FRISCO, Texas -- Thomas Harley said he's a patient man.
It might be one of the most important personality traits for the 20-year-old defenseman right now.
While Harley would like to be in the NHL this season, he admits that he understands his situation and just how difficult a challenge it'll be to make that jump.
"I'm a pretty patient player on the ice, and I think patience comes pretty naturally to me," Harley said Monday on the final day of development camp in Frisco. "Whenever I earn that spot, I'm going to have it. It's just a matter of time."
Ironically, Harley's climb has already been accelerated. Under an agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League that helps keep top players in junior hockey if they aren't yet ready for the NHL, Harley was supposed to remain in the Ontario Hockey League last season. However, because the pandemic forced the OHL to shut down, Harley was able to bump up and play in the AHL as a 19-year-old. That was important for the Stars' first-round pick from 2019.
"I think it was probably good for Thomas," said Stars director of player personnel Rich Peverley. "I think Thomas grew up a lot, as in `I'm going to play against men, not play against 16-year-old kids on a Sunday afternoon' where he can do whatever he wants. I think it's been great for his development."
Harley said he was ready for the step up to the AHL and really enjoyed the higher level of competition. And yes, this was a fortuitous break caused by COVID-19.
"Obviously, they're faster and stronger and smarter players, so I improved way more than I would have in the `O'," Harley said of the AHL. "I'm grateful for that, but hopefully I'm not there this year."
And that's where the patience might have to come in. Harley very much wants to force the Stars organization into a tough decision in making the opening night roster, but he's battling some tough odds. Dallas has three talented defensemen who will take most of the skilled minutes this season in Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Ryan Suter. The Stars also have four other blueliners who are on one-way contracts in Esa Lindell, Andrej Sekera, Jani Hakanpää and Joel Hanley.
For young Harley to take one of those spots, he would have to take advantage of an injury or create a huge debate inside the front office. In addition, he would likely be playing a more limited role in the NHL that doesn't befit his skillset. Instead, the team can rely on its veterans and allow Harley to play top minutes in the AHL, where he would continue to develop all facets of his game.
In the meantime, Harley is working on getting better at playing the game defensively. Texas Stars coach Neil Graham, who is running the camp and coaching the prospects in Traverse City later this week, said Harley took steps last season and continues to work on that part of his game.
"It's about consistently defending with purpose," Graham said. "You have to want to defend. At the next level, it's so important to do it fast, do it efficiently. That's how you get the puck back for offense. He did a good job of it last year. He took a lot of steps. I think we can all recognize that, and now it's a great opportunity for him going to Traverse City. He's going to get those reps, he's going to get that live action coming back to main camp, and then it's his job to leave an impression at that point."
Harley said he feels he's making strides every day. He's bigger and stronger than last season, and that gives him the ability to play a more physical game.
"I've noticed a couple times just being stronger than the other guy," Harley said. "It's not something I'm really used to. The other day, Mavrik Bourque just ran into me and I didn't even feel him. He fell right over on his back, I just kind of laughed and skated up the ice. Just little things like that I notice."
Now, he'll get a chance to test that strength against other teams' top prospects in Traverse City and follow that up with probably quite a few NHL preseason games. Along the way, he'll have to mix the intensity of a hungry young player with the patience that's needed to understand the process.
"It's his defending that'll take him to the next level," said Peverley, who along with Stars player development coordinator J.J. McQueen, has been working with Harley and other prospects. "We've got to get his hands on him, J.J. got to work with him on the strength side, and you've got Neil and the coaching staff working with him. I think the biggest strides I saw with his defensive game is urgency with the puck. He's got to learn to minimalize the mistakes, and he's doing a good job with that."
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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, and listen to his podcast.