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Expanded roster gives Stars' youth, depth chance to shine

Taking lessons from bubble breakouts by Kiviranta and Caamano, Dallas hopes to get the most out of its taxi squad

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

FRISCO, Texas -- When Joel Kiviranta and Nick Caamano entered the Edmonton bubble last year, they were little-known depth players just hoping for a chance.

When the playoffs were over, each had played key games (including in the Stanley Cup Final) and each was projected to be a lineup regular this season. That's a lesson that can be shared with a lot of players in Stars camp.

"I think that's a great example of two players really seizing their opportunity and changing their careers," said Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "You really do have to be ready at all times, because you never know when your chance is going to come, and you never know what impact that can have."

Kiviranta is 24 and took a shot at coming to the NHL from Finland last season. Caamano, 22, is a fifth-round draft pick who has battled his way through parts of three AHL seasons with the Stars. Both are great examples of finding a way to show you can help the NHL team.

This season, breakthroughs might come from first-round draft pick Ty Dellandrea, 20, or possibly from 24-year-old Rhett Gardner, who has been working in the AHL for two seasons after a four-year career at the University of North Dakota. Dellandrea had a goal in Wednesday's first scrimmage and is drawing rave reviews early in camp. Gardner had two goals in the scrimmage and is trying to force a spot on the roster or the NHL taxi squad.

Video: Bowness talks scrimmage, pairing Benn with speedsters

"I think when you look at players like Gardner or (Joel) L'Esperance, they were close to going to the bubble with us, so we know what they can do," Stars coach Rick Bowness said of the fact the two forwards were among the last cuts in the July training camp before the playoffs.

"We're going to need as much depth as we can get with this schedule, so players like that are going to be big."

The Stars can have a 23-man NHL roster and can have as many as six players on their taxi squad (including one goalie). The taxi squad was invented for the 2020-21 season because the coronavirus pandemic is not only forcing teams to play their games in a shorter time period, but also because the virus could take out several players at one time.

The taxi squad will be treated like the AHL contractually speaking, meaning players do not count against the salary cap and could have to go through waivers before being called up (depending on their contract). However, players on the taxi squad will stay with the Stars and practice with the Stars even when the AHL season starts (scheduled for Feb. 5). As a result, the taxi squad is going to allow players to be seen by coaches on a regular basis.

"It's a little like the bubble in that these players get to be around every day," said Nill. "They get to be familiar with the coaches and their teammates, and that can be a good thing for them."

Dellandrea is extremely intriguing. He was taken 13th overall by the Stars in 2018, so he has been on the radar for a couple of seasons. He tallied 70 points (32 goals, 38 assists) in 47 games for Flint in the OHL last season, so he has skill. He's also a right-handed shot (rare among Stars forwards) and can play center, so he could be a very handy addition since the Stars are missing a right-handed center with Tyler Seguin out until at least March following offseason hip surgery.

Video: 'That's a penalty!': Benn mic'd up for camp scrimmage

"He's got a lot of jump, he's skating really well," Bowness said after watching Dellandrea in Wednesday's scrimmage. "He's very confident, he's very poised for a young player. He looked really good today. His versatility certainly helps him, the fact that he can play wing and play center. He's very comfortable on the ice, not one bit intimidated. That's part of the growth from a young player.

"He's looked very good the first three days of camp. He's doing everything he can to make this hockey club."

Wednesday was a good example of how important the taxi squad might be.

Both Jason Robertson and L'Esperance were deemed "unfit" to practice (the NHL's term for players who are dealing with injury or illness this season). As a result, the opportunity to move up seemed very tangible for Dellandrea, Gardner or any of the team's forwards who might be on the bubble between 12th or 13th and 14th. Kiviranta and Caamano seem firmly ensconced in the top 12 right now, so the ability to move into that group is very real for those who might want to replicate that feat.

Robertson has been practicing with the top 12 and has been a regular on the first power play. The 21-year-old winger had 47 points (25 goals, 22 assists) in 60 games with the Texas Stars last season and accompanied the NHL team into the playoff bubble. He looks like he could be a lineup regular right now. L'Esperance, 25, was second behind Robertson on the Texas Stars last season with 40 points (25 goals, 15 assists), while Tanner Kero, 28, was third with 33 points (eight goals, 25 assists). Justin Dowling also could be on the taxi squad if he's not on the NHL roster.

Video: CGY@DAL: Hanley, L'Esperance combine for opening goal

On defense, Taylor Fedun, Joel Hanley and Jerad Rosburg seem to have the early lead in either being the seventh defenseman or on the taxi squad, while Julius Honka has returned from Finland and also could be in the mix.

"Julius Honka had a good day today," Bowness said Wednesday. "He moved the puck and made some good plays on the offensive blue lines."

The Stars are expecting to scrimmage again before their season opener at Florida next week, and that's how they expect to make their picks for the taxi squad, Bowness said.

"We'll scrimmage a couple of time before we go to Florida, and we're going to have to make decisions based on the scrimmages, that's all we can do," said Bowness.

"Some guys are going to play their way in on the taxi squad and some guys might play their way out. It's unfair that they're not getting exhibition games, but you deal with the hand you're dealt, and this is what we're dealing with."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.

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