Americans impress in expansion year, with just one veteran
by John Tranchina (courtesy of www.allenamericans.com)
ALLEN, Texas - It’s one thing for an expansion team to immediately stake its claim as one of the elite teams in their league, but what the Central Hockey League’s Allen Americans have accomplished - so far - in the 2009-10 season is remarkable.
Not only did the Americans post an impressive 42-17-5 regular season record in their inaugural year, finishing second in the Northern Conference standings, but they are now battling neck-and-neck with the CHL’s top-ranked team in the Conference Finals. The best-of-seven series is currently tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 at the Allen Event Center on Wednesday.
The Americans won their first playoff series in dramatic fashion, winning two straight at home to rebound from a 3-2 series deficit and defeat the Laredo Bucks in seven. And through it all, they’ve done it while utilizing just one ‘veteran’ player.
The CHL, in an effort to promote the development of younger players, limits teams to four roster spots occupied by players with over 300 games of professional hockey experience. Virtually every team in the league has taken advantage of that rule to infuse their lineup with the stabilizing influence that older players can provide.
But the Americans opted to adopt more of a developmental philosophy, seeking out younger, hungrier, more driven players, and employed just the one veteran, 30-year-old defenseman Erik Adams. Another part of the appeal of attracting players intent on advancing up the minor league hockey ladder is the club’s affiliation with the area’s NHL team, the Dallas Stars.
“I really don’t know if it was by design,” Americans coach and general manager Dwight Mullins said. “Our design was to target the 24-to-26-year-old hockey player and take advantage of the opportunity from an affiliation and a developmental process that was afforded to us. We just felt that was the direction that we wanted to go and how we wanted to structure our organization. As far as the veteran component, it really came down to fitting criteria, that’s how we made our selections and what we needed and as it’s worked out, the ratio is what it is. Our players have performed to the level that we anticipated they would, and that’s the reason we’ve had the success we’ve had.”
Team owner Doug Miller spoke about the importance of the connection to the Stars, and their AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars, which is based just outside Austin.
“It helps a lot, because they’re talking to Austin,” Miller said of the Stars’ organization. “We had 11 kids at AHL camps, so they know where we are, they know what we’ve got and that’s helping us recruit kids. They know we’re trying to move them up, where a lot of these teams at the CHL level, they’re trying to hide their players, they don’t want them going anywhere. We’re pushing them, and that gets around, so we’ve got kids calling us. We chose the high road and it’ll pay off.”
Already this season, four players have had stints in the AHL, while one Dallas prospect, Tyler Shelast, came down from the AHL squad to play five games with Allen.
In assembling the Americans, Mullins has received a lot of help from his well-connected associate coach/director of player personnel, Bill McDonald, as the duo stuck to a specific plan in recruiting the players that meshed into a talented and tight-knit group right from the beginning. McDonald, who actually ranks fifth in CHL history with 319 coaching victories from four different franchises, including the 1997 Cup champion Fort Worth Fire that was captained by Mullins, has proven to be an invaluable right-hand man. .
“I think that we set out some criteria in our recruiting and our signing process, and we really tried to stick to that criteria as closely as possible,” Mullins said. “And I think that allowed us to compile a group of guys that had a lot of similar characteristics as far as enthusiasm. They’re very good people, and I think when we brought that group together, that was a huge part of us being able to move forward a little more quickly in the hockey component. We just think that it provides a great level of entertainment and it lends a lot of credibility to our organization. I think for the coaching staff, it motivates us to make sure that we’re doing the things that we need to do to help these guys advance if they have that opportunity. I just think it’s a healthy environment to create. It’s a youthful environment and it’s fun to be a part of.”
“There’s no egos, these guys work for each other, it doesn’t matter who’s with who,” added Allen’s Director of Broadcasting/Play-by-Play man Tommy Daniels, formerly of the popular local sports radio station, KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket. “It’s what Dwight and Macker have said, their message to these guys at the beginning of the season was, ‘Hey look, we’re going to win as a team and lose as a team.’ I think that’s probably the biggest factor, it’s not a one-man show. Also, I think these guys like each other, too, and I think that makes a difference. These guys get along great off the ice, they’re all friends, and there aren’t cliques on this team. Everybody gets along.”
Even though the club was faced with a steady run of injuries, they continued to acquire talented, high-character players that stepped right into the lineup and contributed. The Americans’ ability to maintain impressive depth throughout the year under those circumstances was undoubtedly a significant reason for their success.
“The injury aspect is real unpredictable, and I think that we were real fortunate to take advantage of an opportunity to bring certain guys in,” said Mullins, who is in his first season as a professional coach but did play three seasons in the CHL himself. “Certain guys became available at certain times that we were able to plug in, that really helped keep our lineup solid. I think that was a huge key, and a lot of that credit goes to Bill McDonald. He has done an unbelievable job keeping up with different players and the availability of players, and that has been a huge positive for our organization.”
“We’ve had a lot of injuries to key guys this year and no matter who’s been down, whether it’s a top player or whether it’s been our backup goalie, everybody’s worked together,” Daniels said. “There may be guys in this league who have bigger numbers than (our players) do, but I think if you look at our balance on all three lines, that’s what’s made a difference. If you take a couple of guys out of our lineup, we’ve got plenty of depth to withstand it.”
One example of that is top goaltender Chris Whitley. He began the season as Charlie Effinger’s backup, but when Effinger was recalled to the AHL Stars, and later when he was injured, Whitley stepped into the crease and sparkled. He ultimately supplanted Effinger as the number one guy, and eventually, Effinger was traded to Missouri. Whitley went on to lead the CHL with 31 wins.
Another issue that can’t be overlooked is the first-class facility they’re playing in. The brand new Allen Event Center opened in November, forcing the squad to play their first seven games on the road, but that may have helped accelerate the growth of the team’s chemistry, especially after they posted a 5-1-1 record on that lengthy season-opening road trip.
“I think that we were faced with a lot of adversity,” Mullins said of the squad’s hot start. “The building wasn’t open and we played our first 10 out of 12 games on the road. I think the players bought into the type of team that we want to be and we’ve had success. I think that helps kind of sell what you’re trying to do as a coach and an organization and it’s allowed us to ride that through some good and some not-so-good performances.”
Their beautiful new building helped spur the Americans to a scintillating 23-5-4 home mark during the regular season.
Now in the midst of an exciting, tight playoff battle with Odessa, in which a Game 2 overtime loss left them tied 1-1 with three straight home games coming up, the Americans hope to continue the storybook season. As far as they’ve come already, they won’t be satisfied unless they bring home a championship.
“I definitely think we have to come with a competitive effort every night,” Mullins said of Allen’s chances of advancing to the Ray Miron President’s Cup Finals. “I think we learned early in Game 2, if we’re not ready to show up, we really have our hands full. Their power play is very explosive and we have to be really disciplined and the other thing is, we just need to keep taking advantage of opportunities presented to us. It’s going to be an interesting stretch of games here at home. It’s two very good hockey teams that are trying to accomplish the same goal and it’ll be entertaining.”
And the fact that they’ve done it their own way, without resorting to stocking the lineup with the full allotment of experienced veterans, makes the Americans’ achievements so far even more noteworthy.
“At the time, we had a choice to make and we chose that road, and whether that’s right or whether that’s wrong is yet to be determined, obviously,” Mullins said.
Actually, it already looks like it was the right move, regardless of how things unfold from here.