There are a lot of people who deserve credit for the unique development of Thomas Harley.

Foremost among them is Thomas Harley himself.

“At the end of the day, it’s always the player,” said Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham, who played a big role in Harley’s development. “They’re the ones that put in the work, they’re the ones that didn’t get discouraged through tough times, they’re the ones who worked so hard to get through the adversity.”

Harley has done all of that, and he has indeed had a lot of help. Now one of the team’s most trusted defensemen, it wasn’t always that way for the rangy blueliner from upstate New York.

Taken 18th overall in the 2019 draft, Harley spent two months in the 2020 NHL playoff bubble. He even played in a Stanley Cup Playoff round robin game against the Colorado Avalanche at age 18. The pandemic then allowed the strange season of playing in the AHL at 19, and that eventually led to him making his NHL regular-season debut in 2021. He bounced back and forth from the NHL to the minors that season and seemed to lose confidence at times.

Then, when new head coach Pete DeBoer was hired by Dallas in 2022, it was determined that Harley needed to return to the AHL and work on his game a little bit more.

“Thomas Harley in training camp wasn’t ready,” DeBoer said. “So, we did the right thing and he took the right steps and when he came back, he was ready.”

DeBoer deserves a lot of credit for making that determination. Harley was a highly-prized prospect who had played 34 NHL games. He could have easily stayed up and tried to continue his development in the NHL, but the Stars traded for Nils Lundkvist, had a solid veteran in Joel Hanley, and really felt Harley would benefit from the reset. So he went to Texas, focused on the details of the game, and had his defensive game rebuilt.

“It was by committee,” Stars GM Jim Nill said. “We all had a say in it and we all wanted to do what’s best for the player. It’s the coaches up here, the coaches down there, it’s J.J. McQueen and Rich Peverley and Scott White and Mark Janko. It really takes everyone working together.”

Harley rarely played on the power play in his first 25 games in Texas that season, and was used on the penalty kill and in defensive situations. It was part of the play.

“He’s obviously a very talented defenseman, but you need to be on the ice to do what you do best, and he needed to be trusted to be able to do that,” Graham said. “So I think we helped him with that and kind of lit a fire in him, and he earned every minute he got with us. You could see that extra gear in him when it was like, 'Not only am I going to get better defensively, I’m going to dominate offensively.'"

Just as it was when Harley was able to go to the playoff bubble, he got a little luck during the 2022-23 season. Dallas suffered almost no injuries on defense, so there was no temptation for the organization to call him up and alter the learning process. He played 66 straight games in the AHL before getting the call-up for the final six regular-season games and the playoffs last season.

“I’m glad I didn’t go back and forth,” Harley said. “It let me just focus on what I was doing there, and I think that was the best way for me.”

Graham said that attitude was noticeable.

“He wanted to be present, for sure,” Graham said. “I definitely got the feeling that he enjoyed his time with us, that he wasn’t looking to just move on. He’s a competitive person and he’s always wanted to be elite, but when he was sent back to us, he never had any entitlement or attitude. He came down ready to work. Everyone matures, and I think he was a different player the last time we got him.”

Harley did just that. Working with Graham, defensive assistant Maxime Fortunus and veteran defenseman like Alexander Petrovic, he learned the nuances of reading plays, getting your stick in the right place, leverage and muscle.

“It was a team effort,” Harley said. “They all pushed me to be better and something kind of clicked. It’s about playing smart and picking your spots.”

Harley did that in the playoffs last season, helping the Stars beat Minnesota and Seattle in two physical series. This season, he allowed his offensive game more room with 15 goals and 47 points along with a team-high plus-28 rating. In the postseason, he has just two assists in 13 games, but he has been fantastic defensively. Harley is second on the Stars in average time on ice at 24:36, he’s second in blocked shots at 40, he’s second in takeaways at 11, and he has yet to take a penalty.

“He’s elite,” DeBoer said. “There have been a lot of nights where he has been one or two of the best players on the ice on both teams. I think this guy should be on the radar of the Olympic team and the Four Nations.”

Harley was born in Syracuse, but his parents are Canadian, so he choose to play for Team Canada in international competition. That could make it more difficult to get an invite to these big tournaments coming up, but Harley has a way of putting himself into good spots.

“I really enjoyed my time with Thomas last year,” Graham said. “I got to go to the All-Star Game with him and spend some time with him and his family, and he’s a very determined person. He wants to be elite, and he’s well on his way.”

Harley said he feels better on the ice, and believes his development has played a big role in that.

“I think I’m more confident in my ability to defend,” he said. “Last year was huge. I went down and really dialed in on it and I’m kind of reaping the rewards now. I go out there and think I can shut down or at least play with the best players in the world. It’s just another shift at this time.”

That’s an impressive realization for a 22-year-old, but it’s who Harley has been throughout this process. He has not only grown as a player, but as a person, as well.

“He has stepped in and quietly done a fantastic job,” Nill said. “He came up as an offensive player, he knew he had some weaknesses, and he changed his game. You have to give the player credit. It’s easy to be told stuff, but you have to understand it too. He understood it, he wanted to change, and he did.”

It’s a lesson the organization hopes Harley will be passing onto younger players in the coming years.

“It’s okay for players to face challenges and adversity,” Graham said. “It wasn’t instant. It took him three seasons to get to where he is, and that’s okay. I think we all see that in development – that adversity is the best part of development sometimes. It makes you examine your game and who you are and the person who comes out is more versatile and more well-rounded. It’s good to be battle-tested in the American League.”

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

Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.

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