by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
It all started with a casual chat at Dallas Stars training camp. Third-year winger Adam Mascherin mentioned to Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham that he and rookie center Riley Damiani had played together on and off in the Ontario Hockey League for two years.
It turned out to be a momentous side conversation.
“I remember telling [Texas Stars assistant coach] Travis Morin that we should be sure to start these two together at camp,” said Graham. “Maybe we’ll see how it blossoms and if it doesn’t work, we’ll make adjustments.”
And blossom it did. Thirty games into the season, the duo has been inseparable and, with the addition of Nick Baptiste, has become one of the most potent lines in the AHL, combining for 76 points. Mascherin sits tied for fifth in league scoring, and Damiani is tied for first among rookies. Not to be forgotten, Baptiste notched a career-high 11-game point streak throughout March.
Damiani’s and Mascherin’s Stars careers started on the same day, just a few hours apart at the 2018 NHL Draft, coincidentally in Dallas. Mascherin was drafted in the fourth round and Dallas called Damiani in the fifth.
“[Mascherin] texted me right away,” said Damiani. “He was watching at home. He said he kind of had a feeling when he went to Dallas that they’re gonna look at me afterwards.”
Mascherin might have had an inside track on that draft pick. In the call that Jim Nill made to congratulate the winger, he asked about one of his Kitchener teammates.
“They called me to congratulate me and welcome me to the organization, and they asked me how [Damiani] was as a teammate, and obviously I had some positive things to say.”
Mascherin pushes off taking any credit for the draft pick, of course, but definitely jokes around with Damiani about the call.
Without a preseason game, the first chance to see the pairing together was opening night in Des Moines, Iowa. Texas dropped eight goals that night, and the duo was in on five of them. It was a promising beginning for two players both facing personal uncertainty in an uncertain year overall. Mascherin was coming back from a season-ending shoulder injury, and Damiani was starting his pro career under very strange circumstances with the pandemic.
In truth, the pandemic may have had a silver lining for Mascherin as he was close to a return when the league suspended the season in March 2020. Instead he had extra time to recover over the summer.
“It was the lightest I’ve ever seen him,” said Graham of first watching Mascherin at camp this year. “I think it’s helped his first three to five strides, and I think that extra confidence and that extra ability to either pull away from a check or use some speed and explosiveness in a tight area in the offensive zone has been extremely beneficial for him.”
Mascherin had a lot of trouble finding a place to work out and get training and conditioning amid lockdown restrictions in Canada. However, working with Dallas strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen and scout Rich Peverley, who is based in Ontario, he was able to adjust his workout regimen to extend his training period for this season and adjust his diet to maintain it throughout the year.
“I think shedding a few really opened up less inflammation on my body, and I was able to train harder and sustain my fitness from the summer,” Mascherin said.
For Damiani’s part, the oddities of a pandemic rookie season have helped create deeper connections with his teammates and made him feel closer to the club.
“We don’t hang out with anybody else outside the rink. Obviously in years past, you have friends outside the game, but this year, we don’t really have that. You can’t really talk to anyone. No one could come up and visit you, especially for me being from Canada.
“You really rely on your teammates a lot more, and you build stronger connections. I think it’s a comfortable place. For me, I think the guys really helped me out. And I know I’m not only speaking for myself; a lot of the other younger guys feel the same way.”
Being so in-sync has led to on-ice success but surely teams are circling the line on their pre-scout boards. What has made them successful is the varied nature of their attack, according to Graham.
“They’ve scored goals in all three facets, whether it’s off the rush, O-zone play or special teams. Their attack has been fairly balanced in that sense, which is what makes them a tougher threat and tougher to cover. The fact that they can make high-end plays off the rush without forcing it while still playing an honest hockey game is what makes them effective.”
Even when they aren’t scoring, the line takes attention from the shutdown lines on the other side and opens up the scoring opportunities for the rest of the Stars attack.
“I think we’ve just been pretty consistent,” said Mascherin. “Even on nights when we’re not scoring I think we’re driving the energy of our team, and it’s hard to split a line up like that when you see the consistent effort.”
As to what’s next, both players know that the NHL is the goal, and their scoring accolades in the AHL are a step on the journey but not the final destination.
“We just try to go up every night and contribute and help our team win,” said Mascherin.
Damiani added, “I’m just going to do the little things. Let them notice me and let them know that I’m working hard.”
The league and the Dallas Stars are certainly noticing.
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.