The 25-year-old bruiser from Richmond, BC, has played a significant role in the deep playoff run experienced by Dallas’ top minor league affiliate, which continues next week in the Calder Cup Finals against the Hershey Bears.
Through 18 playoff games, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Sawada has contributed two goals and seven points, but he knows he won’t get back to Dallas with offense. That task will require a much more well-rounded performance and Sawada has been delivering just that throughout the post-season.
“I just try to do what I have to do to get up to Dallas, which is being physical, playing good defensive hockey and trying to get the puck to the guys who score goals,” said Sawada, who was called up three different times this season to the big club, seeing action in five NHL games. “I think I ended off the year pretty good. I had a solid start to the playoffs and I just hope I can keep playing that same way for at least a couple of weeks.”
Because the Stars didn’t have their own top-level minor league affiliate last season, their prospects were scattered throughout the AHL and Sawada landed in Manitoba, which ultimately fell in six games to Hershey in the Finals. Now, Sawada, who recorded four goals and eight points in 22 playoff contests last year, is on the precipice of facing Hershey in the championship round again. But this time, it is with a team full of Stars, including Dallas’ own standout rookie Jamie Benn
, who joined Texas after the NHL season ended.
“It’s been huge,” Sawada said of the Texas Stars’ run so far. “I’m not sure how big the expectations were from anybody, but the team is playing great so far, the goaltending has been awesome, and of course, having Jamie Benn
get sent down here has been a huge impact. I think everybody’s really happy with our progress so far, but we’re here now, so we’re just looking to go to the Finals.”
Sawada has helped that cause by playing his signature game, which is based on providing a physical presence, getting in front of the net, digging in the corners - a hard-working, power forward-type player. He is also a strong penalty killer and good in his own zone. There’s no question players who excel at that style are valuable at any level.
“He skates well, he hits like a truck,” said Texas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “He can really bring some pace to his game and he’s a great athlete, so he has to play that same type of role. He has to go hard to the net. With Dallas, he’s a right-shot guy and there’s not many in that group up there, so it gives him a little bit of a leg up. But certainly, PK-wise and in front of the net on the power play and energy-wise, he’s that mold.”
Following an impressive showing in Dallas late in the 2008-09 season in which he played five games and even scored his first NHL goal in his debut, Sawada was a prime candidate to stick with the parent club in 2009-10. In training camp last September, there was an NHL roster spot or two available to be claimed, and many believed Sawada would fill one of them, but in the end, he didn’t have a great camp and wound up being assigned to Texas - while Benn and rookie Tom Wandell
remained in Dallas.
Things went from bad to worse for Sawada when he was injured right after reporting to Texas’ headquarters in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, forcing him to miss the season’s opening 13 games.
“I got hurt right off the bat, so that was pretty frustrating,” acknowledged Sawada, who was the Stars’ second round selection (52nd overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “It was kind of slow after that, I started on one of the lower lines here.”
“Ray had, I think, a disappointing start,” noted Texas Stars General Manager Scott White. “Expectations were high for Ray coming into (NHL training) camp and those expectations were not met, unfortunately. And that happens. So he got sent down, tried to do some things, got hurt, so needless to say, his start was slow.”
White believes that the pressure of not living up to those high expectations might have eaten away at Sawada’s confidence during training camp and hindered his performance.
“When it didn’t go well, I’m sure it did,” White said. “I think that’s natural, but I think it plays into a player’s mind. It’s set there for you, but you know what? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what level you are, it’s up to the player to earn the spot. There’s no entitlement and he didn’t get it done.”
But once Sawada got healthy again and gradually started to find his stride, he elevated his game and began to have more of an impact.
“Whenever you’re starting up in November and you’ve missed some time, it takes you a while to get caught up,” Gulutzan said. “I think in the second half of the season, Ray really took off - January, February, March. He’s a big strong guy and through some of our heavy parts of our season, he was playing his best.”
“I thought his game picked up,” White added. “He was physical. I think he understands what he’s going to need to do at the NHL level - he’s going to be that fourth line winger, basically, in my opinion, and he’s going to be impactful and physical. Those elements have come to the forefront in the last third of the season strongly, and in the playoffs, he’s been very important in the physical standpoint for our team.”
In mid-January, Sawada was playing so well, he earned a recall to Dallas, suiting up for four more NHL games, registering two shots on goal and a +1 rating while averaging 9:30 of ice time per contest. Two more brief call-ups in February netted him one more NHL contest. Just getting a taste of life in the big time had a significant effect on him.
“You just see what you need to do night-in, night-out in order to stay up there and what you need to do down here in order to get called back up and stick,” said Sawada, who apprenticed for four years at Cornell University, the same alma mater as Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk. “It’s always good to see what guys are doing to stay and what you need to improve to remain up there as well.”
When he returned to Texas, Sawada was armed with the knowledge of what aspects of his game Dallas management would like to see him work on.
“They definitely just want me to keep being as physical as possible, moving my feet, getting to the front of the net, creating traffic and getting into the other teams’ faces a little bit,” said Sawada, who finished the AHL regular season with eight goals and 19 points in 60 games, along with 92 penalty minutes. “And also, just working on my hands, because everybody up there, from the first line to the fourth line, has a decent set of hands.”
It definitely speaks to Sawada’s character that he was able to face some adversity and emerge on the other side of it displaying the same two-way physical presence that put him on the path to the NHL in the first place.
“You know what? He found his way back, he got up (to Dallas) a little bit during the course of the season,” White said. “The future’s still good for him. He’s done some good things and he’s just got to prove that he can do it night-in and night-out in the NHL, and hopefully that will come next year.”
So while he may have hit a bump on the road to Dallas, Sawada appears to be back on track and hopes to make the jump in 2010-11. But first, he’s got some unfinished business to attend to.