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Stars hope Honka can take 'next step' with more playing time in AHL

Dallas GM Jim Nill wants the young defenseman to regain confidence and develop into an everyday player

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

KELOWNA, British Columbia -- And so, the conundrum of the eight defenseman is gone, only to be replaced by the conundrum of how to deploy the seven defenders who remain on the Dallas Stars' roster.

In some ways, sending 21-year-old Julius Honka down to the American Hockey League, where he'll rejoin the Texas Stars -- the team for whom he's played much of the last three seasons -- was an easy choice, and one that was made Tuesday morning by Dallas general manager Jim Nill.

 

[RELATED: Stars loan defenseman Julius Honka to Texas]  

 

The Stars have played pretty well defensively and are coming off back-to-back 2-1 road wins. Defenseman Stephen Johns is expected to clear concussion protocol on Wednesday morning, further pushing Honka down the depth chart. And, perhaps, easiest of all, Honka, who had played in just six of the Stars' first 12 games, wasn't really cutting it when he was in the lineup.

"He's lost his confidence a little bit, and it's not easy when you're in and out of the lineup, and it's a tough league," Nill said Tuesday morning as his team skated at the Prospera Place, home of the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets.

"It's one thing to make it to the NHL. The next step now is to stay and be an everyday player, and that's what all young guys go through," Nill added. "Really, for him, it's just go down and play, get some game action, get your game going again -- get on your toes and everything will fall into place. He's a good player. He's going to be back up here eventually."

No one questions Honka's offensive upside. But his small stature and struggle to find a rhythm, especially in his own zone, made it difficult to find an everyday role for him with the Stars, especially with both John Klingberg and Esa Lindell contributing offensively -- they have combined for six goals and 10 assists through 12 games.

Hard to argue that it's not better for Honka to be playing big minutes in important situations for the Texas Stars, at least until injuries or other dynamics open up an spot for him with the big club.

So, now what?

That's even more interesting, perhaps, as head coach Ken Hitchcock has made his policy on injured players very clear: When you're healthy, you go back in the lineup.

It happened earlier this season with Dan Hamhuis, and if Johns emerges from battle drills at Wednesday's practice without a setback, he'll go back in the lineup Thursday when the Stars travel to Winnipeg to close out an 11-day, five-game road swing.

Video: ARI@DAL: Honka nets his first NHL goal for OT win

They are currently 2-2 on the trip, thanks to consecutive 2-1 wins over Calgary and Vancouver.

Based on current level of play, it would seem that Jamie Oleksiak would come out of the lineup if Johns is good to go. Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn have formed a solid pair since Pateryn came in the lineup the last three games.

"Internal competition in your group makes a good team," Hitchcock said. "For us, right now, we're in the winning business, and development is part of that, but also if it keeps players hungry, if you're out, then you've got to get yourself ready, and when it's your turn, you got to go."

Martin Hanzal, who missed Monday's game against Vancouver, skated briefly on his own Tuesday and the expectation is he will skate with the full group Wednesday. He'll be evaluated after that vis-a-vis his availability for Thursday as he battles a lingering lower-body injury.

Overall, Nill said he is quite pleased with his team's level of play in compiling a 7-5-0 record. He also thinks playing a heavy number of one-goal games early in the season (the Stars have been involved in three straight and six of 12, along with a couple of others where empty-net goals were involved late in one-goal contests) will pay dividends down the road.

"Oh, you've got to go through it," Nill said. "You're going to hit it somewhere. This is all preparation for the playoffs. First step is you've got to make the playoffs, but as you're getting there, this (is) preparation. You're going to get into a Game 7 and the pressure's going to be on you -- you're going to get into overtime, you've got to stick with it. And if you're cold in those situations, you're not going to have success."

The Stars flew into Kelowna after Monday's win in Vancouver and will skate here again Wednesday morning before flying to Winnipeg.

It was nice homecoming of sorts for captain Jamie Benn, who played his junior hockey here.

In fact there's a large portrait of Benn, along with portraits of other prominent Rockets, that adorns the wall near the dressing rooms at the rink.

"I don't know how I got up there," Benn joked as he was surrounded by local media.

"Definitely nice being back," he added. "I was excited to come here when I started talking about it with Hitch. This city, and this team, turned me into more of a man and more of a better hockey player, and I can't thank a lot of people involved in how I got here and my time here."

He told some of his teammates that if his memory is accurate, the last time he skated on this ice before Tuesday morning was in overtime when the Rockets won the Western Hockey League title in 2009.

"That was a great experience for me here and I really enjoyed my time," Benn said.

The Kelowna stop is the second side trip on this long road trip as the team spent a day and a half in Whistler, B.C. on the weekend.

Said Hitchcock: There's something to be said for the guys walking to the rink for practice.

"And you don't have cars and buses taking you everywhere," he said. "You're going to walk to dinner, you're going to walk to the rink, you're going to walk back to the hotel. I think there's a lot to say for that. I think the players get to hang together, and when I look at this, this is the last time we'll do this for a long time. You've got to build as good a bond as you can because you're going to need it."

How down home was it?

With Ben Bishop taking the morning off, one of the local rink officials called up 25-year-old former junior netminder Tyler Briggs and told him to get his butt down to the rink.

Briggs, currently playing for Kelowna in a senior league, postponed a planned golf game, got to the rink, put on his gear and stepped right into 1-on-0 and point shot with traffic drills.

So much for warmups.

"Unfortunately, I didn't really get any warmup shots. Got tossed right into things, but it was fun," Briggs said.

At one point, Briggs stoned Jason Spezza with a pad save, eliciting raucous cheers and stick-banging from the players.

"What a cool experience for him," Benn said. "Must be pretty nice to get Spezza and Radulov and Seguin coming down and shooting on you. And he's been doing a great job, and made some big saves. I think he robbed Spezza pretty bad out there. We gave him a hard time about that."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.

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