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'Young Guns' making a big impact in Dallas

by Steve Hunt

DALLAS -- When the Dallas Stars signed veterans Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney in July, pundits wondered about adding two players who had passed their 40th birthday.

As Dallas general manager Joe Nieuwendyk explained, the Stars added Jagr, 41, and Whitney, 40, for what they could bring on the ice as well as in the room as veteran mentors for a mostly young roster.

After catching a glimpse late last season of prospects like defenseman Brenden Dillon, a defenseman signed out of the Western Hockey League in 2011, and wing Reilly Smith, a third-round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, Nieuwendyk wanted to see how they would handle significant NHL ice time. Later he added center Cody Eakin, acquired in a June trade with Washington for Mike Ribeiro, and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, the 14th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, to that list.

Brenden Dillon
Defense - DAL
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 6
SOG: 46 | +/-: 3
Dillon, 22, who has been paired with veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas, has been rock solid. He hasn't missed a game and ranks fourth on Dallas in ice time at 20:17 per game.

"Well, I think he just keeps getting better and better every game. He's had big minutes to play against top players in the League and he's handled himself very well," Robidas said. "He's been very steady, very consistent, very physical, very active with his skating."

Until recently, the Stars rookie d-man had also been living with Robidas and his family, an arrangement that Robidas' two children, who consider Dillon an older brother, loved.

"For the kids, it's going to be a little of an adjustment [not having him around]. The kids really liked him," Robidas said. "It was a really good experience. I would do it again."

Like Dillon, Eakin has also not missed a game as the 21-year-old center has 15 points (four goals) through 26 games. He appeared in 30 games last season as a rookie with the Capitals and has thrived in Dallas despite playing up and down the lineup.

Oleksiak, who has one point in 13 games, is currently in his second NHL stint after also playing for the American Hockey League's Texas Stars this season. The 6-foot-7 defenseman also has a catchy nickname, "Big Rig," because of his large frame.

Antoine Roussel is a 23-year-old wing who skated for the AHL's Chicago Wolves and Providence Bruins before Dallas signed him last summer as a free agent. Since scoring in his NHL debut Feb. 2 against the Phoenix Coyotes, he has been a steady contributor with nine points (five goals) in 17 games.

Smith is a 21-year-old wing who made his NHL debut late last season after completing his sophomore season at Miami (Ohio) University. After his three-game cameo with the Stars in 2012, he has assumed a bigger role and has responded with five points (three goals) in 24 games.

Overall, the Stars have had 10 players, a group including 2012 All-Star center Jamie Benn, who are 23 or younger hit the ice this season. Their contributions to date have impressed Nieuwendyk.

The Stars added a couple of key veterans in the offseason, but a collection of youth -- led by Cody Eakin -- has also made a big impact. (Photo: Jamie Sabau/NHLI)

"Yeah, all our young guys really [have contributed]," Nieuwendyk said. "Reilly Smith has been terrific. He looks like he's on the verge of breaking through and being a consistent point producer. [Antoine] Roussel, who saw this coming? He's just a kid we talked about last summer. We brought Roussel in and he's been terrific. It's really refreshing to have kids that are appreciative and work as hard as they can to stay in the League."

Nieuwendyk and the rest of the front office deserve credit for the current success of these young players, but Stars coach Glen Gulutzan, who already had a strong reputation as a coach who developed young players while in the ECHL and AHL prior to the Stars hiring him in June 2011, also deserves credit for his positive approach.

Ask any of Dallas' young players and they say Gulutzan has helped accelerate their development. That's because instead of benching them when they make a mistake, he lets them work through it and learn from a wide array of situations.

"I know for me, it's been huge," Smith said. "One thing he [Gulutzan] stressed and that I already knew is that it's all right for me to make mistakes. It gives you a little more freedom. It gives you a little more time with the puck. You feel a little bit more comfortable."

Oleksiak also credits Gulutzan and his staff for helping shorten his NHL learning curve.

"Yeah, I think the coaching staff's been phenomenal," Oleksiak said. "They're all great helping us find our way. If we mess up, they let us know but they won't put too much pressure on us. They want us to learn from mistakes and they give us a second chance, which is nice. You don't go out there feeling like you have a target on your back every shift."

A youth movement is clearly underway in Dallas, even off the ice as Benn, Eakin, Dillon, Oleksiak, Roussel and Smith are currently featured on billboards and newspaper ads proclaiming "The Young Guns Have Arrived."

Judging from the results thus far, they definitely have.

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