WASHINGTON -- Dallas Stars
defenseman Sheldon Souray
said he was just like any other player in the American Hockey League last season.
Sure, he had 650 games of NHL experience and was a three-time NHL All-Star. There also was that pink elephant in the room – the $4.5 million Souray was making to ride the bus with the AHL's Hershey Bears. But at the end of the day, like any minor leaguer, Souray said he was waiting for his phone to ring with news that he was heading back to "the show."
"The only thing I can say is that it was very unsettling," Souray said of his season in NHL exile.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman signed a five-year, $27 million deal with the Oilers in 2007, but differences between player and management made it nearly impossible for Souray to stay in Edmonton beyond the 2009-10 season. With no takers on the trade market -- Souray's $5.4 million salary cap hit may have had something to do with that -- and Souray having cleared waivers, the Oilers loaned him to Hershey last October.
"You just don't know what might happen," Souray said of life in the AHL. "I wasn't in any different situation than most of those guys -- if not all of them -- in that we were all trying to get to the next level. It's just unsettling for everyone down there."
Defense - DAL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 13
SOG: 38 | +/-: 11
Souray never really settled in Hershey himself, living out of the Hershey Lodge hotel with the belief that his stint in the minors would be brief. Though numerous NHL scouts attended his AHL games, and despite the Oilers placing Souray on waivers multiple times with the hope of another team putting in a claim, the call to the NHL never came.
"It was just mentally -- you've got to be strong. That's a real challenge," he said. "There are reasons why things happen, and sometimes you can't control those things. It was just another learning experience, but it was definitely a test mentally."
Souray dressed in 40 games with the Bears, the Washington Capitals
' top affiliate, scoring 4 goals and 19 points. He also missed time due to hand and knee injuries but was, by all accounts, a good soldier down on the farm.
"It was an unsettling situation for me personally, but those guys in the organization made it a lot easier for me to go down there and just try to do my thing," he said. "Ultimately it was just a chapter in the book that's still being written."
The Oilers bought out the final year of his contract last June, making him a free agent July 1. Just hours after free agency began, he was back in the NHL courtesy of GM Joe Nieuwendyk
and the Stars.
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"I think it was probably even more meaningful because it came from an organization that I felt would be a good fit for me and one that I had wanted to be a part of for some years now," said Souray, who played in Montreal under former Dallas GM Bob Gainey and was coached by one-time Stars center Guy Carbonneau
"Luckily for me the organization felt that maybe they had a need to fill and I was one of those types of players … I'm just thankful and grateful for the opportunity and I felt that once I got the opportunity somewhere, I'd make the most of it."
Souray's opportunity came in the form of a one-year, $1.65 million deal -- a signing that could rank among the NHL's biggest bargains by season's end.
The Stars will go into Friday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins
(7 p.m., NHLN-US) with a League-best 11-3-0 record. The 35-year-old Souray leads all Dallas defensemen with 4 goals and 13 points, and leads the League with a plus-11 rating.
"As much as everybody talks about the points and the shot and everything," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan, "what we like is the way 'Hammer' (Souray) has defended. He's played top minutes against the top players that we've faced, he's gotten difficult assignments and so he's been a real steadying force for us back there."
Souray primarily has been paired with Stephane Robidas
, the longest-tenured Stars defenseman and Souray's teammate in Montreal from 2000-02.
"Bringing in Shelly has changed the whole dynamic of our team," Robidas said. "You can tell when we played Anaheim (a 3-1 Stars win Oct. 21), bigger guys weren't coming around the net as much as they used to because they knew that they might get 'Hammer' there. He's well-respected and guys are a little afraid sometimes to challenge him, so it's been very good."
The Stars' mantra this season is to be among the most difficult teams to play against in the NHL. According to Robidas, Souray only can help them attain their goal.
"Everything that he brings, it's all things that we didn't really have last year-- his shot from the point, his physicality, his experience. He's a mean and tough guy to play against and those are all attributes that we were looking for on our team, so he's been a great addition for us."