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Stars organization benefitting from AHL-only personnel

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

In addition to the valuable development time afforded their top prospects, having their own minor league affiliate in 2009-10 allowed the Dallas Stars to take a closer look at some additional players who might have fallen through the cracks.

There have been many benefits for the parent club since the Texas Stars began play last season in the AHL, based just three hours away in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, especially when the team enjoyed such tremendous success both on and off the ice in its expansion year. 

Travis Morin
Because Dallas provides about 15 players to its top farm club, out of a maximum roster size of 23, there are several other spots to be filled, so some players were signed to AHL-only contracts, including a couple of guys on pro tryouts (which allows them to play a set amount of games without being officially under contract) that first had to earn themselves a deal. 

Making the right choices on some of those players can often be the difference between a winning club and one that doesn’t make the playoffs. In Texas’ case, they had a significant impact, as several ended up becoming important components of the squad that advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Finals before finally succumbing to Hershey in Game 6.

In addition to their contributions to the AHL squad’s success, the presence of those players provided Dallas management a chance to really get to know them and determine if they had what it takes to maybe one day be able to take that next step up to the NHL.

“They’re not under Dallas Stars contracts, but they’re in our organization,” noted Texas Stars General Manager Scott White, who also serves as Director of Minor League Operations for the big club. “I think all those players understand what it means to be in the Dallas Stars organization - that’s why I like them. They’ve been key pieces.” 

Two players in particular played huge roles in the AHL squad’s success, forwards Travis Morin and Greg Rallo, who earned themselves another deal to stay with the organization in 2010-11.

Travis Morin’s had a breakout year, he’s proven that he can play in the American Hockey League,” White said. “And then Greg Rallo, we knew him from Iowa -  we know what kind of character he is, he just needed an opportunity, and Travis and Greg took full advantage of their opportunities with our injuries. Ray Sawada was hurt early in the year and Warren Peters was hurt, too, and then taking Jamie Benn and Tom Wandell (who were expected to play in the AHL but made the NHL roster), you’re taking four guys out. Somebody had to come in - they came and took full advantage. They were on pro tryouts, they weren’t even on AHL contracts. They came in, earned it, we signed them and they’ve been important pieces to our puzzle.”

“It gives these guys a chance to play on and they’ve done a good job here,” Stars Director of Scouting and Player Development Les Jackson said during the AHL Finals. “We don’t always have enough prospects to fill out a roster, so getting the right people at this level to help your young guys move along is important and who knows? In Morin’s case, he’s a guy that’s a bit of a late developer and he has a chance to win himself a contract. He’s a good player, he’s got good hands, smart.”

Morin impressed the parent Stars enough with his performance that they elected to sign him to a one-year, two-way contract on July 12. 

Coming off a big 2008-09 season in the lower-level ECHL where he finished third in league scoring for the second straight year and helped lead the South Carolina Stingrays to the championship, Morin thrived upon making the jump to the AHL. He ranked second in Texas scoring with 52 points, including 21 goals, as one of just two Stars to play in all 80 regular season contests. 

Like he did in the ECHL playoffs the year before when he totaled 22 points in 19 games en route to the Kelly Cup, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound center stepped up his game when it mattered most, contributing four goals and 16 points in 24 post-season contests, including a team-leading three points (one goal, two assists) during the Finals. 

Travis Morin rises in the big games,” Texas coach Glen Gulutzan stated simply. “That’s what I’ve seen throughout the playoffs - he rises to the occasion in the big games. Game 7 in Chicago, Games 6 and 7 in Hamilton, he won a championship last year in South Carolina - he rises to the occasion.” 

And while he will likely spend most, if not all, of 2010-11 back in Cedar Park, Morin, 26, has given himself the opportunity to claim a roster spot with the NHL club or at least be in line for a mid-season call-up. A classic late bloomer who spent four seasons developing in college at Minnesota State-Mankato before turning pro in 2007, Morin appears to have a bright future. 

As for Rallo, a 28-year-old four-year pro who played 28 games for the AHL Iowa Stars in 2006-07 and helped the Stars’ ECHL affiliate in Idaho win the 2007 Kelly Cup, he was retained with another one-year, AHL-only deal, but that just gives him another chance to work his way up the ladder.

“I’ve been given a great opportunity here and with opportunity, you got to step up and do what you can,” said Rallo, who totaled 19 goals and 44 points in 69 regular season games and chipped in three goals and 10 points in 24 post-season contests. “It’s a learning experience.” 

“Greg was an integral piece of our hockey team last season,” White said. “He is a solid two-way player who competes every night.”

Having a player like the 6-foot, 195-pound Rallo on board with good skill, defensive awareness and playoff experience can only help the younger Dallas prospects in their development.

Another key AHL-only player that Texas opted to bring back for next season is solid 26-year-old defensive defenseman Matt Stephenson. Stephenson collected five assists in 61 regular season games and added four more assists in 24 playoff contests, including two in the Stars’ Game 7 victory on the road over Hamilton in the Western Conference Finals. 

In addition to his proficiency in his own zone, Stephenson earned some respect among teammates during the post-season for his fearless shot-blocking abilities.  

“The key to some of our success has been blocking shots and that’s what a lot of guys on this team do really well,” said Texas defenseman Trevor Ludwig during the Calder Cup Finals. “A guy like Matt Stephenson, he blocks like seven shots a game.”

Being able to take a look at these additional players that can help their organization is yet another positive of the franchise having its own AHL affiliate - especially after last season, when the Stars were forced to scatter their players across the AHL. The fact that Texas was able to produce a lengthy playoff run in its first year just takes it to another level.

“Obviously, you have more control of your players and you can put them in and out of the lineup and positions that you feel helps them grow,” Jackson said of the huge advantage having their own AHL club provides. “We have our own coach that’s tied in with our organization, so they’re really just an extension of what we do in Dallas. And I think it’s important because any time you attach yourself to winning, it’s a good asset to carry forward. When you’re looking for players, you always try to attach yourself to guys who have a winning background and this is a great experience for these young guys.”

“To have everyone under our one umbrella is huge,” added Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “They’ve done a terrific job down there (in Cedar Park). It’s been very important in our young kids’ development.”

With a new season approaching and several new Dallas prospects set to begin their professional careers in Texas, the organization will seek out several new players who excel at the AHL level, that will hopefully contribute both on the ice and in accelerating the learning process of their youngsters. 

“Those guys are important for us to have success,” White said of players on AHL-only deals. “Having those pieces on AHL contracts are essential and they’ve been a big part of our success.”

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