When the Idaho Steelheads took to the ice in Texas on Wednesday night for their first look at the Allen Americans, there were a few friendly faces in attendance to get an important look for themselves at some of Idaho’s promising young talents.
Scott White, Director of Hockey Operations for the Dallas Stars and General Manager of the Texas Stars, was at Allen Events Center during Wednesday night’s contest, as was Player Development Coordinator JJ McQueen.
For these men and other members of their staff, the Steelheads’ visit to Texas was a valuable opportunity for a closer look at several players under AHL and NHL contracts, players that might be able to make an impact at the higher levels this season. That live and in-person look at a player can speak volumes.
“Live is where it is. Certainly you watch a little video on players and how a team is playing, but ultimately it’s your eyes when you get to watch them live that is what it’s all about,” said White. “I’m looking forward to tonight and I know some of our staff in town is, too.”
The Steelheads roster currently holds eight players on AHL or NHL deals, including both goaltenders Philippe Desrosiers and Maxime Lagace. Lagace has spent eight games with AHL Texas this season, most recently suiting up for the AHL’s Stars on November 28th. After a season of transitions in 2014-15 and spending time with three different clubs, Lagace is showing some solid growth in his second pro campaign.
“Max has been a pleasant surprise. We put Max through the ringer last year. He was everywhere just because of our goaltending situation,” said White, referring to Lagace’s time spent last season with AHL Texas and with both Bakersfield and Missouri in the ECHL.
“He stuck to it and then he came into camp and played really well, both in the NHL camp in Dallas and then in Texas in Cedar Park. He earned some starts when Jack Campbell got hurt and he got in there and played some good games early on."
Mike Valley, Dallas’ Director of Goaltending Development, was not just in attendance. He was also on the ice with both Lagace and Desrosiers, both of whom see their game moving in the right direction.
“Philippe is the same way. He’s a young goaltender who just needs to find the net and learn how to be a pro and get consistent. It’s a position where you’re out on an island and you need to be consistent, and I think all goalies struggle with that at times,” said White.
Lagace is not the only Steelhead to spend some time with in the AHL this season, as forward Emil Molin was also a Texas Star for one game on November 11th and picked up an assist against the San Antonio Rampage.
“Emil is a smart player. I think if he had the opportunity to stay longer, he would have adjusted to the pace more. It’s a pretty big step from the ECHL to the AHL just because of pace,” White said. “There’s more guys on the roster and on the ice with four full lines, whereas there are only ten here so it makes a difference in the pace of the game. If he gets called again, I’d be fine with him going up. I thought he did a fine job.”
That roster logjam at the higher levels doesn’t just stop players from moving up and sticking in the AHL or the NHL. Sometimes it limits the opportunities for players who began the season with those clubs, players who can benefit from some time spent in the ECHL to develop their game and get some broader opportunities in situations where they weren’t seeing the ice in the AHL.
Such is the case for Cole Ully and Gemel Smith who have already seen heavy ice-time in every situation in the three games they’ve played with Idaho. Smith has a goal and two assists for the Steelheads, and Ully has two assists in three games.
“It’s huge and it’s about ice time. We had 16 forwards before Cole and Gemel came down and it gives them a chance,” said White, also noting the value of the Steelheads’ dense schedule in the early weeks of December. “From Cole’s perspective, he’s been a good soldier and the games that he’s played, he’s played well. He’s a skilled player that will excel at this level because he’ll be on the power play and he can help.”
“For Gemel, it’s a matter of getting more time and more reps. He’s also working on the details of the game, which isn’t easy to do sometimes when you get sent down. But playing 200 feet, that’s why he’s here to learn how to do it. By all accounts it’s about getting experience, keeping them fresh, and they seem to be a bit hungrier when they get back.”
Whether it’s a player fighting his way back to the higher levels or a player looking for his first shot, one thing that is certain is that players who arrive in Texas after their time playing in Idaho are prepared.
“That’s never been an issue. Previous coaches and Neil (Graham) have all the guys prepared,” said White. “Most guys know how to play the game, it’s just a matter of how they handle the opportunity at the next level. (Texas Stars Coach) Derek Laxdal wants players that play hard, that are honest players, and the guys that have been up have done a good job.”
The Steelheads will be back in Allen again this Sunday for another meeting with the Americans, bringing with them a much more complete picture of their opponents after Wednesday night’s contest. Scott White and the rest of Stars management have a clear picture of what they have in Idaho, as well.