Dallas Stars Download: Hail and Farewell Edition

Column, Curtis McKenzie, Dallas Stars, Dave Strader, Gemel Smith, Top Story


The Dallas Stars’ past week has been filled with mixed emotions.

Saturday night, the team played their final preseason game, a 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Unlike last year, the Stars made it through September with only minor bumps and bruises, so a happy and relieved club flew back to Dallas that night.

The next morning, word came that legendary broadcaster and Stars play-by-play man Dave “The Voice” Strader had succumbed to cancer at the age of 62. The news quickly spread throughout the organization, leaving sorrow in its wake.

Late Sunday night, shock and concern for friends and former teammates were added to the mix when news broke of the horrific massacre in Las Vegas. The fact that none of the Vegas Golden Knights were among the casualties only made the tragedy less personal, though no less appalling.

Former Dallas Star Cody Eakin is now with the Vegas Golden Knights. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Monday morning, the Stars made their final roster cuts, leaving so-called “bubble” players either elated or deflated, depending on which side of the bubble they landed.

Tuesday, the team did their best to block out the emotional roller coaster of the previous 72 hours and went back to work on the ice. After all that, Friday’s puck drop can’t get here fast enough.

Dave Strader: A Legend Lost

Strader was a sports broadcasting legend long before he joined the Stars for the 2015-16 season. The Glens Falls, NY, native launched his career in 1979 with the Adirondack Red Wings of the AHL. In 1985, he earned a well-deserved promotion to the NHL and spent the next 11 years as the voice of the Detroit Red Wings.

Strader left Detroit for ESPN, where he called hockey, college basketball, WNBA and NBA D-league games from 1996-2004. After leaving ESPN, “The Voice” spent time with the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes before moving to NBC full-time in 2011. By the time he joined the Stars, Strader had worked three Olympic Games and the 2009 Winter Classic. The man was accomplished.

Dave Strader (right) with Daryl Reaugh at the Dallas Stars Fan Party to kick off the 2015-16 season. (Michael Connell/Texas Stars Hockey)

After one season with the Stars, Strader was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a form of bile duct cancer. The disease and its treatment limited him to just five games in 2016-17. Despite the toll on his body, Strader’s voice was still strong. His call of the Stars’ 4-3 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 18 garnered two Lone Star Emmy nominations, which were revealed last week. And in April, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced Strader was the 2017 recipient of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster.

On a personal note, I must say that I didn’t know the man very well. In his brief time with the Stars, I usually only saw him in passing and I don’t think we ever had a significant conversation. What I can tell you is this: Every time I saw Strader, he had a smile on his face. Every single time, even when he was alone. Clearly, he loved his work and loved life, and left it all behind far too soon.

Stars Lineup Coming into Focus

Monday’s final roster cuts trimmed the Stars roster down to the league-maximum 23 players. While the top two forward lines have been set for some time, the bottom two lines and defense pairs came together over the past week. The opening night lineup should look like this, give or take Gemel Smith or Julius Honka:

Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov

Mattias Janmark – Jason Spezza – Brett Ritchie

Devin Shore – Martin Hanzal – Tyler Pitlick

Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Adam Cracknell

Esa Lindell – John Klingberg

Marc Methot – Jamie Oleksiak

Dan Hamhuis – Stephen Johns

Ben Bishop

Looking at that lineup, I can’t decide if the Stars have two second lines and a third line, or two third lines. Either way, that’s a deep forward corps.

The defense pairs are surprising, to say the least. Show of hands: Before training camp, who had Jamie Oleksiak pegged as the number-four defenseman? If your hand is in the air, you’re lying. The rapid ascent of the Stars’ 2011 first-round draft pick has been a very pleasant surprise for the entire organization.

Coach Ken Hitchcock’s defense pairs speak volumes about his confidence in both Klingberg, 25, and Lindell, 23. Prior to camp, most pundits (including yours truly) foresaw a top pair of Methot and Klingberg. Instead, Hitch has paired his veteran blueliners with the relatively-inexperienced Oleksiak and Johns. Expect the top pair to be on the ice for far more offensive- than defensive-zone faceoffs while the middle pair draws the tougher assignments.

Stellar Observations

Primary

Two of the Stars’ final roster cuts were defenseman Patrik Nemeth and left wing Curtis McKenzie, who were placed on waivers Monday morning.

Nemeth’s promising career with the Stars was derailed by a season-ending arm injury in October 2014. The following season, he became part of the club’s eight-man blue line logjam and simply couldn’t break out. Nemeth was claimed off waivers by the Colorado Avalanche, who have big plans for the Swedish defenseman.

McKenzie passed through waivers unclaimed and will report to the Texas Stars. The lack of interest from other NHL clubs is surprising, as the winger, nearly a point-per-game player in the AHL, is a cut above the fourth-line talent of many clubs and has a budget-friendly $700,000 cap hit.

You really have to feel for McKenzie. He’s one of the good guys, always smiling and happy to talk hockey, travel or movies filmed in British Columbia. He’s also a homeowner. After signing his current contract back in March, McKenzie purchased a Dallas-area condo and spent much of the summer on renovations. Now, he’s relocating to Cedar Park indefinitely.

While the Stars’ forward depth played a role in the Burnaby, BC, native’s demotion, the club’s decision to carry eight defensemen for a third consecutive season meant that they could only keep 13 forwards, instead of 14.

Secondary

The Stars are carrying eight defensemen because Julius Honka has worked his way into a no man’s land of sorts.

Too skilled for the AHL but not quite ready for the NHL, Honka forced the club into an unusual decision. The plan is to keep the slick Finn in Dallas, where he’ll be tutored in the finer points of defending in the NHL by assistant coach Rick Wilson until the youngster either plays his way into the rotation or doesn’t, in which case he’ll be sent back to the Texas Stars.

Julius Honka

Is Julius Honka here to stay? (Texas Stars Hockey)

“Depending how quickly Rick (Wilson) can get him up to speed,” Hitchcock said of Honka, “he has an asset that we need and we want to get him playing on a regular basis, similar to the way you would with a second goaltender…We want to get him in a rhythm and see how he looks.”

“He’s not there yet,” Hitchcock added. “He’s not in our top six yet, but he’s got a chance to be a top-four guy, so that’s what we want to see: How far can we get him in the first 10 days here?”

With Honka’s status uncertain, the Stars chose to keep Greg Pateryn in the seventh defenseman role. If the youngster proves to be a quick learner, he could bump either Oleksiak or Johns out of the top six, likely resulting in waivers for Pateryn. If Honka doesn’t catch on quickly, he’ll head back to the AHL for another season and Pateryn will remain. Either way, the Stars should soon get down to seven defensemen for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

Tertiary

Gemel Smith beat out Curtis McKenzie for the 13th forward spot. He did so with his feet.

“He has the necessary speed to play in the National Hockey League,” Hitch said of Smith. “Whether Gemel can keep up from the tenacity standpoint, time’s going to tell.”

The Dallas Stars selected Gemel Smith after a strong draft year in Owen Sound. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Smith is the shortest player on the roster and 20 pounds below the team average weight. Rather than being a disadvantage, those numbers simply set him apart from the crowd.

The Stars’ fourth round pick in the 2012 draft made a good impression in his NHL debut last season, scoring his first two big-league goals at Chicago on November 6 and stringing together a three-game point streak in April. He entered training camp last month with an ‘anything can happen’ attitude.

“I knew anything was possible,” Smith said. “I just came in with the mindset that I’m going to do all I can and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but I didn’t want to leave anything off the table. So I just tried to work hard, and thank God that it worked out for me.”

Quote of the Week

“Dave Strader treated people with respect and kindness. He loved hockey. He loved family. He loved life. Honor his memory by doing the same.” — John Giannone



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