Perhaps because of the fact that many of the top draft picks for the Stars in recent years are playing with the team (and possibly due to certain draft choices), the Stars are rated towards the bottom of the NHL when it comes to their level of prospects. A lot of the focus on the Dallas Stars' farm system and their prospects has been centered around Ivan Vishnevskiy, Scott Glennie and up until just a few months ago, Jamie Benn. Yet despite the lack of flashy talent or big names in the system, there are a number of players whom Stars fans should feel excited about as they move towards taking the next step into the AHL and beyond.
Matt Tassone is one of those players.
He's not the flashiest forward or the most high-profile but his leadership, determination and hard-working style have set him apart from the other prospects starting as soon as he was drafted. In his fourth season with the Swift Current Broncos, he is working hard to recover from injury and surgery setbacks that derailed an incredible 2008-09 season. After breaking out with 55 points in just 52 games, Tassone injured his shoulders and required season-ending surgery. It was a tough end to the year for the player named team MVP, and his absence was sorely felt as the Broncos dropped their first round playoff series in four games.
This season, with Tassone fighting back after a near-ten month absence, the Broncos are in a fight for a playoff spot. Over the weekend, Swift Current dropped two tough games with one game including a rare hour-long delay in the second intermission because of a power outage.
While speaking with Defending Big D on Monday, Tassone talked about the difficulty of playing in such an odd and frustrating game. "We were talking about that happened with the New Jersey game and how that game was ended. But that's obviously some weird circumstances, it's never happened before. It was kind of hard to picture yourself getting back into it.
"We were down 3-2 and we had the momentum going and then the lights go out. You're just sitting around not knowing if you're playing or not. It's kinda like we lost two times. We were down and then we played that period and we lost that last period. It was a mental game really, in the third period there. And we couldn't pull that one out."
This season has been a long, hard road for Tassone as he fought to return from surgery on both shoulders. A labrum tear in his left shoulder was repaired, but his right required complete reconstructive surgery. A long recovery process for anyone, yet Tassone suffered a devastating setback when an infection required the surgery to be performed again.
This second surgery moved his window for return back another six months. While Tassone's competitiveness urged him back onto the ice, he was focused on being patient with his rehabilitation. Yet that patience was tough to come by.
"That's the longest I've ever been out; I was out for ten months.You know, cutting my season short, getting ready for the new season and missing camp and not being there, it was tough. I really didn't want to rush it, I talked to a lot of guys, I talked to other hockey players who play the pro game and had the shoulder surgery before, talked to my doctor and my dad, he helps me a lot."
"One of the big things I didn't want to do is rush my shoulders back and being out of the game that long, obviously I'm a competitor and I like competing. It was tough, some nights it was really tough. But I knew that if I waited then my shoulders would be better than ever, stronger than ever and I really wanted to wait my time and make sure my shoulders were 110%."
Tassone credits a lot his determination and competitiveness to his father, who guided him as he grew up playing hockey in St. Albert, Alberta, near Edmonton. "Probably my biggest influence is my dad. He never played hockey but he knows a lot about the game and he's probably been the guy, you know, always was with me at the rink. and if I ever needed anything he was always there."
Despite raising his son as an Oilers fan, it seems his father must have known something about Tassone's future as a hockey player.
"I grew up an Oilers fan, but my first NHL jersey was actually a Mike Modano jersey, a Dallas Stars Modano jersey. I don't know why, but my dad got me a Modano jersey when I was six year's old for Christmas. I think it's kind of ironic; I didn't even have an Oilers jersey until a couple years later."
When asked if he then became a closet Stars fan living in Edmonton, Tassone chuckles. "You know I kind of was. You know they had that big rivalry and they always played each other in the playoffs and stuff like that and my dad always got us tickets. So I have watched the Stars for actually a while now, and I was just thrilled when I got drafted by them."
Tassone was drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 NHL Entry draft by the Stars, after his second season with Swift Current. At the time, he was known primarily as a hard-working, physical forward who had flashed some offensive potential at times. Yet it wasn't until the season after he was drafted that Tassone truly broke out, scoring 36 goals and finishing with a +23 before his shoulder injuries, a scoring potential that he says he always had.
"I actually have always been a scorer in my background, in bantam and midget. I was always top two, or the top scorer on my team, ever since I was a little kid. Just playing, gradually getting to know the league better and finally I just kind of broke out. I do practice my touch around the net, ever since I came into the juniors. In the summer I like to work on honing my skills. Even this past summer, I wanted to make sure I was back at it, getting a feel for the puck again. I do practice a lot over the summer on my scoring touch, and I think that's what helped me a lot to break out last season."
The hard work that Tassone put in through his recovery and rehab have started to pay off the past month, after finally returning to game action in December. It was a slow start, but it was expected.
"I obviously knew, being out for ten months, I wasn't going to be....You lose kinda of that touch around the net, and one thing I did want to do when I came back was just kinda work hard and make sure to put my time in the gym and on the ice, just kinda be a hard-nosed guy.
"I knew when I came back I wasn't going to be the same player that I was. I feel like the last month and a half I've been getting lots of chances, I've been putting the puck in the net and I feel like my game is getting closer and closer to where I was last season."
"I'm a hard-nosed, power forward that can put the puck in the net; I have that skill set. I'm just a hard working player. I bring leadership to a team and I've always been a leader on the teams I've played on, I've always had a letter on my chest. I think that's something I pride myself on, I'm a good leader and I like to show by example. I like to take games under my belt and do what I need to do to help the team win."
It's that desire to win, that inherent leadership and physical ability that led the Stars to draft Tassone in 2008. Yet it was Les Jackson and Brett Hull who drafted him, when the organization was focused on a certain skill set in their forwards. Under Joe Nieuwendyk, the Stars have shifted a bit as they target smaller, speedier centers and wingers who are primarily playmakers.
Despite the change in the front office and in the coaching staff of the NHL team, Tassone says that he's been encouraged by the organization to keep doing what he does best. While recovering from his shoulder surgeries back home in Edmonton, Tassone even received that reassurance in person at a Stars and Oilers game.
"I was at home in Edmonton earlier in the year and I got to see the Stars play the Oilers one night and I actually went to the game and met everybody. It was great."
And he's not thinking about the change in playoff philosophy in the team. "I'm just doing what I'm doing which is playing hard nosed hockey. I'm playing my game and they said they liked that and I'm just going to kind of keep to it."
The Stars keep in touch though as Tassone is acquainted with the Stars' past, with both former players and coaches.
"[Stars scout] Shane Churla comes down here, he lives closeby, so he sometimes talks to me and asks how I'm doing. I am fortunate enough to have Mark Lamb as my coach this year, and he's on good terms with the Dallas organization. He helps me out a lot."
As with every prospect, the Stars have worked with Tassone on improving certain aspects of his game. Like with many young players, it was the skating that was singled out. "I think that's what I needed to work on the most; I can always get faster and that's what I needed to do. They told me to just keep working hard."
Of course, as a player known for his physicality and willingness to drop the gloves, it helps to have a scout like Shane Churla working closely with you. Unfortunately, there haven't been any fighting tips just yet. "No tips yet. This year I've been a bit tentative to do it (fight), but no tips from Churla yet. I recently had a fight and it was a good test for my shoulders. If the opportunity is there I will jump in and drop the gloves, but no, he hasn't shown me anything yet."
With just a few months remaining in Tassone's fourth season with Swift Current (he'll be 21 in September), the next step in his playing career is looming on the horizon. Yet with the AHL definitely in the near future, he says his focus is squarely on getting his current team into the playoffs.
"I don't want to focus my mind on that 100% just yet. I want to live in the now, do good in the playoffs. But I do think about my future, and what my future is in hockey. My goal is the NHL and that's where I want to go. But for right now I just want to focus on the Swift Current and making the playoffs and having a good playoff run. But hopefully I'll make that jump soon."
"We have 22 games left and we're two points out of a playoff spot, just trying to make a push and play smart hockey. Make simple plays and sometimes we try and get too dynamic, but we just have to play tough. It's starts from the goaltending out: good goaltending, good defense and good forwards. We have been playing good hockey lately, but we've been digging ourselves a hole with puck giveaways and things like that. We just have to clean up our game and we'll be good to go."
Matt Tassone is one of those rare, highly skilled players who's head in undoubtedly in the right place. When talking with the young player it was apparent that he was hesitant to talk about his future in the AHL and beyond, and was much more focused on his current team and where they are headed this season. The Swift Current Broncos were just a few points back of the eighth place team in their conference and were looking to rebound after some tough losses.
Like the Stars, the Broncos have a tough road ahead but not an impossible one. With Tassone back on the ice and finally feeling comfortable after ten months away from his team, there's no doubt that he'll do whatever it takes to help his team win. He's a player that will not hesitate to come to the aid of a teammate, to protect others around him with big hits or to send a message with a punishing fight. With his scoring ability growing and his offensive potential still untapped, Tassone is on the fast track to becoming not only an important part of his future AHL teams but could potentially be an important asset for the Stars down the road.
There's no doubt about what led Les Jackson to draft Tassone in 2008, and those qualities still hold true today.
"They liked me," Tassone says, "because I like to compete and I just want to win. I've just got to keep that emotion."