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Fistric progressing nicely in third NHL season

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

A quick glance at the Dallas Stars’ statistics for this season reveals few surprises. Center Brad Richards leads the team in points, Loui Eriksson and James Neal have been dueling for the club lead in goals all year, Stephane Robidas tops the squad in ice time and hits, Steve Ott is the penalty minutes leader and Mark Fistric leads all Stars in plus/minus.

Mark Fistric? That’s right, the rugged third-year defenseman currently sports an impressive +14 rating, the best on the team by a wide margin, well ahead of center Brian Sutherby, who’s played just 33 games and sat at +3. Not one other regular Star has a positive rating.   

The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Fistric has demonstrated considerable progress in taking his game up a notch this season, and while the plus/minus statistic can sometimes be misleading, it does accurately reflect Fistric’s growth as a player over the course of the year.

“I think that I’m getting better as the season goes on,” the 23-year-old native of Edmonton said. “That’s obviously a positive for me, I think that every time I come to the rink, I want to learn something new and learn some things to make myself better for every day.” 

“He has had a steady progression this season,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said of Fistric. “His footspeed has continued to take a step up, the confidence that he’s showing in himself and his teammates’ that they’re showing in him, is really taking shape.”

Having recently returned to the lineup after missing five games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, Fistric quickly assumed a significant role on the Dallas blueline. In four games since coming back on March 4, Fistric has logged about 20 minutes of ice time per game, a significant increase on his season average of 14:34. Including a mammoth workload of 23:36 Friday night against Los Angeles, Fistric has spent most of the last couple of games skating alongside top defender Robidas. 

While the layoff was disappointing for Fistric, who was playing his best hockey of the season at the time of his injury, he missed less time than he would normally have thanks to the two-week Olympic break. Still, it was a frustrating development for him.

“Unfortunately, that’s what happens in the business,” said the physical Fistric, who ranked sixth on the team - and second among defensemen - with 134 hits. “When things seem to be going your way, you suffer little things, but for me, it’s just like a bump in the road. It was just a little minor thing that needed to be fixed. It’s kind of disappointing that I had the two-week Olympic break and couldn’t be back for (the first game), but that’s the way it is.”

Thankfully for the Stars, who are scratching and clawing for every point in a final push for a playoff spot, Fistric’s performance hasn’t suffered from the time on the sidelines. 

A major factor contributing to his gradual improvement this year, which has been the first one of his career that hasn’t seen him spend some time in the minors, has been the steady increase of his confidence on the ice.

“For me, I think he’s taken a bunch of steps forward,” noted assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who works primarily with the defensemen. “I think his game has come a long way, probably from more ice time as the season has wore on and probably from a bigger role with some injuries and stuff like that and getting a lot more confidence. I think that’s the big thing - I talk a lot about that with the young guys, just having confidence right when they get out there, having confidence in making some plays and defending in their own end. I think that’s where he’s at right now.”

“I think it’s been steady improvement,” added fellow third-year blueliner Nicklas Grossman, who has skated alongside Fistric now for four years, in the NHL as well as the AHL. “I’ve been playing with him in Iowa for a couple of years and I know his capabilities and I think, maybe in the beginning, we’re all kind of cautious in what you do and staying within yourself, just to be comfortable and get your confidence going. Mark’s been playing really great for us, he’s doing it all except PP - killing penalties and he’s strong out there.  Just look at his plus/minus and that says a lot about him. I think he’s still got a lot more to give, he’s just going to keep getting better.”

As for the gaudy stats, no one is suggesting that Fistric has been the Stars’ best player this year, or even their best defenseman, but it does demonstrate how far he has progressed and how well he has filled 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 Fistric, who brought a +2 mark in 76 career NHL games into this season. “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.”

“Most nights, he’s on our third pair, so traditionally that third pair ends up not playing against the top scoring people, so you look at when you see a good plus/minus number there, that means that they’re doing their job in creating more than they’re giving up,” Crawford explained. “Usually, you’ll see those top plus/minus guys be those third-pair guys on a real good scoring team, so for us, our area of work has always been to limit chances against and be better defensively, and we’re not getting hurt by that pair. In fact, they’re performing at a nice level. On the other side of it, the challenge for him is when we keep moving him up and when he gets into that second pair, and now he’s playing against the second-best forwards all night, then if you keep those numbers, then you’re really cooking, really doing something good.”

Lately, while filling in for the injured Grossman on the top pair with Robidas, Fistric has been doing just that. 

Not bad for a guy that, following an impressive rookie season in 2007-08, struggled in Year 2, spending half of last year in the minors. Following three and a half months at AHL Manitoba, where he recorded eight assists and a +12 rating in 35 games, Fistric was recalled to Dallas in mid-February and once again started displaying those skills that made him the Stars’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the2004 Entry Draft. Over his final 21 games, Fistric averaged a whopping 3.9 bodychecks per game and was a physical force.

When the Stars missed the playoffs, Fistric went back to the AHL and helped the Moose advance to the Calder Cup Finals, where they ultimately fell in six games to Hershey, but that post-season experience impacted him positively as he approached 2009-10. 

“Last season was definitely not what I wanted, it was definitely up and down, but I think I have to go back to going back and playing in the playoffs,” said Fistric, who earned two goals and seven points in 22 AHL playoff games. “(Former co-GM and current Director of Scouting and Player Development) Les Jackson thought it was good for me to go and continue playing and I think I owe a lot to Les for making that decision. It was a really good time for me, I got to play a lot of situations that I wouldn’t have here, playing in the Finals, playing in big games. I got to play power play time, I was playing 30 minutes a game, shutting down the other teams’ top lines, in Finals, in Game 6's, so I think all that stuff built up to regain my confidence to be able to push in camp this year, and I think that really benefitted me this season.”

“Everyone has their bumps in the road, and sometimes you need a little time to settle down and think about it a little bit and I think that’s what happened last year,” Grossman said of Fistric. “He got sent down there and got a lot of minutes and I think that was good for him to develop and he came in this year and you saw that in his mindset, that he was ready to go. I think he’s been steadily progressing and he’s just getting better as the season goes on, because he’s the kind of guy when the games get tougher, those are the games he likes to play. Just look at the playoffs a couple of years ago, he was a force out there and I think he’s going to keep getting better. It’s fun to see.”

With his increased mobility, Fistric has even shown some flashes of offensive potential, registering assists in consecutive games last month and embarking on several forays deep into opposition territory. 

“Obviously, that’s not my game, but that’s the system that Crow wants and I think that works,” said Fistric, who scored his first (and only) NHL goal back on Oct. 22 and also has seven assists in a career-high 52 games so far this year. “I think that every once in a while, I can read that play and I can jump into the off-side and help our forwards to get the puck in. When I’m down there, my main goal is to just contain it and get it to the forwards and get back, but any time I can help them get it set up, I’ll try.”

“We saw a couple (times) where he had a few (rushes up ice), where he gets that speed straight ahead,” Huddy said. “He’s big and strong and I think his footspeed has come a long way from the start of the year, skating backwards and turning and stuff like that, I think that’s really improved from training camp to where he is right now. And that’s a big thing for a defenseman.”

Fistric’s improved speed was on prominent display Friday night against Los Angeles, when he chased down Kings forward Justin Williams from behind in the second period, diving to swipe the puck away and negate a breakaway. 

As he continues to further establish himself as a strong-in-his-own-end, physical force on the Dallas blueline, Fistric’s presence will only become more important to the Stars’ success. And he still has a ways to grow yet, which is the exciting thing. This is only the beginning.

“He’s been really effective, he’s been physical, he’s been playing real well in his own end, making the right plays,” summed up the 33-year-old Robidas. “He was a pretty good player a couple of years ago when he played for us, and last year was a setback, playing in the minors and got injured, but I think he came back ready to go at this training camp and it paid off. He’s been working hard and doing the little things. He’s been doing all the little things right and when you do the little things, good things happen and I think that’s why he’s been so effective.

“It’s not easy to play in the NHL, especially as a defenseman. If I just look at myself, it took me three years in the minors before I played in the NHL and it takes time. He’s only 23, he’s young, and that’s really positive.”

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