When the Dallas Stars selected Julius Honka in the first round of the 2014 draft, there was a bit of a befuddled reaction from many fans who had expected the team to address the need for elite, blue-chip talent at forward. Robby Fabbri (who is on fire in St. Louis), Sonny Milano, Kasperi Kapanen -- all on the board when the Stars decided to take a small-ish defensemen who seemingly came out of nowhere last season to become the 14th overall draft pick.
Honka had originally come out of the JYP organization in the Finnish SM-Liiga league, and played his first year in North America in 2013-2014 with the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL. His numbers prior to moving across the Atlantic weren't exactly staggering -- but it was with the Broncos that he blossomed spectacularly, putting up 16 goals and 40 assists in 62 games and taking on a major role with the team at just 18 years old.
Fairly unheard of for a young, rookie defenseman in the very tough WHL.
When drafted, it was clear the plan was always going to be to have him go back to the WHL. In fact, that's what everyone assumed would happen because of the CHL-NHL transfer agreement -- this states that any player drafted out of the CHL must either be 20 years old or have played four seasons of major junior hockey before being allowed to play in the AHL. Otherwise, the prospect would have to return to his junior team or play in the NHL.
This is built so that NHL teams can't take the best players from the CHL teams (who are business the same as any hockey organization) and stash them in the AHL.
As training camp approached, however, there were rumblings that Honka might be the exception to the rule.
First, we heard through the grapevine that Honka was confident in his chances at making the NHL (this was a bit premature but not entirely inaccurate) and that he was aiming to play in Cedar Park if not. There was talk of a "loophole" that could be found that would allow this to happen, but no one believed it would occur -- it's just so rare for a young defenseman to be ready for such a leap.
Once the Traverse City tournament began, it was clear Honka's skill was beyond that of the WHL -- at just 18 years old, he was perhaps the best player in the tournament, which was comprised of some of the best prospects in hockey. At training camp in Fort Worth, Honka became the buzz of the weekend and every time the puck touched his stick the crowd would get a bit more energized waiting to see what would happen.
A couple of preseason games proved Honka was certainly not ready for the NHL, but could the Texas Stars actually be a possibility?
On Monday, we reported that it was likely the Stars would assign Honka to the AHL but the details of how this could happen weren't exactly clear -- or at least official. Here is the quick and dirty "loophole" that was found:
- Honka had a multi-year contract with JYP of the SM-Liiga that would carry past the 2013-2014 season.
- When Honka traveled to N.A. to play for Swift Current, he was "loaned" to the WHL team for just one year.
- Since Honka was "on loan" to Swift Current, the IIHF and NHLPA ruled he was technically drafted out of Finland and therefore the CHL-NHL transfer agreement did not apply.
As such, Honka was assigned to the AHL on Tuesday.
The decision, as expected, did not sit well with those in the CHL and Swift Current. It's rather unprecedented and there is a fear it could lead down a slippery slope for teams drafting European players out of the CHL, and Swift Current coach and GM Mark Lamb (former Stars assistant coach) expressed this concern.
"We did everything right," Lamb told Shawn Mullin of Swift Current Online. "He wouldn't have come to us if we didn't sign that loan agreement. We had him for a year and we thought we had him for the rest of his junior (career)."
"It's not a good precedent for our league at all... when you get a real good player who really developed a lot and turned himself into a first round draft pick I don't think it's good for our league that he played here one year and then gets to go to the American Hockey League."
Immediately after Honka was assigned to the AHL, there were rumblings that the discussions were taking place regarding the situation and that his assignment might be in jeopardy. That's certainly not the case, however, as the IIHF ruling came two weeks ago -- and Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill says Honka will remain with the Texas Stars this season.
There has been some controversy around Honka's status as a CHL or European product when he was drafted. However, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said today, "it's pretty cut and dry now," that Honka will remain in the AHL this season.
"I understand Swift Current's position, he's a great player and it's awful to lose a player of that caliber," Nill said in a phone interview. "But once it became clear that he was on a one-year loan from Finland, it was cut and dry and became a moot point."
All indications are that the Stars were not the ones pushing this move, but agreed to the assignment after it was clear Honka's skill level and development were further along than expected. Honka is a very confident player who obviously feels he's ready to make a very rare and sudden leap forward in his development -- now he just has to go out and prove it.