As defenseman Mark Fistric
prepares to enter his second professional season, the Dallas Stars are very happy with his development since they selected him in the first round (number 28 overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
In fact, Fistric, 21, has progressed so nicely that he is very close to graduating to the NHL and will likely get the opportunity to make his debut in 2007-08, if not as part of the opening night roster, then as a probable mid-season call-up.
At 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, the hard-hitting native of Edmonton provides a gritty, tough-as-nails brand of defending that the Stars haven’t possessed as part of their arsenal since former captain Derian Hatcher left town in 2003.
Fistric, who enjoyed an outstanding rookie season with the Stars’ American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa last year, identifies a couple of very well-respected defensemen that he has patterned his style of play after, including one recently elected to the Hall of Fame.
“He’s now retired, but I really like the way Scott Stevens plays,” Fistric said of the former New Jersey defenseman who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after the Devils beat the Stars in the 2000 Stanley Cup Final. “But I think that if there’s a guy in the NHL playing right now that I role model myself to, it would be (Anton) Volchenkov, a defenseman for the Ottawa Senators. He’s just a rugged guy who plays hard, blocks a lot of shots and just a dependable defenseman.”
After a very successful four years of junior hockey in Vancouver, including a WHL championship in 2005-06, Fistric appeared to make a seamless transition to the AHL last season. He even contributed some offense, registering two goals and 24 points, while compiling 83 penalty minutes. He also skated in all 12 Iowa playoff games, and was a force in the defensive zone.
“Mark is more of a shutdown player and a penalty killer and a real capable defender,” said Stars assistant general manager Les Jackson, who’s in charge of amateur scouting and player development. “He’s a weighty player, he’s a power player. He’s an ultimate team player. I think since we drafted him, he’s matured. His first year in the American League, he came in and played like a veteran, so, to me, that’s a great sign, because usually the first year, you write off to transition and learning experience, but in his case, he came right in and was a real player. That’s a real good sign that he has a great foundation to advance.”
“It was a good experience,” Fistric said of his first taste of professional hockey. “I learned a lot throughout the year. I thought I gained a lot of confidence and a lot of knowledge throughout the year. I think that the whole experience on and off the ice was great for me, and I’m looking forward to next year.”
As impressive as he was down the stretch and in the playoffs, Fistric did require a short time to adapt to the AHL, but not much.
“I thought after Christmas, his game really came to the forefront,” said Scott White, Iowa’s Director of Hockey Operations. “He’s a young kid who logged 24-25 minutes a night for us in a defensive role. He’s a sound two-way defenseman and I wish people could have seen him in our physical playoff series against Omaha, because he was just a force. He was knocking guys around and blocking shots. In my eyes, he’ll be a Dallas Star soon enough.”
“At the AHL level, there are a lot more players who are better, stronger and skilled than the guys I faced in juniors, so I had to elevate my game,” Fistric said of his initial adjustment. “I worked on my skating and moving the puck better and I am trying to think faster and be tougher. I think it was a good development year for me.”
That Fistric probably played his best hockey in the post-season is not surprising, considering he had such extensive playoff experience in junior hockey. That includes 18 games as Vancouver captain on the way to the WHL championship two years ago, not to mention five games in the Memorial Cup tournament that pits the champions of the WHL, OHL and QMJHL against each other.
“It’s great going on and moving on in the playoffs,” Fistric said. “You play the whole season to position yourself to go deep into the playoffs. I think winning the Western Hockey League playoffs and having the opportunity to play in big games in the Memorial Cup really helped me to go into this year and really to go deeper into the playoffs. I think that pro playoffs are a lot harder. It’s a grind. It’s a lot of really exciting hockey, and I really look forward to playing in playoff hockey.”
As smoothly as he made the jump to the AHL, Fistric acknowledged that he still needs to upgrade some aspects of his game in order to take the next step.
“I feel that there’s always something I can get better at,” Fistric admitted. “I think that I can always move the puck a little better, my puck skills can get better. I think that I can get a little bit better skating, just closing the gap a little bit more, and just really being tight in blocking shots, and just making it really hard for the opposition to score on me.”
After participating in the Stars’ development camp last week at the club’s practice facility at the Frisco Dr Pepper StarCenter, Fistric returned home to Canada ready to continue his summer workout program. He’ll also have some time for more enjoyable off-ice pursuits.
“I love to golf,” Fistric revealed. “I love the outdoors - I love to hike, I love to camp, fishing. I love to fish. I get to do a lot of that in the summer. I get to get out, camp, fish and obviously, like most hockey players, I like to hit the links every once in a while.”
But his primary objective for the remainder of the off-season will be to work himself into top physical condition, so at training camp in September, he can focus on impressing the coaching staff enough to stay in Dallas.
“When I come into camp, I’m going to come in the best shape possible and give myself the best chance to earn a spot on the roster,” Fistric said. “I do not think that it would be right for me to come into camp not expecting to make the team. I think that, to better myself, and to give myself the best chance, I have to have that mentality.”
The opportunity will be there, so whether or not Fistric makes it will be up to him. For a team that carried a surplus of NHL-caliber blueliners last year, the Stars will enter 2007-08 with just five established defenders. The remaining jobs will be up for grabs in training camp.
Fistric will be competing primarily with Niklas Grossman, his teammate in Iowa for most of last season who also saw action in eight games for Dallas, and veteran depth defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, who was claimed off waivers from Philadelphia last March and suited up for six Stars contests.
If he doesn’t make the club out of camp, Fistric will return to Iowa and continue his development there, but even under that scenario, it’s very likely he’ll be promoted up to Dallas at some point this coming season.
“I’d say he’s certainly in the mix, a lot like Niklas Grossman was last year,” Jackson said regarding Fistric’s chances of sticking with the big club. “Of course, we didn’t get many injuries on defense last year and Niklas didn’t get in until late. But definitely this year, Niklas basically walked through that door and Mark is knocking on that door, so he’s really close to walking through, too. I think for sure, he’s in the mix to have a chance at our team.”