On Saturday afternoon, after a very long layoff for the Marlies, the AHL playoffs start up again, and the Marlies are in the Calder Cup Final facing the Texas Stars. Who is this team from Texas? Do they have any stars?
The Stars are, of course, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars. They don’t play in the whole state of Texas either, they play in a suburb of Austin. (That looks like it’s spelled wrong for some reason.)
The Stars are a team very similar to the Marlies. They’re relatively new, owned by the parent club outright, and situated close to the NHL team to make travel between them more realistic. The Dallas Stars were one of the first teams in the west to buy a team (the AHL Stars were in Iowa for a while) and move them close. They were at the cutting edge of a trend that has seen the AHL remade with a viable pair of divisions in the west after years when Toronto was considered far enough over to be in western division.
The Texas Stars were at the cutting edge of another trend as well. Back in 2014, the year the Stars won the Calder Cup, the Marlies had yet to meet Kyle Dubas:
Development happened by accident, and the fights made the highlight reels, not the goals. Except, the Texas Stars, the least penalized team in the league, won the Calder Cup that year. One of their rookies was Chris Mueller, a man who filled his season with nearly a point per game and not much tough stuff. The AHL had already changed, but Toronto hadn’t noticed.
Toronto noticed, and decided to take the new way of being in the AHL and do it better than everyone else. That has culminated in this year’s Marlies, who, after sweeping rounds two and three, seem like an unstoppable force with Texas just their next victim.
We know the Stars don’t have Chris Mueller, Toronto’s 2C, anymore, but who do they have?
Texas Stars Playoff Skaters
The R column denotes rookies.
The Stars have very few stars. As you can see by who is getting the points, they are relying on AHL veterans to drive their play in the playoffs with only a very few exceptions. The top young prospect is Roope Hintz, the man who scored the overtime goal on Monday night to finally stop the Rockford IceHogs. Rockford gave the Stars nearly more than they could handle in their final round. While the Marlies were sweeping, the Stars were constantly in ovetime, trying to gut out another win.
Hintz might be familiar to you if you followed the WJC in 2016.
You can see him piling on at the end of that video. Hintz had four points in the tournament to Kapanen’s five, and he scored more goals, he just didn’t score the most famous goal.
Other than Hintz, Dallas’s top prospect is Miro Heiskanen, who just played for Finland’s men’s team at age 18. He might see some AHL time next year with the Stars, but for this year, the only new face over from Europe is John Nyberg. He has just finished a very good year on Frölunda with Carl Grundstrom, and he’s appeared in five playoff games for the Stars, making the cut for the last few of the Rockford series, so he seems to be in regular rotation now.
The Stars also have first-year pro Sheldon Dries, who they signed as an NCAA free agent, and he’s definitely a scoring threat. Denis Guryanov, who at only 20 is in his second AHL season, is not having a productive playoffs and was scratched in the final Texas-Rockford game.
Curtis McKenzie is their driving force, however. He played 53 games in the NHL last year, and only seven this season. He is an NCAA graduate, former sixth-round pick, and he looks like a career AHLer with last season being his only nearly-full NHL season.
Compare him to the top scorer on the Marlies: Andreas Johnsson, former seventh-round pick, but only 23, and seemingly NHL bound, and it’s easy to see that the Stars are not as young, fast or dynamic as the Marlies. They are spreading out their secondary scoring well, and have scored only four fewer goals than the Marlies, who have two dominant lines to the Stars’ one.
The Stars still don’t take many penalties, which is good for them. Facing the Marlies power play is not an absolute recipe for disaster, but you don’t want to give them too many chances at it. The Stars penalty killing percentage was one of the worst in the AHL in the regular season.
The Stars were very poor in the regular season at generating power play opportunities, but just about as mediocre as the Marlies at converting on them. The Marlies don’t give up power play goals very often, and a lot of that is goaltending.
The biggest difference between these two teams so far in the playoffs is the goaltending and the defensive play supporting the goalie. Both teams have won 11 games, obviously, but the Marlies have only lost two to the Stars four. In getting to that point, the Marlies have given up 27 goals to the Stars 37.
Mike McKenna, the 35-year-old veteran who is the Texas starter, is having a great playoffs. His save percentage and the team’s goals against average is almost the same as Garret Sparks is experiencing on the Marlies, so where’d the 10 goals against difference come from?
Calvin Pickard has played two games, and has better results than Sparks, and Landon Bow the 22-year-old junior free agent, Texas signed in 2016 and then gave an NHL contract to last year, has played half an hour of playoff hockey and given up four goals.
The playoffs for Texas have been the story of McKenna, who is as hot as Texas in June, taking over first chair from the rookie. The regular season was not hot for either of them, and they each have an undistinguished save percentage that would make them the backup on most AHL teams. If that sounds familiar, it is the Alex Lyon story, but the Phantoms starter was better than both Texas goalies in the regular season, and he kept it up in the face of the Marlies onslaught to the bitter end as his team was swept in four games.
McKenna’s playoff performance, however, is so far removed from his career numbers, it’s hard to believe in it. He’s never sustained a save percentage even close to his current .940 over these 11 games, not even in college. He had a couple of good AHL seasons a few years back, but lately he’s been coasting along at just over .900 which is good enough in the AHL if your team can score goals.
On paper, the Stars shouldn’t even have got this far. Tucson should have taken them out, or Ontario in the first round, but here they are, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly at all. There’s a lot of playoff experience on their team, and unless Toronto has the secret to cool off McKenna, they’re going to have to work hard to score.
- Game one: Saturday, June 2 at 4:00 p.m. in Toronto
- Game two: Sunday, June 3 at 4:00 p.m. in Toronto
- Game three: Tuesday, June 5 at 8:00 p.m. in Texas
- Game four: Thursday, June 7 at 8:00 p.m. in Texas
- Game five: Saturday, June 9 at 8:00 p.m. in Texas
- Game six: Tuesday, June 12 at 7:00 p.m. in Toronto
- Game seven: Thursday, June 14 at 7:00 p.m. in Toronto
All times are Eastern Daylight Time. All games will air on Leafs Nation TV, TSN 2 and TSN Go as well as NHL Network in the USA.