Thursday, May 13, 2010

North Stars had ups and downs in '09-10

It was a season of firsts, bests and uncharted territory in the Traverse City North Stars’ fifth North American Hockey League campaign.

The Stars not only won a playoff series for the first time, but also advanced through the North Division postseason fray, earned a spot in the NAHL’s Robertson Cup, and came within a whisker of a berth in championship game. While the club didn’t claim the ultimate prize in central Washington last week, the season can’t be considering anything other than an overwhelming success.

“Without a doubt,” Traverse City head coach-GM Anthony Palumbo asserted. “We had ups and downs during the season, especially in the injury department – right from the beginning of the year through the Robertson Cup tournament.

Kyle (Jean) and Nick (Shkreli) missed the first third of the season, Kyle was out sick for another month, Travis White missed a month and a half – and Drew (Strandberg) was out about that long over a few stretches. Then we lose Drew, Doug (Clifford) and Phil (Wendecker) at the Cup. Yet we still found a way to pull through a lot of that and have a lot of team successes. That’s a credit to the guys and the depth we had.”

Feast and famine

The North Stars bolted from the starting blocks to a 14-5-1 mark by Thanksgiving, stumbled through a 2-6-1 stretch until Christmas, then went on a 10-1-2 run from Dec. 28-Feb. 9. A 1-6-1 swoon in February – with six losses coming by a single goal apiece – set up a 6-2 stretch run and a No. 2 seed in the North Division playoffs.

That’s when the Stars caught fire, hacking their way through Janesville and Motor City with consecutive three-game sweeps. Traverse City outscored Janesville by a 13-1 combined margin before dispatching Motor City with a 14-5 goal differential.

Strandberg helped key the Stars’ playoff combustion, blanking the Jets twice and permitting just a single goal in the other three of his first five postseason starts.

How ’bout them apples?

The North Stars opened the Robertson Cup tourney in Wenatchee, Wash., by throwing a bucket of cold water on the opening –night festivities by knocking off the host Wild, 5-4. After a pair of losses and a 2-1 victory over eventual finalist Fairbanks, Traverse City lost out on the goal-differential tiebreaker for a spot in the Cup title tilt. Bismarck topped Fairbanks in the final, with the North Stars finishing third. Wenatchee and three-time defending champion St. Louis finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

“There was a lot of parity – five very good teams,” Palumbo said. “Any one of the five could have won it, and it just came down to a tiebreaker to see who would play (3-1) Bismarck.”

In all, TC went 8-2 in the postseason, winning its four home playoff contests by a combined score of 20-3.

Looking ahead

While regular season leading scorer Doug Clifford is eligible to return, the Stars’ next five top offensive producers in 2009-10 – Garrett Thompson, Dan Radke, Eric McLintock, Nick Shkreli and Andy Huff – are moving on. The club must also look to replace the considerable contributions of Kyle Jean, Chris Salomone, Phil Wendecker, Bo Jacobs and Sean Burke. Strandberg and backup Chris Paliafito are also done.

“That’s a lot of talent and a ton of experience going out the door,” Palumbo admitted. “But it’s not like the cupboards are bare by any means. And we think we have some pretty solid talent coming in with the tenders we’ve signed.”

North Stars captain Travis White will be back, anchoring a seasoned unit that could include Chris Heineman, Trevor Campbell, Nilan Nagy, Curtis Heinz and Mike Yanis. Up front, Clifford, Eric Rivard, Tim Opie, Alec Shields, Kelin Ainsworth, Ryan Amin and Taylor Burden retain eligibility. The club will have to address its goaltending needs in the NAHL Draft and summer tryout season.

A whopping 10 players make up this year’s tender class, with a trio of blue-liners – Chris Barile (Compuware U18), Dan Milan (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s HS) and Alex Wiese (Honeybaked U18) – and seven forwards: Dan Cesarz (Honeybaked U18), Cody Loyer (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s HS), Nick Paluch (Lansing U18), Alex Sandora (Honeybaked U18), Nate Scurfield (Flint CSHL), Mike Szmatula (Lansing U18) and Chris Waterstreet (Detroit Catholic Central HS).

Summer tryouts begin in East Lansing later this month before an open camp at Centre ICE in June. The team’s annual invite-only training camp, which will help pare the roster for 2010-11, is slated for July 23-25 in Traverse City.

“We have some scoring to replace and some pretty good candidates coming back and signed to tenders and we’ll be looking at even more over the summer,” Palumbo said. “It was a great season and a fantastic group of guys. It’s tough to turn the page on all we went through and accomplished together, but there isn’t a lot of down time with the camps and the draft coming up.”

May 21-23
: Open Tryout Camp, East Lansing
May 26: 2010 NAHL Draft
June 25-27: Open Tryout Camp, Traverse City
July 23-25: Training Camp (invite-only)

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