DALLAS — Roughly 14 hours after he scored his first career NHL goal in overtime Julius Honka was back in the same spot at American Airlines Center on Wednesday.
He had a pile of pucks to his left and one of the assistant equipment managers was passing pucks to the 21-year-old Finnish defenseman at the top of the right circle. Some he one-timed into the open net, others he hesitated on and picked his spot with a wrist shot.
Throughout his pro career Honka has always been willing to put in the extra work on his shot. During his time in the AHL he’d often be the last player off the ice for the Texas Stars.
If another player lingered with him after practice, Honka would trade shots with them seeing who could hit the cross bar or pick a corner on more consecutive shots.
It’s a skill that’s well refined, and Stars fans got a taste of what Honka can do when he picked the open space of Mike Smith’s shoulder in a 3-2 overtime win against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday.
The Stars believe in letting prospects “over-ripen” in the AHL, and Honka has over-ripened to an NHL level as an offensive player. It was obvious against Arizona on Tuesday and before the game-winning goal he toyed with the Coyotes defense for almost 30 seconds.
The next step for Honka is his work in the defensive zone. He’s undersized and listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds (and that might be a bit generous), so he’ll have to figure out how to use his skating ability and stick work to thrive defensively.
“That’s the big thing for a young guy like him, he’s ready in one aspect, but needed to learn what to do defensively,” said Stars veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who was paired with Honka on Tuesday. “I think he’s started to do that. And now he’s confident.”
Throughout the season Stars coach Lindy Ruff has talked about Honka’s gap control and it certainly needed work. However, Honka’s gap control needed to be tested and refined in the NHL and not in the AHL.
In the AHL Honka was quicker and a better skater than most and didn’t have to adjust his positioning to make the right play. In the NHL he’s started to learn from those mistakes and Tuesday was one of his better defensive performances.
“It’s obviously faster and quicker up here, I think that’s good,” Honka said on Tuesday morning. “I needed to find my game and I think I’ve been able to do it this time I’ve been called up.”
The Stars took their team picture on Wednesday (that’s why practice was downtown and not in Frisco).
All of the walking wounded were represented in the photo, including Patrick Sharp (hip surgery), Ales Hemsky (hip), Jiri Hudler (groin), Curtis McKenzie (cut above the eye), and Antoine Roussel (hand).
It was also a chance for Gemel Smith, Remi Elie, Jason Dickinson, and Justin Dowling to be in the team photo.
Photo day pic.twitter.com/w3xupfry7x
— Sean Shapiro (@seanshapiro) April 5, 2017
It’s a simple photo, but it’s a nice accomplishment for handful of players that no one expected to play in the NHL this season.