FRISCO, Texas — Comfort is a key factor for the success of a young NHL player.
Whether it’s making the jump from Major Junior or the American Hockey League, how well a player adapts to a new role is going to define success and whether they’ll stick on the NHL roster.
As one of the bottom rungs on the NHL totem poll, can a player thrive in limited minutes and make an impact? Several can’t, and that’s why several life-long minor leaguers never make the jump to the NHL.
But when a player gets bigger minutes and added opportunities — either by design or by force — it becomes much easier to find that comfort level and perform at a high level.
That’s what is happening in Dallas right now, where the Stars have dealt with an unheard of rash of injuries.
Jason Spezza, Jiri Hudler, Cody Eakin, Mattias Janmark, Patrick Sharp, and Ales Hemsky are dealing with ailments — some longer than others. That’s a big chunk of offense missing for Dallas, but younger players like Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie and Devin Shore have stepped in and filled the void.
“I think what’s easy for them now is they’re getting a bigger opportunity,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “They’re getting power play time, they’re more involved in the game. I think that’s easy for them. The hardest part for a young player, who has usually been one of the best in the American League, is he comes up and he doesn’t play those minutes. He has to adjust his game. He’s typically not on your power play, he’s a top power play guy in the American League. I think right now we’re seeing some success with our guys really getting to play their position. And they’ve done a nice job.”
And the AHL call-ups are also delivering for the Stars. Gemel Smith made his NHL debut earlier this week and was killing penalties in a 3-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets. He also drew a key penalty that set up a go-ahead goal by Patrick Eaves later in the game.
Justin Dowling made his NHL debut in that victory and the 26-year-old “rookie” had an assist and created a couple chances — a nice boost for a team that has lived and died on depth scoring.
“Guys like that have seen the little bit of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ruff said. “I think this should help them. It should motivate them. And then if that motivation helps you, then you can become a (NHL) player.”
Dowling’s light at the end of the tunnel is particularly encouraging for the Stars and Ruff. While it’s solidified the Stars faith they have strong depth in the AHL, it’s also an example that the coaches can point to at what type of work ethic it takes to even play one NHL game.
“I think it just tells you that if you have this burning desire and in the background there is enough talent you can make it,” Ruff said. “I think there is a lot of guys that have enough talent but don’t have the desire. If those two things collide you can make it.”
And for the Stars, right now they’re going to have to make it by relying on the young, inexperienced players.