With the tradeof Mark Fistric to the Edmonton Oilers for a third round draft pick in 2013, opportunity is knocking for Jordie Benn and Brenden Dillon.
The two defensemen, who came into training camp vying for the final roster spot on the Dallas blue line, are now in the hunt for a spot in the opening night lineup when the Stars take on Phoenix at American Airlines Saturday.
“It’s huge for us,” said Benn. “We’ve been working hard for this, but we’ve got to work harder to get in the lineup and stay in the lineup.”
“It’s definitely an opportunity I am looking to seize,” said Dillon. “This is where I wanted to be from day one. I want to be a Dallas Star and I want the Dallas Stars to do as well as they can.”
The trade of Fistric left the Stars with five defensemen under one-way contracts – Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, Stephane Robidas, Philip Larsen and Aaron Rome – and two roster spots open.
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk felt now was an ideal time to move a couple of the team’s younger defensemen up the ladder.
“You always try to analyze when the best time is to transition your kids in, and I think this is a real good time because the league has been shut down and these kids have been playing,” said Nieuwendyk.
Both Benn and Dillon have played basically half a season already with Texas of the AHL, and both have been logging big minutes.
Benn is tied for the team lead in defenseman scoring with 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists) in 34 games. Dillon has 14 points (3 goals, 11 assists) in 37 games. Both have been key parts of a very solid Texas defense.
“Jordie is a very cerebral defenseman. He moves the puck, has good eyes, can move things up the ice quickly and has a great shot from the blue line, he gets it through. He has some very good NHL traits in his game, the way he plays. He’s a good skater,” said Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “And with Diller, he’s just a big body that can move. He can really skate up and down that ice. He plays physical. He has great character. He gives us some size and strength back there.”
The loss of Fistric takes size and a physical presence out of the lineup, but the Stars feel they offset that with the offseason signing of Rome, who plays a similar style.
The Stars believe they have more young defensemen pushing in Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth. Oleksiak, the Stars’ first round pick (14th overall) in 2011, has been particularly impressive in the AHL. Dubbed “The Big Rig,” the 6-7, 254-pound Oleksiak isn’t far from the NHL, according to Gulutzan.
“There’s certainly this natural ability and some God-given things, not only his size, but just the way he plays that are going to make him a real good player,” said Gulutzan. “Yet, there’s still some youngness in him that you want to cure out of him before you get him at this level.”
But right now the Stars believe Benn and Dillon are ready for the NHL level. Both have come a long way. Neither was drafted. Dillon was passed over in the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft at age 15 because he was too small. A couple of years ago, Benn was playing in the Central Hockey League. Last season, both got their first taste of NHL action and now both are on the verge of cracking an NHL roster to start the season.
“All that did last year was make me want it that much more and make me want to work that much harder to be here full-time as a Dallas Star,” said Dillon. “I am really excited to be here and for the opportunity.”
“It’s been crazy,” said Benn. “I was just saying yesterday, my dad said never quit. You never know what can happen. A couple years ago I was really far away from the NHL. I knew that, but I never stopped working and I am never going to stop working. I’ve worked for what I’ve got and I am going to keep working harder.”