you missed that). Texas leads the league in goals with 105 total and 4.04 per game. Bourque and Stankoven have over a quarter of them (27 combined).
What I did get right is that this wouldn't be a defensively stout team, certainly not as defensively stout as 22-23. The Stars allow 3.23 goals per game this year (22nd in the league) and only let up 2.76 per game last year. They weren't the best in the league but they were in the top 10 and also had the league's best offense as well.
But then again, I've seen now that Texas can win those games too. Take a look a few weeks back in Grand Rapids. The big guns were held off the score sheet and Texas was able to walk away with a 2-0 win off 26 saves from Remi Poirier and goals from secondary scoring.
Now that they know they can do it, the confidence builds.
Related, I also did not see Poirier and Matt Murray having such a dueling back-and-forth "anything you can do I can do better" goalie tandem this season. Each goalie has eight wins and five losses of various sorts. Their .908 and .905 save percentages aren't world beating but they have been battlers, both. Going back through my memory of this season, the Stars have needed their goalies to do more than in previous seasons to defend odd-man rushes, extended zone attacks and be ready for absolutely anything. This isn't Dustin Wolf level goaltending but they are able to steal a game here and there and that's really what the team needs from them.
|(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)
Further, I have never doubted the ability of head coach Neil Graham to grow, mentor and improve the players under his leadership. Quietly, he is running one of the most effective organizations in the AHL in terms of growing players and winning at the same time. (Soapbox moment: enjoy this while you can because he'll be going to the NHL before you know it).
The open gaps we thought were there to start the year are still there in many ways. The need to lock down more on defense is still there. Coach Graham had to seriously rip into the team on the bench in last Tuesday's game about foundational habits after they had a long defensive zone stay and hadn't registered a shot in ten minutes.
But here's the thing: if you were worried about forming good habits and you were in the fifth spot in the division, that's one kind of feeling. Being in first and still working on those habits is a different vibe. Milwaukee is definitely right there behind Texas, and they want to win back-to-back division crowns... but it's still a different feeling than trying to stay in fifth and not fall to sixth.
And I hear your arguments about the Central Division being weaker than last season and I definitely see it as well, but being at the top of the heap is still the top of the heap. Texas can only play the schedule they are given. If the division is weaker, then it's a good thing that the Stars are feasting on their division foes. It would be worse if they were in the high 400s like all the other playoff teams aside Milwaukee are as of today.
Regardless, this is an exceptionally good place to be any year, but especially based on where most of us thought this team would be at the end of December.
And don't make any travel plans for May.