CEDAR PARK, Texas -- As the Texas Stars get ready for their third trip to the Calder Cup Finals in nine years, one of the questions fans have is why is the team being led by a 35-year-old goalie and a forward who can become an unrestricted free agent in July?
Is this really the best way to develop the Dallas Stars' prospects?
And the short answer is yes.
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By relying on key veterans and pushing the team as far as it can go in the postseason, the Texas Stars are providing a fantastic learning environment for the younger players in the organization and also teaching some hard lessons along the way.
"I think when you look at the decisions, they are the right ones for a number of reasons," said Scott White, general manager of the Texas Stars and assistant general manager of the Dallas Stars.
"One, you do what gives your team the best chance to win. And two, you teach your players that they have to earn the right to play. I think we've been very consistent in that philosophy."
Goalie Landon Bow, 22, played 46 games during the regular season, in part because veteran Mike McKenna, 35, was called up to the NHL. With both players posting similar numbers during the regular season, it seemed Bow might be the best choice to play in the AHL playoffs and get important experience. He got a chance, starting Game 3 of the first-round series against Ontario, but he allowed four goals in 30 minutes, and McKenna came on in relief.
The veteran stopped 44 shots and helped Texas win in double overtime, and he has been one of the best players in the AHL playoffs since. McKenna is 11-4 in the postseason with a 1.97 GAA and .940 save percentage -- and the main reason Texas will meet the Toronto Marlies in the Final, starting Saturday.
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"Mike has taken the net in the playoffs, he's been our MVP," said Texas coach Derek Laxdal. "Our group is all intertwined, and with the good goaltending, we know we bend but don't break."
That was the same approach when Texas won the Calder Cup in 2014, as veteran Cristopher Nilstorp led the way in goal and veteran forward Travis Morin was the leading scorer. Neither was in the plans for the NHL team, but they helped create a great learning environment for Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie, Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth. Those players don't get that chance if the veterans don't carry them to the Final.
This year, McKenzie is helping create opportunities in the AHL for Roope Hintz, Jason Dickinson, Denis Gurianov, Sheldon Dries, Joel L'Esperance, Gavin Bayreuther and Dillon Heatherington.
McKenzie, 27, is in his fifth season with the organization. Along the way, he's played in 99 NHL games. That's created a Catch-22 for the big winger as he is pushing to become an NHL regular but also trying to enjoy his time in the AHL. There's a chance he will leave the Stars in the summer.
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"I'm just focused on this," McKenzie said of the playoffs, deflecting from the fact he can become an unrestricted free agent. "It's a great opportunity and we really want to take advantage of it as a team."
McKenzie is leading Texas in playoff scoring with 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 15 games, but he's also helping younger players develop in crunch time. McKenzie is the team captain and has been part of an environment that has allowed the team to go 7-2 in playoff overtime.
"It's something we've been building with them and making sure they're confident and they want to be the guy," McKenzie said. "I think that's the biggest thing in the playoffs, everybody has to go out there and do their job and want to be the best at it. It's something we've stressed with every one of them, whether that's Roope or Guri or Laberge or Driesy.
"They're making names for themselves, and I think this is a big step to play in these games, and hopefully it will continue to the next level for them."
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As a veteran, McKenna knows a big part of his job is to help his fellow goaltenders mature, so he has a big hand in making sure Bow is engaged even if he's not playing.
"Goalies are always going to stick together, that's just the nature of the job, and so we talk a lot," McKenna said.
He added that at 35, he has learned to enjoy every minute at the rink and also draw energy from his young teammates.
"I think I thrive in an environment where I'm working with younger guys," he said. "I'm learning as much from them as they're learning from me."
In addition to Bow understanding he has to push his game higher, Gurianov, 20, received a lesson in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals when he was made a healthy scratch. That's a tough call on a first round draft pick who is hoping to play in the NHL next season, but it's one the Texas Stars believe can pay dividends.
And by having veterans like McKenzie, McKenna and Morin, the leadership is there every day to help younger players advance.
"You have to impact the game, and that's a hard lesson," White said. "But situations like this help these players. They see how hard it is, and they understand what they need to do to get better.
"When you have good examples for younger players, it makes all of the difference in the world."
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.
Read more: Texas Stars, Curtis McKenzie, Mike McKenna, Dallas Stars