by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat Archive
The expectations are always sky high on a first-round draft pick.
Only the best of the best make it to the National Hockey League as 18-year-olds. For the rest, it takes a few more years in juniors, college or Europe to put the finishing touches on their game before transitioning to the American Hockey League. Most rookies in the AHL coming out of juniors have already turned 20 years old.
A unique set of circumstances placed the Dallas Stars’ 2014 first-round pick with the AHL’s Texas Stars at the tender age of 18. After drafting Honka and deciding not to place him on the NHL roster, Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill had a choice to make: AHL or Europe.
“He said right from day one, ‘I want to go play in the American League. I want to be a pro hockey player and learn what it takes,’” said Nill.
Honka expanded, “I think the biggest thing for the AHL is that it’s the closest league to the NHL. It’s good to play here to get ready for the NHL, and that’s the biggest reason why I wanted to come here.”
And so at 18 years, 10 months, and 8 days, Honka became the youngest player ever to play for Texas and the second youngest on an AHL opening night roster this season.
“The biggest step any player makes in their career is to go from juniors, college or Europe to the American League,” said Nill. “After that, the American League to the NHL is not as big a step as the one he is taking right now.”
Honka played the 2013-14 season with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League and came into draft day ranked 11th on NHL Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters. Dallas would grab the Finnish blue-liner with the 14th overall selection.
“He’s a high-skilled, puck-moving defenseman,” said Nill. “It’s hard to find those guys. He’s high in skill, and he sees the ice well. For his size, he’s very competitive. He’s the total package.”
Honka also has fond memories of the day, “Obviously, the draft day was unforgettable. When I heard my name for Dallas, it was unreal.”
The Stars were a familiar organization long before the draft though.
“Finland is not the biggest country in the world, so as a kid, we knew pretty much every player who played in the NHL. [Stars forward] Jere Lehtinen was one player I looked up to as a kid.”
Honka came to training camp with the Stars and impressed right away. Defenseman Derek Meech, who has paired with Honka through much of the season in Texas, recalled, “I noticed right from training camp in Dallas that he’s got so much skill and can skate really well. He handles the puck well, and he’s still really young. An 18-year-old playing in the AHL is not the easiest thing to do, but he’s looked pretty good.”
Last season, Honka patrolled the blue line for Swift Current and played plenty of games against his current head coach in Texas, Derek Laxdal. Texas’ first-year head coach Laxdal is re-entering the pro game after several years spent with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.
“It’s a tough enough league for a 20 year old coming out of juniors,” said Laxdal. “So you can imagine what it’s like for an 18-year-old with years left in junior. After being on the 1-2 pairing in Swift Current last year and being one of the leading point producers for that team, he struggled coming into a team where he’s got to find his way.
“You see him starting to settle in, be more poised and know what he can and can’t get away with. Some of the things you can get away with in junior, you can’t get away with here, and that is part of that learning curve.”
In addition, the off-ice transition is a whole part of the game that many forget about when players make the shift from juniors to the professional leagues.
Veteran Meech explained, “A lot of people don’t realize that off the ice is pretty tough for a young kid when you’re on your own for the first time having to take care of meals and all the rest. It can strain you and get in your head and distract you from the game.”
Between his parents and his billet family in Swift Current, Honka was well-prepared for living a life out on his own in Cedar Park, Texas.
“When I was younger, I learned to do things by myself, how to be a pro and live the hockey pro lifestyle off-ice. That’s helped me now when I’ve had to do those things on my own.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the sheer size of things in Austin isn’t occasionally overwhelming. After leaving his hometown of Jyväskylä, with a population of 130,000, Honka’s next stop, Swift Current, had just 15,000. The Austin metro area clocks in at just under 1.9 million. Of all the differences, Honka says grocery shopping at superstores in the suburbs is probably the biggest off-ice difference.
Having several Finnish teammates has certainly helped the transition. Goalie Jussi Rynnas and defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka both hail from Finland and, according to Coach Laxdal, help on the ice as much as off.
“You can see a little more jump in his step when he’s around his countrymen. It’s also good to have that fellow countryman around when I need help with translation.”
Honka got a chance to spend even more time around countrymen with a spot in this year’s World Junior Championship in Canada with Team Finland.
In Texas, Jokipakka has paired with Honka for the past few games, and Laxdal thinks it could be a future pairing for the Dallas Stars as well. It’s been helpful for Honka to be able to come back to the bench and talk over a play in his native language with his partner.
Honka is listening intently to hear Jokipakka’s take on the defensive side of the game. While the youngster’s upside may be on offense, Nill wants Honka to be a solid defenseman first.
“In the end, if you take care of your own end, you can do whatever you want in the other end. In the NHL, it’s about not making too many mistakes and keeping the puck out of your end. That’s something he’s working on down here.”
However, for a player who has always been at the top of the heap, adjusting to being down the order in the AHL is mentally tough sometimes.
“Julius wants things to happen very quickly,” said Coach Laxdal. “Teenagers want things to happen quickly. When you get a little older, you understand that you have to take your time, and things will happen when they happen.”
For his part, Honka is aware of the Stars’ desire not to speed along his development too quickly.
“My mindset is to improve myself as fast as I can, but they’ve said they don’t want to rush players. I don’t want my offensive game to go in a negative direction. Here I can play with the puck more and improve my strength, and that’s a good thing.”
Honka turned 19 on December 3rd of this season, so the team is aware that Honka’s development is both in his game and also something they can’t rush: Mother Nature. Quite simply, the Stars don’t think the youngster is done growing yet.
“He’s not going to go from 180 to 210 overnight,” said Nill. “It’s going to take his hard work, but a little bit of it will be Mother Nature and time. We’re just going to be very patient with him. We like that he’s in the lineup every night and he’s playing every night. He’s practicing every day at a high pace and skill level against men. That’s what excites us.”
While the Stars are waiting on Mother Nature to do its thing, Honka is honing his game in Cedar Park to make it to the Dallas Stars roster. Meech knows the path Honka must take to the NHL, and admits the rookie has a tough road ahead of him at his position.
“Defense, the position in general, is one where guys tend to mature at different ages. There’s a lot of decision making to do out there in a short period of time on things that can really affect the game.”
Coach Laxdal isn’t worried because Honka is such a mentally mature player, in his estimation, and has shown himself to be very coachable.
“He’s learned that there’s a lot more to learn about this game because the players are bigger, stronger, faster and quicker. He has a bright future ahead of him, but he’s got to take it all in and take a good deep breath. He has to wait for the development process to take its steps.”
In terms of carving out his way ahead, Honka wants to make his own path.
“I always wanted to be an offensive defenseman. There’s a lot of those in the NHL like Erik Karlsson and Kris Letang, but when I was a kid in my town, there wasn’t a [Finnish] player in that model, which was good because I want to be myself and be my own player.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.