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Future Stars Hit The Ice

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It may be the middle of summer, but that just means heading into a hockey rink, with its extra-cold air conditioning, feels really refreshing.

The Dallas Stars opened their 2008 Development Camp Monday at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco, bringing together a collection of 27 prospects for a week of on-ice instruction, off-ice training and giving them a glimpse of what life might be like for them one day in the NHL.

After several players from last year’s summer development camp went on to make key contributions for the parent club last season (most notably defensemen Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric), a new crop of hopefuls arrived in town looking to make an impression.

“This is an opportunity for these kids to grow their game, to get the opportunity to come to Dallas, to see the city and get to meet people in the organization, other players that are affiliated with the organization,” noted Stars Director of Player Personnel Dave Taylor. “They get a chance to work on their skills. This is all about development this week and for them to get just a taste at the National Hockey League level. 

“It’s not so much about evaluation, it’s working on those skills, taking the time to work on your hand skills, work on your skating abilities, learn what you can about conditioning, the off-ice stuff.”

Among the incoming group were highly-touted forwards James Neal, Raymond Sawada, Francis Wathier and Perttu Lindgren, not to mention all five of the Stars’ draft picks in last month’s Entry Draft, including goaltender Tyler Beskorowany, who was their top choice at 59th overall. 

While head coach Dave Tippett also viewed the proceedings, the on-ice instruction came from Paul Jerrard, assistant coach at AHL Iowa last season, and former Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig, who is the assistant coach of the local Texas Tornado junior club.

“For a lot of them, it’s just to give them a bit of a taste of what happens,” said Ludwig. “I think it also helps them to get to know who their competition is and how good other players are that are out on the ice. It’s not a training camp by any means, they’re going to find out what a training camp really is in a few months.”

Ludwig stressed that the on-ice drills focused more on skill development than anything else.

“The way the game has gone, the direction it’s gone, there’s a lot of skill involved,” Ludwig noted, “and this is all focusing on quick hands and skill and feet and all those little moves we watch guys like Modano and Zetterberg and Datsyuk do and that’s what this is all about.” 

“You’re doing things over and over and over again until you finally get it, so that’ll make you a lot better,” said right wing Austin Smith, the Stars’ fifth-round selection (128 overall) in the 2007 Draft. “So it’s a good experience.”

The mindset of the players for the week depends a bit on how long they’ve been with the club. For a youngster like Beskorowany, arriving in Dallas Sunday was his first introduction to the area and he is still getting acclimated to being part of an NHL organization.

“Coming in here last night and getting to know the guys and going on the ice and getting a feel for the puck, it feels pretty good,” said the 6-foot-4, 203-pound goaltender, who will return to his OHL junior hockey team in Canada (Owen Sound) next season. “It’s really great seeing the logo and stuff and recent players and names on the wall, it’s pretty incredible.”

For young ‘veterans’ like Neal or Wathier, their focus shifts more towards proving to the organization that they can play in the NHL. 

“I’ve been here a couple of times so I know what to expect,” said Neal, who will be among the players competing for a spot on the Dallas roster in September. “There’s always young guys coming in and I’m an older guy now and I’m trying to get a spot on the team, so I just got to come in here with a good attitude and keep things simple and do what I got to do.” 

Wathier, in his fourth Stars development camp at 23, feels he can fulfill more of a leadership role.

“For me, I kind of want to have a leadership with the young kids here,” said Wathier, drafted in the sixth round (185 overall) in 2003. “I’ve been with the organization for the past six years, my role here is to give some leadership and make sure everybody’s on the right track.”

And while the purpose of the camp is not to evaluate the players, everyone is well aware that Stars management is observing everything, from the on-ice activities to the off-ice training in the weight room to team-building exercises.

“As an older guy, you want to get everything, especially on the ice, you want to spend some time with coaches, you want to work on your personal stuff,” Wathier said. “Ask questions, ask what you need to work on to make the team. I’m sure the coaches like that. They want to see if you really want it. If you really want it, that’s the one that’s going to make the team. You got to take everything on the ice, sometimes it’s the little things that makes all the difference.” 

“There’s people watching them out on the ice,” Ludwig confirmed. “What you want to do is, get it to where they write your name down and they notice what you’re doing, so when camp does come up, they keep a closer eye on you. There will be some kids where they go, ‘I didn’t know he was that good,’ or, ‘I didn’t know he had such good hands,’ and so I think this is another opportunity to impress some of the guys watching. 

“When you got your GM sitting there and your coach watching, they probably don’t even know their names, but I promise you, they’re going to look down at their number, because I did it with three of them already. That’s what it’s all about for them.”

While Ludwig noted that he was particularly impressed with young center Scott Winkler, the Stars’ third-round selection (89th overall) a few weeks ago, the fact that players who were at this camp last year went on to contribute for the Stars during the season and in the playoffs, means that some of these kids are close to reaching their dreams. 

“That’s something that (Co-General Manger Les Jackson) talked about when he had that first meeting with the players at the orientation,” Taylor said. “Les said, ‘We started this last year, and you look at a guy like Niskanen or Fistric, who spent the majority of the year with the Stars, so that opportunity is there for you guys. And this is an opportunity to work on your game.’ Everybody develops at different speeds, but there’s a lot of potential among these players.”

The Stars figure to have a couple of openings at forward for some of these younger players to grab hold of and that just serves as extra motivation for them. 

“I would think there’s players out here that will have games with the Stars over the course of the year,” Taylor noted. “And how they perform will determine how long they actually spend in Dallas.”

“It’s been clear that spots are going to be there, so you just keep going,” Neal said. “Everyone’s competing against each other and we’re good friends, it’s good competition and you just play hard against each other and that’s what you’ve got to do.” 

For the rest of the kids who will not suit up for the Stars in 2008-09, this week is an opportunity to continue learning and progressing and continue their development process. One key part of that will be to take tips and pointers back with them to their respective junior or college teams to work on during the upcoming season.

“No question, the coaches will have a chance to work with them,” Taylor said. “The scouts have watched them over the course of the years, and they’ll break down their games and give them an evaluation and some of the things they’d like them to work on. But for the most part, they go back to different organizations, they play different systems, so that’s really what they’ll focus on. But they’ll take some of the things, particularly the off-ice things, because a lot of these guys, as far as their maturity, they’re in very early stages, so they’ll take a lot of the things they work on with (strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen) and bring that back and spend the rest of the summer working on their strength and conditioning.”

For winger Austin Smith, who will skate for Colgate University in the fall, the chance to learn and improve his game is invaluable.

“Just sit here and soak it up like a sponge, take everything you can, everything they taught you - just listen and take it all in and try to add it to your game and it will make you a better player in the long run,” Smith noted.

“These kids will pick up things as they go along,” Ludwig added. “Hopefully when they leave here this week and they have two months before they come back (for training camp), their off-ice and their on-ice workouts get turned up a little bit, because they’re like, ‘You know what, I noticed this kid that was out there, he can do that drill better than I can,’ and that will only push them. You’ll be able to tell when they come back.”

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