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'Awesome' opportunity with Stars a dream come true for L'Esperance

The forward may have had a long path to the NHL, but his improvement to get here is nothing short of impressive

by Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer

On one hand, things are moving pretty fast for Joel L'Esperance.

On the other, he's been working his whole life for this.

The Stars' latest addition is intriguing in so many ways. He's 23, spent the past four years in college at Michigan Tech, and battled through three years in the USHL before that. He's also the leading goal scorer in the AHL with 27 markers in 49 games, and has taken a major step forward in his development over the past two seasons.

"He really impressed me," said Stars coach Jim Montgomery, who watched L'Esperance both in the USHL and college. "The growth of his game last year stood out, and that's what we're seeing. He's just a late developer who is getting more and more confidence."

And that confidence continued to grow Saturday. L'Esperance was called up and made his NHL debut against the Carolina Hurricanes. He played 15:53, and had three shot attempts. It was a pretty strong showing.

"I thought he was really good," Montgomery said. "His puck protection was really good, he made plays, he played with a lot of energy, he was physical, his positioning was really good offensively and defensively. He played 15 minutes, and that showed the confidence that I had in the way he was playing."

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For L'Esperance, it was a dream come true.

"It's something you work for your whole life, and to get the opportunity is pretty awesome," he said.

The path has been slow and determined for the talented forward, and the improvement in the past two years has been an impressive reward in itself.

Born and raised in the Detroit area, L'Esperance started at Michigan Tech in 2014. He had 17 points in 29 games his freshman season, 26 points in 35 games as a sophomore, 28 points in 44 games as a junior and 27 points in 44 games as a senior. After signing a free agent contract with the Stars last season, he tallied two points in nine regular season games with the Texas Stars and followed with four points in 22 playoff games as Texas went to the Calder Cup Finals and lost in seven games to the Toronto Marlies.

There were sparks there, but not the fireworks.

This year, however, he has put it all together and found his scoring touch from the start of the season. He said that everything he has built on has made a big difference.

"As far as my past, (the scoring) is a little bit surprising, but I think I've gotten a good opportunity and I think my game has developed a ton," L'Esperance said." Over my four years of college, I think I've gotten a lot better. It's trying to stay focused and not worry too much about the stats."

Because what L'Esperance has been doing for the past few seasons is exactly what coaches want you to do.

"I watched his game in the NCAA Tournament last year, and they played Notre Dame in the first round and they should have won. He could have had five goals," said Montgomery, who coached at the University of Denver for the previous five seasons.

"He has a deceptive shot, and he has some sneaky moves that allow him to protect pucks and get to inside scoring areas. He's really worked on his puck protection and his ability to release pucks in different areas."


In fact, even when he hasn't been successful, he has been learning. He said the run to the AHL championship was fantastic in not only playing against some of the best in the league, but in being around professional hockey players.

"I think it helped my confidence a ton," he said. "I got a good taste of what it's like to play pro playoff hockey, and then coming into this season, it helped with my confidence. It was good for my career."

A career that might be ready for the next step. Stars fans have seen prospects come and go, and younger players often are only as good as their last game, but L'Esperance seems to be here at the right time. He could get big minutes and even top power-play time during an important three-game homestand, and that is the kind of opportunity he has worked for.

"He's a hard player, he's really good below the tops of the circles offensively. Very responsible, and a very hard-working young man," Montgomery said, adding that the scouting report from Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal has been glowing.

"Talking to coach Laxdal, he's just raved about the young man's attitude, his ability," Montgomery said. "He thinks he is a true finisher, because he gets a lot of opportunities at that net-front. It's something that will help us. An inconsistency with us is being battle tough at the net-front, and that's a strength of his."

The timing couldn't be better -- no matter how long it has taken for him to get here.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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