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Ben Bishop aims to win, return to form in homecoming of sorts with Stars

After a roller-coaster 2016-17, the Frisco High alum seeks to be the anchor Dallas needs in his first season with the franchise

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

There is something kind of symmetrical to Ben Bishop ending up in Dallas that suggests that, maybe, there is something to this karma thing after all.

It was in Dallas -- actually in Frisco, Texas to be exact -- that a young Bishop first learned that he might be a decent goaltender.

"I never really pictured myself playing in the NHL when I was a little kid, it was just kind of one of those things that evolved," Bishop explained in a recent interview in the Stars' locker room at the team's practice facility in (wait for it) Frisco.

"It wasn't really until I became a senior in high school and moved down here, I think after a month of the season, the coach told me I was on the Central Scouting thing," Bishop said referring to the highly-anticipated rankings of draft-eligible players the world over.

"And I was like, 'What? What's that?'" Bishop said, laughing. "Then it kind of clicked."

Not long ago, Bishop returned to his alma mater, Frisco High School, to take in part of a high school football game. It wasn't exactly Friday Night Lights, but it was a reminder that in some ways a circle has been closed with the Stars acquiring Bishop from Los Angeles at the conclusion of the regular season and then signing him to a six-year deal with a very manageable cap hit of just under $5 million per season.

Bishop and his new bride -- she is from the Tampa area and the couple were married in Tampa in the summer and so have been dealing with the angst of having family displaced by Hurricane Irma -- recently purchased a house in the Dallas area.

"It's pretty cool how it all comes full circle," said Bishop, 30.

A year ago, it was pretty far from cool. Bishop was part of a Team USA that went winless at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and he returned to Tampa after nearly being traded in the offseason. Dallas was one of the teams that had inquired about Bishop, as did Calgary.

But it didn't happen, and Bishop platooned with talented young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

The Lightning lost captain Steven Stamkos to injury and, after going to the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and taking Pittsburgh to seven games in the Eastern Conference final in 2016, finished out of the playoffs.

Bishop wasn't around for the final indignity, having been traded to Los Angeles at the trade deadline. But all in all, it was a season to forget for both the netminder and the franchise.

Video: Bishop meets the media in Dallas

"It was a frustrating season," Bishop said. "I wanted to play and we were kind of splitting and going back and forth. And it was just, it had been going so well the last couple of years going to the finals, and the conference finals, and then all of a sudden changing it up. And not making the playoffs was kind of frustrating for me and I think for everybody."

Even the trade to Los Angeles did little to erase the sense of uncertainty, given the presence of Jonathan Quick -- Bishop's teammate with Team USA -- locked in as the Kings' starter.

"It was kind of one of those things, when you're in L.A. you're just kind of waiting for the next thing to happen because you know it's kind of a short-term thing," Bishop said.

When the Stars acquired Bishop, and they began talking about a long-term deal, it was important for him to get something done quickly.

"When Dallas came along, it was kind of like, 'Let's get this done and let's not mess around and play hard to get or anything like that. Let's get a fair deal and get to work,'" he said. 

"It couldn't have worked out any better, and now, it's just about playing hockey and winning hockey games. That's why we came here: To win hockey games and have a little fun along the way."

When you talk to scouts and NHL observers, apart from his tremendous athleticism, what sets Bishop apart from almost every other netminder is his ability to handle the puck. It's one of the reasons many believe Bishop's fit in Dallas with new head coach Ken Hitchcock is a good one.

"All teams are looking for those defensemen that can move the puck, so now we've also got a goalie and he makes -- I'm watching a lot of tape -- and he makes tape-to-tape passes not only to his defensemen, but to forwards," goaltending coach Jeff Reese said.

"And he's not afraid to make plays all over the ice," said Reese who likens Bishop's puck handling ability to Mike Smith and Martin Brodeur. 

"Your game plan is almost changed a little bit when you're playing against those guys, because you're actually talking about your dumps and how you're going to keep it away from them. So, sometimes, it's a distraction in that you're actually thinking about it, and sometimes, you might get a little cute and you don't get the puck in all the way. It's just a distractions for other teams and it's a big plus for our hockey club."

So, here's the secret to Bishop's puck-handling skills: In his heart of hearts, he would rather be a skater than a goalie.

"Ever since I was a goalie, I've always wanted to be a player," he said. "Before practice, and after practice, I was always skating around shooting the puck, passing the puck -- always messing around, playing the puck just because I enjoyed that. I did it never thinking, 'Oh, this is going to be a great tool when I am older.' I just did it for fun. The older I got, I kind of realized I was pretty good at it and it just kind of evolved."

Video: Radulov, Methot and Bishop on the first day of camp

One of the reasons that so few goaltenders have developed puck handling as a skill is that it's a high risk/high reward endeavor when goalies wander out of the safety of their crease to get 
involved in the play.

Even for the best, it's not a fool-proof thing.

"One last year, it was actually in Buffalo, I remember I passed it up the middle (and it was intercepted), and I actually dove back and I made the save it was actually probably the best save of the season. That one was pretty bad. A couple of years ago, I had one against Calgary where I was behind the net and I tried to pass it to the forward and I think it was (Mike) Cammalleri totally went down the boards and cut it off and put in the empty net, so that was probably the worst one."

No question the Stars will put up with the odd miscue, given Bishop's ability to get the puck to teammates and spark the transition game that is so important to NHL teams.

"I am a big fan of Ben Bishop," said former NHL netminder and longtime national broadcast analyst Darren Pang.

"He's learned over the years how to take hold of a locker room," said Pang who got to know Bishop after St. Louis selected him 85th overall in 2005. "It's just like a successful quarterback or a pitcher with the ball, he knows what needs to be said. He's got a good demeanor, a good presence. He's a likeable guy, and he's an athlete. He plays the puck, which they haven't had, and he catches the puck, which they haven't had."

For a Stars team that finished 29th in goals allowed per game -- and was a woeful 12-24-5 on the road en route to missing the playoffs just a year after winning the Central Division -- the pressure is on Bishop to be '"The Man" from the moment the puck drops on the season.

"There are very few goalies in this business who can go into an opposing team's building and win 1-0," Pang said evoking memories of Bishop's shutout of the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2015. 

"Ben's one of them."

Bishop shut out the Presidents' Trophy-winning Rangers twice in the series, both on the road, to send Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since the Bolts won their first and only Cup in 2004.

But Bishop was injured early in what would be a six-game series defeat to Chicago.

A year later, Bishop was injured early in the Eastern Conference final against Pittsburgh.

Video: Captain Jamie Benn discusses Stars busy offseason

It has created a kind of cottage industry of questioning Bishop's durability, and Pang said in this first season in Dallas, staying healthy is crucial for Bishop.

"I'll be quite blunt -- it's a bit of a concern," Pang said.

When we pose the question to Bishop, it's clear that it's not the first time he's been asked to go down this road. And if he's ticked off, he does a nice job of not betraying his irritation at the line of questioning -- even though it's clear he feels the narrative is misguided.

Since 2013, he's seventh among all NHL goaltenders in NHL appearances with 225 in the regular season and has gone 21-13 in the post-season, with a sparkling .927 save percentage.

"People bring it up quite a bit," Bishop admitted. "I kind of take pride in playing a lot of games so when people bring up the injury thing I kind of think of the other way and say 'Hey, I've played almost more games than most of the guys in the league over the last five years, so I just kind of laugh it off to be honest."

Another former NHL netminder and analyst Glenn Healy isn't at all troubled by Bishop's injury history. If you play a lot of NHL games, you're going to get hurt. That's life as a goaltender, Healy said.

Healy thinks Bishop's experience and his athleticism will see him thrive in Hitchcock's highly-structured system.

"He's not the young kid anymore that kind of bounced around a bit," Healy said. "I think it's just a good fit."

Twice nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the game's top goaltender, Bishop said he's always tried to wipe the slate clean after each season regardless of the outcome.

It's no different this season -- even if it represents a kind of homecoming.

"I don't really look at it as I have something to prove," Bishop said. "I think it's just something you expect of yourself and I think that's why you have success in this league it's because you expect it of yourself. You can't just go out there and think things are going to happen you have to work for it."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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