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Big "D" leading the way for Stars

December 1, 2009

by Josh Fisher || AHL On The Beat Archive

The Texas Stars are off and running in their inaugural season. Heading into the week, Texas was among the top teams in the AHL for points and wins. The reason for the success is simple; the team has done it with stubborn defense.

The goaltenders have played well and the forwards have been excellent in doing their part to help contain their opponents’ offensive efforts. But perhaps the biggest reason and most simple reason for the Texas Stars’ success is the back end.

You will be hard pressed to find another team in the American Hockey League that matches the veteran experience on the Stars blue line. Texas started its season with three veterans in place on defense and three youngsters. Before the third game of the season, longtime NHL’er Brad Lukowich and eight-year pro Andrew Hutchinson were added to the mix. Add in Dan Jancevski, Maxime Fortunus and Garrett Stafford, and those five defensemen total 31 seasons of professional hockey.

“We are very fortunate to have the group that we do,” said Texas Stars general manager Scott White. “I know it and so do our coaches. Our success is really a credit to the players. It is a veteran group, but they practice as hard as they play in games. I think it has been contagious and everyone has bought into the work ethic and our system. All of it has created a positive environment in our locker room.”

Texas currently is the top-ranked defensive team in the AHL. Throughout the first two months of the season, the Stars have been a regular leader defensively along with Manchester, Houston, Hamilton and Hershey. Texas has averaged a 1.88 goals against per game and is leading the AHL as the only team below 2.00. The players think the system in place has helped the veterans lead the team.

“In the AHL there are some extremely good hockey players for all teams,” said Lukowich. “I think it would be tough to find a team with as much experience as us on the blue line. There may be a few teams with a couple of guys, but probably not like us where we have four or five guys with a lot of experience.

“The big thing for us is simple, we may have a good defense and goalies, but we rely on an all-around team effort. You can have a great group of forwards and strong goalies, but if your forwards are not pitching in, than it won’t make any difference. If they don’t battle with you, then you will be left out to dry.”

“We feel it is important to protect the house,” said Texas left wing Francis Wathier. “The house is our net, the front area of the net and any area that would be considered a high-scoring area. We need to protect those spots and guard them well.

“As forwards, we have to keep our sticks down in the shooting lanes to block shots. We need to be aware of passing lanes and cutting them off. The wingers need to watch the walls in our end and the centers can hover around down low a little bit. We don’t want anything getting to our net and that includes throwing our bodies in front of shots on a regular basis.”

The defensive system is not the best for forwards or defensemen who are interested in putting up points. The only points the forwards in Texas seem to be worried about are the two points at the end of every game.

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“We like two points at the end of the night,” Wathier said. “We don’t care who is scoring as long as we are winning at the end of the night. A lot of the forwards here may not be getting goals and assists, but we all take pride in our plus /minus rating at the end of the night.”

Despite the early season success on the defensive end, White would like to see more scoring up front.

“Personally, I would like to see us score more because we do defend so well,” added White. “I do think we need to take our offense up a notch. We can’t keep winning games by scoring one or two goals every night.”

Aside from winning games and playing stingy defense, the Texas Stars are still about player development and helping youngsters advance their careers from the AHL to the NHL. Having five experienced veteran defensemen have also helped with the development of former first-round pick Ivan Vishnevskiy, Matt Stephenson and Trevor Ludwig. All three defenseman are benefitting from the older players.

“Vishnevskiy is a key guy in our system, very close to getting to the next level,” explained White. “When we started the season, it was just Jancevski, Fortunus and Stafford. Then we added more vets like Hutchinson and Lukowich. They have all been a huge help for the younger guys.

“Vishnevskiy has a lot of players to look up to and this is great for his development. They let him know when he is doing something wrong and they let him know when he is doing something right. Either way, they handle it professionally and help our young defensemen develop even faster.”

“I have probably learned more in the past three months playing with these guys than I have in my pro career,” said Stephenson. “Just watching how they do things in practice and in games has been a tremendous boost. Every day they come up to me and give me pointers on things that will make me a better player. I have been playing a lot of with Dan Jancevski and he has been a big help to me. He’s a veteran defenseman who knows what he is talking about. I just come to work, keep my mouth shut and my ears wide open. It makes it easier for me.

“They make it easier for all of us. They don’t just help the defensemen out. They also help the forwards out with defensive tendencies.”

With the veteran crew in place, expect the Stars to continue their strong play in the Western Conference.