The NHL trade deadline turned into an unexpected adventure for young defenseman Dillon Heatherington, a recent addition to the Texas Stars.
The 21-year-old Heatherington began this month as a member of the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters, and when the NHL’s trade deadline rolled around on March 1, Heatherington was pretty confident he would be spending the rest of this season with the Monsters, an affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I didn’t think I’d get traded, but you never know. So after the deadline comes, you stop checking your phone as much, and it gets a bit less stressful,” Heatherington said. “Then about 20 minutes later, I got the call.”
Heatherington had gone out to eat with some of his Cleveland teammates about the time the Dallas Stars and the Blue Jackets finalized a trade just before the deadline, swapping veteran winger Lauri Korpikoski for the 21-year-old Heatherington.
“I was excited about it. I hadn’t been traded before so I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been great,” Heatherington said. “After I got the call, I went home packed some things up and I was on a plane the next morning.”
One night earlier, center Mark McNeill took a similar call after he was dealt by the Chicago Blackhawks to Dallas — along with a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL draft — for veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya.
“You get a call from your GM around dinner time on a Tuesday and you know something is up,” McNeill said. “So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when I actually picked up the phone.”
For both players, the trades signal a bit of a fresh start to their careers.
McNeill, 24, was a first-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2011, but he’s failed to crack the NHL team’s roster. McNeill averaged 22 goals over the past three seasons for the Rockford IceHogs, but Chicago continually passed him over while reloading with free agents or adding veteran NHL players at the trade deadline.
Heatherington, 21, was second-round pick of Columbus in 2013 and won a Calder Cup last season with the then-named Lake Erie Monsters. With a stockpile of young defensemen in the system and a need at forward, the Blue Jackets came to view Heatherington as an expendable prospect.
“They both add something to our team, and I think they both make us a bit more physical,” said Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal, whose club is next to last in the AHL’s Pacific Division and and likely will fail to qualify for the postseason for the first time in five years. “Whenever you add new players like that add at the deadline, you know you are getting motivated players, and it’s good for the rest of the group.”
McNeill already has made an impact for Texas. In seven games, he has four points and has grabbed a spot on the top line that includes Travis Morin and Jason Dickinson.
“It’s an easy system to play in,” McNeill said. “Plus it helps to come in and have a chance to play in key spots right away.”
Heatherington has played in six games for Texas since the trade and has been paired with Julius Honka. Honka and Heatherington played junior hockey together with the Swift Current Broncos during the 2013-14 season, and they are trying to re-kindle some of that old chemistry.
“It helps coming in and playing with an old teammate, plus I know a lot of the guys here from the Western (Hockey) League,” Heatherington said.
TOUGH PATH TO THE POSTSEASON
With only 16 regular-season games in front of them, the Texas Stars must leap-frog three Pacific Division foes in a little more than a month to qualify for the AHL playoffs. That’s the bad news.
On the good-news front, the Stars (27-29-1-3, 58 points, .483 points percentage) will face all three of the clubs they must pass at least once before closing with a road-and-home series against San Antonio, the division’s cellar-dweller. Here’s a look at those matchups:
March 22: vs. Tucson (24-24-6-0, 54 pts., .500). Season series to date: After splitting a pair of games at Tucson in mid-January, Texas defeated the Roadrunners twice last month in Cedar Park, winning by a combined score of 9-4.
March 24, 25, 28: vs. Stockton (26-23-4-1, 57 pts., .528). Season series to date: In three road losses to Stockton, the Stars scored three goals and gave up 14.
April 5: vs. Bakersfield (26-22-5-1, 58 pts., .537). Season series to date: Texas has lost four of five games against Bakersfield. In the most recent matchup, the Condors blanked the visiting Stars 5-0 on Feb. 28.
— From staff reports