After the injury-riddled bust that was the 2016-17 season, it was quite fitting that the Stars should open Training Camp 2017 in a building just off the aptly-named New Hope Drive.
An eager, optimistic Stars club boarded buses at their headquarters in Frisco Thursday for the three-hour drive to Cedar Park. After General Manager Jim Nill seemingly made all the right moves over the summer, the entire organization circled September 15 on their calendars in anticipation. When the team stepped onto the ice at the H-E-B Center Friday morning, Nill saw the seeds he planted in the offseason begin to sprout.
New head coach Ken Hitchcock set the tone immediately, conveying instructions to the team in a loud, clear voice. Hitch didn’t yell at the players when explaining drills, but those of us in the stands could hear every word. Message received: The coach’s intent will be heard and understood by the players.
Defenseman John Klingberg was all smiles on the first day of camp. How happy was the skilled Swede to get going? Very happy, if his choice of adjectives was any indication: In answering his first interview question on Friday, Klingberg used four “greats” and two “awesomes.” He seemed genuinely excited about the defensive structure Hitch and assistant coach Rick Wilson are putting into place, as well as the possibility of being paired with veteran blueliner Marc Methot.
The most impressive player on day one? Julius Honka stood out for me. In particular, his passing seemed to be in midseason form, sharp and on-target. More importantly, Honka’s coach noticed him, too.
Hitchcock gave a glowing review of Honka after practice. "Doesn't look like a player that's got any inclination of going back to the (AHL)."
— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) September 15, 2017
Subsequent days have only reinforced my initial impression. The young Finn is simply a joy to watch, and he’s only going to get better.
Pace: It’s Not Just Picante Sauce
If the Stars had a Word of the Week for camp, it would be “pace.” That word was used frequently throughout camp by management, coaches and players alike.
This is nothing new; after all, this team was built for speed and used it to great effect just two years ago. What’s different is Hitchcock’s emphasis on playing at high speed within a clearly defined structure.
“Everybody talks about this word that you want to play ‘fast,’ but there’s got to be a method to it,” said the coach after Friday’s practice sessions. “So we’re just putting the method in place where everything we do, every drill, is set to play as fast as we can, to advance the puck as quickly as we can…”
Put another way, Hitch is saying the Stars need to grab ahold of that line between speed and chaos and wrestle it to the ground like a demon cobra. That battle began last Friday. It’s not over yet, but the team is making good progress.
On a completely unrelated note, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby might just be the greatest documentary of all time.
The Stars’ coach doesn’t just preach speed and structure; he’s a stickler for attention to detail, too. Saturday morning, Hitchcock stopped one drill to bark at a forward, who was standing a couple of feet from the half boards, to “get your a** ON the boards” to cut off the point. He then directed a defenseman to move from the top of the crease to the goal line, to seal off the area behind the net. It’s a couple of feet here, a couple of feet there, but those seemingly minor adjustments could make all the difference in a game.
Young winger Nick Caamano scored twice in Sunday’s prospects scrimmage and was denied a hat trick by an unforgiving post. His performance impressed the coaching staff and earned the 19-year-old a spot in the lineup for Tuesday’s preseason opener against the St. Louis Blues. The odds of the youngster making the roster this season are slim, but the future looks bright. Between Jamie Benn, Klingberg and Caamano, I’m starting to think the Stars should acquire more fifth-round draft picks.
Forward Justin Dowling also drew attention Sunday, notching two goals and a post and earning praise from Hitchcock. The 5-foot-10 center went undrafted at each stage of his hockey career and worked his way up from the ECHL to play a handful of games in Dallas last season. His story reminds me of a recently-retired grinder who used to skate for the Stars. Here’s hoping Dowling enjoys the same success as Vernon Fiddler.
Quote of the Week
“I think you should take every training camp with the same mentality, that you’re going in fighting for a job. I don’t think it matters where you are in the pecking order. You go out there and play your game to the best of your ability and you’re going to give yourself a good chance.” — Justin Dowling