The only consistent reason for driving down Highway 290 in Houston is to get to Hill Country to stuff your face with delicious barbeque. Driving through central Texas with the windows down smelling the Post Oak, Hickory, and Pecan smoke at various random spots with a clear sky and nothing resembling cosmopolitan society for miles is one of the more peaceful drives you can make.

My Yogi Bear floating-through-the-air-after-a-pie bit towards barbeque took a backseat Saturday night to Texas Stars hockey, though.

Watching the games from up high and in person gives you a different perspective on the action. You can really focus on individual players of interest. It’s no wonder that scouts don’t sit on their couches filing reports from their TVs.

I will almost always take the opportunity to watch free hockey if it comes my way. Texas Stars games are very enjoyable, but the focus of this trip was to get an early-season look at two of the Stars top prospects: defenseman Julius Honka and forward Denis Gurianov.

Gurianov was the player I was most interested in seeing. Friday night was his AHL debut. Taking in his second game in North America seemed like a no-brainer, and I left the game still wanting to see what he’s capable of doing. The most noticeable play Gurianov made Saturday night was a turnover at his own blueline. He then skated off the ice for a line change as the Checkers attacked his net.

He wasn’t very noticeable overall, but it’s still way early to draw any conclusions on him. He did make a couple of nice simple plays, but defensively he still needs some work. It will be interesting to see how he looks around Christmas.

And then there’s Honka, my large adult son. Honka still oozes offensive talent. When the puck is on his stick, good things will happen. He has a lot of flash and confidence. He’s a pest. He’s willing to make risky plays and the killer part is that he usually does make the play. He had one fairly egregious turnover, but I don’t recall any others.

Honka probably had the most impressive individual play of the night. He picked up the puck in his own end, skated coast-to-coast, burned at least three different Charlotte Checkers in the neutral zone, and threaded a pass through the slot that ultimately led to nothing. The ability is there though, and an NHL forward makes something happen on the end of that play.

Unfortunately, defense is going to hold him back. Offensively and in transition he looks like an NHLer among AHLers. Without the puck though he still has some work to do. The Checkers diced him up pretty good on a two-on-one at his own blueline. From time to time coverage causes him some issues, which will be particularly fatal with the NHL club. Honka took a couple of penalties that night, too, which isn’t particularly ideal either.

One thing I’ve heard about Honka is how tireless of a worker he is and how committed he is to being successful. Defensively he uses that same effort. It just isn’t all there yet. On the penalty kill he did block a few cross slot passes, and the coaching staff does trust him in these situations, which does say something about how they view him.

Oh, did I mention that he’s 20? He’s going to be a fantastic player if he figures his own end out, and he’s going to be an NHLer whether he does or not.

Surprisingly, the player I ended up being the most impressed with was goaltender Maxime Lagace. Goaltending is well-known for being a crap shoot so I won’t even pretend to think I know how he’s going to turn out. What I did see though was a calm goalie that made several key saves from in tight in a 43-save performance.

Want some scattered notes? Of course you do.

  • Gurianov recorded his first AHL point with an assist on Gemel Smith’s goal.
  • Brandon DeFazio played a solid game across the board and was very noticeable.
  • Well-regarded Charlotte Checkers goalie Alex Nedeljkovic had his second rough night in a row. At one point a scout was shaking his head as he tried to awkwardly play the puck.
  • Mattias Backman seems like the next man up if injuries should strike. He played a very composed game in his own end and looked like he would be able to hold his own in a limited emergency NHL role.
  • Checkers defenseman Haydn Fleury had four shots in the first period and was all over the place.