“He’s improved from day one to whatever day it is now. I think that is the biggest thing,” said Scott White, Dallas Stars Director of Hockey Operations and Texas Stars GM. “It is a big step.”
Honka, Dallas’ first-round pick (14th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft, was still just 18-years-old when the Texas Stars opened the 2014-15 season. He was the youngest player ever to suit up for Texas and was the youngest player on an AHL opening night roster this season.
Honka, who turned 19 in December, was expected to face some challenges, and he did. There was an adjustment to the pace of the play in the AHL and figuring out how the coaching staff wanted him to play. But Texas coach Derek Laxdal said there are big differences in Honka now compared with when he started the season in October.
“I think the biggest differences have been patience and maturity,” Laxdal said. “Coming into the league as a 19-year-old and playing in almost every game and in key situations – lots of five-on-five and power play time – he’s really taken a step in his game. He’s got a long way to go. He’s a 19-year-old player with some junior deficiencies, but he’s really taken a step in his game.”
There aren’t many players who get assigned to the AHL at such a young age, but Honka was a rare case. The Stars drafted the Finnish native from Swift Current of the Western Hockey League. Players drafted from the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League aren’t allowed to play in the AHL until their 20-year-old season per an agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the three major junior hockey leagues. But the International Ice Hockey Federation ruled Honka was on loan from his Finnish team to Swift Current, so technically he wasn’t drafted out of the WHL and couldn’t be assigned there once released from Dallas’ training camp. That left either the AHL or Finland. The decision was the AHL and Texas Stars.
Honka didn’t disappoint. He registered 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 68 games with Texas, finishing one point behind Trevor Carrick (Charlotte) and Mat Bodie (Hartford) for tops among AHL rookie defensemen. Nineteen of those points (four goals, 15 assists) came over his final 29 games.
“I got more comfortable with the puck and was able to do those offensive plays,” Honka said. “That’s what I like to do.”
For Honka, though, steps forward in his development weren’t measured in points alone.
“I think it was all-around game and how to make the right decision, use my strengths to bring the best for the team,” Honka said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Honka is a highly skilled offensive defenseman, and he brings another right-handed shot to the Dallas defense pipeline. His skating is top notch and his ability to slice through traffic and around the ice can be worth the price of admission. But sometimes that high level of skill can get him in trouble.
“He can get on his toes. He can escape pressure,” White said. “I think the thing now is he almost carries too much pace into areas and he gets shut off and that’s where he is learning those points where he needs to distribute the puck, hold onto it, get rid of it or when to hold back a little bit.”
Part of the learning process is that the simple play is the best play.
“He’s improved his game a lot from the beginning of the season. I think he has learned to make things simpler,” Texas captain Maxime Fortunus said. “When he added that to his game his game kind of took off. He’s going to be a good defenseman, and he’s really been helping us.”
Honka said learning to simplify is part of adjusting to the pro game.
“When you go pro those little things matter more,” he said. “My style of game is the offensive game, but those small things in the D zone improved a lot this year. I just want to keep going.”
Over the final couple weeks of the season, Honka added penalty killing to his repertoire. Defending is a focus moving forward for the 5-11, 185-pound Honka, especially handling bigger players. But despite not being the biggest guy on the ice, Honka doesn’t shy away the physical side of the game.
“He’s been more physical the second half,” said Laxdal. “He’s gotten stronger throughout the year.”
“He quietly has a little fierceness about him,” White said. “He’s pretty tough.”
Texas management gives Honka high marks for his professionalism, the way he prepares for games. He also scores well in dealing with difficulties, including being targeted by the opposition as a young, first-round draft pick.
“For a 19-year-old he handles adversity really well, being the other team taking a shot at him or chirping him on the ice,” Laxdal said. “He’s a perfectionist. He wants to do the best play on the ice every time; he wants to be sure he is prepared before the game, and that’s the real sign of a pro. He doesn’t get rattled when things don’t go well.”
Things seem to be going well off the ice for Honka, who has settled into the Austin area and the life of a pro athlete.
“It’s an awesome city and state,” Honka said. “The first couple months you get used to doing everything on your own, but now it is routine. It’s been great.”
While he likes Texas, not much of the local food has caught on with Honka. He prefers his own home cooking.
“We go out to eat some, but I still like to do my own food in the apartment,” he said. “I still do Finnish food. That’s what I like to eat. It’s pretty much normal home food, pasta and stuff like that. Casseroles.”
Comfortable off the ice and on, Honka will now hit the ice in the AHL playoffs where Texas will take on the Rockford in first the round. Honka is expected to play a big role as the Stars defend their Calder Cup championship.
“It’s an exciting time,” Honka said.
And another step along the road in his development.
“Overall, it’s been a really good year for him,” said White. “This will be a great experience for him in the playoffs.”