After two straight successful seasons in Austin no one anticipated the troubles that would face the Texas Stars in 2011-12. With coach Glen Gulutzan getting promoted to the NHL the team suffered, with a noticeable drop in talent on the roster and major problems in goal leading to a last-place finish in the AHL's Western Conference.
The Stars had quickly fallen from a defensively-conscious, disciplined team to one that allowed the second-most goals in the AHL (251 in 76 games) and missed the postseason for the first time since the team arrived in Austin, Texas. For the fans, it was an incredibly disappointing season and the atmosphere and attitude surrounding the team suffered because of it; overall, there was a black cloud hanging over Cedar Park Center for much of the 2011-12 season that extended far beyond what was happening on the ice.
Much like what has happened in Dallas the past year, the Texas Stars decided to head in a completely different direction. Major changes were made in the front office and the team made the tough decision to fire coach Jeff Pyle after just one season, a season in which communication was sorely lacking between the coaching staff and the players.
The Stars organization looked inward once more for the answer, however, and offered the job to Dallas Stars associate coach Willie Desjardins, an incredibly successful WHL coach who had spent two seasons behind the bench of an NHL team.
The coaching change brought about an immediate change in attitude and direction in the team, adding a level of credibility to the franchise that had not existed under the previous staff and immediately helped add fuel to the growing level of excitement surrounding an AHL club that had managed just 67 points the year before.
Part of this growing excitement was the addition of a number of highly touted young NHL prospects, a number of which debuted near the end of the failed 2011-12 season and created an immediate buzz about the coming season. Jack Campbell, Alex Chiasson, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, Reilly Smith and Austin Smith have all made the big jump to the AHL and add an immediate boost of top-end talent to a roster that is suddenly one of the deepest in the division.
The influx of new, young talent -- along with players still with the organization from last year -- has created an incredible sense of optimism that comes from a desire to prove that that the 2011-12 season was a mere fluke and that the best hockey for the franchise is still ahead.
"I think players that were here last year were not happy by the way things went down," says general manager Scott White. "I think they were all a little embarrassed by the season, and that's okay. I think they've had some redemption in mind all along and combine that with some young players and some new older players -- Toby Petersen, I might add, has been huge for us. Huge."
The Texas Stars are in a very interesting position in which they have a number of high-potential prospects on the roster who need playing time to continue to develop, yet have to find a way to balance that need with the desire to do what is most important -- win.
"That's always a tough balance," said coach Desjardins. "We always play to win, though. Whether you're a veteran player or a young player you have to know that we're playing to win and you have to be good enough to stay in the lineup, that's your job. If you're not good enough to stay in the lineup then we have to go with someone else. The underlying factor is that you have to be good enough to play."
What is most intriguing about this coming season is that, with the NHL lockout, AHL rosters are much deeper and more talented than what is typically seen over the course of a season. The Stars have Tomas Vincour, Cody Eakin and Brenden Dillon -- all expected to be full-time NHL players this season -- currently in Austin, while other teams have similar levels of NHL talent boosting their rosters as well. The coaches believe this only adds to the development curve of the young guys.
"All the players down here want to prove they can play in the NHL and the only way you can really prove you can play in the NHL is to play against NHL players and they're being given that opportunity," said Desjardins.
Overall, there's a basic sense of hope and optimism that has been steadily growing over the summer and offseason that culminated in an incredibly successful preseason in which the Stars went 3-0, outscoring the opponents 14-3 combined.
Many Dallas Stars fans have turned to Austin for their hockey fix during the lockout, not just to get a good look at some exciting prospects but also because it's clear that even if the Stars aren't playing in Dallas -- there's some very good hockey being played in Texas this year.
I think I can speak for everyone watching that if you're a hockey fan it's good to just have some hockey back," said Scott White. "Really happy with how the guys performed here in the preseason, we've had a competitive aura about the group from day one and I think it's due to the lockout and having our guys here from day one. It's been positive. The preseason wins are great, but ultimately you're judged starting Saturday, October 13th."
Leading them into the season will be Desjardins, a coach that has immediately grown respect with the players and the fans in Austin -- something in Dallas knew would happen. His unique experience, between major junior hockey in Canada and a jump to the NHL in Dallas, has created a rapport with his players and staff that will immediately pay dividends for the Stars moving forward.
More importantly, he's demanding accountability and pushing the team forward -- never looking back.
"I think he's a straight forward guy," said forward Alex Chiasson. "I love the way practices are going; it's a really up tempo practice, he's focused a lot on hard work. Regardless of whether it's on the forecheck, on the power play or on the PK, he's expecting all the players on the ice to be working a hundred percent. I think he's got a great attitude towards the guys and you can see he's been around so many good players and he's been around the NHL for a bit. You get that feeling from him that he's knows what he's talking about.
"I think we've got a great group of guys and he's the guy that's going to lead us for this year."
The Texas Stars begin the season this Saturday, Oct. 13 on the road in San Antonio. Home opener is Sunday, Oct. 14 against Charlotte. Both games begin at 7 p.m. CT.