The Milwaukee Admirals first game matched-up against the Texas Stars comes with a Saturday afternoon tilt. What’s amusing is that the first real interaction between the two didn’t come on the ice but off of it when Mark McNeill came to the Admirals while Andrew O’Brien and Tyler Kelleher went to the Stars in a mid-season trade.
To get us up to speed on the Texas Stars season I always greatly enjoy reaching out to our friend Stephen Meserve of 100 Degree Hockey to help us get a good feel for what we’re in for. Yet, he gave us a line change in our usual Q&A with staff writer Ryan Pennington to give us his insight on the Stars who will be playing against our Admirals for three of the next five games.
~Q&A with 100 Degree Hockey~
Admirals Roundtable: It’s slightly strange that our first interaction of the season wasn’t on the ice but off of it. What did you think of the trade that sent McNeill out of the Stars organization and sent both O’Brien and Kelleher your way?
Ryan Pennington: With the way the Texas roster was constructed, this was a strategic move by the front office to send out a veteran and recoup some depth players that will spend more time in the lineup. As I will note below, Mark McNeill was effective on the ice, but the surplus of veterans on the Stars roster made it difficult to find him playing time within the AHL rules. O’Brien was a solid addition with Dillon Heatherington likely bound for the NHL full-time at some point. Kelleher appears to be suited for the bottom six, bringing some needed scoring punch to that group. This was a win-win for both teams if McNeill is given playing time.
AR: What did you think of McNeill in his brief spell with the Stars? And how have O’Brien and Kelleher looked in their first few outings with Texas?
RP: McNeill was a fine player for the Stars when he was in the lineup, but was mostly unavailable due to the AHL veteran rule. On the ice he provided a nice experienced presence on the second line and will be an effective player for a club that can utilize him more.
O’Brien and Kelleher’s debuts were underwhelming. The Stars played two games against the Pacific division leading Tucson Roadrunners and lost both. Coach Laxdal mentioned after the first game that he liked O’Brien’s ability to “play big” and the simplicity of his game. Kelleher had a couple of blunders in clearing the zone, one of which was a turnover that led to a goal, and Laxdal pointed them out after the fact. Kelleher’s 5’6” frame likely isn’t well suited for physical defensive play, so the club is intrigued to see what he can produce in the offensive zone. That being said, no one is expecting two depth players to come in and light it up from the jump. If they can play within themselves, they can be solid contributors. It’s on the coaching staff to find the right roles for them.
AR: That said, aside from the trade, the Milwaukee Admirals and Texas Stars are about to get even more familiar with one another. They will play this Saturday afternoon and twice at the end of the month in Texas. How have the Stars looked this season?
RP: The Stars a currently projected to make the playoffs, but you wouldn’t know it on some nights. The seven different injuries to Dallas Star center Martin Hanzal has yanked Jason Dickinson from Cedar Park to Dallas and back several times. Just when the Stars string together strong play over several games, their best player gets called up. It’s an issue with just about every AHL squad, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
This season they’ve really had to outscore their problems. The Stars have won several games 6-5 or something similar. Though Landon Bow has made some leaps in net this year, he’s still a project and has taken his lumps. The projected starter heading into the season was veteran Mike McKenna, but Bow has outplayed him into the starting role. McKenna’s percentage is below .900–something the coaching staff probably didn’t expect. Stars captain and leading scorer Curtis McKenzie sustained an injury before the All Star break that will have him out of the lineup for the next couple of weeks. His absence is noticeable in that they really don’t have many players who can finish plays consistently.
Playoff hopes for the Stars currently rest on their woeful penalty kill improving, getting better versions of Bow and McKenna, and getting contributions from depth players such as their new additions.
AR: What are some of the big storylines for the Stars in 2017-18?
RP: The biggest story is probably the newly minted captaincy of McKenzie. Travis Morin doesn’t wear the “C” anymore, but has handled things graciously. McKenzie is as deserving as they come, and it’s been fun to see him receive accolades such as the All Star invitation.
The other, as previously mentioned, is the seizing of the starting role by Bow. McKenna was a lock to start most of these games, but Bow has taken his job. Goalie coach Jim Bedard has been key in helping the rookie make strides in his game, and there are nights when Bow looks impenetrable. However, as is the case with rookies, he puts up stinkers as well. Stephen wrote a fabulous piece for AHL On The Beat on Bow’s partnership with Bedard.
AR: The Stars recently announced the extension of both head coach Derek Laxdal and assistant coach Karl Taylor. Do you feel both have been guiding the ship and Dallas Stars prospects in the right direction?
Stephen Meserve: This is an interesting question. Texas Stars fans have mixed feelings about the coaching crew in Cedar Park. In terms of developing Dallas Stars, they have been exceptional. With the addition of goalie coach Jim Bedard this season, the crew in Cedar Park is fully armed to make raw draft picks and UFAs into NHL players. And they have done that with Radek Faksa, Devin Shore, Remi Elie, Gemel Smith and several others making their way through Texas under Laxdal and now holding their own in the NHL. Some people have even mentioned Faksa in Selke chatter. That’s a good pedigree!
However, not every Texas fan is a Dallas fan and I don’t know anyone with season tickets to both teams, so the fans want to see exciting, winning hockey in their own arena. In three full seasons, Texas has been bounced from the playoffs in the first round twice and didn’t even qualify last season.
With the Dallas Stars owning the Texas Stars, it’s hard for the NHL club to have any complaints about the AHL team’s performance. The team has been killing their attendance numbers post-holidays, so their play isn’t affecting attendance, which would be the typical issue if the team were independently owned.
AR: It just wouldn’t be one of our Q&A’s ahead of a game without mentioning Travis Morin. I keep awaiting the moment in which he starts to slow down. The goals aren’t there for him this season but he is already well ahead of the amount of assists he had a season ago. How has Morin been in what is his ninth AHL season of his career?
SM: You really can’t not talk about Morin in relation to this team. If I were to have looked at the schedule at the beginning of the season, I would have probably told you I didn’t fully expect Morin to play in this game. My inkling was that he’d be in the running to join Bobby Butler representing Team USA in South Korea. He was even dropped down from an NHL contract to an AHL contract, which would make him an easy pick.
His big assist numbers have partly come from getting the band back together. McKenzie was waived and assigned to Texas at the beginning of the season. McKenzie was named team captain and has been collecting goals and assists ever since. Morin and McKenzie were a dynamic duo in the Calder Cup year, winning the league MVP and rookie of the year trophies, respectively. Morin, of course, also won playoff MVP.
Morin isn’t your top line center every night anymore. He’s even slid out to wing now on occasion. But, he’s a lethal power play operator and still racking up points.
AR: Having watched an up-and-down Admirals season that has started to develop some really tight and high octane games. What sort of Stars team should Milwaukee fans be expecting at this stage of the season?
RP: The Dallas Stars just recalled Dickinson again, so he will be unavailable for the Texas/Milwaukee game. Minus their top two players, with McKenzie still out, they will lean heavily on players like Roope Hintz and Morin to generate scoring. They can still beat any team on most nights. The Stars also got their teeth kicked in by the Roadrunners last weekend, and they have a track record of performing well coming off a tough stretch of play. But you can expect the Admirals to expose them on special teams. The penalty kill just hasn’t been there this season, and the Stars have a penchant for allowing goals within the last minute of periods. The Stars aren’t the most physical of teams and won’t want to play in the mud. You can expect that they will be obliged to play a high octane, up-tempo contest.
As always, cheers to the great people of 100 Degree Hockey for taking the time to chat Texas Stars with us. You can read more from them at their website and do give them a follow on Twitter (@100DegreeHockey). Always great stuff on the Stars and a league-wide perspective.
What are your expectations for the Milwaukee Admirals first game of the season against the Texas Stars? With these two playing each other so often so frequently do you feel like some message sending and authority will be established with this first game in Milwaukee? How do you think Mark McNeill, Andrew O’Brien, and Tyler Kelleher will perform in these games?
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