2014 Calder Cup Finals: Texas Stars Coach Willie Desjardins Talks AHL Playoffs, Praises Radek Faksa

Texas Stars

The Texas Stars coach had plenty of great things to say about several young Dallas Stars prospects, while also discussing his team's path to the Calder Cup Finals.

For the second time in just five years the Texas Stars have made it to the Calder Cup Finals, this time led by a much different coach and a much different roster as the Dallas Stars'affiliate attempts once more to be claim the top spot in the AHL.

In 2010, in just the first season ever for the new franchise, Glen Gulutzan coached a veteran-heavy team that also featured a young Jamie Benn all the way to the Cup Finals before finally losing to the Hershey Bears. It was a surprising run at the time for the team and it showcased what Gulutzan was able to do with a team that featured a group of solid players without a true offensive star (until Benn arrived for the postseason). That run helped fuel a fortuitous five years for Texas as one of the premier franchises in the AHL, even as massive changes were being made to the roster.

With the AHL team also serving as a developmental team of sorts for the Dallas Stars, as the NHL franchise has reworked and restocked the organization's prospect pool the AHL roster has gradually seen a shift away from the veteran-heavy roster to a younger, more raw group of players -- many of which could likely end up in the NHL in the next few years.

Willie Desjardins, who was hired as the Texas coach after two years as an assistant in Dallas, has been nothing short of amazing in his two seasons in Cedar Park. The former WHL head coach has been instrumental in not only leaded the Stars to the top spot in the Western Conference two seasons in a row but also overseeing the continued development and growth of a number of young and promising players.

Speak with any young Dallas Stars player that came through the AHL team the past two seasons and they'll all tell you just how much Desjardins helped them grow their game. Cody Eakin, Brenden Dillon, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt all credit the Texas coaching staff for helping take their game to the next level, while his past season Patrik Nemeth was able to seamlessly step into the NHL playoffs thanks in large part to the efforts of the coaching staff down in Cedar Park.

It's no surprise, then, that Desjardins and assistant coach Doug Lidster has been able to lead a young and talented team to the Calder Cup Finals. The veteran coach is quick to praise the play of his young players and credits them for the team's success so far in the postseason.

"All of our young players have played real well," says Desjardins. "It's hard to single out one player because all of them have played well at different times. They've all contributed and we wouldn't be where we are without them.

"If I could just go through the lineup, in no particular order...McKenzie has been real good all year, he's played well in the playoffs, he plays hard. He's just a gritty player with some pretty good skill. Ranford has come in, he was really good early in the first two series...he's cooled off a little bit, but for a young player to step up and play on the top line he's done a great job. Dowling has been real good, it's good to have him back. Ritchie has been real good....and those guys you don't even think of as young players, they've played so much with us."

Desjardins praised Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrkki Jokipakka as well for the defensive play during the postseason as well as their offensive potential, before circling back to talk about a couple of forwards that have had a big impact this postseason.

"[Radek] Faksa has stepped up," said Desjardins. "For coming out of junior and into the playoffs, he's done real well. [Matej] Stransky has been really, really well since Christmas. Before then I think he struggled a bit but he's played very well since then."

One young player that many Dallas Stars fans have focused on is center Radek Faksa, who struggled at times in juniors to live up to the expectations of a top-15 draft pick.  A couple of injuries, a trade to a new team and lackluster offensive numbers had many concerned about the actual potential of a player once touted as being nearly NHL ready heading into the draft.

Coming to the AHL after his junior season ended, Faksa has taken on new life in the postseason and is now playing a key role for the Texas Stars on a fourth line that has caused all sorts of troubles with opposing teams.

"He's got more offense than he's shown in juniors," said Desjardins when asked about the young center. "He's made some really good plays at this level..he's been really good. I think that was a question for him coming out of the juniors, I do think he had a few questions but he's answered them. I think everyone in Dallas just be really happy with him because he can play. He's a really good, high-end player."

Watching Faksa in the postseason it's clear he's quickly become very comfortable with the higher level of play of the NHL, and it could be that after a couple of years of struggles in the OHL the young Czech center just needed a bit more of a structured game to really find his way again. Faksa has lived up so far to his reputation at the draft of a skilled two-way center who is strong defensively with some great offensive instincts.

"Whatever the reason is, he's been really solid with us," said Desjardins. "He's really good defensively, which enables me to play my fourth line more. At the same time, he's created a lot of offensive chances as well. When he came in, did I think I would play him this much or use him in any big situations? No, I didn't. I thought, for him, just him getting into a game or two would have made me happy. He's certainly exceeded all expectations."

Another player that has exceeded expectations, even for those that had high hopes for him already, is defenseman Patrik Nemeth. A few unfortunate injuries his first two seasons in the AHL perhaps delayed his jump to the NHL, but when he arrived the big Swede was nothing short of impressive while jumping onto the ice in an NHL postseason series.

"The biggest thing about Nemeth is how bad he wants to be a player," said Desjardins, when asked about the young defenseman. "He works on his game all the time. He reminds me a bit of Stephane Robidas in how hard he works and how he always wants to get better. He's always trying to figure this or that out. If things are going pretty good for him he doesn't relax or take any time off, he tries and works at his game. It's been great for him, it's paid off. He doesn't just work at his strengths, he works on his weaknesses. He just wants to be a player and that's what really gives him the chance to be successful."

While Nemeth's hard work was certainly a major factor in his impact at the NHL level, it must not be overlooked how the AHL coaching staff has created a system where jumping to the Dallas Stars is a seamless transition for players. All season long players like Dustin Jeffrey, Chris Mueller, Nemeth and Colton Sceviour were able to step right into major roles in Dallas because of how well they were prepared for how the Stars would want to play.

This wasn't always the case, as there were -- at times -- disparate systems in place between the NHL and AHL, which made transition a bit tough for young players. Perhaps it was his experience as an NHL coach before he went to Texas, but it's clear that Desjardins has created an environment where transitioning to the Dallas Stars would be as seamless as possible.

"I think it's a bit of a focus," says Desjardins. "One thing is, we want our players to have success when they go up. We want that for them. Our players have the best chance at being successful when they go up if we're running a similar system. No one has told us we have to run that system but I think for our players to be successful and play well when they go up it helps to have a similar system down here. I think that's the reason we've run similar things."

The Texas Stars begin their second Calder Cup Finals quest on Sunday, with several players on the roster remaining from that 2010 team. Maxime Fortunus and Travis Morin, both veteran leaders on the team, were both young players the first time around and now have a second shot at raising the Cup.

"They have been there before and they knew they wanted to get back," said Desjardins of the veterans. "They've been a really solid group."

The Texas coach was quick to turn back to the younger players, however.

"It's funny when you go through our team," said Desjardins. "We were talking about young guys but I didn't mention Nemeth. I didn't mention Glennie. I didn't mention Peters. Because they're young, but they just don't seem young."

****

The Calder Cup Finals Game 1 begins in Cedar Park on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. CDT. The NHL Network will broadcast the game live, as well as several other games in the series. Here is the full schedule:

Date/Time TV Networks Satellite Radio Web
Game 1 Sun., June 8 at Texas, 8:30 ET Leafs TV
NHL Network (US)
NHL Network Radio AHL Live
Game 2 Mon., June 9 at Texas, 8:30 ET Leafs TV
^NHL Network (US)
-- AHL Live
Game 3 Wed., June 11 at St. John's, 6 ET Leafs TV
^NHL Network (US)
-- AHL Live
Game 4 Mon., June 16 at St. John's, 6 ET Leafs TV
^^NHL Network (US)
NHL Network Radio
(if no NHL game)
AHL Live
*Game 5 Tue., June 17 at St. John's, 6 ET Leafs TV
NHL Network (US)
NHL Network Radio AHL Live
*Game 6 Thu., June 19 at Texas, 8:30 ET Leafs TV
NHL Network (US)
NHL Network Radio AHL Live
*Game 7 Mon., June 23 at Texas, 8:30 ET Leafs TV
NHL Network (US)
NHL Network Radio AHL Live

*if necessary... ^next-day broadcast at 11 am ET... ^^air time TBD

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