It’s the middle of summer. Why not kick around the soccer ball like Jason Dickinson? (Photo by Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars)
We’ve reached the slowest point on the hockey calendar.
Free agency has simmered down (anybody seen Kris Russell lately?), the draft was a month ago, the World Cup is still two months away, and most of the NHL’s big news breakers are enjoying some free time lakeside in Canada right now.
So, what better time to answer some mailbag questions?
The Pacific Division is always going to be the most polarizing division in the AHL. A combination of geography (California plus Arizona) and schedule imbalance (68 games vs. 76) guarantees that.
The off-season moves should also grab league-wide attention.
In Bakersfield, the Condors added veterans Mark Fraser and Taylor Beck, while Tyler Pitlick re-signed with the Oilers. Ontario brought back much of the core from a team that won the Western Conference regular season title and added T.J. Hensick.
You also have the Tucson Roadrunners entering the division, and they should be much improved from last season’s pitiful showing as the Springfield Falcons.
However, the best off-season moves happened down in the Alamo City where the San Antonio Rampage will be greatly improved under new head coach Eric Veilleux. Rocco Grimaldi returns to San Antonio (he was traded for Reto Berra), Trent Vogelhuber brings Calder Cup experience, Mike Sislo and Joe Whitney were added to the fold, and J.T. Compher is coming off a great college career at the University of Michigan.
Speaking of San Antonio, the former Rampage captain (and more recently Texas Stars alternate captain), is still looking for a job this summer. And it’s been quiet on that front, however it’s a near certainty that he won’t be returning to Texas.
Gemel Smith, Cole Ully, and Remi Elie are three prospects at slightly different phases of development.
Smith, 22, is a in the final year of his entry-level contract and is playing for a contract this season. The center needs a big campaign to earn his qualifying offer as an RFA, otherwise the Stars will likely let him walk next summer.
Ully, 21, is coming off his rookie season in the AHL and dealt with a season-ending collarbone injury this past spring. Ully may have a smaller frame, and that was exposed against more physical teams, but he’s a natural finisher and is at the right place at the right time in the offensive zone. He should get more opportunities this season, and he fits the high-flying model the Stars plan to build around in the future.
Elie, also 21, is in a similar spot to Ully but has different adjustments to make. While Ully has to find a way to physically compete in the AHL (and later the NHL), Elie has the size and abilities to be an NHL player. However, the left winger needs to mature mentally and establish some consistency. Last season he was one of the last cuts from NHL training camp, but then struggled and never really established himself as an AHL player. Rookie struggles tend to be the norm in the AHL — it’s a big jump from major junior to the AHL — so this will be a much better season to judge Elie as a future NHL player.
Of those three players, Elie has the best chance at an NHL future, while Smith is least likely to play an NHL game in his career.
Matej Stransky will be in the group battling for a NHL call-up this season from Texas, but ultimately I don’t think it’s going to happen during the 2016-17 season.
It’s simply a matter of fit and other cards in the deck.
Justin Dowling, Jason Dickinson, and Devin Shore are more versatile call-ups that can play wing or center for the NHL club. Add in the fact Adam Cracknell was signed to compete for an NHL roster spot, and that likely leaves Cracknell or Curtis McKenzie in the AHL and contributing to Stransky’s glass ceiling.
On the goalie front, I think the 2017-18 season is a legitimate target for Maxime Lagace or Philippe Desrosiers NHL debut.
Barring a major injury, the Stars are going to have Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi (or another goalie they trade for at some point) play every game. While a minor injury could result in a call-up for Lagace or Desrosiers this season, both Niemi and Lehtonen are used to a heavy, so one Finn would likely play out the entirety of the others injury.
There’s also a confidence factor in play. While the Stars are happy with the development paths of Desrosiers and Lagace at this moment, neither has proved they’re ready to play an NHL game tomorrow.
I like Texas’ current setup. It’s a group with a couple veterans in place (Travis Morin and Adam Cracknell), but it’s really prospect heavy and will give younger players a chance to step into larger roles.
With prospect-laden squads there are going to be ups and downs, but Texas should be a playoff team and possibly advance to the second round of the playoffs (depending on who the Stars matchup with).
Julius Honka is ahead of the curve. Remember he’s only 20-years-old and most players his age would be entering their AHL rookie season at this point.
The talented Finn has made nice strides the past two seasons in the AHL, and he really started to make better decisions after the Stars scratched him for a game against San Antonio near the middle of the season. That moment really sent a message to Honka, who started moving the puck better and realized he had to be held accountable for his mistakes after watching from the press box.
Honka also isn’t ready for the NHL at this moment. He still needs to improve his decision making, and he needs to earn his first opportunity. Signing Dan Hamhuis is a nice stop gap to allow Honka to “over-ripen” and really take a step as an AHL leader this season.
(On a side note, I disagree with Dallas carrying eight defensemen this season. It’s bad for the group overall and really turns Jamie Oleksiak or Patrick Nemeth into a wasted asset. It would have behooved the Stars to trade either Oleksiak or Nemeth this summer.)
I disagree with this. As mentioned before, there are several forwards close to the NHL.
Matej Stransky, Brendan Ranford, and Justin Dowling could all play NHL games and be trusted to contribute for Dallas tomorrow if needed. These may be closer to 4A players (AHL leaders, that seemingly can’t get over NHL hump), but they’re NHL-ready if Dallas needs them.
If you’re looking for “bonafide” or big-time forward prospects, the Stars have forward prospects Denis Gurianov, Riley Tufte, and Roope Hintz in the system and a couple years from hitting that “over-ripe” stage.
Overall, the Stars forward situation is in good shape. Especially when you consider the NHL roster is built around players just entering their prime (Jamie Benn is only 27, Tyler Seguin is 24).
I think Los Angeles is the perfect situation for Jack Campbell. The former first-round pick needed a fresh start, and he’s going to be given time to find his game with the Kings.
Jonathan Quick is the present and future goalie for the Kings, and Jeff Zatkoff is a nice two-year stop gap as the back-up in LA. That leaves Campbell to work with Peter Budaj — arguably the AHL’s MVP last season — in Ontario, and find his confidence that was lost in Texas.
Campbell is probably going to back-up Budaj this season in Ontario, which will give him time to build for the 2017-18 season. A strong showing in the second year of his contract with the Kings could set up Campbell for a back-up job in the NHL during the 2018-19 season.
Before we close the book on Campbell, I want to point out a couple things. Campbell has the talent to be an everyday NHL goalie — frankly he’s more talented than Maxime Lagace and Philippe Desrosiers. However, something never clicked mentally and he never really found that even-keel level he needed in Texas. Maybe it was the pressure thrust upon him and the 20-20 hindsight that Dallas passed on Cam Fowler, maybe it was his goalie coaching in the Stars organization. Either way, Campbell will have a fresh start with the Kings and at 24 he still has time to piece together an NHL career.
The Stars and Rampage will remain in the Pacific Division until a seventh team makes a drastic move west — likely the Canucks moving their AHL affiliate closer than Utica, New York.
And moving to the Central Division wouldn’t be much of a travel change for the Texas-based AHL clubs. Either way the Stars and Rampage are going to fly for road games (except when they play each other seemingly one thousand times), so where they’re flying isn’t that big of a difference.
I will say this, moving to the Central would allow the Pacific Division to exist in it’s own pod of 68 games. That would create much less confusion in the standings and allow Texas and San Antonio to play teams on even schedule footing.
My ultimate goal is to be a full-time hockey writer, whatever that means. Right now I’m a freelance writer that covers high school football, auto racing, basketball, baseball, etc. If you name the sport, I probably have a story about the time I covered it (I’ve even covered bocce and pickleball at one point in my career).
In an average week I probably write anywhere from 20 to 30 stories for various publications on various topics. I certainly enjoy the variety, but I’m always looking for that opportunity to be a full-time hockey writer and journalist.
Enough about me, back to hockey questions…
I only had a chance to watch Josh Morrisey once in person this season, while I also caught a handful of the Manitoba Moose games on AHL Live (Manitoba has one of the better feeds in the league). I also watched Morrisey live during the 2014 Calder Cup playoffs with the St. John’s IceCaps.
From what I’ve seen, the first-round pick in 2013 lives up to his billing. He moves the puck well and he can start the rush from his own end. He also makes smart decisions on the power play. Morrisey should have had better numbers this season with Manitoba, but the cupboard was close to empty in Winnipeg.
I can’t give an exact judgement since it’s a small sample size, but based on what I’ve seen and heard he should be an NHL defenseman sooner than later.
Earlier this summer I floated the idea that the Stars should sign Michael Leighton as an AHL mentor and NHL insurance option. However, that’s not going to happen.
The Stars are going to live and die with the young goalies they have in the AHL. It’s going to create a competitive atmosphere in training camp, and it should bring the best out of Maxime Lagace, Philippe Desrosiers, and Landon Bow.
No, the Stars are still going to be coached by Derek Laxdal and Karl Taylor. They’ve done a nice job nurturing the Stars development the past two seasons.
Why don’t you live in Chicago or Boston?