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Dallas D-men Fistric, Niskanen on fast track

by John McGourty
Defenseman Mark Fistric could find himself playing some key minutes with the Dallas Stars this season.
Everyone who traveled to this remote and beautiful part of Michigan came here for a reason, most to track the development of recent NHL draft picks at this Detroit Red Wings-sponsored prospects tournament. The host Centre ICE Arena is jam-packed with NHL executives, coaches, scouts, rabid hockey fans and young prospects for the four daily games.

One of the attractions is the emerging Dallas Stars' defensive duo of Mark Fistric (500K ) and Matt Niskanen. They're actually part of a talented quartet of Stars' defensive prospects that also includes Niklas Grossman and Ivan Vishnevskiy. Two members of this group could start the season in Dallas, three are likely to play some games there this season and all four could be in the lineup as early as next season.

"Vishnevskiy has to go back to junior after we give him a good, long look at training camp," Stars' General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "He'll go back and play in the Quebec league for Rouyn-Noranda. Fistric and Niskanen, with the depth on our team, I view them as guys who will have a chance to play some NHL games this season. Hopefully, they'll push very hard and make our decisions very hard at the trading deadline. We need younger players coming in and that's an area that if you have a surplus, you have assets to play with. We think these three players give us that. We're getting older. Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher aren't getting any younger. We like where we're sitting in this area.

"None of these young players is going to push Zubov or Boucher out of work in the near future," Armstrong said. "They're special players, proven NHL players. But these young guys are coming. We're hoping to get them to the NHL soon enough to learn from these players so they can gain from the wisdom and experience that the veterans have so it will help them in the long term."

The Stars’ current defense is laden with skilled players, carefully designed to adapt to the new rules and standard of enforcement put in place two years ago. But hockey is constantly evolving, even if sometimes it's just a matter of what was old is new again. After the success enjoyed by the reigning Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, look for more teams to start adding big, strong defensive defenseman. This time around, though, they have to be able to skate better to keep up with their unhooked, un-slashed and un-held rivals. Armstrong saw this trend coming.

"We have two defending defensemen in Niklas Grossman, who has a good chance to make our team this year," Armstrong said. "We're counting on him coming in and pushing very hard for that opportunity. Then Mark Fistric is coming behind there. We want a good balance there. We have Trevor Dailey who is a good-skating young player. We don't want to lean to heavily one way or another in today's NHL.

"Niskanen is a two-way player who will go onto the skill side. Vishnevskiy, our first pick a year ago who's not here because he's playing in the Canada-Russia series, is a skill player."

Fistric is the captain of the Stars' prospect tournament team here, no surprise because he tends to captain his teams wherever he plays. His father, Boris, was a Western Canadian junior-hockey star who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and played a couple professional minor-league seasons before settling down in Edmonton to raise a family. You can see his influence in his son's preparation. The old man fit the model for an NHL player and so does his son: generous and gracious off the ice, nasty on skates.

Niskanen is the other kind of defenseman, quick and smooth skating and comfortable when joining the rush up ice. Fistric is the kind of player who will have Niskanen's back. Unfortunately, Niskanen got hurt in the first game here and won't play again until training camp next week.

"Niskanen got hurt Friday night, just a minor injury, and he's going to miss the rest of this tournament," Armstrong said. "We're going to be very cautious because he's a blue-chip prospect for us. We think he'll be ready for our main training camp. Mark has had a year of experience in the American league. His leadership qualities are true. They come from junior. Mark wore the 'C' with the Vancouver Giants. He showed that leadership quality as a first-year player in Iowa. It's important to have that type of presence when you bring in these 18- and 19-year-olds. I think he's done very well for us here."

"I trained really hard this summer and was looking forward to playing these games," Niskanen said. "I got almost a full game under my belt. It kind of hurts to watch the guys out there, but take it as it is, I guess, and try to get ready as soon as I can."

Niskanen, a native of Virginia, Minn., an Iron Range hockey hotbed, played two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before joining Fistric on the AHL Iowa Stars for 13 games. Fistric played all 80 games and was an alternate captain as a rookie.

"I was paired with Fistric a little bit last year in Iowa," Niskanen said. "He was very solid. I really like playing with him. He's a good match for me. Our styles complement each other. I played a little bit with Vishnevskiy this summer at prospects camp. He was fun to play with because we could sure move the puck well together.

"They are two very different kinds of players," Niskanen said. "Fistric is really solid and had a very good first pro season last year. He's a real competitor. Vishnevskiy just has a load of skill. He can really skate, handles the puck and shoots the puck very well. Both are very promising prospects, in my mind. I think Dallas has a good base in defensemen."

Fistric, 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds at age 21, was Dallas' first pick, 28th overall, in 2004 and is still developing. He came out of juniors with the rap of no offensive ability, but put up two goals and 22 assists in his first pro season. He was asked if we seeing a new side of him.

Due to an injury suffered in the first game of the Traverse City Tournament, Matt Niskanen will be out of action until the Stars open training camp.

"I feel that I was drafted by the Dallas Stars to be a shutdown defenseman. I take great pride in being able to kill penalties and go against other teams' top lines and make their night very hard," Fistric said. "If I'm doing that, I feel I'm doing my job and that will enable me to win a job in Dallas one day. As far as the offensive side goes, I feel that any little bit I can chip in is great for me and the team I'm playing on. So, for me to get pucks on net and maybe contribute 20-plus points a season is great for me and it helps out the team as well."

"His game is turned toward the defensive side of things, but he makes a good, strong first pass," Armstrong said. "He's willing to jump into the play a little bit. We see more (offensive ability) than has been described elsewhere. He's not going to be an offensive defenseman, but I think he can be a good, two-way defending defenseman. He'll put up points because he can pass the puck."

"Mark was at training camp a year ago and did well, but he's 100 percent better now," said Brett Hull, the special assistant to Stars' President Jim Lites.

"A year of pro experience," Fistric explained. "When I was able to make that step up to the American league and play a full season against grown men who were a lot better players, I think I was able to improve and learn a lot. When I come into tournaments like this, I have a lot experience that I can bring to the ice and it makes me a better hockey player, with the knowledge that I've gained."

Despite his size, Fistric is in top condition, according to Stars' physical testing. That means he has to work a lot harder than lighter players and he does.

"A guy my size, 225-230 pounds, that kind of body frame has a lot harder time getting going, especially with the starts and stops of a defensemen," Fistric said. "So, I take great pride in the summer to work hard on my cardio, lots of sprinting and cardio work. I have the attitude that I want to succeed and I'm not going to let fatigue get in the way of where I want to get to."

Fistric is aware that he might be sent back to Iowa for more seasoning, but he wants to convince Armstrong and coach Dave Tippett that he belongs in the NHL now. He's been sent down from training camp before and responded well.

"I'm going to Dallas in a week with the mentality that I'm going to make that squad," Fistric said. "If it doesn't work out right away and I get sent back to Iowa, I'll go there with the mindset that I'm going to be really hard to play against, take charge in the American Hockey League and make it so that Dallas has to make an adjustment and make room for me to play there. If I do get sent down, my goal will be to improve and get better every day."

You come away from a conversation with Fistric understanding why coaches name him captain and teammates vote him MVP. He credits his mom and dad for a solid upbringing and his dad for explaining what to expect from professional hockey.

"My dad has been a huge part of my development. He went through it all," Fistric said. "He was drafted, played pro hockey and went through a lot. He helped me progress throughout my career with little tips that I might not otherwise have gotten. It was just a little bit of advice, here and there, that I think helped me move a little ahead of the pack. He's been a great influence and great supporter. Both he and my mom have been great and I couldn't have asked for better parents."

You get the impression they couldn't have asked for a better son.

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