Two-way game has Harley flourishing with Stars

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Dallas Stars had a plan for defenseman Thomas Harley coming into this season.

They just needed Harley, Texas Stars head coach Neil Graham, and the AHL club’s coaching staff to actually execute it.

Everyone knew what the 21-year-old Harley, taken by Dallas 18th overall in the 2019 National Hockey League Draft, could do with the puck. He made his NHL debut in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubble two weeks shy of his 19th birthday, then came into the AHL during the abbreviated 2020-21 season and put up 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in only 38 games for Texas. Last year, he broke through with Dallas and played 34 games for the NHL club in 2021-22.

Playing without the puck, however, is what is going to enable Harley to stick in the NHL full-time. Elite skill had long allowed Harley to skate his way out of the trouble; that go-to option became far less effective against the high-level competition that he was now facing in the pros.

Dallas assigned Harley to Texas this fall with a simple mandate — improve defensively and away from the puck. Match up against an opponent’s top threats. Kill penalties. Master five-on-five play. Use those superior skating skills to defend with consistent intensity. With Graham, plus assistant coach Max Fortunus and his 18 seasons of pro experience on the back end, Harley had a good base from which to learn.

“For us, we wanted to break down [the details of defensive play] a little bit,” Graham recounted of that early-season work. “He really grabbed the situation with zero issues, zero complaints.”

This work has been an awakening for Harley.

“Everyone always assumed I’d be able to defend well,” Harley explained. “Just recently in the past couple months it’s kind of clicked for me on how and what I’m supposed to be doing while I’m defending.”

Knowing that they could not outrace Harley, opponents had taken to cut-backs and other such tactics to gain ice instead. Now Harley has an answer to that option and can close it off, leaving opponents with even fewer alternatives.

Harley has been part of the top-ranked Texas penalty kill, which has allowed just 18 goals in 144 chances this season (87.5 percent) while also scoring seven shorthanded goals. And while the Stars can certainly play with the puck, ranking third in the league at 3.82 goals scored per game, they are also seventh overall on defense at 2.76 goals against per contest, and sit third-best in the AHL with just 27.7 shots on goal surrendered per game.

Photo: Ross Dettman

The work has started to pay off for Harley. And better defensive work has set up offensive opportunities to work with the puck. He has eight goals and 22 points in 38 games, including goals in back-to-back games at Manitoba last weekend. He also has a plus/minus rating of plus-9. Harley, along with Graham and teammate Riley Barber, will represent Texas at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank on Feb. 5-6 in Laval.

Harley says that the concept of strong defensive play creating offense has “stuck with me through the years, and it’s coming to fruition now finally as I’ve figured out how to play defense.”

According to his head coach, opponents are finding it harder to play against Harley.

“I feel like his 200-foot game is extremely well-rounded,” Graham said. “On one particular night or shift, he can play against another team’s top line, but then in turn he might be able to skate goal line to goal line and make a play at any moment.”

And as the defensive game improves, Graham has been more comfortable giving Harley added responsibility.

“Not only in games but practice, we started putting back more power play [time],” Graham explained. “We started putting him and Will Butcher together as a D pair, and not only is his offensive game back to what it was before, it’s probably even taking a step in a more positive direction and without the sacrifice of the defensive side.”

The Central Division-leading Stars are in the middle of another week of practice, which means that more time for Harley to continue refining his game. The club is back in action Friday when they open a two-game set with the Colorado Eagles in Cedar Park. Texas has gone on a 13-1-4-0 run since the beginning of December, and the Eagles, one of the Western Conference’s top clubs in their own right, will present a good barometer.

That ability to fend off an opposing team’s push into the defensive zone — and then in a heartbeat take them off their toes and into retreat — has made Harley such a dangerous threat.

“He can defend hard,” Graham said. “He can defend fast, and when he has that consistent urgency the puck’s usually back on his stick quickly. And then he can make the next play, or he’s going to win the next foot race up to open ice, or the next layer of offensive ice on an entry.

“I think that confidence has grown with purpose because of what he’s now done on the defensive side.”