One of the most positive developments of the Dallas Stars' 2006-07 season was the emergence of several rookies who stepped into the lineup and contributed meaningful minutes.Due to the unexpected wave of injuries the club suffered through December and January, along with others here and there that continued through the playoffs, the Stars were forced to rely on some youngsters and give them quality ice time. Loui Eriksson, Joel Lundqvist and Krys Barch certainly answered the challenge, while, in smaller doses, Chris Conner and Niklas Grossman also had an impact on the big club.
And that's not even mentioning the outstanding contribution made by rookie goaltender Mike Smith, but his success was somewhat anticipated and he opened the regular season on the main roster. The others all spent the early part of the season with the Stars' top minor league affiliate in Iowa and then joined the club in mid-season as injury recalls, which is perhaps a tougher task to tackle.
"I think the players that didn't start here came up and did very well," Stars General Manager Doug Armstrong said. "You look at Conner, you look at Lundqvist, some of those players. We've given a lot of opportunity to a lot of first and second year players to have an impact on the team."
Eriksson, the Stars' second-round selection (33rd overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft, enjoyed the longest stay in Dallas. Although he made his NHL debut on opening night Oct. 4 and scored a goal, he was sent down to AHL Iowa the next day. When the first injuries hit in mid-November, Eriksson was the first recall on Nov. 16.
Like most rookies, he was a little inconsistent over the course of the season, but definitely showed flashes of brilliance, and seemed to be at the top of his game down the stretch and in the playoffs during the Stars' agonizing seven-game first-round loss to Vancouver.
After finishing the regular season with two goals and five points in the final six games, giving him six goals and 19 points in 59 total contests, Eriksson earned an assist in Game 1 of the Canucks series. He sat out as a healthy scratch in Games 2 through 4, but returned in Game 5 with the Stars on the brink of elimination and gave a spirited performance the rest of the way playing on a line with Eric Lindros and Steve Ott.
Eriksson's biggest impact on the series might have been the almost-disastrous errant pass from the offensive zone on a delayed penalty in the third period of a scoreless Game 5 that ended up sliding all the way down the ice and grazing the post with the Stars' net empty. Instead of dooming the club, that play ended up inspiring them, giving them the sense that the breaks were finally turning their way, and the Stars mounted a valiant comeback that ended up falling just short in Game 7. While management had high hopes that Eriksson might be ready for the NHL this season, they did not anticipate the impressive contribution put forth by Lundqvist, a third-round choice (68th overall) in 2000. The identical twin brother of the New York Rangers' star netminder Henrik, Lundqvist came over from Sweden for the first time this season and spent most of the first half of the season in Iowa.
He had several brief recalls in December and January, and when he was brought back up on Feb. 1, it seemed likely it would be another quick stay. But Lundqvist scored a goal and an assist that night in San Jose and has been a fixture in the lineup ever since.
Providing eye-opening grit and toughness while performing on the club's shut-down line with Stu Barnes and Jeff Halpern, Lundqvist was a checking machine, totaling an unbelievable 110 hits in just 36 NHL games, fourth on the team. His average of 3.06 hits per game was more than any other Star and would have ranked him among the league's top 10 if he'd played a full season at that pace.
In the seven post-season games, Lundqvist delivered 18 hits, third on the club, while also helping limit the effectiveness of Vancouver's top scoring line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Taylor Pyatt. Lundqvist also tied for the team lead with two goals, including a scorching wrist shot in the first period of Game 7 that gave the Stars a 1-0 lead.
"He's an intelligent player," Stars coach Dave Tippett said of Lundqvist. "That line, I thought they did a great job playing against the other team's top line. What they do, they play in tight and they play a territorial-type game, they get the other team locked in their end. They do a good job of controlling the play, controlling the territory, and Joel is very smart that way. He's the first man on the fore-check a lot of times, he gets the puck, he holds it in there. He's an intelligent player, plays with some weight, likes to hit people, and is strong on the wall, is a good secondary face-off guy. There's a lot of little complements to his game that make him a good checking line player."
"He's played very well," added Barnes. "Even back in training camp, he had a great training camp, came in and played very hard. I don't want to use the word 'surprised,' but everybody could see that, 'Hey, this guy's a real good player' and developed really well. He's definitely an all-around player."
Both Eriksson and Lundqvist were returned to Iowa following the series with Vancouver to help the Stars' AHL club in their playoffs, and the two combined to pay immediate dividends. Lundqvist scored two goals and Eriksson added an assist in their first game back, a 3-2 victory over Omaha in Game 4 of their first-round series that Iowa eventually won in six games.
Also joining the pair traveling back to Iowa from Dallas was defenseman Niklas Grossman, the Stars' second-round draft pick (56th overall) in 2004 who had been promoted from the Stars' top minor league club on April 4. Grossman played the final three regular season games in Dallas, making enough of a positive impression on the coaching staff that veterans Jon Klemm and Nolan Baumgartner were scratched in order to get Grossman into the lineup. Overall, Grossman played eight games during multiple call-ups this season, but he did not play in the playoffs. Another player who stepped into the Stars' lineup and provided an impressive spark was enforcer Krys Barch, a career minor leaguer who made his NHL debut for Dallas this season at 26. A gritty competitor, Barch was summoned from Iowa on Jan. 25 to add some bite to a club that had lost scrappy Matthew Barnaby to a concussion, and Barch stayed here the rest of the season.
The feisty Barch took on all comers, piling up the fighting majors (leading the club with 13) and penalty minutes, finishing second with 107, in just 26 regular season contests. Along the way, Barch chipped in with three goals, two of which were game-winners, and five points, while registering a + 2 plus/minus rating.
"He's done very well," Tippett said. "He's grasped an opportunity that's been available because of a couple of injuries to players that play a similar role that he plays and he's jumped in and played very well for us. He's endeared himself to his teammates through his play. He's a very good skater and he can arrive and finish on people, he's willing to get gritty if that's called for, and he's fit in very well with our team." Barch was an unrestricted free agent after the season, and in a true test of how valuable team management considered him to be, he was quickly re-signed, inking a one-year contract on May 1 for the bargain price of $475,000.
"Krys is a hard-nosed player who plays with an edge and did a good job for our hockey club last season," Armstrong said. "We will look for him to continue to improve his game and make impacts for our organization next year."
Another player who pretty much came out of nowhere to contribute in a limited role in Dallas this year was winger Chris Conner. A free agent initially signed out of Michigan Tech by Iowa in March 2006 following the end of his senior season, Conner played well enough to earn a new deal. In three separate call-ups from December through March, Conner played 11 games and provided some much-needed speed and offensive skill, scoring one goal and three points.
"He was a player that we didn't know a lot about coming into training camp and he impressed us in training camp," Tippett said. "The thing that's impressive about him is his competitiveness and his speed in the game. There's a real quickness to the game that can be a real factor."
It bodes well for the future of the organization when players can contribute to the big club who were flying under the radar and not necessarily expected to produce at the NHL. "Any time you can pick up assets like that and have them come in and play well on your team, that just enhances your organization," Tippett said. "You have draft picks, and there's always some free agents you can find, and (Conner)'s been a great pickup for us."
With other highly-touted youngsters like forwards Junior Lessard and Vojtech Polak also playing well in Iowa and with all of them gaining valuable experience in pressure situations during the AHL club's playoff run, the Stars hope that more will be capable of taking the next step soon.
"This is excellent experience for (Eriksson, Lundqvist and Grossman), as well as all of the young players we have here," noted Scott White, the Iowa Stars' director of hockey operations. "Playing in situations like this provides a great opportunity for growth as they move along in their careers, here in Iowa and then ultimately with the Dallas Stars."