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'That's the process': Stars reaping rewards of patience with young talent

Dickinson, Gurianov, Heiskanen and Hintz took their own paths to the NHL -- and it was well worth the wait for Dallas

by Jeff Odom @jeffodom / DallasStars.com

When it comes to developing young hockey talent, patience -- as it goes in life -- is a virtue.

For the lucky few, the Connor McDavids and Sidney Crosbys of the crop may blossom right away into surefire NHL talent. Most others, however, take time to marinate -- and in a culture that values a got-to-have-it-now mentality, it can be a bit of a roller coaster for teams during the wait-and-see progression for budding prospects.

"Everybody's on their different path," Stars general manager Jim Nill says.

And the Stars are seeing this season just how sweet that wait can be. One glance at the roster is enough to prove that.

Flanked by seasoned talent and a veteran core is a group of up-and-coming youngsters that all took their own unique route to the big show.

Video: DAL@NSH: Hintz sends puck through Rinne's five-hole

Miro Heiskanen was the team's third overall pick in 2017. He spent an extra year in the Finnish Liiga following the draft before joining Dallas and emerging as one of the game's best young defensemen at 20 years old.

Roope Hintz was selected 49th overall in 2015. The young Finn's first taste of the pros on North American ice was with the Stars two years later at the 2017 Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He didn't reach the NHL until last season at age 22, and even then, had to go back and forth between Dallas and Texas of the American Hockey League before finally cementing his place as a rising star in the lineup and the team's leading goal scorer at the holiday break.

Jason Dickinson and Denis Gurianov, both first-round picks by the Stars in 2013 and 2015, respectively, also had to shuffle between the NHL and minor league. Dickinson bounced up and down for parts of three campaigns before finally sticking with the team last year. Gurianov went a full season between call-ups and even had to rekindle his confidence in Cedar Park early this year before proving himself as a regular contributor.

"Every time they went down, the coaching staff did a great job," Nill said. "When they came back up, they got better each time, they learned each time and you just keep going through that process until you're an NHL player -- and that's the process the guys are on. 

"Some guys are gonna come in -- Miro Heiskanen (spent) one year in Europe, then comes to the NHL and takes off. Some guys are going to need 2-3 years in the minors. That's the process."

Video: DAL@WPG: Heiskanen tallies after outstanding effort

If there's one player who understands that better than most, it's the 24-year-old Dickinson.

Though he was a touted prospect and the team's 29th overall pick, the Ontario native struggled to find a real fit with the big club early in his career. Despite regularly putting up solid offensive numbers with Texas -- 22 goals in 2015-16 and 18 in 2017-18 -- that output never seemed to translate well to the top level.

"I think you see the difference in guys like Miro … he's got that confidence, he's got that swagger. He's got that confidence that he's just gonna play his game and not think twice about it," Dickinson said. "Guys like myself, and Denis included in that, kind of struggled with finding that confidence early because we didn't see ourselves that way right away. It took us a little while to kind of get there and really appreciate what we can bring.

"I think that's the biggest difference for guys in their transition time and how they get there is figuring out when their game is truly gonna transition."

Dickinson made his NHL debut at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, appeared in 10 games with the Stars in 2016-17 and was then part of 16 separate transactions between Dallas and Cedar Park in 2017-18.

Video: DAL@TBL: Dickinson cleans up rebound in the paint

It was enough to make the young forward wonder what it would finally take to stay.

"The year that I spent going up and down, up and down, I spent a lot of days reflecting, like, what am I supposed to bring to the team? What is it that they want from me to be a regular in this lineup and contribute?" Dickinson recalled. "So, from that is where I was able to figure out, you know what, I have to play that way in the (AHL) if I want to find my game in the NHL."

That's exactly what he did, using the Texas Stars' trek to the Calder Cup Finals in 2018 as an opportunity to truly hone his skills. In 22 postseason contests that year, with Hintz as his primary linemate, Dickinson scored twice and added eight assists to help Texas come within one win of its second-ever championship.

"Once I figured that out," Dickinson said, "it was fortunate that it was in the midst of a long playoff run that I was able to kind of grasp the reins of being a shutdown forward, contributing with third-line points, (and penalty killing) every shift that we got a penalty I was out there. 

"It was kind of that moment that I was able to really grasp to myself these are the commodities that I bring, these are the attributes that I will bring to the NHL, and if I just do that up there, I'll be fine."

Video: CGY@DAL: Gurianov speeds past defender for goal

It worked out perfectly. Dickinson earned his place on the Stars' opening night roster last season, finished with six goals and 16 assists in 67 regular season games and evolved into a relentless two-way forward.

For fans and talking heads alike, it's easy to pick apart statistics, dish out individual labels and compare one prospect's journey to another. Why might it take one player a handful of games to become a regular in the lineup when another may not reach the league for several years?

The answer, Nill says, is simple: "The blueprint is not the same for each one, and that's where we have to adjust and they have to adjust."

"The frustrating part is everybody gets upset and says, 'Why is this guy not up?'" Nill added. "They will. They're going to do it at a different pace."

Whether it's a sprint in the case of Heiskanen or a steep climb like Dickinson and Gurianov, that pace has led the Stars to a promising outlook this season, plus more speed and size, which are critical in today's game.

Video: COL@DAL: Dickinson scores 19 seconds into the game

"They're all big kids," Nill said. "Roope Hintz is 220 pounds. Denis is 6-3. Jason Dickinson is 6-3. They're all good size. The kids can all skate."

Mix in a little added production and it should be the perfect formula for the Stars to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs again for the second straight season -- something this organization has not experienced in 11 years.

"Every team's looking for that," Nill said. "We're all looking for it. First of all, you've got to have skill and some speed to go with it, but you add size to it. The game's tough. To make the playoffs, you've got to have enough skill to make it. When you get in the playoffs, you've got to have enough size and you're going to have to be strong. It's a balancing act between them."

A balancing act. Something these kids -- and the Stars -- know quite well.

In other words, just part of the process.

Senior staff writer Mike Heika contributed to this report.

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

Jeff Odom is the manager of DallasStars.com and writes about the Stars/NHL. Follow him on Twitter @jeffodom.

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