by Stephen Meserve | AHL On The Beat
The usual progression for drafted players won’t see them come to the American Hockey League for years after their big draft day.
Of course, this year has been anything but usual.
Eighteen- and 19-year-olds who would normally be in the Canadian major junior leagues have come to the AHL, giving rise to a youth movement — especially for the Texas Stars. Defenseman Thomas Harley and forwards Antonio Stranges and Nick Porco would all be skating in rinks across Ontario right now in any other year but instead are lacing their skates in Cedar Park, Texas.
“We knew it was going to be a unique year,” said Stars head coach Neil Graham. “What’s been so fun this year is that we’ve had a new outlook. Those players who wouldn’t have been [here] have such an appreciation of the opportunity. It fits with what we were trying to do as a [team]: seize the moment.”
While Harley, a first-round draft pick by Dallas in 2019, was expected to play every night for Texas, the Stars had basically no expectation that Stranges would see the ice at all. He was a 19-year-old, barely, at the start of the season. This year was supposed to be just a great chance for him to get acclimated to the pro game and stay active in a team environment.
Stranges had other plans to seize his moment.
“I thought it was fun because it was something I had to work for,” he said. “You’re on the fifth line, and you have to jump into reps. I had to earn my spot in the lineup, and that was fun. I didn’t want to get my expectations too high coming here. I just put my head down and went to work every day.”
Graham praised the young player.
“His offensive intuition is exceptional. The puck seems to come to him, which means he’s finding good areas of open ice. But his work ethic, his coachability to learn pro hockey, to be a sponge learning from the older guys… that’s all what earned him the opportunity to get in.
“He’s arguably been one of our most dynamic players.”
Stranges, who would be a top forward for the OHL’s London Knights, is instead soaking up veteran wisdom from linemates 11 years his senior.
“Every time I came back to the bench [captain Cole Schneider] was getting the whiteboard and telling me what I should have done or maybe what I should do next shift. It’s special getting guys to do that, taking time out of their break on the bench to tell you.”
Harley, who has played in every game so far this season for Texas, is viewing the year as an excellent chance to build his game against stiff competition. He openly admits it’s nothing like the OHL and he’s having to add elements to his game that he’s never needed before to stay competitive.
“I’ve noticed that this is the first time I’m blocking shots, getting up in lanes and actually trying to block shots. But it’s such a high level that if you don’t do it you’re not gonna win. In Tucson, we were on the PK and got blocks from all of our defensemen and our forwards consistently, and it was a huge reason why we won those games.”
He noted that the learning aspect of the entire experience brings him back to his rookie year in the OHL, being the “low guy on the totem pole.” Veteran leaders like Schneider, who is Harley’s roommate on the road, are showing him how to carry himself on the ice and how to take care of his body and put in the work off the ice.
That big age difference is benefitting Texas’s entire mindset and approach to the season, according to coach Graham.
“They’re just coming in, and they’re trying to earn an opportunity to showcase themselves. Through their practice habits and effort, there’s been days where their youthful enthusiasm has helped raise the bar for our [team’s] work ethic that day.”
These teenagers are just taking it in stride though.
“It’s a fun recipe,” Harley said. “We’re out there having fun and joking with each other and kind of bringing a light hearted attitude to the team.”
“We’re fresh out of junior, so we’re not used to all this stuff just yet,” said Stranges. “We bring what we would do back in juniors up here, and it pushes the guys and makes them feel energetic. There’s just nothing about it that’s not good.”
If the OHL is able to return to play, these players will have to head back to Ontario, perhaps suddenly. Harley and Stranges are both looking to take the things they learned and translate them back to major junior.
“It’s gonna be a little change of pace, going back down to the OHL,” Stranges concluded. “If I just bring the same work ethic that I’ve been bringing in the AHL, it’s not that it’s going to be easy, but I’m going to be a step above.”
Stephen Meserve is the editor of 100 Degree Hockey, which has covered the Texas Stars since their inaugural season.