After an outstanding 2009-10 season in which he continually elevated his level of play as it went along, the 24-year-old Dallas Stars defenseman remains confident he can replicate, and even build on, his breakthrough year and keep moving forward.
“I think just continue to work on the things you do well, continue to get better at defending, try to log more minutes,” said Fistric, who averaged 14:55 of ice time per game last season. “I’d like to try to get more penalty killing minutes this year, and just continue to get better and keep learning.”
As Fistric heads into his fourth NHL season, that will be a difficult task, considering how his emergence last year was a major bright spot in a Stars season that ended with the club failing to qualify for the playoffs a second straight year. The Edmonton native blossomed, leading the squad with an incredible +27 plus/minus rating, which ranked 10th overall in the entire NHL and first for a player not on either Washington or Vancouver.
As a clutch performer that has a history of playing his best at the most important time of year, Fistric was excellent down the stretch, finishing the season with an exceptional +14 rating over the final 16 games. The 6-foot-3, 234-pound Fistric also wound up sixth on the club (second among defensemen) in hits, delivering 171 in 67 games played, while also blocking 79 shots, good for fifth on the squad.
“I think he’s just got to keep doing what he’s been doing, keep getting better and keep improving,” said fellow defenseman Stephane Robidas
. “We’re all in the same boat, we all want to get better, improving on what we’re not really good at and keep building on what we do good.”
Over the summer, Fistric stuck to a similar workout routine than he has completed the past several years, pinpointing areas he would like to upgrade and maintaining his overall conditioning.
“There are things I obviously need to work on in my game,” admitted Fistric, who is entering the second year of a three-year contract that pays him $1 million a season. “Obviously, I need to keep my skating up, help my footwork continue to get better. My shot can always get better, getting shots through, making it harder, and just continue to play physical and excel in my game.”
He isn’t relied upon for offense, but Fistric did score his first NHL goal last season, also registering nine assists, to attain career highs in all categories, including a personal-best 46 shots on goal. While there’s much more to Fistric than statistics, it was hard not to notice his eye-popping +27, far ahead of Brian Sutherby’s second-place +8.
“It’s unbelievable, if you look at his plus-minus, there’s nobody anywhere near him,” marveled Robidas, the club’s heart-and-soul leader on the blue line who finished -10 last year. “When that happens, you know you’ve got to be doing something good. I think he’s been really effective. He’s been using his body, and he’s got a long reach, and he’s been playing physical, and playing a simple game, and that’s how he needs to play.”
“Fistric has really stepped his game up, I thought,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “Mark made some great strides with his game last season. He is a big, physical presence with a great deal of potential, and he’ll be counted upon to solidify our blue line.”
While the plus/minus figure is very impressive, no one is suggesting Fistric was the Stars’ best player last year, or even their best defenseman, but it does demonstrate how far he’s progressed and how well he has grown into his role, which is to be a solid, defensive defenseman who plays physically in his own end.
“I don’t get the opportunity to play and shut down other teams’ top lines, so obviously, the plus/minus doesn’t show true that much,” acknowledged the humble Fistric, who just one year earlier was in the minors, helping AHL Manitoba advance to the Calder Cup Finals. “But I think that if I’m playing against third- and fourth-line forwards and making sure that they don’t score, that’s definitely a positive for me.”
Sometimes when a player experiences somewhat unexpected success the way Fistric rose to prominence last season, there could be a tendency to slide back the next year, but Robidas isn’t worried about that happening in this case.
“I don’t think so, I don’t think he’s that type of person,” Robidas said. “He plays hard, he plays with a lot of heart, and he’s got the right attitude. I think that’s what you want, guys like that with character on your team, and that’s what he’s got and I don’t think he’ll sit on anything. I think he’s just trying to get better. I think he’s done a great job so far and he’s going in the right direction.”
Fistric is just happy to be back on the ice, joining most of his teammates skating at the club’s practice facility in the Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco the past couple of weeks, as they prepare for the start of training camp on Friday.
“It’s great to be back,” said Fistric, who was the Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “I think it was a long summer. Any time you miss the playoffs, you’re doing something wrong as a team and I think there’s a new start to this year, and the guys are excited to get going. I think there are a lot of positives going into this year.”
Heading into 2010-11, Fistric remains optimistic that the club will rebound after a couple of sub-par years.
“(The team’s mood) is positive, I think guys are ready to go,” Fistric said. “It’s been a long wait and the guys are chomping to get back at it. I think that as long as we’re working together as a group and our forwards are helping out (in the defensive zone), we’re going to be all right.”
As for Fistric’s ability to follow up his big season, his longtime teammate and fellow fourth-year defenseman Nicklas Grossman summed it up.
“I think he’s been steadily progressing,” said Grossman, who has skated alongside Fistric now for five years, in the NHL as well as the AHL. “I’ve been playing with him, in Iowa and here, for a couple of years and I know his capabilities and I think he’s still got a lot more to give. He’s just going to keep getting better.”