DALLAS – Already faced with the disappointment of heading back to the minors, Dallas Stars rookie James Neal didn’t even know where he would play his next game.
Maybe with the Iowa Chops. Or the Manitoba Moose. How about the Houston Aeros?
“It kind of turns your life upside down because you have no affiliate with Dallas, so you don’t really know where you’re going,” Neal said. “I was never told where I was going until the day I got sent down.”
That’s because the Stars could send Neal or any of their top prospects just about anywhere.
Dallas is in the unique and undesirable position this season of being the only NHL team without a primary affiliate. It’s a one-year fix while waiting for the Texas Stars to make their American Hockey League debut in the Austin area next fall.
Neal made it back to the NHL after two weeks with the Moose, but at the all-star break the Stars still had 11 prospects spread out among seven AHL teams. They were playing different systems, with players from rival organizations and sometimes even facing each other.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. “I look forward to next year. Austin is going to be a great setup, a strong, strong situation for us.”
Dallas announced plans last February for an AHL franchise closer to home. Iowa responded by ending a three-year affiliation with the Stars after last season and became the Chops – with a vicious boar’s head for a logo. They are now the Anaheim Ducks’ primary farm team.
The Stars were left scrambling this season for a way to continue developing their minor-leaguers closest to playing in the NHL.
They decided on individual agreements to lend prospects to different AHL teams from south Texas to Canada. There are Stars-controlled players in Manitoba, Peoria, Houston, Grand Rapids, Hamilton, Chicago and even one holdover in Iowa.
“Of course at the beginning, it was kind of weird,” said winger Francis Wathier, in his fourth season at Iowa but now the lone Stars prospect there. “Coming back in my old locker-room, the colours had changed, the staff had changed. But hockey is a job. You’ve got to make the best of it.”
Wathier spoke to his new coaches early and said he has been treated the same as the Ducks prospects who are now his teammates.
“The only problem we’ve really bumped into is that everybody else had their farm team and their own players,” Stars co-general manager Les Jackson said. “But the guys who are good players earn their ice time, they’re getting ample opportunity.”
To avoid conflicts over playing time, Manitoba general manager Craig Heisinger, whose team is Vancouver’s primary affiliate, only asked that the Stars send top-line players.
“To make it work for us and play some of the Dallas guys, we didn’t want to get in a situation where they were even with Vancouver prospects,” Heisinger said. “We wanted top players in the Dallas organization so there would be no sort of infighting within the organizations on who would play.”
So far, no such issues.
Defenceman Mark Fistric, the Stars’ first-round pick in 2004, and right-winger Ray Sawada, a second-rounder that year, have spent most of this season in Manitoba. Moose short-timer Neal, a 13-goal scorer for Dallas, was selected for the YoungStars Game in Montreal during the NHL all-star weekend.
“You might find players like that on your own, but they would be two or three years from being that (good),” said Heisinger, whose more than two-decade friendship with Jackson also helped.
Even with affiliations to get NHL prospects, minor league teams still have to supplement their rosters with free agents and other players.
The Stars’ situation helps fill some of those gaps this season, which Jackson described as “a good win-win for both sides.”
Conner is back with the Stars after three stints in Peoria, where he had 24 points (13 goals, 11 assists) in 25 games and was one of the top players for the St. Louis Blues’ primary affiliate.
“Chris is an all-star-calibre player and is always in the lineup,” said Peoria GM Kevin McDonald, who has been involved in NHL operations for more than 20 seasons. “We treat him like our first-round pick. We feel he deserves that and Dallas deserves that with our arrangement. … When Chris is gone, we obviously miss him.”
During his time in Peoria, Conner had been one of the Rivermen – not a Star among Blues prospects. He was recalled by Dallas earlier this month.
“When you’re working hard together, it doesn’t take long to feel like that’s your group,” Peoria coach Davis Payne said. “We knew we have to treat them just like they’re our own, and that’s what we try to do.”
On the ice, the goal is to win games. And ultimately every player, regardless of affiliation, is trying to get to the same place: the NHL.
Because of that, Heisinger and McDonald said there have been no problems.
“Unless somebody brings it up, or Les is in town to see his guys or Vancouver has somebody in town to see their guys, we rarely think about it,” Heisinger said. “Our group is one group, and we’re the Manitoba Moose.”
McDonald, who worked various positions for the New York Rangers organization from 1988-2001, said it wasn’t uncommon “over a decade ago” for two NHL teams to share minor league affiliates. But that also was before the boom of hockey in the South and the proliferation of lower-level teams.
As for prospect-spreading like the Stars now doing, McDonald couldn’t recall any specific such cases in the past, though he added, “I’m sure it’s happened before.”
For Wathier, the easiest part of this altered situation was “getting used” to his new Iowa teammates. Still, it’s strange to play against fellow Stars prospects, including games against Peoria when he provided the Chops a scouting report on Conner.
“I was telling our team that he’s a speedy guy,” Wathier said. “The thing is, it sucks to be in that position. But at the end of the day, you’re glad you win.”
Against Grand Rapids, Wathier found himself going against fellow Stars prospect and good buddy Garrett Stafford in a very physical game.
“Every time I knew I was coming pretty hard on him, I would just say ‘Heads up!’ and he knew I was coming,” Wathier said. “You’ve got to keep that respect sometimes through friendship, but you’ve got do a job on the ice.”
There is also that turnabout when players like Neal get back to the NHL.
Since getting back to Dallas, Neal has played once against Vancouver, the team whose prospects were his teammates in Manitoba in November. The Stars beat the Canucks when Neal scored in the fifth round of a shootout.
“Not an ideal circumstance, beating Vancouver in the shootout,” Heisinger said. “The commentators brought it up, how it was somewhat ironic that he was honing his skills in Manitoba.”