Memories of a magical run to the 2018 Calder Cup Final still flow fresh in the minds of the people of Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb about 15 miles northwest of Austin. That season, they witnessed their hometown Stars come within one win of their second Calder Cup since moving to Central Texas in 2009.
Despite seeing several members of that 2018 club go on another run when parent club Dallas progressed to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020, Calder Cup Playoff hockey hasn’t been seen inside the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park since that special spring three years ago. The Stars have finished no better than fifth in the Central Division over the past three campaigns. Though, it should be noted that they were only one point out of a playoff spot when the 2019-20 season was brought to a halt due to COVID-19.
Heading into 2021-22, however, Texas appears poised to once again contend for a postseason spot in the powerful AHL Central. The task has been made easier by the league’s new playoff format, with all but the bottom two teams in each division qualifying. This opens up a fifth playoff spot in the seven-squad Central, though Texas should be a top-four team that would qualify even under the ghost of systems past. The offseason has been a busy one for Texas, but as the dust settles, a very capable roster is beginning to take form.
The Stars will be without two of their top three scorers from 2020-21, with Adam Mascherin departing for Europe and Cole Schneider now a Milwaukee Admiral. Mascherin topped Texas with 18 goals a year ago. There should still be plenty of offense in Cedar Park, though, led by the return of Riley Damiani. He led the Stars with 36 points in the spring.
Damiani will be joined by four-time 20-goal scorer Curtis McKenzie, who returns to Texas after two years in Chicago and one in Utica. McKenzie spent his first six professional seasons in the Stars system, leading the 2017-18 Texas team with 25 regular season goals and 20 postseason points.
There will also be several younger players looking to make their mark as professionals, most notably Yevgeni Oksentyuk and Jordan Kawaguchi. Kawaguchi posted a goal and a helper in three games for Texas at the end of last season and will be entering the first full season of his entry-level contract signed on March 31. He joined the Stars after a stellar collegiate career with perennial power North Dakota, accumulating 126 points in 136 games over four seasons with UND.
Oksentyuk will be making his debut in green and black, having been drafted by Dallas in the sixth round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. The Belarussian has played most of his career in his native country, most recently with Yunost Minsk. His one previous season in North America came in 2019-20, when he amassed an impressive 33 goals and 78 points for the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League.
Texas will be returning nearly its entire defensive group for 2021-22, with Julius Honka the only departure over the summer. Thomas Harley could spend most of the season in Dallas but as of now is penciled into the lineup. Even if Harley does depart, players like Ben Gleason, Joseph Cecconi, Jerad Rosburg, and Ryan Shea will provide stability and familiarity on the blueline.
Texas added another veteran to solidify the corps as well, with Alexander Petrovic bringing 263 games of NHL experience to the squad. Spenser Young will also be joining the club as a new rookie signing to watch. Young is coming off a four-year career with Providence College in which appeared in 128 games. He was chosen to serve as co-captain of the Friars during his senior campaign.
The Texas Stars used four goalies in 2020-21, of which two will be returning. Gone are Tomas Sholl and Landon Bow, with each signed to play the upcoming season in Europe. Sholl led Texas in goals against average last year, posting a 2.93 mark in 12 outings, while Bow made just two appearances. The Stars will have Colton Point and Adam Scheel back between the pipes, however. Point had a team-best 8-5-1 record over 16 appearances while Scheel led the way with a .912 save percentage.
There could also be Jake Oettinger sightings in Cedar Park once again… maybe. In 2020-21, the highly-touted prospect had a .911 save% and staggering 2.36 GAA during his first year of NHL competition. That said, there are currently three talented goalies who will need ice time in Dallas. Should Dallas get on a roll with Braden Holtby and Anton Khudobin, it would make sense for Oettinger to potentially get some of his ice time in Cedar Park.
Texas will open the 2021-22 season on October 16, when they host the Iowa Wild in the first battle of a two-game weekend set. The Stars will then travel to Tucson for a pair against the Roadrunners before returning home to close out the month with two against the Rockford IceHogs. In total, Texas will face the Central Division 52 times, with four games against the North, four against the south, and the remaining 12 coming against Pacific Division foes.
Chicago will be the most common opponent for Texas, with the Wolves and Stars playing a total of 12 contests against each other. That is followed by eight games each against Iowa, Rockford, Manitoba, Grand Rapids, and Milwaukee. The schedule then rounds out with four each against Tucson, Laval, Colorado, San Jose, and Charlotte.
For a live look at the additions and subtractions to the Stars roster, be sure to check our Texas Offseason Player Tracker. Keep up with Texas all season by following Cameron on Twitter (@osucam) and keep up with all AHL news and updates by following Full Press AHL (@FPC_AHL).