Here it comes. Are you ready?
This is not the same team that won the Calder Cup in June.
I don't say this as an insult to the current team or its staff or anything. It's just a fact that the fans are going to have to get used to. Comparisons are inevitable. That's the basis of sport. That's how we decide whether the Cowboys in the 1990s or the Patriots in the 2000s were the better NFL team. Sport is all about comparison, so I get that.
So then let's do this. Let's make the comparison. One of the big complaints I keep seeing is that Coach Laxdal inherited a Calder Cup winning team and all he had to do was put it on auto-pilot and it will win another. Did he inherit a Calder Cup winning team though?
In the interest of factual discourse, here is the lineup from Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals against St. John's last June. I have bolded all the players that are still with the team. Asterisks for Morin and McKenzie as we just don't know if they could ever return.
Curtis McKenzie - Travis Morin -Brendan Ranford
Scott Glennie - Chris Mueller - Dustin Jeffrey
Mike Hedden - Justin Dowling - Brett Ritchie
Kevin Henderson - Radek Faksa - Matej Stransky
Jyrki Jokipakka - Patrik Nemeth
Cameron Gaunce - Jamie Oleksiak
Derek Meech - Maxime Fortunus
Josh Robinson, Hubert Labrie, Alex Guptill, Branden Troock, Derek Hulak, Taylor Vause, William Wrenn, Ludwig Byström, Philippe Desrosiers, Taylor Peters (scratched)
John Klingberg, Toby Petersen (injury)
Let's just start with forwards. If we don't even discuss Morin and McKenzie (let alone Colton Sceviour), the combination of Hedden, Mueller and Jeffrey was good for a combined goal per game on average in both the regular season and the playoffs. If you add in Morin and McKenzie, who are currently not in the lineup but could be back anytime, those three combine for 1.7 goals per game. The 13-14 Stars were at the top of the league in goal scoring and the 14-15 edition now lacks these five scorers and ranks 19th in the league scoring numbers.
Dallas saw the good thing that Texas had going on defense and called up Oleksiak, Nemeth, Klingberg and Jokipakka. After the trade of Sergei Gonchar and the waiver for Kevin Connauton, the Texas Stars have just two defensemen on Dallas contracts: Cameron Gaunce and Julius Honka. Oleksiak, Nemeth, Klingberg and Jokipakka are all waiver exempt and would have been placed in the AHL if they weren't ready. Clearly Dallas believes they are.
(Side note: Behind those two, Troy Vance is the only other Dallas-contracted defenseman in the system. He's on the bottom pairing in Idaho, so everybody better be hoping for good organizational health on the blue line.)
In net, while Nilstorp was not the backup solution that Dallas needed, he was stellar in Texas. Across the entire season, he was rock solid, stopping pucks with a .918 save percentage in both regular season and the playoffs. Jack Campbell has stumbled to start the season while his European counterparts have actually performed very well, earning eight of the Stars' ten wins on the year.
Now back to the lineup comparison. Here is the lineup from Saturday's game against Charlotte.
Greg Rallo - Radek Faksa - Brendan Ranford
Brett Ritchie - Justin Dowling - Scott Glennie
Gemel Smith - Jesse Root - Matej Stransky
Branden Troock - Taylor Peters - Taylor Stefishen
Cameron Gaunce - Maxime Fortunus
Derek Meech - Julius Honka
William Wrenn - Connor Hardowa
Morin, Rynnas, McKenzie, Jokipakka (call up)
Hulak, Scott Valentine, Henderson (injury)
Noticing any issues here to the supposed offensive juggernaut you had pictured in your mind? The only line that is close to intact is the Dowling-Ritchie line, which added Glennie, who was cast off from the Mueller-Jeffrey line when they both left the organization.
The first line was essentially the third line a few weeks ago when Faksa and Rallo joined Henderson for shutdown checking line duty. Brendan Ranford was abandoned by McKenzie and Morin as they were recalled to Dallas.
The bottom six is not representing the same scoring depth that last year's squad had. Saturday's bottom six has a total of four goals on the season; half of them from Matej Stransky.
This brings us to a quote that Coach Laxdal gave after last Saturday's loss to Charlotte. It's riled a lot of fans, but I think, given the context that I've just provided above, you can understand what's going on in this quote:
"I was ticked off at a few guys with the effort they were putting in. You have to develop urgency early in the game. When you've got your top guy throwing backhand saucer passes through the seam, that's not going to be very productive for us. These are habits for these guys that have been in place for 4 or 5 years. We have guys on our team that want to revert to old habits."
Laxdal stayed general, using terms like "top guys" to refer to the players he was displeased with. Specifically, Laxdal pointed out that players were not going hard to the net to create opportunities and many were reverting to old habits that had previously been masked by the team's overall depth of scoring. He added, "In order to put a winning streak together, everyone has to be on the same page."
Even without the personnel changes, you've got your top guys not bearing down the way you want and the bottom six guys unable to contribute at the same clip as you had last year.
It's OK to want more. It's OK to demand better. You better believe no one in the Texas Stars locker room is happy with their place in the standings, least of all Coach Laxdal.
But let's stop saying that this is the same team that won the Cup last year. Demonstrably, it is not.
Charlotte Tops Texas 3-1 as "Old Habits" Dog Stars
Another back-to-back against Charlotte yielded the same result as Texas dominated the first game and got stopped up in the second, losing for the first time in a week Saturday against the Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes). Drew MacIntyre was on his game as both teams trotted out the same starters in net for a rematch of last night's contest. Despite MacIntyre's phenomenal play, Coach Laxdal was looking at his team, specifically his skill players, when assessing the loss.
"I was ticked off at a few guys with the effort they were putting in," said Laxdal bluntly postgame. "You have to develop urgency early in the game. When you've got your top guy throwing backhand saucer passes through the seam, that's not going to be very productive for us.
"It's funny how we have to go after the same guys. I benched a couple guys early in the second period to get something going."
Greg Rallo, who scored in the game, agreed that more was needed from the team, "We had enough chances to win the game but we didn't bear down on those chances. We made a push but overall it wasn't good enough."
Rallo, who had Coach Laxdal in Idaho in 2007-08, expanded on how the coach gets his message across, "He gives you a message and gives it to you directly. He tells you where you need to pick up your game and at the same time shows us the positives to create a positive community."
With their leading scorer recalled to the NHL and a flu bug ravaging the dressing room, it's been a steady drumbeat for the Stars to increase 'secondary scoring' to win games. Texas needed goals from someone other than the usual suspects and got just that tonight in a 3-1 win over the visiting Charlotte Checkers.
"For us, it was a good two points," said Coach Laxdal. "With the transition of players we've gone through in sickness, it was good to see other guys step up for us tonight.
"You have to have secondary scoring. We asked a lot of our younger players to step up, and it was a great night for them to step up. "
Branden Troock scored his first career AHL goal, and Matej Stransky potted his second goal of the year as Drew MacIntyre faced 40 shots from the Texas offense.
"We had quite a few shots," said Troock. "You have to keep going, peppering the goalie. Eventually the bounces are going to go."
While there were definitely a fewer finer points that the Stars will want to clean up for tomorrow's game, it was one of the most complete games the Stars have played all season. The penalty kill was stellar, shots against were scant, and scoring came from multiple different lines. Coach Laxdal called the 0/7 power play unlucky as they rang a few posts in the game and could not convert on a 6 minute long stretch of power play time in the first. Overall, however, it was a good building block game for a team needing positive momentum.
With the win, the Stars strung together three wins for the first time since the opening three games of the season. Anders Lindback has backstopped them all and will go again tomorrow.
The Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers) had won eight straight coming into the Cedar Park Center tonight and were looking to add a ninth at the expense of the host Texas Stars. Depth scoring activated for the Stars as Jesse Root got his first AHL tally, William Wrenn potted his first of the year, and Taylor Peters had some key faceoffs to help make those goals happen.
"We've been working so hard as a fourth line," said Taylor Peters. "We've had chances, but we haven't been able to contribute offensively. There's a lot of pressure on us to develop that trust with Laxdal and let him play us more. It was nice to have it rewarded offensively."
Coach Laxdal added, "You need to have some secondary scoring. They stepped up for us tonight to take some pressure off the top six."
The Stars chased OKC goalie Richard Bachman from the net with four goals on fourteen shots in the first 26 minutes. It was the first time a Barons goalie has been pulled all season.
"They're a very offensive hockey club and they can strike quickly," said Laxdal of the Barons. "We got to Bachman tonight and got some traffic on him early. We had a good start, getting the first goal. I liked what I saw from the group and our fourth line tonight. It's a pretty solid win."
On the other side of the ice, Anders Lindback had arguably his best game for the Stars organization, stopping 34 of 35 shots against him. Lindback was active with his glove hand, putting a quick stop to a lot of Barons' offensive chances.
The Week Ahead
Texas plays a 3-in-3 this weekend, their second of the season. They will only play three this year total and the final one is the weekend after next.
The Stars will hit three separate arenas in three days starting Friday against the Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks). Saturday will find them in hockey Mecca against the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs). On Sunday, they will take a trip south to visit the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens).
Kevin Henderson should return from his time off due to a hand infection this weekend. With the Stars taking an extra day off this week, it is hoped that's enough to stem the tide of the locker room flu bug that had kept Derek Hulak out of the lineup and put Jack Campbell in the backup role over the past two weeks.