Thursday, September 10, 2009

North Stars open season in Janesville

The Traverse City North Stars can’t possibly know what to expect when they open the 2009-10 regular season on Saturday in Wisconsin as their opponent, the Janesville Jets, are an expansion club playing their first-ever North American Hockey League contest.

The Jets roster has seven players with NAHL experience, including former Marquette defenseman Mike Thompson and one-time North Star Rodney Lalonde, who spent part of the off-season with the club.

“One thing’s for sure – they’ll have a ton of people in there and they’ll be jacked up,” forecasted Traverse City head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo. “It’s their inaugural game in their new home, and we’ll have to be ready to match their energy.”

The season-opening road trip is a bit of a departure from the previous four seasons, in which the North Stars kicked off their slate at the NAHL Showcase. This year’s event is set for Sept. 16-19 in suburban Minneapolis, a few days after the Janseville series wraps with a Sunday matinee.

“It’ll be nice to have a couple games under our belts before the Showcase,” Palumbo admitted. “But these aren’t exactly tune-ups. Janesville is a divisional opponent, a team that has to be respected, and will be a great addition to the North.”

Traverse City, coming off a franchise-best 34-17-7 mark in 2008-09, will start the season without three of its all-star players in forwards Kyle Jean and Nick Shkreli and defenseman Chris Heineman. Jean and Shkreli will likely miss the first 10 games or so with upper body injuries, while Heineman is sidelined until at least January following off-season surgery.

“Those are three of our top guys, no doubt about it,” Palumbo lamented. “And between Jean and Shkreli, those are two of our top scorers. But I do like our depth, and we do have a bunch of guys with a lot of experience and we’ll have to have guys step up in those areas.”

The recent history of NAHL expansion clubs is mixed-bag fare. Last season, the Albert Lea Thunder went 4-49-5 while the Wenatchee Wild posted an astounding 35-19-4 mark en route to a Robertson Cup finals berth. In Traverse City’s inaugural campaign of 2005-06, the Stars were somewhere between, going 17-34-7.

“They have the potential to be very good, just like we do,” surmised Palumbo. “You get some smart people and good coaches together and pick a team of talented players and you go out and play the game. And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

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