As difficult as it has been for Dallas Stars fans to accept the disappointing end of their season, the fourth consecutive one without a playoff spot, the final game Saturday night at the American Airlines Center provided an encouraging glimpse of the club’s future.
After their 2-0 loss in Nashville Thursday eliminated them from playoff contention, management made the decision to rest several veterans who had been battling injuries and recalled three players from the Stars’ top minor league affiliate, AHL Texas, based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, to get some NHL experience in the season finale.
“I think it’s important,” Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “Those kids, we’ve been kind of awaiting their arrival in Austin for some time now, and I think under the circumstances, it’s good to give them a look. And we’ve had some bodies that have been banged up for us, too. Robidas and Souray have been playing with injuries, so it’s good to get a look at these guys.”
Forward Scott Glennie
, the Stars’ first-round selection (eighth overall) in the 2009 Entry Draft, and defenseman Brenden Dillon
, both highly-touted rookie pros, each made their NHL debuts in the 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Additionally, defenseman Jordie Benn, the older brother of Stars center Jamie Benn
, and winger Reilly Smith
, each skated in their third NHL contests, while the squad also rested number one goaltender Kari Lehtonen
and inserted rookie backup Richard Bachman
Despite the defeat against a team attempting to seize the Western Conference’s top seed (the Blues finished with the second seed after Vancouver won later Saturday night), the youngsters left a positive impression and gained a valuable learning experience.
“I thought some of our young guys showed pretty well,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. “I think it means a lot. I think Joe can get to look at some guys before they have to hit July 1 free agency and they kind of get a gauge at where some of their players are at, and you can get a little bit of a gauge from a couple of games or one game. I think that helps the organization, and the player knows what he has to do moving forward now to make the big club. Any time they can get that sort of experience, it helps clarify in their mind and our minds where these players belong.”
“I think it’s important to see how they play,” said Nieuwendyk, “just how a kid like Brenden Dillon
, how he stacks up against some heavy forwards at this level, and if anything, it’s a good experience for all of them.”
By all accounts, Dillon made the biggest impact of any of the youngsters, impressing at both ends of the ice. He was dangerous offensively, physical defensively and looked like he belonged. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound native of Surrey, BC, actually fired a game-high six shots on goal and tied for the team lead with four hits and with three blocked shots, all while logging 19:59 of ice time.
“It was good, I got the nerves out of the way early,” said the 21-year-old Dillon, who was never drafted, but signed as a free agent out of junior with Dallas on March 3, 2011. “My first shift, I got a bump in the corner, kind of a wake-up call, let me know I’m in an NHL game. I think as the game went on, I felt really good, I was moving the puck, joining the play, had a couple of hits and stuff, it went well.”
“I thought his game was strong,” added Gulutzan, who coached Dillon for 10 games at the end of last season at AHL Texas. “I can see he’s made strides from when I had him a year ago. I think he’s going to be right around it come September.”
Glennie gave a solid showing as well, delivering two hits in 9:35 of ice time, as well as making his first trip to an NHL penalty box, while skating on a line with Stars’ leading scorer Loui Eriksson
and Tom Wandell
“It felt great, I was definitely a little bit nervous, but it was pretty fun,” said Glennie, 21, who scored 12 goals and 37 points in 68 AHL games before his recall. “First NHL game, you dream about it, and now it’s over and I can definitely look back on it and appreciate what the guys did for me here - playing with the two guys I was playing with, definitely made it easier as well. It definitely was a lot quicker, passes were always on, and turnovers turn into goals pretty quick. It was a fun experience and I really enjoyed it.”
Even their teammates watching from the press box liked what they saw.
“Dillon looked good today, and (Jordie) Bennie was up here for awhile with us and can play too, a guy who can move the puck and move his feet,” said Stars center Mike Ribeiro
, who was resting a number of different ailments. “It’s important for D-men to be mobile. Obviously, up front, still young kids, a lot to learn, but if you have a chance to play and I think they did good - they didn’t create turnovers or have a bad game, so we’ll see next year at training camp.”
Among the other players getting another chance to display their talents at this level, 24-year-old blueliner Jordie Benn looked solid, earning an assist on Ryan Garbutt
’s second period goal, while recording one hit and one blocked shot in 17:16 of ice time.
For 21-year-old winger Reilly Smith
, playing his third game after signing with the Stars at the conclusion of his junior college season at Miami (Ohio) on March 25, the night featured his first NHL penalty and his first face-off win in 12:28.
Receiving a large infusion of youthful enthusiasm also helped lighten the atmosphere in the dressing room, as the focus shifted a bit from the bitter disappointment they felt after the Nashville loss ensured a fourth straight season out of the playoffs.
“It’s obviously a very tough time and I think everyone around this team, who has a vested interest in this team, has struggled the last few days,” Gulutzan admitted. “And it’s nice to have some guys to bring up a different attitude and that certainly changes the mood.”
“Obviously, it’s a bad feeling not to make the playoffs,” Eriksson said. “Some young guys coming into the lineup, they bring skill and worked their tails off today. I remember my first game, when I played here, and it’s always a fun feeling and I think it’s fun for them.”
It’s a night they won’t soon forget and one that will stick in their minds throughout the summer as they get ready to try to make the roster as a regular next September in training camp.
“It was great, I can’t thank Gully and the Dallas organization enough for everything,” Dillon said of the experience. “They gave me a great opportunity today and getting the first one under my belt feels really good.”
“It wasn’t as much pressure, but you’re still nervous, it’s still your first NHL game,” said Glennie of making his debut in a game that didn’t mean much in the standings. “You’re always looking forward to that, and now that it’s over, it was really fun, it was a great experience.”
“This is a dream come true for these guys,” added Scott White, the Stars’ Director of Minor League Operations and GM of the Texas Stars. “They’ve been playing all their lives to get to this point and it’s an opportunity for them and well-deserved for both, even for Jordie to get a chance again. From a development standpoint, I think it’s huge, just in terms of preparation for next season. They get a little taste of what it’s about, what the pace is about, and I think that bodes well for their summers and their preparation for next year.”
So despite the disappointing conclusion of the season, there is plenty of reason for optimism going forward.
“I certainly do (feel better days are ahead),” Gulutzan said. “I think anything you do in life, even outside this game, it’s not really so much where you are but what direction you’re heading. I know I’ve learned a ton, I can be better and we all have to adopt that motto - players, coaches. We’re heading there. We didn’t get there this year. We could have gotten a little closer, but some of that stuff, we can tidy up and some of those mistakes, we won’t make a second time. Experience is a valuable thing. I think if we just keep our eye on the prize, keep doing things the right way and learn from our mistakes, we’re going to get to where we want.”