Iowa Stars 2006-07 season preview

By Colleen Greene

The 2005-06 season marked the beginning of a partnership between the Dallas Stars and their new AHL affiliate, the Iowa Stars, and the team certainly did not disappoint in its inaugural season. Head coach Dave Allison led his team to a 41-31-1-7 record and a playoff berth. The I-Stars dropped their first-ever postseason round, falling in seven games to the Milwaukee Admirals, who eventually lost to the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup Finals.

Last season, Iowa also served as the home to a few Edmonton Oiler prospects as per a one-year player loan agreement signed with Edmonton. That agreement, however has expired, and the Stars will be providing virtually all of the players for the team. Many of the fresh faces for this season are coming from Europe, but Iowa will have some key players of last year’s team back in the fold, hoping to build on the success of last season.

Goaltending

The Stars’ decision not to re-sign veteran Johan Hedberg opened up a spot on the team for a back-up to Marty Turco. That spot will go to Mike Smith, who was the go-to guy in Iowa last year down the stretch, leading the I-Stars into the playoffs.

The starting goalie spot for Iowa is now up for grabs between Dan Ellis, who split time with Smith during parts of last season, and newcomer Tobias Stephan, who will be making his North American debut this year.

Entering his fourth professional season, Ellis will try to build upon a successful 2005-06 campaign, one in which he posted a .911 save percentage and a 2.78 goals against average – respectable numbers that were somewhat overshadowed by Smith’s late-season success. The 26-year-old Ellis looks to be the clear-cut No. 1 goalie for the I-Stars this season.

Stephan spent the past four years playing for Kloten of the Swiss-A League. Standing at 6’3, the Zurich, Switzerland native is a tall goaltender who plays a butterfly style. This season, though, should serve as a transition year for the 22-year-old, as he’ll probably need to adjust to the smaller ice surfaces and quicker pace of North American hockey. He will more than likely serve as Ellis’ back-up.

Defensemen

The I-Stars are coming off a 2005-06 campaign in which they allowed 228 total goals, good for sixth-best in the league.

While the blue line may have a different look this year due to the arrival of new Dallas prospects, it should contain a solid mix of offensive capability, solid defensive awareness, and physicality.

Returning to Iowa will be Niklas Grossman and Mario Scalzo, each of whom brings a different style game to the team.

Grossman, 21, overcame a tough, injury-riddled start to the 2005-06 campaign and emerged as the team’s best defensive defenseman. The 6’4, 201-pound blueliner will look to build upon the success he found last year when he was named the team’s Most Improved Player by the coaching staff. Grossman, who tallied two goals and three assists last season, will also look to improve on his offensive output — perhaps while quarterbacking the power play — while maintaining the strong defensive positioning and effective play that he sustained throughout the year.

Scalzo, also 21, is another player who made the most out of his season last year. Undrafted due to his size, (5’9, 187 pounds), he only got better as the season progressed, garnering a +15 rating by season’s end. Offensively, Scalzo scored 33 points (4 goals, 29 assists), placing him sixth among AHL rookie defensemen, and he will look to improve upon those totals as well.

In addition to those returning players, a handful of other up and coming defensemen will look to make names for themselves as well.

Rookie Mark Fistric will join the team this year from the WHL’s Vancouver Giants. At 6’3, 225 pounds, Fistric is a physical force to be reckoned with. Not known for his offensive talents, despite posting a respectable 29 points (7 goals and 22 assists) in 60 games last year in Vancouver, Fistric should serve as both a physical presence and a character guy in the locker room.

Another newcomer, Vadim Khomitsky, will be looking to make an impact in his first professional season in North America. Like Fistric, Khomitsky is more of a physical presence than an offensive one, although he is a strong skater and isn’t afraid to join the rush. He could be a solid contributor for the I-Stars depending on how he adjusts to the quicker pace and smaller ice surfaces of the AHL.

Ivan Vishnevsky and Matt Nickerson may also be placed on the roster before opening day. Both players were injured in training camp, and will either be placed on injured reserve for Dallas, or reassigned. Veteran Marty Wilford will round out the blue line for Iowa.

Forwards

The forward lines will have a somewhat different look to them in 2006-07, but a few key familiar faces are returning to the line-up.

One of those is Swedish left wing Loui Eriksson, who played arguably the biggest role in getting the Stars into the playoffs last year. He played his best hockey toward the end of the year, scoring 28 points (14 goals, 14 assists) in the final two months of the season, and helping the I-Stars clinch the fourth and final playoff berth in the West Division. He finished the season with 60 points (31 goals, 29 assists), good for second on the team, and chipped in two goals and five assists seven playoff games, which tied him for the team lead.

Beyond Eriksson, there are a few other players looking to contribute offensively for the Stars. Junior Lessard and Marty Sertich – both of whom were Hobey Baker Award winners for the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Colorado College respectively – are hoping to have big years. Lessard enjoyed a breakout season last year. He was named to the AHL All-Star team and scored 26 goals and 32 assists, despite missing 14 games due to injuries and call-ups. Sertich, on the other hand, will be entering his first pro season, anxious to continue the success he experienced in Colorado, where he put up 182 points (61 goals, 121 assists) over his four-year career. Standing at 5’8, the small forward was durable in college, having not missed a single collegiate game. However, time will tell if he will be able to withstand the rigors of an 80-game regular season in the AHL. If he can, his offensive skills and defensive awareness could make him a valuable player for this Iowa Stars team.

Other players returning to Iowa this season include Marius Holtet, Yared Hagos, Janos Vas, and Francis Wathier. Holtet is prime to make good on the potential he showed last season when he put up 22 points in 68 games. A solid all-around player, the 22-year-old brings an energetic forechecking game, and could be a very important part of Iowa’s success. Hagos and Vas are both coming off tough 2005-06 campaigns. Both sustained multiple injuries while trying to adjust to their first year of North American hockey, and look for better things in the upcoming season.

Wathier’s rookie season last year was cut short when a separated shoulder ended his season in mid-November. A big, tenacious forechecker who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, the 21-year-old Wathier hopes to have a noticeable physical impact in 2006-07. Vojtech Polak, who had trouble adjusting to the AHL game in his rookie season last year, was injured in a collision in Dallas training camp. Like Vishnevsky and Nickerson, if the Stars don’t keep him on IR, chances are the affable right wing will be back in Iowa, looking to showcase the skill and scoring ability he showed glimpses of last season.

Newcomers to the Iowa line-up include Joel Lundqvist, Tuomas Mikkonen, Mike Green, and Krys Barch. Lundqvist will be transitioning to North American hockey after spending six seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Mikkonen could be an offensive threat if given adequate ice time and depending on how he adjusts to the pro game in North America. Chris Conner will be embarking on his first full AHL season after joining the Stars for their stretch run last year following his senior season at Michigan Tech. He was signed to a two-year Dallas contract this summer.

Outlook

After a surprisingly successful inaugural season, the I-Stars have high expectations that they can build on that in 2006-07. Since there are several European players making their North American debuts, much of the I-Stars success depends on how well these players can adjust to playing in the AHL. If they adjust quickly and the returning players continue to develop the potential they have shown, the I-Stars should, once again, be a competitive team.

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