By Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat Archive
Sometimes, your life is defined by expectations. Your past defines who you are, how you are supposed to perform and how you behave now and in the future. But sport is a glorious equalizer, showing that there is no one true path to success. Two rookies from the Texas Stars took drastically different paths to the AHL this season, but both are excelling at the highest levels as the playoffs approach.
First, there is the ‘traditional’ path. Jason Dickinson was Dallas’ first round pick in 2013. More accurately, he was one of Dallas’ first round picks. The Stars acquired the pick that became Dickinson in a trade for Jaromir Jagr.
“It’s pretty funny,” said Dickinson, laughing. “I try not to associate myself with that. It’s Jagr. He’s a legend, and I can’t say I was traded for him.”
Dickinson almost didn’t become a first-round pick with his selection being the second to last in the round. He had expected a second round pick-up and was “a little shocked” and very excited to hear his name. While he was elated to get picked up in the first, being a first round pick comes with expectations.
“Of course, the expectations are heavier, but there’s also a ton more opportunity. It’s not that everyone is handing you things, but they want to see you excel. They want to see you do your best, so they are going to give you all the chances possible.”
On the other side of the coin, draft day came and went uneventfully for Texas Stars goalie Maxime Lagace. The Quebec-native was disappointed not to be drafted for sure, but Dallas signed him to an entry-level contract as a free agent in 2012. It was a bright spot in what would be a stormy two years.
After signing with Dallas, the goalie bounced around three different teams in his final year of major junior, playing no more than 15 games in any one stop. Lagace called the year a ‘struggle’ and looked to put it behind him as he headed out to the professional ranks.
But his struggle would follow him to the pros. The Dallas system had one too many goalies, and Lagace was the odd man out. Early last season, he was no more than a practice goalie for the Texas Stars as the team searched for a long-term home for him. It took over a month until the Missouri Mavericks agreed to take him on. After 15 games in Missouri, Lagace was moved again, this time to the Bakersfield Condors, then in the ECHL.
“The team was out of the playoffs when I got there,” said Lagace. “I waited two games to get a start, and I had a win and then a shutout. Everything kept going well. I found my routine where I was comfortable, where my game was at its prime. I enjoyed my time there, the coach and his mentality. I saw another side of the game I hadn’t seen before.
“For me, a lot of people say this is my breakout year, but I think last year in Bakersfield was.”
Texas head coach Derek Laxdal saw the change in Lagace after he returned to training camp the next season, “Goaltenders have to be skilled and mentally strong. The adversity he faced last year bouncing around the ECHL, you can’t get any lower than that. That adversity is going to help him.”
As Dallas Stars training camp began at the start of this season, many eyes were set on Dickinson as he turned pro and carried high hopes for the future of the center position in Dallas.
“Our expectation for him was to play in the top nine,” said Laxdal. “He had a good start with some of our top line forwards, so he was feeling his way in.”
In net, Jack Campbell and John Muse were set to battle it out for the starting role in Texas. Lagace and fellow French-Canadian Philippe Desrosiers were expected to be the ECHL pairing. Dallas goalie coach Jeff Reese had an inkling of the future potential of Lagace though, telling him that he wanted to see the rookie starting in Texas by the end of the season.
“I didn’t laugh, but I said, ‘I’ll try my best’. But in the back of my mind, I said, ‘That’s going to be a lot of work!’”
An opportunity to prove Reese right came quickly. An injury to Campbell threw Lagace into the AHL limelight and gave him a chance to snag a role in Texas. When it came time to make a decision, Lagace had proven himself. As the starter, he’s now compiled a 19-10-2 record with a 0.916 save percentage and has firm control of the net as Texas approaches the playoffs.
Laxdal noted, “Max has given us a breath of fresh air and consistency in net where we know what we’re going to get every night. He goes about his business every game. He’s won us a few games himself, and his calm demeanor has helped the entire team.”
A spate of injuries in both the Dallas and Texas lineups around midseason forced Jason Dickinson into a similar position. Previously the third center on a deep team, suddenly he found himself on the top line, centering former rookie of the year Curtis McKenzie and dishing passes on the top power play unit. With a few games left to go in the season, Dickinson has accumulated 52 points including seven power play goals.
“With everybody getting hurt there, it presented a great opportunity,” said Dickinson. “Fortunately, I took the opportunity and ran with it. It helped my confidence and overall game to play with the best on our team and against the best on other teams.”
Coach Laxdal, who saw Dickinson grow his confidence as the extended top line minutes, continued, “He’s been a huge part of our success in the second half. He’s carried a lot of the load, and it shows you what kind of young man he is that he didn’t get a big head about it. He prepares and focuses like a pro and now it’s the focus to get consistency.”
His pro focus was on display last week when Dickinson was an emergency call-up to Dallas for a game against the Colorado Avalanche. He found out at 8 o’clock that morning and had to endure a flight delay, causing him to miss morning skate. His biggest concern was whether he would get a chance to follow through on his pregame routine that had helped him have success in Texas.
Playing against the NHL affiliate of frequent Texas opponent San Antonio, everything settled in perfectly for the rookie as the game began. Once he saw familiar foes Nikita Zadorov and Calvin Pickard on the other side of the ice, he said it was almost a calming effect.
And so, calmly, Dickinson collected a rebound in the first period and deposited it behind Pickard for his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot.
"I just thought of coming in here and playing my game, keeping it simple and just trying to contribute as best I can," Dickinson said after the game. "Fortunately enough, it ended up as a goal."
With the net very crowded in Dallas already, Maxime Lagace may have to wait a bit for his NHL debut. He’s fine with that though. Whatever may come, his experiences across the ECHL and AHL have prepared him for any future adversity.
“I enjoyed playing [in Bakersfield], and ever since I just go back to those moments and see myself struggling,” said Lagace. “I like to go back to those moments and think about how I felt.
“It was hard and a good struggle at this point in my career. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t change my path to end up here. You learn from getting bashed down. When you’re down on your knees, how you get back up matters. People will doubt me my whole career. It doesn’t bother me one bit; I actually enjoy it.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.