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Stars’ organizational depth paying off

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

During the course of an NHL season, every team has to deal with injuries to important players, but it the clubs that have superior organizational depth will be the ones that weather the storm and make it through those stretches without a drop-off in the quality of their performance.

Aaron Gagnon
So far through the 2010-11 season, the Dallas Stars have been displaying just how deep they are by dipping into their talent pool to call up injury replacements from their AHL minor league affiliate and haven’t missed a beat. 

Already this season, Dallas has received contributions from several different farmhands who have been plugged into the lineup and that trend will likely continue, and will probably end up being a factor in the club’s ultimate fate this year.

“It’s really important and I feel better about it at this time this year than maybe I had at this time last year,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said of the organization’s ability to add NHL-ready prospects. “You have to have that in the organization, because as you can see, there’s not a heck of a lot of movement any more in the NHL, so you have to have the pipeline of kids coming and I feel like we’re getting stronger in that area.” 

With several injuries among forwards, the Stars have been relying upon center Aaron Gagnon to provide fourth line minutes lately and the 24-year-old rookie has not disappointed. In three games since he was recalled on Dec. 3 from the AHL Texas Stars, based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, Gagnon has played well, earning two assists and posting a +2 plus/minus rating. 

“I think it’s gone well,” said Gagnon, who also skated in two contests last year for the Stars. “I think it’s a good start. It was nice to get my first point and hopefully I can build off that and keep it going. I’ve been here a few times now, been through camps, and up for a few games now, so I feel comfortable here and I feel like I belong here.”

Gagnon, who turned a lot of heads with his play in training camp and the pre-season and was probably the last cut, certainly has earned the confidence of his teammates.

“A solid, solid player, he plays both ends of the wing, has great speed, his hockey sense is top notch, so he’s a pretty well-rounded player and he can come in and play in any situation,” Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. 

The most recent call-up to see action was netminder Richard Bachman, who was brought up from AHL Texas on Wednesday to backup Andrew Raycroft after usual starter Kari Lehtonen experienced lower body stiffness. 

In his first taste of NHL life, Bachman spent two-plus games at the end of the bench, before being called upon to step into the crease for his NHL debut Saturday night midway through the third period of a 5-2 loss in Phoenix in relief of Raycroft. He only faced four shots in under 10 minutes of action, but each save was a difficult one and Bachman looked solid. 

“I feel good,” a confident Bachman said before the game. “You’ve got to get used to a little bit of the adjustment, but I feel good, I feel confident, and if they need me to play, I think I can do it. I’m just preparing for whatever can happen and I just want to be ready.”

While coach Marc Crawford wasn’t necessarily planning on using him, he was impressed by the way Bachman has established himself as a go-to goaltender in the AHL. Originally slated to back up Brent Krahn in Texas, Bachman sparkled with Krahn sidelined by an injury, fashioning a 9-4-1 record with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. 

“I know he’s been playing quite well down in Texas, he’s really established himself as a good goalie at the American League level,” Crawford said. “As it ended up, he’s taken on the bulk of the goaltending duties down there. It shows you just how quick things can change in a goaltending position. He probably came into camp as the fourth, fifth, maybe sixth guy on our depth chart, and now he’s in the National Hockey League.”

Philip Larsen
The Stars have also called up three different defensemen from Texas so far this year, further demonstrating the depth of the organization, although only Philip Larsen has actually played.  Still, they clearly thought enough of blueliners Severin Blindenbacher and Maxime Fortunus to bring them up. Blindenbacher, the 27-year-old Swiss national team fixture, came up for seven days but wasn’t actually needed, and Fortunus, 27, was recalled Friday but sat out as a healthy scratch in the two games since.

“They’re solid players. That’s great for our organization to have depth like that,” noted defenseman Matt Niskanen of the three AHL call-ups. “It’s a long year and it’s a physical game, a fast-paced game, injuries are going to happen, guys are going to have little things that are going to set them back for a few games and if you got good depth like that, it’s really important to keep your season going and not fall behind.”

After Mark Fistric suffered a groin injury and Trevor Daley was questionable last week, Larsen came up and gave a pretty good account of himself in three games of action, particularly impressing on the power play, earning one assist. 

When Daley recovered, the Stars opted to send Larsen back to the AHL for more playing time and brought up Fortunus instead.

“We were only going to keep Philip here if we were going to play him,” Crawford said of the 21-year-old native of Denmark in his first full season of North American hockey. “He wasn’t going to play, so it’s important for him at his age to play and continue to keep growing and learning the North American game and the American League is a great opportunity for him to get his 20, 22 minutes of ice time a night. Max Fortunus is here as protection for us because of our injury situation. We brought him up because he’s a good player, he’s pretty well-rounded and if we get in a situation that we have to put him in, he’s a confident enough guy that he’ll come in and give us a workmanlike effort.”

While Fortunus, 27, hasn’t yet gotten in a game this season, he has suited up for the Stars before, averaging 15:08 of ice time over eight games last season, and proved he’s a reliable option if needed.

“Max is a great organizational guy, he’s been terrific for us over the years,” Nieuwendyk said. “He’s a guy that you’re never afraid to throw in the lineup to give you games. He’s just a classy kid.”

Of course, when new guys are implemented into the existing set-up, there are adjustments to be made by everyone, but it’s not that dramatic a process. 

“If pairings change, that happens, but you make adjustments quick,” Niskanen said of getting used to a new D partner. “As long as you’re vocal and talk through a little strategy and get used to each other as fast as you can, keep things just a little bit simpler, probably, when you get a new partner, things seem to go all right. Guys make adjustments.”

That also goes for the coaching staff, who usually already pretty familiar with their new players’ strengths and weaknesses, even if they haven’t seen them in a while.

“I think you got a good feel from camp, and I think the guys that have been up, we’ve seen lots of them,” Stars assistant coach Charlie Huddy said. “Max was up a bunch of times last year and we know Philip’s game, so that’s all part of it, and we talk to (Texas coach Glen Gulutzan) to see how the guys are doing down there. When they call guys up, it’s always, ‘Who’s got their game going?’ and you try to get the best player, reward the player that’s down there playing the best. The system part of it, the guys that are coming up are already familiar with it, it’s just a matter of getting up to speed with the NHL game when they get here.”

At the root of all the organizational success is the benefit provided by having a strong minor league set-up. For the Stars, after having their prospects scattered throughout the AHL in 2008-09 when they didn’t have their own affiliate, being able to place their best farmhands just three hours away has been a tremendous plus. Then add to that the invaluable experience that guys like Gagnon, Fortunus and many others gained from advancing to the AHL’s Calder Cup Finals last season, and the future of the organization is in good shape.
“I think it’s big, it’s huge,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said of the impact of the deep playoff run on those players. “Going far in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter what level you’re playing, in the playoffs, especially the American League - it’s right below the NHL, and I’ve played in the minors for three years, it’s a tough league to play in. I’ve been to the playoffs, we went to the semi-final one year (1999 with AHL Fredericton), and it’s tough. They improved a lot last season by going that far.”

This year, Texas started off a little shaky but has picked up their play lately, reeling off a recent 7-2-0 hot streak and currently own a 16-9-1-1 record, ranking fifth in the Western Conference standings. It’s a good environment for young players to learn the nuances of the pro game while trying to work their way up to the NHL.

“We’ve done well down there,” said Gagnon, who compiled five goals and nine points in 20 AHL contests before his recall. “You kind of worry about your play down there and things will take care of themselves and you’ll get your chance.  And it’s great to see a bunch of guys get an opportunity in getting called up. That’s great and once you get your chance, everyone just tries to make the best of it.”  

“It’s been a great experience, especially over the past 10 games or so,” said Bachman of his season in Texas. “I’ve been able to play a lot and really learn what it’s like to play every other night and a couple of nights in a row and play three or four games in one week, so it’s been a great experience as far as that goes. I’m really enjoying it.”

Richard Bachman
And being part of such a successful squad that has provided so many injury fill-ins to the parent club provides additional inspiration to all the other players on the AHL team, who have seen several of their teammates called up to the NHL. And there are more capable players available if they’re needed.

“Guys see that stuff all the time,” Bachman acknowledged. “We’ve got Gags up, (forward Francis) Wathier was up, we’ve got Max here, Larsen, so guys see other guys going up and down and you know that the dream’s really there so it makes guys work that much harder to get the chance and hopefully take advantage of it when you do get up here, so it’s been a great thing.”

It’s been a major positive for the parent squad as well, and means the NHL Stars don’t have to worry too much if and when another regular finds himself on IR.

“It’s a long grind and teams have gone through it before in the past,” Morrow said of needing injury replacements throughout the season. “You’ve got to count on your organizational depth and your scouting and your drafting and minor league systems and hope that they’re well-prepared and so far, they have been. They’ve been able to step in and have had success when they’ve been called upon.” 

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