Lundqvist poised to contribute more in Dallas

by John Tranchina ||

One player that the Dallas Stars will be counting on heavily this upcoming season is second-year Swedish forward Joel Lundqvist. After starting last season, his first in North America, in the American Hockey League, Lundqvist came up to Dallas and filled an important role on the checking line down the stretch and in the playoffs and the Stars are relying on him to continue his high level of play.

Lundqvist arrived back in the Metroplex at the beginning of September to start skating and is ready to not only continue where he left off late last year, but to take his game to the next level and have a major impact on the Stars’ success.

“Last year was my first season, I was up and down, ended up here,” the 25-year-old Lundqvist recounted. “I was satisfied with my game in the playoffs, and I want to start there and get better. I’m really looking forward to this season.”

Considering where he was at this time last year, the progress he’s made is nothing short of amazing.

Lundqvist arrived in North America for training camp last September somewhat under the radar, even though he’s the identical twin brother of the New York Rangers’ star goaltender Henrik, who had backstopped Sweden to the 2006 Olympic gold medal. But Joel, the Stars’ third-round draft choice (number 68 overall) in 2000, quietly went about his business in camp and not many observers noticed when the Stars assigned him to their top affiliate in Iowa.

But once in the AHL, he flourished, displaying both offensive skill and gritty physical play, impressing Stars management to the point that Lundqvist was recalled several times in December and January as an injury replacement.

“You knew it was just a matter of time before he played in the NHL because he’s got so much skills, he works really hard, he’s really physical out there and he plays well defensively,” noted Iowa winger Junior Lessard, another prospect the Stars hope can make the jump to the big club this year. “And in the AHL, he also scored a ton of goals, so you knew it was going to be a matter of time. He came up here, he got his chance and he took it.”

While he made a positive showing in those emergency recalls, it wasn’t until he came up on Feb. 1 that he really opened some eyes, and his outstanding performance led to him remaining in Dallas the rest of the season. Although he’s not overly huge at 6-foot-1, 194 pounds, Lundqvist is solidly built and impressed with his toughness and body-banging ability, compiling an unbelievable 110 checks in just 36 NHL contests, ranking fourth on the team. His per-game average of 3.06 hits surpassed every other Star and would have ranked him among the league’s top 10 if he’d played a full season at that pace.

And while he also showed flashes of offensive ability, contributing three goals and six points, Lundqvist found a home on the Stars’ shut-down line with veterans Stu Barnes and Jeff Halpern. He also was impressive in the face-off circle, winning 62.6 percent of his draws, the best mark on the club.

“That felt really good,” Lundqvist said of his success teaming up with Barnes and Halpern. “That was really good for my confidence, too, going into the summer, to have a good ending there.”

In his first taste of the NHL playoffs, Lundqvist delivered 18 hits in the seven games, third on the club, while also helping limit the effectiveness of Vancouver’s top scoring line with the Sedin twins. Lundqvist also tied for the team lead with two goals, helping the checking line to also become the Stars’ most prolific offensively.

“He’s an intelligent player,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said of Lundqvist. “That line, I thought they did a great job playing against the other team’s top line. They do a good job of controlling the play, controlling the territory, and Joel is very smart that way. He’s the first man on the fore-check a lot of times, he gets the puck, he holds it in there. He plays with some weight, likes to hit people, and is strong on the wall, is a good secondary face-off guy. There’s a lot of little complements to his game that make him a good checking line player.”

Both linemates enjoyed skating with him and were duly impressed by Lundqvist’s ability to fit in seamlessly and contribute.

“I thought he stepped in and looked like he’s been playing in the NHL forever,” said Halpern. “I love playing with him, and he gave our team a physical presence that we had some of, but he became one of our biggest hitters. Offensively and with the puck, without the puck, he’s very creative, very easy to play with, through each zone. Defensively, he did an unbelievable job, especially being asked to play in some big situations against some great players in the league.”

“I think with a guy like that, he’s got all the tools,” added Barnes. “I think he’s a good skater, obviously. He’s a smart player, he’s got a lot of grit to him and very conscious of work ethic. I think you just saw his maturity level. He was willing to make adjustments and learn from everybody involved and had a great stretch run down the last half of the season and of course, in the playoffs, played very well.”

lundqvist2l_200.jpg When the Dallas Stars’ postseason ended, Lundqvist, along with fellow rookies Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Grossman, went back to Iowa to help the AHL club in its first-round playoff series. Lundqvist made an immediate impact, scoring two goals in his first game back there (Game 4) and with the sudden influx of talent, Iowa prevailed over Omaha in six games before falling in the second round. Lundqvist ended up leading the Iowa Stars in both goals, with six, and points, 10, in just nine games.

“He was quicker, he’s such a good worker, and a good team guy,” said Lessard of Lundqvist’s return to Iowa. “As soon as he got down with us, he definitely was our best player. It didn’t matter if it was NHL or AHL, he just laid it out there and played really hard.”

“That was pretty tough at first,” Lundqvist admitted, regarding the emotional roller-coaster of going from a Game 7 loss to Vancouver back into the midst of another series with Iowa. “We lost here in Vancouver and everyone was so disappointed, and then having to re-focus to the next playoffs and everything. That was pretty tough, but we moved on one round and played well, but after that, I think the gas was empty.”

The fact that Lundqvist was such a factor offensively in the AHL, both in the playoffs and the regular season, where he still finished as the club’s third-leading scorer with 38 points in just 40 games, raises hopes that he can do the same at the NHL level.

Lundqvist acknowledged that was one of his primary objectives heading into his second year.

“Of course, I want to use my more offensive qualities, too,” he said. “That’s one of my main goals this season to maybe get more offense, and not just defense, so that’s a big goal for me to try to score more and be more in front of the net. It’s really different roles I had last year.”

And while Tippett loved the way Lundqvist fit on the checking line with Halpern and Barnes, and will likely keep that trio together, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t expect more goals from that group.

“We’ll see how it goes here,” Tippett said. “(Lundqvist) found a nice niche on our checking line, but we expect our checking line to score also. It’s not a situation where checkers are just supposed to check, we expect them to score goals also. We feel like he can contribute and now that he’s proven he can put up some numbers in the minors, he’s got to prove that he can do that up here.”

Trusting that up-and-coming players like Lundqvist and Eriksson will continue their progress this year, the Stars opted not to make any significant additions to the roster that finished last season. The onus is now on them to justify the faith management has put in them.

“There’s going to be opportunities for some of our younger players, like Lundqvist and Eriksson, to express themselves with a greater role on our team,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “We’re looking for growth in those players.”

“Both guys have, they put their time in in the minors and they’ve come up and now they’re in a situation where we expect them to contribute to the success of our team,” Tippett said of Lundqvist and Eriksson. “So there’s a different mindset from just making the team to actually being a guy that is depended on, and those players are both players that we’re going to depend on.”

The fact that those expectations are no different than Lundqvist’s himself can only be a good sign.

“To play good hockey and have a good spot on the team, to earn more ice time,” Lundqvist said of his intentions for 2007-08. “You want to play as much as possible, and you play more if you play good, so that’s the focus of your game. You try to play as best you can and have more ice time than last year. I’m really excited and looking forward to this season.”