Jim Montgomery and the Dallas Stars are selling a lot coming into the new season, and one of their most freely given commodities is the one Julius Honka is scooping up wholesale: hope. After being selected in the first round of the 2014 Entry Draft, Honka had yet to see much success at the NHL level, where he struggled to find a place for himself on Dallas’ roster under two different head coaches.
Of course, Ken Hitchcock’s lack of confidence in Honka didn’t help develop his game, and whether Honka’s abilities are the chicken or the egg in this scenario could be debated. He had a strong showing in the 16 games he played under Lindy Ruff, with one goal and four assists, and it seemed like he was poised in the next season to take a spot on the roster right out of the gate.
But Hitchcock was reluctant to play him, reluctant to let him (or any defenseman) move the puck (which is one of Honka’s strengths), and held his average ice time to 13 minutes a night when he did play, instead leaning on Dan Hamhuis and Greg Pateryn, two defensive defensemen not known for their puck movement but very good at shot suppression, to carry the majority of the minutes. In 42 games last season, Honka had one goal and three assists.
Hitchcock’s system has some strengths, and it’s obvious that the Stars defense did improve last season. But playing a stay-at-home defensive, shot suppression-heavy game never suited the Stars roster much, and Honka was definitely one of the players that got lost in the system.
Montgomery, watching tape of his new players over the summer, identified a lack of confidence as one of Honka’s major problems, and who could blame him after last season? Honka agreed, saying at training camp, “just overall I want to get the confidence back, the offense style of game. Just don’t like say and not think to much, just play.”
Honka has always possessed the ability to move the puck, it’s one of the reasons that Dallas picked him in the first round. At 5’11” and 176 pounds, his quick skating and strong puck handling skills are the strongest contributions he brings to the roster, and are both things that Hitchcock, a long time fan of big, physical defensemen, didn’t really value.
Montgomery, though, seems to be all for it. His system will give the small, puck handling defenseman the opportunity to remind Dallas Stars fans why he was selected 14th overall. He’ll be expected to carry the puck through the neutral zone, and create plays where he sees the opportunity. He’ll be able to show off his offensive skills.
Asked about this coming season during training camp, Honka said, “I think the biggest thing is just I want to be myself more and like, I haven’t really had a chance to bring my best out of me yet. But I’m ready.”
If Honka can pick up where he left off under Ruff, if Montgomery can help him regain the confidence he lost last season, just letting him do what he does best could work out well for the Stars.