Editor's Note: Let's take a brief time out from all of the stress of the coming week for the Dallas Stars....
The Texas Stars have had a rough season, sitting most of the year in last place in the conference and now officially eliminated from the postseason for the first time in franchise history. This was always going to be a "transition year", just like in Dallas, but it's still been troublesome to see the struggles of the team with defense, goaltending and an overall successful structure with which to actually build upon.
The good news is that it seems changes are on the way. After such a tough season, where the Dallas Stars cherry-picked the best players from the roster, the Stars are looking at an infusion of youth and talent that has the fanbase buzzing and feeling incredibly optimistic in the face of such a disappointing year.
This past weekend myself and Brad Gardner had the privilege of traveling to Austin to see the Texas Stars take on the Lake Erie Monsters. For myself, it was the first chance I've had of seeing the Stars play since they first arrived in Austin three years ago and I'm ashamed to admit as much. This was also a golden opportunity to see some of the young guns in action, with Jack Campbell, Austin Smith and Alex Chiasson all playing a big part in Saturday night's game.
After the jump, some thoughts on the game, the atmosphere, the Stars and the young prospects....
First of all, if you've never had the chance to make it out to Austin for a game -- you're missing out.
The minor league hockey scene is always one that I've immensely enjoyed and it's a great way to build and find new hockey fans. The games are incredibly affordable for families and the atmosphere is generally more intense than you'll sometimes find at NHL games. It's certainly more intimate, since every single seat in the arena is generally closer than you'll ever sit at an NHL game.
The Texas Stars have a great arena in the Cedar Park Center. It's high quality, the sound is incredible the parking is about as good as you'll find at a sporting arena. There really isn't much to complain about, other than the fact that the food is priced just like you'd expect from a sporting venue. The fact that the tickets are so affordable, however, offsets this fact -- along with the fact that there is a wide variety of foods to choose from, all of which looked to be relatively high in quality.
The Texas Stars have ice girls, who somehow find a way to be more scantily clad than the Dallas ice girls. They seem to be very popular as well, and I saw several young girls sporting "future ice girl" shirts at the game, so they must be doing something right.
The game presentation was outstanding. Some good, timely videos used throughout the game and the music was loud and rocking. The crowd, fired up by the team's performance, was incredibly loud at times. The acoustics and the intimate feel of the arena creates an atmosphere of intensity and rowdiness that only hockey fans can truly muster.
The fans of the team, at least the ones we talked to, are incredibly loyal and fanatical about the team. What's amazing is that not everyone were Dallas Stars fans and there were many I talked to that don't follow the Dallas team at all; for them, all that matters is the Texas Stars. It's great to see such loyalty, especially after such a downer of a season, but you wonder just how much a team like this could survive in Austin if there are multiple seasons in a row where the team struggles.
For now, though, these are some very knowledgeable and loyal fans and it's something that this franchise knows it can't take for granted.
The game itself went about as well as could be expected. The Stars jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, killed some penalties and were able to survive a late assault by Lake Erie before eventually winning 4-0. The Stars would struggle as the game progressed as Lake Erie became much more aggressive on defense and took away a lot of the space the Stars had taken advantage of in the first period.
The biggest problem with the Stars in this game, and has been all season long, is the defense. The Stars might have been having trouble with defensive awareness by the forwards but in this game, the glaring weakness for this team was right on the blue line.
There really is no defensive structure that the team follows, unless you want to count "defensive passivity" as an actual gameplan. Too many times the defense for the Stars failed to aggressively make a play along the boards or in the corners, allowing the Lake Erie players free space to come off the boards and make an easy play out to open ice. The Stars also had incredible trouble moving the puck in transition, with defensemen rarely being able to make a play out of their zone that effectively moved the puck up the ice in possession by the Stars.
The best players on the ice for the Texas Stars, at least on this night, were the new kids. Austin Smith, playing in front of his family for the first time as a pro, dominated the ice nearly every shift. While he's become known for his goal-scoring while with Colgate, it's obvious that his best asset is going to be his vision and his passing ability at the AHL and perhaps the NHL level.
Smith's speed and quickness were on display throughout the night but it was his ability to see the ice and to get into good positioning that really made the difference in the game. His best play came in the first period when he was able to dodge two defenders along the half-wall, take the puck behind the net and then find a wide-open Matt Fraser after faking a wraparound. It was his second primary assist in two games and a perfect indicator of the type of player he can become as a pro.
For this one game, he was the best player on the team and the catalyst for the Texas offense. He didn't finish with a goal and had just one assist, but he was one of just a few players on that team capable of creating offense for himself and others on the ice. For most of the game we referred to it as "the Austin Smith show", incredibly impressed by the performance we were getting the chance to watch.
Alex Chiasson is a much different player. He's adept at using his size and physicality to make plays with the puck and just like Josh stated in his article, he's a puck possession machine. He had a few good scoring chances as well and showed a willingness to crash the net that we haven't seen with the Stars in a good long while. What really stood out about Chiasson how he doesn't play as big as he is and is generally very fluid on his skates.
Chiasson nearly had several goals and looked much more confident than I'd expected in his second AHL game. You can see all the tools on display and why he comes so highly-touted, but at the same time it's easy to see why the Stars chose to play Reilly Smith at the NHL level instead of Chiassson. He needs some time to get comfortable at the level of play and while there were flashes of brilliance, there were times when he looked tentative. He was also caught out of position on defense a few times but that could be because he was one of just a few players that was willing to play aggressive on defense.
Scott Glennie looked very good. What's really interesting is that he looked very good in a role that we never expected him to actually be good at. Coming out of the WHL, Glennie was supposed to be a high-scoring winger and instead has turned into a shutdown, checking-line center/right wing that is used is primarily defensive situations.
Glennie played extremely physical and stood out as a player willing to make some noise on the forecheck, creating several turnovers along the boards with strong play and showing an ability to effectively push the puck up the ice. Glennie wasn't playing much with other offensively-capable players and double shifted most of the night with the fourth-line guys. He, along with Chiasson and Smith, certainly stood out as one of the better players on the ice.
It's uncertain just what sort of future Glennie will have at the NHL level but for now, he's become a confident and aggressive player at the AHL level. We didn't get to see much offense from Glennie, which is frustrating, but that could be because of who he was playing with as well as the "structure" of the team. It's clear that he's not exactly adept at being a "playmaker", but he can certainly be an effective third or fourth line guy in the NHL very soon.
The Stars had a couple of other impressive players in the game. Mike Hedden, in Austin on an AHL contract, was firecracker on the ice and made all sorts of noise when he was in the game. He's an older guy and is likely an AHL-only player, but it's good to see Texas find someone like him that can certainly help them in the future.
Matt Fraser scored two goals, both of which looked like Michael Ryder specials. What's interesting that you never notice Fraser when he doesn't have the puck but as soon as he does, he won't hesitate to put it on net. He's a shoot-first player and it certainly showed why in this game: he's got a wicked release and shot that plays hell on goaltenders.
Which brings us to Jack Campbell.
Campbell hasn't had the easiest road the past two years, playing on two woefully bad teams in Windsor and Soo, and it's obvious that he is thriving in the situation he currently finds himself in. The guy cares about nothing else but winning and the fans are behind him completely and 100%, knowing that they finally might have a special player in net.
Campbell stopped all 30 shots he faced in this game for his first pro shutout, getting tested more and more as the game wore on. Campbell's mechanics are nearly flawless and his best attribute is his ability to move laterally and cover the ice while scrambling. He also has a quick and confident glove and is adept at directing rebounds to the corners off big shots from distance.
Where you could see him get into trouble is that this confidence and aggression in the crease could lead to him getting out of position at times, although this never happened in the game we watched. He was incredible for most of the game and his ability to recover and maintain position when the puck is moving around the slot was the strongest part of his game.
Campbell also made one of the most impressive saves I've ever seen from a goaltender, going full splits post-to-post in order to make a big save on a wraparound.
Campbell has quickly become a cult hero in Austin and the fans absolutely adore him. They were chanting his name after the game and giving tremendous roars everytime a save was made. What's going to help with his popularity is how he's embraced the fans, as he wanted nothing more after the game than to sign autographs for those who waited afterwards.
It was a great weekend and a great experience for those of us who have been following these young players for so long. We got to meet a lot of great people that night and it's apparent that while football may be the most popular sport in Texas, there certainly is a soft spot in this area for hockey as well. It's a great scene for lovers of the sport and there's a lot of support for the franchise as well -- something I never want to see go away.
One final thought: Why is that the Texas Stars have better jerseys than Dallas? Not fair.