The Texas Stars (0-0-0-0, -- pts, #-- Western) opened training camp last week and will see their first regular season game coming this weekend against the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers). For Texas and the AHL, it has been a dynamic offseason. I'll go over some of the changes, preview each position briefly and talk about this past weekend's preseason contests.
Taking over for the newly minted Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan is Jeff Pyle, formerly of the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators. Pyle brings a strong track record of winning and a knack for special teams, especially the power play, to Texas. Joining him behind the bench to replace Paul Jerrard is Jeff Truitt, formerly of the San Antonio Rampage.
Playoff and schedule changes
The AHL itself saw a few changes in the offseason. Former Western Conference competitor the Manitoba Moose moved to St. John's and became the IceCaps when the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. To accommodate the move, the Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes) moved to the Western Conference.
Several scheduling and playoff format changes were made as well. The AHL will only play 76 games per team this season, down from 80 in previous seasons. In addition to this, teams will no longer play four games in five nights, though dreaded three games in three day stretches are still on the schedule. The playoff format switches to mirror the NHL with the top 8 teams in each conference making the cut and the divisional leaders getting the top three seeds. The first round of the playoffs has also been shortened to best of five instead of seven.
More on changes in the AHL, as well as full previews of each position and recap of preseason games inside...
The AHL Training Camp Process
Training camp is a little different for AHL teams than NHL teams. Most AHL teams don't receive their NHL guys until the last few days before the roster deadline so preseason games are played mostly with guys on tryouts who may or may not make the roster. For Texas this year, it is extremely unlikely for any tryout players to make the roster with the high number of assignments from Dallas. In a normal year, an AHL club might pick up one or two players on a tryout contract for the season. Travis Morin and Greg Rallo are good examples of players who were found this way. For the record, after two 25-game tryouts, a player must either be signed to a standard contract or released.
Most of the players at an AHL training camp have deals somewhere else in professional hockey. Many, as a part of their contract to a team in the ECHL or CHL, stipulate that the team find them an AHL training camp to attend. As a part of the affiliation agreement, Texas picks up many of these guys who will be playing in Idaho or Allen this year on tryouts in training camp. Many of them will become emergency callups later in the year when injuries occur in Dallas or Texas. While you may not recognize the names, Kael Mouillierat and Dave Bonk were good examples of this for Texas last year.
Goaltending (Full Preview)
The core of the players from last year returns to the Cedar Park Center for another year. Goaltenders Richard Bachman and Tyler Beskorowany will mind nets for the second year as Bachman continues to make his case to replace Andrew Raycroft in the backup role in Dallas next year.
Defense (Full Preview)
The Texas defense returns a lot of players from last year. Every single player expected on the Texas defense is signed to an NHL deal, which is a big deal after three regulars from last year were not. The main question for this defense is who goes to Idaho and who stays as the seventh man in Texas. Your likely pairings will be Brad Lukowich and Philip Larsen, Dan Spang and Jordie Benn, and Maxime Fortunus and Brenden Dillon. This leaves Jace Coyle and Hubert Labrie. Coyle played in all three preseason games this weekend and Labrie got into two. Jace scored a power play goal and an assist while Labrie recorded no stats, but it's anyone's guess as to who stays and goes at this point.
Forwards (Full Preview)
Texas had a lot of churn on offense, losing Greg Rallo (Florida Panthers), Aaron Gagnon (Winnipeg Jets) and Sean Backman (New York Islanders) as well as Texas signee Cody Chupp. here are some extremely rough lineups for opening night, assuming that Scott Glennie is healthy and Tomas Vincour is assigned.
Tomas Vincour - Travis Morin - Francis Wathier
Matt Fraser - Scott Glennie - Ondrej Roman
Colton Sceviour - Mathieu Tousignant - Raymond Sawada
Luke Gazdic - Ryan Garbutt - Eric Godard
You'll notice of course that Godard is sort of smashed into the lineup awkwardly. At this point, I don't know where Coach Pyle will place him. Is his role more offensive in the AHL, or does he go with the pugilism? That remains to be seen.
Stars Drop Three Preseason Tilts
Texas played a total of three preseason games this past weekend, losing all three. The Stars iced a tryout-heavy lineup all three nights with few roster players. Some of the younger players such as Dillon, Labrie, and Coyle did get extended time.
Texas fell 4-0 in Cedar Park on Friday to the San Antonio Rampage (Florida Panthers), 3-2 in OT at San Antonio and 3-2 in a shootout on Sunday against the Houston Aeros (Minnesota Wild). Matt Fraser looked great with the puck, setting up a Tyler Arnason goal in Sunday's game. Brenden Dillon was solid as well, even notching a fight against Houston. Jordie Benn has matured surprisingly well also, with the younger blue liner seeing time in two of the three games and wearing the captain's C in the first. He looked strong and confident in his play, surely bolstered by his time in Dallas.
The Week Ahead
Texas continues training camp this week as they work to integrate the players from Dallas into Coach Pyle's system. "We need to get everything to be second nature so that when we're in a live game, everyone knows where to go and what to do," said defenseman Dan Spang. "We've got a lot of guys that just came down today and they're going to get a lot of systems stuff thrown at them."
Texas opens the season on Sunday in Cedar Park against the Oklahoma City Barons.
Not counting an injury to Scott Glennie keeping him in Dallas, the Texas Stars are without injury to start the season.