Four and a half months ago, the Texas Stars bowed out of the 2013 Calder Cup playoff race at the hands of the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers). After a season of roster turnover and lockout confusion, Coach Willie Desjardins had navigated the club to first place in the conference and expectations were high. Injuries were the downfall of the roster as five of the Stars' top six battled through something or another in the OKC series.
"It matters a lot," said last year's AHL coach of the year, Willie Desjardins, when asked about motivation from last years' playoffs. "Wherever you're at, you play to win, and we should use it as motivation. We had enough good players that we should have found a way to go deeper and we didn't. We have to be better this year."
Texas is lucky to have a solid core group of players returning to the team along with several rookies.
"A lot of teams in the American League don't get a chance to choose which players they have," said Cameron Gaunce, alluding to the AHL rosters often being at the whim of the NHL team. "We're lucky to keep [that core]."
Coach Lidster, who handles the defense, added, "We had a lot of guys with good camps and they are going to bring back that experience and another year under their belt. If you look at guys like Gaunce and Fortunus, they bring us experience."
Also returning is last year's coach of the year, Willie Desjardins, along with assistant coach, Doug Lidster.
Ryan Button, who played with the Eastern Conference champion Providence Bruins last year, sees a lot of similarities between the two top-ranked squads, and it starts with coaching.
"So far what I've seen in practice is that every guy comes to work," he said. "I played against Willie in the Western Hockey League, and he ate us up pretty good every time we played them. He demands players are ready everyday. Guys come to the rink ready to go."
Overall, the team looks to be in strong position, but moves around the division mean that the division crown is anyone's to hoist. Texas will be looking to replace a lot of scoring prowess with the loss of Matt Fraser and Reilly Smith. The two combined for 47 goals and 34 assists last year alone. Newcomers Brett Ritchie and Matej Stransky will be looked to as potential heirs to that scoring crown.
The Texas Stars will play in a 'new' division this season, following this summer's team movement around the league. The Houston Aeros are now the Iowa Wild and leave the Stars' division for the Midwest. In their place, the West Division picks up Abbotsford, British Columbia. This means that Texas, San Antonio and Oklahoma City play in the same division as Abbotsford and Charlotte.
Overall, it's a large division geographically, but one made necessary by the fact that the Peoria Rivermen moved to Utica, NY, instead of Seattle, WA this summer. Seattle would have been an ideal landing spot for the team since their parent is the Vancouver Canucks.
"If you travel a lot, it will wear you down," said Coach Desjardins. "We have to be cognizant of that and watch how we're on the road and our rest time and maybe give some extra days."
Mike Hedden added, "Throwing Abbotsford back in the mix makes for a longer travel day. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. We just want to finish first in our division no matter who's in it."
The Stars return Jack Campbell and Cristopher Nilstorp to Texas for a second straight season. Last year, Nilstorp was arguably the starter for the majority of the season.
"I always like having a #1 goaltender, a guy who carries the majority of it," said Desjardins. "Last year, we were trying to get Nilstorp ready in case he needed to be called up to Dallas so he got a little bit more."
Jack Campbell is in his second year of pro hockey, and while goaltenders admittedly take the longest to develop of any position player, Campbell is really itching to get started. It's a fact underscored by his unfamiliarity with the process of being a healthy scratch during this year's preseason games. He has always been 'the guy' somewhere, and it seems like Desjardins is ready to give him his chance to take the reigns, if he can handle it.
Desjardins commented, "This year it's a little bit more open, and whoever takes it will be the guy."
Either way, both players were fantastic for Texas last year and goaltending looks to be a strength for the team this season. Even in injury cases, the Texas Stars have Josh Robinson and Pat Nagle waiting in the wings in Boise. Both played well in limited time in the preseason and have performed well in their ECHL careers also.
Another identified strength area for the team is defense. Texas Stars GM Scott White has always tried to build squads from the net out and this year's crop is no exception. He gets an obvious boost from the return of Patrik Nemeth, who missed the last half of last season with a concussion, and will look for Jamie Oleksiak to bear a large load.
"We want to see Oleksiak be a dominant player down here," said Desjardins. "He has to take that next step and play 24 or 25 minutes a night for us."
In practice, the two top prospects have been paired together. It was an effective pairing in the midseason last year before the injury.
Another Dallas Stars prospect, Cameron Gaunce, is being looked to as a leader on this defense.
"I think being my fourth year I can really help with some things," said Gaunce. "It being a 76-game season a lot of junior guys or guys out of college might not realize the rigors on travel. The biggest thing is getting them to adjust. Any advice I can give is good."
The defense also returns their captain, Maxime Fortunus, AHL contracted Alaska native, William Wrenn, and heavy-hitter Hubert Labrie. Newcomers Ryan Button, acquired from Boston in the Seguin trade, and Jyrki Jokipakka round out the roster.
Coach Lidster hasn't settled on pairing quite yet, but it seems certain that Nemeth and Oleksiak will be paired. The Stars defense isn't looking to change their schemes too much, but some items from Lindy Ruff's training camp have trickled down to Cedar Park.
"We aren't going to give them as much time and space," said Gaunce. "There's an emphasis on getting on them."
The biggest question marks exist in the forward corps, filling the holes left by some top scorers and some gritty grinders. Of course, the aforementioned trades of Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser put a dent in the scoring potential of the top six. Leading scorer from a year ago, Colton Sceviour does return and will likely line up with Stars all-time leading assist man, Travis Morin, and Curtis McKenzie in the top six.
"We're still trying things out and we hope those are good combinations," said Desjardins. "You need to see the games to see what sort of chemistry there is. We don't have a lot of time but that's true for everyone."
One line combination that does not need tweaking is AHL contracted players Justin Dowling and Mike Hedden. The two combined to make a star out of anyone who was their third and put up quite a few important points in the meantime themselves.
"Obviously we're familiar with each other from playing last year," said Hedden. "We had some chemistry, and we hope we can start off how we finished last year."
Alex Chiasson was their most common linemate during last season. In the playoffs and late season, Brett Ritchie filled that role and is expected to again this year.
"[Ritchie is] a big body and has a terrific shot," said Lidster of defending against Ritchie. "He's learning to play at the pace expected in the AHL and NHL. Players like that are a challenge. You have to take away time and space because you can't beat them physically."
After those two lines, things get murky. A few rookies and younger players who need to stake their claim to a role make it a tough call for the coaching staff in the early going. Rookie Matej Stransky has been playing on lines with Toby Petersen and sniper Austin Smith could be the third on that line.
"Stransky is talented and has a lot of natural goal scoring ability," said Toby Petersen. "The goal will be to get him the puck often and see what he can do.