The Texas Stars know they've got a big target on their back this season as they start the defense of their first Calder Cup championship this Saturday against the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild).
"You go from being the hunters to the hunted," said new head coach Derek Laxdal. "We have to have that mindset as a group."
The challenge with a team coming off a championship season is that every team will give you their best effort. Another challenge is managing the sense of entitlement that could creep into a group that wants to rest on its laurels. Coach Laxdal is not worried about that with the veteran leadership group that he has in Texas, which includes captain Maxime Fortunus, Travis Morin, Derek Meech, Cameron Gaunce and others.
"Our group of veterans has been outstanding. Usually coming back from a championship season, you get the hangover effect. Guys think they're better than they are. Our group has been outstanding in practice and that sets the tone."
As with any AHL team, Texas is looking to both perform as a team and develop individuals. The Dallas Stars are enjoying the benefits of that pipeline to the NHL right now.
"There's individual expectations for players trying to improve their game and get called up to the Dallas Stars. There's expectations for the organization that we want to be a strong group day by day."
One of the biggest departures for the team is definitely the coaching staff. Willie Desjardins and Doug Lidster are manning the bench in British Columbia for the Vancouver Canucks. They reload in that regard with Derek Laxdal, fresh off a Memorial Cup win with the Edmonton Oil Kings. Karl Taylor is his assistant, and he also has an excellent pedigree from his time with the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.
With the strong roster that Texas returns to the ice and some nice additions, such as rookie Julius Honka, the Stars are keyed up to take another run at the Cup. I would have to say that this season would be considered a disappointment if the Stars did not win the West and represent them in the Calder Cup Finals.
Let's preview each position down the lineup.
Reigning AHL MVP Travis Morin is back. Rookie of the Year Curtis McKenzie is too. So are Brendan Ranford, Justin Dowling, Brett Ritchie, Radek Faksa and a mess of other forwards who grew by leaps and bounds in last year's playoff run. Key subtractions here though include Mike Hedden, who left for the KHL after leading all players in playoff scoring last year (19P in 21GP). Two other large losses include Chris Mueller and Dustin Jeffrey. The two veterans combined for 23 points in the 19 games they played after being sent down to the Texas Stars in late April.
Curtis McKenzie-Travis Morin-Brendan Ranford
This line looks to stay together after being a dynamic group in the playoffs and late season last year. Ranford and Ritchie have been swapping in practice on this line, but it seems likely that Ranford stays on this line given the second line. It's a big season for all three of them. McKenzie is looking to improve on an unexpected RotY season where he scored 65 points.
McKenzie said, "[Lindy Ruff] said to make sure I come back here working really hard, making quick decisions and treat the games here as if I were at the NHL level: moving the puck quickly and working hard around the net."
Morin needs to keep on his game to ensure he absorbs the veteran callup games previously allocated to Chris Mueller and Dustin Jeffrey. Brendan Ranford is on the first year of an entry level contract and needs to continue to show improvement on a solid camp effort.
???-Justin Dowling-Brett Ritchie
The question mark on this line is who replaces the departed Mike Hedden. The chemistry between the now-KHL winger and Justin Dowling was undeniable and a huge open question for this line is how Justin Dowling performs with new linemates. For that reason, I'm predicting Brett Ritchie will stick around on this line. He and Dowling played together since the 2013 playoffs with Hedden.
As to who fills the gap, initially it looked like Scott Glennie was an easy answer. He hasn't played yet in any preseason games for Texas. Coach Laxdal has said he is day-to-day. Veteran AHLer Greg Rallo could also fill that spot, and that's who I think will start the season there.
Matej Stransky-Radek Faksa-Kevin Henderson
The "Czeching" line had a lot of success as a scoring unit and was trusted in defensive situations as well throughout the playoffs. Kevin Henderson is one player Dallas fans may not be familiar with. He is actually property of the Nashville Predators but was assigned to Texas instead of their affiliate, Milwaukee.
Gemel Smith-Taylor Peters-Branden Troock
Anyone who watched the preseason games and the intrasquad scrimmage saw some chemistry in this line. Taylor Peters is the grizzled veteran of the line. He needs to improve his offense this season to become a well-rounded player after having a very successful rookie campaign on defense and on the dots.
For right now, Derek Hulak, an AHL contracted forward out of the Canadian college system, is the healthy scratch. It will probably be a rotation though. He has his name on the cup as he played three games in the playoffs last year on an amateur tryout.
Is this group even fair to other teams? You lose Patrik Nemeth and perhaps Jamie Oleksiak from a stout group but you get to add John Klingberg and Julius Honka. That sounds like a successful reload. A major upshot for this group will be its offense. These pairings aren't in any sort of 1-2-3 order. That's harder to do in the AHL as you try to pair a younger D-man with a veteran.
Jyrki Jokipakka-Cameron Gaunce
This pairing did well through parts of the last season so I see it being a decent set again.
Derek Meech-Julius Honka
Derek Meech appears to be the designated sensei for young Julius Honka. The first-round pick Honka is as raw as they come, but he is clearly talented. He will need to work on letting the puck do the work for him, speeding up his reaction time, and making good reads at high speed.
Maxime Fortunus-John Klingberg
John Klingberg comes to North America after his off-season hip surgery. He is one of those players who can add a scoring punch from the backend. Both players on this pairing will get power play time.
AHL contract William Wrenn is the 7th man and could go to Idaho once Sergei Gonchar is healthy and Jamie Oleksiak heads to Texas.
Cristopher Nilstorp is gone to the SHL's Vaxjo Lakers. Enter Jussi Rynnas, who is a monster of a human being and will share the net with Jack Campbell. It's really up to each goalie to earn their starts, according to Laxdal. It's unclear who will dominate the net this season, but Dallas fans have to hope this is the season that Jack Campbell takes the reins after a statistically impressive but injury-hampered 13-14.
Dallas contracted players in Idaho include goalies Henrik Kiviaho and Maxime Lagace. The two will share the net with ECHL vet Olivier Roy. On defense, Troy Vance will get big minutes in Boise. Ludwig Karlsson was the only forward on Dallas contract to head to Idaho.