Ask Dallas Stars goaltending coach Jeff Reese what he likes about Maxime Lagace and he'll tell you at the top of the list is the young netminder's composure. Next on Reese's list is that Lagace was never drafted, meaning that nothing has been handed to him.
"Everything he gets he has to earn," Reese said. "He's not going to be given anything."
That means it's been a lot of hard work and perseverance for Lagace, who is putting himself in position to be the Stars' No. 3 goaltender heading into this season. Impressive for a guy who was barely on the radar among Dallas goaltending prospects a couple of years ago.
"It's always been a tough road," Lagace said. "I've always had to prove it every step of the way that I could be in net and make the job."
Lagace played for four different teams over four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and spent his first professional season playing for two different ECHL teams and serving as a practice goaltender for the Texas Stars.
But last season, his second as a pro, the 23-year-old Quebec native turned some heads, grabbing the No. 1 job with the Texas Stars for a good portion of the season, posting a 19-10-6 record with a 2.90 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. And it wasn't handed to him.
Jack Campbell and John Muse were expected to be the Texas goaltenders, but with Campbell battling injuries and then struggling once healthy and Muse struggling, Lagace took the reins with Dallas' AHL club.
"We needed somebody to step up and he grabbed it," said Stars GM Jim Nill. "You need these kind of stories, guys who were better than you envisioned."
At one point in 2016, Lagace won eleven straight decisions for Texas. It was far from a perfect season. There were some injuries, and struggles down the stretch, and Campbell took the net for most of the playoffs, but overall Lagace put himself in a good spot heading into this season.
"He had a breakthrough year. He did things guys weren't expecting him to do," said Mike Valley, Stars director of goaltending development. "He has a lot of skill and he has to build off that momentum he had last year. There is still a lot of growth he needs in his game, but there was a lot of positive things that came out of it."
Lagace seems to be building on that momentum so far in this year's training camp. He was sharp in Sunday's scrimmage in Cedar Park, stopping seven of eight shots, and in Monday's preseason opener he was excellent, turning away all 14 shots he faced while playing the final 29:10 in the Stars' 3-1 win over St. Louis. It was Lagace's first NHL preseason game.
"I was super nervous," Lagace said. "My legs were like spaghettis in there, but after five minutes it went away, and I felt good. I felt strong and calm in net. I just wanted to show what I could do, and I am pretty happy."
The Stars were happy as well.
"He looked great," Reese said. "I was really pleased with his game. I was pleased with the way he moved, the way he fought in traffic, the way he handled the puck. He did a lot of great things."
The Stars saw enough in Lagace that they signed him to an entry-level contract in July 2012, but he seldom was mentioned when it came to Dallas goaltending prospects. He had some ups and downs in the QMJHL and then there was that first pro season when he got bounced around in the ECHL, but that's where the tide started to turn for Lagace.
"That's where I changed my game, the mental aspect of my game," Lagace said. "It was all about my mental toughness. I was pretty good technically, but I had to improve on my mental game, and my game has improved a lot in a few years."
Lagace, who re-signed with Dallas this summer, is expected to compete for the top spot in the AHL with Philippe Desrosiers (second-round pick/2013) and Landon Bow (Texas Stars signing/2016). He appears to be the front-runner right now. This season will be an opportunity to take another step forward and perhaps show that he could be ready for the NHL down the road.
"I just want to prove that I can do the job," Lagace said. "They have two great goaltenders up here [in the NHL]. It is nice to look at them and take a little bit of their games and improve where I need to improve. It's really fun, I enjoy it so much and couldn't ask for a better situation."