The versatile Finn is off to a great start for the Stars and his experience with AHL Texas may help explain why the pressure hasn’t got to him. In fact, he’s far from the first to go from a Calder Cup final to success in the NHL.
Roope Hintz|Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Depth had bedeviled the Dallas Stars for years, but so far in the 2019 playoffs, it hasn’t been as much of an issue. Through 10 games, the Stars have five forwards clumped together at the top of their leaderboard with either eight or nine points apiece. The usual suspects are there – Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov – but also trade deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello and rookie Roope Hintz.
When Zuccarello was brought in from the New York Rangers, it was exactly for this purpose: to give Dallas balance outside of their Big Three up front. The Norwegian’s broken arm in Game 1 of his Dallas career meant that his full impact wasn’t realized until the beginning of the playoffs, but now that he’s back in the swing of things, the move is looking great for GM Jim Nill.
But what about Hintz, where did he come from? Good ol’ fashioned development.
Speedy and versatile, Hintz was originally drafted 49th overall by the Stars back in 2015. After spending a couple more seasons at home in Finland with HIFK, the youngster came to North America for the 2017-18 campaign, suiting up for the AHL’s Texas Stars. This would prove to be fantastic timing.
Texas went to the AHL final last year, losing in seven games to the Toronto Marlies. But the experience and ice time Hintz got during that playoff run was incredibly valuable for his development.
Interestingly enough, Hintz was one of the only high-end prospects on that Texas team. While the Marlies boasted future Maple Leafs such as Travis Dermott, Andreas Johnsson, Frederik Gauthier, Trevor Moore and Garrett Sparks (not to mention Timothy Liljegren, who has yet to make his NHL debut), the Stars relied on veterans like goaltender Mike McKenna and forwards Curtis McKenzie and Justin Dowling. Outside of Hintz, there was Jason Dickinson and a minor role played by Denis Gurianov.
Fast-forward to this year’s NHL playoffs and you’ll find Hintz, Dickinson and Dowling on the Dallas roster, with Hintz making the most noise. In a crucial Game 4 victory over St. Louis, the rookie centered a line with Benn and Radulov as coach Jim Montgomery broke up his vaunted top unit. Clearly the strategy worked; the new Hintz line had one goal, while Seguin with Dickinson and Zuccarello had two. More importantly, Hintz managed to get results while playing against tough competition such as Brayden Schenn and defenseman Colton Parayko.
Would Hintz be so cool under pressure had he not played all those post-season games with Texas last season? It’s obviously an unknown, but historically, we’ve seen a lot of NHLers find success after great AHL playoff runs. While it may be too early to know Johnsson’s ceiling in Toronto after his MVP performance for the Marlies last year, the slick Swede did have a pretty good year with the Maple Leafs. But let’s go back much further.
Back in 2005, for example, the Philadelphia Phantoms won the title with a roster that included Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Patrick Sharp, with Joni Pitkanen on the blueline and Antero Niittymaki in net. A few years later, the Norfolk Admirals would win it all under coach Jon Cooper – his future Tampa Bay charges on that team included Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. In 2016, the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters took the title thanks to performances by future Blue Jackets Zach Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson.
In a year where anything can seemingly happen in the NHL playoffs, the Dallas Stars have just as good a chance as any of the teams remaining. And for Hintz, I’m betting he doesn’t want to get to a championship and come up one game short again.