Traverse City looks to bolster blue line
by By Lance-Michael Correia
The Traverse City North Stars' defensive corps was a quite a bit more stingy in 2007-08 than in previous seasons, riding an experienced unit and improved backstopping to a near-full goal per game's worth of improvement as compared to 2006-07 (4.45 to 3.5 last year).
Now heading toward the 2008-09 campaign, the Stars will look to re-stock the blue line cupboard, replacing a quartet of defenders who aged out of the NAHL in Alex Breeden, Ben Plocar, Jonathan Sheridan and NAHL All-Star Jameson Raymond.
"We lose a lot back there numbers-wise, no question about it -- four out of the seven," said Stars coach-GM Anthony Palumbo, whose team is in the midst of its first open tryout camp of the summer this weekend at Centre ICE arena. "Those were some steady guys -- guys with experience. Luckily, we have some guys coming back with the same qualities. Now we've got to find a few more. We may even carry eight (defensemen) this year.
"Even 3.5 (goals against) is still not good enough. The three we got back -- we'll be looking for big things from them -- and the guys we bring in will need to catch on pretty quick."
Leading the returning blueliners is Chris Heineman, who will likely become the club's all-time leader in games played by a defenseman this season -- his third in TC. Phil Wendecker, who was a Stars tender last summer before a lower body injury cut his rookie season short, and Tyler Stephens -- who enjoyed a brilliant initial NAHL campaign after being selected by the Stars with the third overall pick in last spring's entry draft -- are also eligible to return in 2008-09.
"Chris gives us a lot of toughness, and he's a shut-down defender that can mark the opposing team's top forward," Palumbo said of Heineman, who had a career-best three goals to go with five assists in 56 outings last season.
"He has some offensive skills, but that's not what we ask of him."
Heinemann says he's not looking to join the rush or to go end-to-end with the puck.
"That's not my role," he said. "Everybody has to play their role and that's not mine. It's a big year for us as a team, and a big year for me, because this is a critical time for me to try to make an impression on colleges."
While Heineman -- third on the team with 102 penalty minutes -- is content to be the stay-at-home defender, both Stephens and Wendecker are more apt to seek their fortunes in the offensive zone more frequently.
Stephens led all TC blueliners with five goals and assisted on 19 others, while Wendecker registered five points in just 35 outings before a broken kneecap usurped the final month of the season.
"We were very lucky to get Tyler in the draft," Palumbo said. "And he improved dramatically under the tutelage of (associate head coach) Mike (Mattuecci). He's a great team player and a great kid."
Stephens underscored his team-first mentality when recalling his favorite moments from his first NAHL go-round. Instead of citing his game-winning overtime goal on March 4 against the U.S. National Team Development Program -- a goal that secured the first Stars home shutout in club history -- the Rockford native says the season's final weekend at Marquette was what sticks in his mind.
"Beating the Rangers, getting the SmithBarney Challenge Cup from them, and not finishing in last place," Stephens said. "That meant a lot to us as a team, and sort of validated the incredible stretch run we had at the end of last season."
Palumbo says Wendecker is among the NAHL's swiftest bipeds, and that his off-season regimen is as important as anyone's on the club.
"Phil's upside is off the charts," he surmised. "He could really be an offensive force back there -- heck, he's already one of the better skaters in our league. Coming off the broken knee, this weekend (camp) will be the first real heavy-duty action for him in quite a while."
The Livonia Churchill product says he's just eager to help the team, and can't wait for 2008-09.
"Right now, the big thing is just building strength (in the knee) to get it where it was before," he said. "I just want to get back to trying to make an impact -- I just want to be a regular contributor to the team."
Palumbo, Matteucci and assistants Chad Fournier and Bob Fernandez -- and the rest of the Stars scouting staff -- will be keeping a keen eye out for potential defensive standouts this weekend. Palumbo says that a pair of tenders will get a good, long look, including Mike Schenfeld, who is competing for the Gold Team this weekend.
"I'm looking for guys that can compete at this level as well as the next level (college)," Palumbo said. "Mike and Bo (Jacobs) -- those are guys we think fit that description or we wouldn't have tendered them."
Palumbo also says that having a year of junior-A hockey under his own belt will aid in the selection process.
"Until you stand behind that bench and see, you won't have as good a feel for the pace and the strength of the North American League game," he added. "Now, it feels like we're even more well-equipped to gauge the talent."
The North Stars' camp continues through the weekend, culminating with Sunday morning's All-Star Game, in which the top players from this camp will be selected to compete. The top performers from this camp and the June 13-15 camp will be invited back to the July 25-27 camp, at which the 2008-09 roster will be selected.