On Thursday night I had the chance to attend Game 1 between the Texas Stars and the Oklahoma City Barons, which the Stars lost 2-1 just 90 seconds into overtime. It was a tough, hard-fought game that the Stars controlled for most of the contest, yet two defensive turnovers doomed Texas on both goals.
During the game my focus was on a specific set of players moreso than the actual game itself; I spent a lot of time watching players away from the puck rather than paying attention to the big picture. However -- before I get to my individual observations of the Stars prospects -- I did have some general thoughts on what I saw from the team.
First, it was painfully obvious that the Stars are missing Travis Morin. The 29-year old center never got much of a shot in the NHL or with Dallas, but he's certainly the best playmaking forward the Texas Stars have at this point. He led the team with 32 assists in the regular season in what was a bit of an injury-riddled season, and he's consistently been their top performer the past few seasons.
Morin, who took a puck to the face in the first round against Milwaukee, was not able to play on Thursday night and hopefully could be back on Saturday. Without him, the Stars simply do not have enough speed and offensive awareness to really drive the offense through the middle of the ice. Alex Chiasson and Scott Glennie were certainly effective at center in this game, and at times impressive in that role, but you could certainly tell there was something missing.
Brett Sonne, who filled in for Morin on the top line between Matt Fraser and Colton Sceviour, is not up to the task of replacing what Morin brings to this team.
The Stars generated 35 shots on goal yet had no shots in the final six or seven minutes of regulation and none in overtime. Most of the pressure came from the outside and while there were some pushes up the middle, there just wasn't enough space in front of goaltender Yann Danis to generate the sort of offensive chances this team needed -- especially when allowing just two goals against a very skilled Barons team.
"I thought there might be a little more open ice," said CoachWillie Desjardins. "You have to get more shots from the middle. We had some good chances that didn't go. We have to get more from our power play."
Yes, the power play was downright atrocious. That was certainly the biggest issue on the night. I thought the Stars played a good team game but the inability to take advantage of the chances they did produce ultimately doomed them as they allowed the Barons to hand around too long.
The winning goal came just 90 seconds into overtime, when Matt Fraser made a horrible decision with the puck in his own zone. Taking the puck behind his goal and into the near corner, Fraser had both of his defensemen on his side of the ice and the Stars beginning to move up the ice in transition. For some reason, Fraser decided to blindly swing the puck back behind his net and to the far corner -- where only a Barons player was waiting. The ensuing scramble to recover defensively led to Anton Lander beating Kevin Connauton to the net and tipping in a Toni Rajala pass to win the game.
Okay, on to some observations I made on made on specific players throughout the game. Remember, this is just a one-game scouting report so nothing is really indicative of longer-term success or failure.
Here were the lines and pairings for the game for reference:
The Stars now have Alex Chiasson playing center between Justin Dowling and Mike Hedden, and that line was by far the most impressive on the night for Texas. Chiasson playing exclusively at center seems to be a relatively new occurrence, although he was taking faceoffs for Texas earlier in the season, and it's interesting to see how his skill set translates to such a different role.
When he was up in the NHL, Chiasson was impressive because of his ability to play hard along the boards, to smartly move the puck and to get to the net in almost perfect position to score goals. That he was playing with Jamie Benn and Ray Whitney was a big factor for his success, but there's something to be said that allowing him to simplify his game in such a manner was a big reason he scored so many goals with Dallas.
At center, Chiasson plays a very different game. While he's still a hard charging, physical forward the drive to the net isn't there -- instead, he's feeding Dowling and Hedden, two players certainly capable of burying the puck. The line worked exceptionally well off the cycle but also found some good space off the rush at times.
So...are the Stars looking for a permanent move to center for Chiasson? It's doubtful, although there's certainly something to be said about his versatility and ability to be strong in the faceoff circle when needed.
Not a whole lot to say about Joe Morrow, and that's a good thing in this context. He finished with just one shot on goal, but he wasn't asked to provide the offense in this game. Paired with Maxime Fortunus and moved over to the left, Morrow was forced to stay back and not activate as much as he'd probably like to because of the limitations of Fortunus -- whose foot speed is certainly holding him back at this point.
I didn't notice any defensive issues and he certainly played hard in his own zone. There were a few times where he was aggressive, carrying the puck into the zone and generated a few chances with such a play. I'd like to see what Morrow can do with a defensive partner similar to Brenden Dillon; Fortunus was not horrible, but it's clear what his limitations are at this point in his career.
Speaking of which, the lone goal scored by the Barons in regulation came with Fortunus, Morrow and the Chiasson line on the ice. Fortunus attempted to clear the puck off the high glass in the zone and the Stars had already begun vacating when the puck hit a stanchion and literally went backwards back into the zone; that created all sorts of a defensive mess and the Barons promptly scored.
Ritchie continues to remind me of James Neal, which is both good and bad. In this game, Ritchie played with Scott Glennie as his center, finished with two shots on goal and I counted five total shot attempts. We'll get to Glennie shortly, but it's clear that Ritchie needs a center better capable of feeding him the puck to really get the space he needs, although he was much better in the OHL at creating his own space and offense than what I saw last night.
This could just be a matter of Ritchie adjusting to the AHL after a long season in the juniors and I'm really not that too concerned. The skill is obviously there; in the third period, Ritchie came close to putting the Stars ahead with a dastardly inside-out move that literally put a defenseman on the ice before unleashing a wicked backhand that missed the top shelf of the net by about two inches.
I was impressed by Glennie in this game, I'm not even going to lie. Glennie didn't have a shot on goal in the game, however, which is entirely indicative of the sort of role he's embraced now in the AHL. It's odd to say this, but the line of Glennie, Ritchie and Reilly Smith were much more of a "grinding" line than I imagined they would be, with Glennie making some exceptionally strong plays on the puck both in space and along the boards.
Glennie worked his butt off in this game and showed some decent playmaking ability as a center, and certainly was looking to feed Smith and Ritchie throughout the game -- they just never seemed able to really connect. What stood out to me was that Glennie's foot speed wasn't what I expected it to be and it showed -- while Smith and Ritchie could generate some good space, Glennie was never able to find the true separation he needed to cash in on the chances he was helping create.
The line was also used in a "checking" role, if you could call it that, although it's impossible for me to really determine how that line was deployed unless I was tracking zone starts through the game -- which I wasn't. Still, I was overall impressed with Glennie and just how strong he was on the puck.
Glennie was also a willing shot blocker and had the best defensive play of the game in the third period -- with the Barons cycling the puck, Nilstorp worked himself out of position and effectively scrambled his way completely out of the net. With Nilstorp on his stomach and almost fully out of the crease, Glennie went into a butterfly in net and made a brilliant stop on what would have been a wide-open goal for the Barons.
Is he ready for the NHL? Could he fill a third or fourth line role next season at center? It's certainly possible. I was encouraged.
Not much to say here that we didn't already know from his time in the NHL. Smith had three shots on goal and generated the most chances off the rush of any player on the team, but just couldn't seem to finish. He also nearly fed Ritchie a goal with a brilliant pass across the crease, yet Ritchie was unable to get his stick down for the tap in goal.
Smith has the puck skills and there were several times he took the pill through two or three defenders on his way to the net. Yet he still gets knocked off balance way, way too often and too often loses battles along the boards. If he can add some good core strength this summer, and continue adding muscle, he could really be poised to break out next season.
Real quick note here on Oleksiak -- if he can play in the NHL like he does in the AHL, he's going to be one hell of a defenseman for the Dallas Stars. He's aggressive, he's physical, he can move the puck smartly and he has a rocket of a shot from the point. His defensive awareness, combined with his long reach, led to several outstanding plays in his own zone.
Cameron Gaunce and Kevin Connauton
Gaunce and Connauton were both acquired at the trade deadline and both arrived in Texas at just about the same time. They were paired together almost immediately and that continuity has allowed the two to become the top defensive pairing for the Stars fairly quickly, and for good reason.
Both compliment the other almost perfectly. Gaunce plays a very similar type of game to that of Brenden Dillon, albeit without the physical edge and size. He's positionally sound up and down the ice and I did not see one poor decision with the puck. He's capable of moving the puck effectively and never seems to hurry a decision in his own zone. He's not as aggressive a skater as Dillon or Trever Daley might be, but he certainly embodies the two-way play that both have become known for.
What really impressed about Gaunce was just how sound he was defensively, as both he and Connauton made several smart plays against the rush and never seemed to show much panic with the puck on his stick. Was Gaunce special in any way? Perhaps not, but he wasn't supposed to be. He was the backbone in this pairing, which is exactly what he needed to be.
Which brings me to Connauton. The defenseman, acquired from Vancouver in the Derek Roy trade, has quickly become somewhat of a mythical figure. He leads the Stars in scoring in the postseason and in 14 games since arriving in Austin, he has four goals and six assists with 26 shots on goal. He's always been known as an offensively-minded defenseman but the numbers never really seemed to live up to that (Gaunce has better stats in the AHL), so we have to wonder if this is a fluke.
Let it be known, Connauton was the best player on the ice last night for Texas. Perhaps the change of teams really helped him find his groove, perhaps being paired with Gaunce is the magic ingredient, but Connauton was incredibly impressive up and down the ice and showcased skills that the Stars desperately need in Dallas sooner than later.
Connauton is an exceptional puck-handler and several times effortlessly weaved his way up the ice through defenders and through defenders, and while he doesn't have the best size for a defenseman he's stronger on the puck than I expected. That booming shot was never fully uncorked on Thursday night, which was a shame, but you can see he has the accuracy and awareness of just how to get his shot from the point through traffic and to the net.
Here's where Connauton really stands out, however -- passing. His first pass out of the zone is crisp and accurate and nearly always the right decision. He makes that decision very quickly as well; there's no hesitation when he's in his own zone about where he's going with the puck. He was also never really outworked along the boards, from what I saw, which was apparently something he's struggled with at times.
He has an absolute laser of a pass and it's accurate. In the offensive zone, he's adept at quickly changing the point of attack and finding the open ice and showed the sort of passing from the blue line that the Dallas Stars were certainly missing this past season, aside from Goligoski's contributions.
I had heard from Texas fans that Connauton is sometimes an adventure in his own zone, with Gaunce his security blanket, so perhaps this was an outlier for him rather than the norm. I was looking for defensive breakdowns and never really saw those sort of issues; I paid attention as close as I could and did not see a single giveaway or turnover from Connauton in the game.
Now, there's a great big caveat with Gaunce and Connauton. Both are 23 years old and both are in their third season in the AHL. They should be expected to look the best out on the ice at this point, especially considering their pedigree as prospects, so it's not like we're talking about two young phenoms ready to take the NHL by storm.
Not once in this game did either really face what could be called a heavy forecheck, and I've yet to see them face one in the games I've caught online. Both did take some big, big hits in the game that left both shaken up a bit -- but each time the puck was still moved along effectively. Can Gaunce and Connauton be effective in the NHL in a more physical Western Conference? Tough to say at this point.
Both defensemen will have to pass through waivers next season if they are sent back to the AHL after training camp, if they both survive what could be a trade-heavy summer for the Stars. No matter what, Nieuwendyk certainly should be commended for acquiring what appears to be a vastly improved defensive core for the Dallas Stars organization.