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Texas Stars Report: Julius Honka Still a Work in Progress

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Happy birthday to Dallas' next big thing on the blue line, Julius Honka. He's all of 19 years old but playing the AHL anyways. Is he ready for the big club?

Julius Honka navigates up the ice, followed by a Barons forward.
Julius Honka navigates up the ice, followed by a Barons forward.
Christina Shapiro/Texas Stars

If you'd believe it, today is Julius Honka's 19th birthday. The rookie defenseman already has 19 games under his belt in the AHL and scored his second career pro goal over the weekend. He has five assists as well and is getting time on the power play and penalty kill.

So what's Jim Nill waiting for?! He's got a right-handed shot and the last guy Dallas pulled from Texas is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Get that kid on a plane to Big D, right?

Honka is still a rookie in the American Hockey League. You might opine, "But John Klingberg was an AHL rookie too and look at what he's doing!" You would be technically correct but missing a larger point.

Klingberg came to the AHL as a North American rookie but is already 22 years old. He spent the last three years in Europe playing against men in the SHL and SM-liiga. Julius Honka turns 19 today.

He's in a weird place for the usual development of a hockey player. Due to the IIHF ruling that put him off-limits to the WHL's Swift Current Broncos, he started his North American professional career about two years earlier than most comparable draft picks have over the past ten years.

Seriously, take a look. I picked a handful of guys whose names you probably know. Most of them have two years after their draft year and there aren't a lot who make the jump right away,

Player Draft Year Draft Position Started NA Pro
Brent Seabrook 2003 14 2005 (NHL)
Mark Stuart 2003 21 2005 (AHL)
Erik Karlsson 2008 15 2009 (NHL)
Jake Gardiner 2008 17 2011 (AHL)
Cam Fowler 2010 12 2010 (NHL)

Honka hasn't really played a full season against "men" yet and is still a bit on the smaller side. The team would obviously like to see him bulk up a bit and learn the North American game under their watchful eye. There is a reason he came to the AHL and did not go to Europe. The Stars feel he is ready for AHL competition.

Right now, he does appear to be matching well with the minutes he is getting. There are some solid up-ice rushes but also some very green defensive zone play. Honka is looking to pass it out of the zone more than he was earlier in the season, which is a sign of his maturation already. In juniors, a player like Honka would have taken the puck out of the zone himself a lot. Part of his move to the pro game is learning that the puck needs to do some of the work too, not just his own skates.

Observers witnessed the same moments with Brenden Dillon and Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka. They will continue to for as long as the AHL exists.

Seeing Honka in the AHL is kind of what makes it harder. If he were in the SHL playing for Vaxjo or someone, you wouldn't be thinking about the possibility of a callup at all. In fact, you'd probably only think about him once a week when Huw drops the prospect report. When was the last time you thought about calling up Ludwig Byström?

That's what I thought.

But because fans are seeing Klingberg and Jokipakka make the trip up I-35 and Honka is just right there, it feels different.

And on top of all of this, there just isn't really a good compare for what Honka is right now in the AHL. He's a 19 year old in a league that pretty uniformly has a de facto minimum age requirement of 20 years. We don't know what to expect because there are no past results.

Welcome to the road less taken.

Game Notes for the Week

The Stars went 1-0-2 on the week, breaking an eight-game losing streak. Their solitary win came against the Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild), who own the worst record in the league. Curtis McKenzie was a huge contributor, but you can read that below...

Barons Hand Texas Stars Seventh Straight Loss

Everything seemed to be going swimmingly with just ten minutes left in the Texas Stars contest against the Barons last Wednesday. Texas was looking to break up a six game losing skid and was in good position to do so, leading 2-0 on the Barons with nine minutes left.

Coach Laxdal did not mince words postgame after the Stars allowed three unanswered goals, lost 3-2 in overtime, and stretched their losing streak to a franchise-worst seven games.

"We get up 2-0 in our building we have to be able to seal the game."

Laxdal was happy with the effort from his veteran netminder, Jussi Rynnas, and the two forwards who scored but had no problem calling out some of the players who are not finding the scoresheet early on in this season. Bottom six scoring continues to be a problem as the top five scorers have more than half the club's goals.

"Let's be honest," said Laxdal. "We aren't a high offense team. When we get a high quality scoring chance, we have to make sure they count."

Though Texas should never have gotten to overtime after leading by two, Laxdal did note that the game-winning goal by Matt Ford was a "distinct kicking motion" after he reviewed it on video. He added, "It should have been a disallowed goal. Obviously they didn't review it, and we can't do anything about it now."

Captain Maxime Fortunus, who was playing in his 650th AHL game, commented, "It's one of those plays where when you're in a slump things will happen in a game. Playing good in a game is not good enough. We have to be sharp for 60 minutes. It's being mentally ready. A lot of times in a slump you play to avoid making mistakes."

Texas Stars Make OT But Lose Eighth Straight Game

Texas broke an 0-for-24 power play drought with Maxime Fortunus' second period goal. That wasn't enough to break their winless streak though, which stretched the eight games with the loss. The Stars have earned four points during the skid thanks to four overtime losses but are still without a win since November 8th.

Derek Meech said, "Frustrating is an understatement," after the game when referring to both the loss and the streak.

Curtis McKenzie Headlines Tight 4-3 Texas Stars Win

Curtis McKenzie is a huge difference maker at the AHL level, and he proved it Saturday night. The winger was on the ice for every one of the Stars' goals and scored the game winner in Texas' win against Iowa in Cedar Park. After losing eight straight, the Stars beat the Wild 4-3 and never trailed in the game. The Stars last collected a full two points on November 8th.

"It shows how tough it is to win in this league," said Coach Laxdal. "When you're at the bottom of that curve trying to get a win, teams feast on you a bit. Give our guys credit for getting that fourth goal and defending to win."

After starting on a line with Justin Dowling and Scott Glennie, McKenzie switched over to the Travis Morin and Brendan Ranford line. He was a spark plug on both lines and scored the game winner in the third period despite starting the day in Dallas.

"I got back just in time for pregame meal. I got to fly this time though," said McKenzie, who is racking up the frequent flyer miles this season. It's a interesting adjustment for McKenzie, who has a very different role in Dallas than here in Cedar Park, where he says he takes "more offensive risks."

With the win, Texas collected four of six points in their three-game Thanksgiving stretch. They also get a little bit more confidence and swagger into the locker room.

"If you saw Jussi [Rynnas] there after the game, I thought we won the Calder Cup again," said McKenzie. "You gotta love guys that compete that hard."

Coach Laxdal added, "That winning feeling in the dressing room is outstanding. That passion brings confidence. Confidence is huge and hopefully this can breed confidence in the team."

The Week Ahead

The Stars play some less-frequent opponents this week starting tonight at home. The North Division-leading Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks) will roll into the Cedar Park Center for their second and final game in Central Texas this season. The Stars will then get on a plane to the northeast themselves. They will face the newly-christened Adirondack Flames (Calgary Flames), previously the Abbotsford Heat, on Friday night and the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens) on Sunday.

Injury Report

Brett Ritchie was a possibility to play last weekend but did not suit up in any games. The winger is out with a lower body injury and is day-to-day. He practiced with the team Monday and Tuesday.