The Texas Stars’ season starts Friday. The AHL affiliate for Dallas, the T-Stars have a collection of talent that went to the Calder Cup Final last season. That was on the back of Mike McKenna, a veteran AHL goaltender capable of great things. In the playoffs, McKenna posted a .927 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average.
Travis Morin, like McKenna, is an AHL veteran. He’s been one of the best players in the AHL for the past nine years. He’s never been able to convert his skillset to the NHL, however, but has been at a point-per-game pace or better twice and once scored 88 points in 66 games. He’s coming off 61 points in 75 games from last season and he’ll be back in Cedar Park, Texas this year as the leader of the AHL Stars yet again.
When predicting lines for this upcoming AHL season, Morin was the easiest to place. He’s an excellent center, on a team with a general lack of experience down the middle. He’ll at least start the year on the first line, and he has a good chance of finishing the season there as well. This is what the ideal first line for Texas is at this moment:
Adam Mascherin — Travis Morin — Tony Calderone
Mascherin is a talented winger, one who was drafted twice, once in the second round and then again in the fourth two years later. The Dallas Stars only had to draft him once this year, and he will now play in the AHL. Texas lacks many players who stand a significant likelihood of playing for Dallas. Mascherin might have the best chance of that down the line.
However, Calderone could also stand a significant chance. He’s coming off a 45-point season in the NCAA, playing as one of the best forwards on one of the best teams in the league at the University of Michigan. Calderone is a better goal scorer than playmaker, coming up with a 25 goals and 20 assists split, though that could be a good thing on a line with Mascherin (40 goals and 46 assists for 86 points) and Morin (10 goals and 51 assists). That line needs a finisher, and a good season could make Calderone a candidate for a call up.
Denis Gurianov — Justin Dowling — Nicholas Caamano
Gurianov is a former first round pick who’s had a long path to this point. Last season, he put up just 19 goals and 34 points in his second AHL season, and was used sparingly in the postseason. He’s not had a ton of development, especially with players like Remi Elie, Roope Hintz, and Jason Dickinson playing in front of him. This season should be different, as he’ll look to finally lock down a top six spot in the AHL (and hopefully get on the first unit power play).
Dowling is another veteran center, one who has a good history of AHL scoring. Dowling had 13 goals and 45 points in 65 games last season, and seems like the perfect candidate for the other top six center position for the Texas Stars. He’s another forward on the Texas roster who’s a better playmaker than finisher, but with Gurianov developing as a goal scorer, he is someone who can finish on Dowling’s creative work.
Caamano is the third option on this line as one of the youngest members of the junior Stars. He’s another playmaking wing, someone who can set up creative chances for his teammates to finish. Putting Caamano with Gurianov could help both become better players down the road.
Michael Mersch — Robbie Payne — Joel L’Esperance
Mersch was a member of the Ontario Reign (AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings) last season and put up strong middle-six numbers, with 21 goals and 28 assists in 65 games. So why does he drop all the way to the third line? Because the Stars have an interest in developing their younger talent (Mersch is 26) and putting Mersch here, with Payne and L’Esperance, could help make both of them better. He’s someone who will provide depth scoring no matter the circumstances, so allowing players who show promise a chance to play with a better linemate isn’t a bad idea.
Of the two remaining centers on the Texas roster, Payne is both older and perhaps more AHL ready. Payne was good with Northern Michigan University last season (34 points in 43 games) and shows some promise as a middle six center at this level. Playing with wings like Mersch and L’Esperance can help him get there faster.
L’Esperance came up with the game-winning goal in the second preseason game, scoring in the final 35 seconds. He’s shown a clutch factor in the past, coming off a season with just one goal in nine games, but that one goal was a game winner. He’s another young forward that will need to prove his worth in a full AHL season, but should get a chance with other talented forwards.
Samuel Laberge — James Phelan — Erik Condra
All three of these players have potential, with Laberge and Phelan both being just 21. Phelan is fresh from the Canadian juniors and Laberge played last season split between the AHL and ECHL, though Laberge had just 15 points in the AHL. Phelan was better than a point per game in the QMJHL, but still has a while to go before taking another step forward. Condra is a veteran who has played many NHL games in his career, but has transitioned to the AHL in the second half. He’ll be on production duty, helping to guide the two younger players.
Dillon Heatherington — Gavin Bayreuther
Heatherington and Beyreuther are the two best defensemen on the Texas roster. Beyreuther is a good offensive defenseman, posting seven goals and 32 points in the AHL last year. He was one of the final cuts from Dallas’s preseason camp, and he’ll be the first defenseman called up in case of emergency.
Heatherington is the perfect complimentary piece to Beyreuther. While the latter continues to develop his defensive game, Heatherington is good defensively, and needs to work on his offensive presence. Each of them finds strength where the other finds weakness, and in the AHL, they could be a dominant pairing to start the season.
Joel Hanley — John Nyberg
Hanley is a veteran defenseman, one whom the Dallas Stars thought highly of this preseason. He was also one of the final cuts from preseason camp, and likely stands a good chance at going back up to the NHL at some point. He’s played five games in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes, and did well in the AHL with the Tucson Roadrunners (two goals and 18 assists) last season.
That’s why putting him with a young defenseman in need of leadership might be the best idea. Nyberg is a talented Swedish defenseman who did somewhat well in the SHL last season (13 points) and now needs to make the North American transition. Doing so with Hanley and while playing on the second pairing might be a stress-free way to do so while maintaining some responsibility. It could be a very fine transition for someone Dallas should hope to get use out of.
Reece Scarlett/Ben Gleason — Niklas Hansson
Hansson is a Swedish defensemen who has a decent history in the AHL. He’s a well-rounded defenseman who doesn’t bring a ton of offensive value (just one goal and 11 points in 70 AHL games last season). Hansson can be big and physical in his own end and then is learning to help set up plays in the offensive zone. He’s not top four material, at least not yet.
Scarlett is a defensively-capable offensive defenseman who needs to be a lot better offensively to go higher in this lineup. At 25, it doesn’t look like that’s happening. He relies on skill and speed instead of physicality to play defense, using his stick to get the puck off opponents. He had just one goal and six assists in 44 games with the T-Stars, however, and that’s a problem.
Gleason will get some games this season, but likely not a ton. He’s coming off a 48-point campaign in the OHL and was better in the postseason. He’s got skill, and Texas will explore that this season. But the defensive system is currently crowded, and he’ll have to earn a permanent spot, instead of being gifted one.
The Texas Stars could roll with three goaltenders this year. The team is likely going to give Bow the chance to run the team as the starting goaltender, after two years with them. However, Bow has not given the team much reason to have faith in him. He’s not gotten near a .910 save percentage, even when starting 46 games last season, and he didn’t do that well in the playoffs, either.
Which is where Desrosiers and Point come in. Desrosiers hasn’t had a ton of experience at the AHL level — playing just two games last year — but he did incredibly well in those two games. He’ll earn more of a look this season, and be at least the backup. He could end up splitting starts with Bow this season.
At the same time, while Point is the likely candidate to play games in the ECHL, he was also impressive in the NCAA. He dominated with Colgate University and looks like someone who should be in the AHL sooner rather than later. Bow is on the last year of his ELC and could be a candidate to be traded if he doesn’t improve this season.