Roope Hintz needed a full season in the American Hockey League to prepare himself for a future role with the Dallas Stars, and the forward prospect has shown Stars management how far his development has come.
Hintz, 21, a second-round pick (No. 49) in the 2015 NHL Draft, has played a major role in helping Texas, the Stars' AHL affiliate, reach the Calder Cup Finals against Toronto (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Texas won 2-1 on the road in Game 2 on Sunday to even the of the best-of-7 series 1-1. Toronto had won 10 consecutive playoff games and also had a 13-game home winning streak, including the regular season, before the loss. The next three games in the series will be in Texas, starting with Game 3 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN2).
"It's good to go back to Austin now with one win [in Toronto]," Hintz said. "We have confidence."
Dallas took a patient approach with Hintz and kept him with Texas all season. His success this season could put him in contention for a full-time job in Dallas next season. Hintz has attracted considerable attention from Stars management and earned the trust of Texas coach Derek Laxdal.
"Roope has taken some huge strides," Laxdal said. "One of his assets is his speed. He is a big body (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who can skate at a high speed, make plays at high speed."
Hintz also has a good hockey mind and playmaking ability to complement those physical attributes.
He is second among rookies in the playoffs with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 17 games. He had six points (three goals, three assists) in the six-game win against Rockford (Chicago Blackhawks) in the conference final. His overtime goal in Game 6 clinched Texas' spot in the Calder Cup Finals.
Hintz's playoff performance followed a strong regular season; he had 35 points (20 goals, 15 assists) in 70 games in his first season in North America. He had spent the previous three seasons with Ilves of Liiga, the top professional league in his native Finland.
His 20 goals and 153 shots on goal were second for Texas this season.
Laxdal is not one to hesitate to shake up his forward lines as he sees necessary, but he's mostly left Hintz at left wing on a line with center with Brian Flynn, a veteran of 275 NHL regular-season games, with other players rotating at right wing on the line.
The AHL tests most young players, and Hintz had the added challenge of adjusting to the North American game.
"I have learned the small-ice game better," Hintz said. "It's less speed here, a more physical game."
Laxdal has leaned on Hintz to use his size and strength, assets that he can utilize more on the smaller North American ice.
"His biggest challenge throughout the year has just been playing with that consistency and playing a little heavier," Laxdal said.
That message has sunk in for Hintz.
"It's good when we do that," Hintz said. "We [force opponents to] turn pucks over.
"I try to work hard every day, play my best game, and just do my best."
He has a big fan in Laxdal.
"He has had a good playoff for us and been a big part of this drive, and he is going to be a big part of this series," Laxdal said.