DALLAS — When the Dallas Stars hit the ice at American Airlines Center on Thursday night to face the Calgary Flames, they will look a little bit different in the back. That’s because Kevin Connauton, who was acquired in an April trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Derek Roy prior to the NHL trade deadline, will make his NHL debut in the Stars’ third defensive pairing alongside veteran Sergei Gonchar, who the Stars acquired and signed this offseason.
“It feels awesome. I’m still trying to let it sink in a little bit. I think it won’t really feel real until after the game but just got to focus today and realize I’ve played this game before, not at this level necessarily but just another game I’ve got go out there and do my best,” Connauton said after morning skate.
The 23-year-old blue liner had been a healthy scratch in each of Dallas’ first eight games of the season. However, with Alex Goligoski, who is currently a team-worst minus-10 struggling, Stars first-year head coach Lindy Ruff decided to make a change.
“Well [Connauton has] great mobility. He’s used his size and his reach well defending. We’ve had a couple guys that have struggled so we’re going to give him a look,” Ruff said.
Of course, being a healthy scratch in his team’s first eight games is not how Connauton would have wanted his first taste of the NHL to go, but he’s been playing the game long enough to realize sometimes the best quality a young player can have is patience.
“Yeah, it’s part of the process. You sit out some games and you’re in other games. For me, it’s my first year in this league. I can’t really step in and expect to be dressing every night and that’s not what my expectations were. I’ve just kind of been taking it step-by-step,” he said. “My first goal is to find a spot on the roster and now I was able to accomplish that fortunately. Now it’s just a matter of getting into my first game. I’ll worry about other games after I get this first one under my belt.”
And as far as Goligoski goes, Ruff doesn’t want anyone to think that scratching the highly-paid defenseman means he is down on No. 33 or that he doesn’t think “Goose’ is still part of the club’s long-term plans. After all, Goligoski was a healthy scratch several times last season under now-former Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan.
“I had a real good conversation with him, just that I wanted to improve some of his defending. There’s been some good in his game which I talked about,” Ruff said. “There’s nothing on the offensive side to help support the defensive numbers, but he’s working hard. He’s had a great attitude, even a great attitude yesterday. I want him to work hard, get back in and play well.”
Connauton feels that skating alongside Gonchar, who at 39 is in his 19th NHL season, someone who has been through his share of battles in the league will definitely help ease his jitters in his first taste of playing in the League.
“It’s pretty lopsided on the experience side when you go from him to me. But he’s a guy you can learn from and a guy who has played in probably every situation you could imagine in hockey. So he’s someone you can definitely look to for advice and guidance and somebody that I want to learn from,” Connauton said.
In other Stars news, Kari Lehtonen will make his first start in net after missing the last five games with a lower-body injury. Winger Erik Cole, who missed practice on both Tuesday and Wednesday with what was termed “maintenance days” was back on the ice Thursday morning and will skate on Dallas’ third line alongside rookie Valeri Nichushkin and Shawn Horcoff.
And defenseman Aaron Rome cleared waivers at 11 AM, meaning the Stars have a maximum of 30 days to send him to the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League. However, a club official said there was no corresponding roster move that would be made at this time.
Forward Ryan Garbutt received a five-game suspension for charging Anaheim’s Dustin Penner in a 6-3 loss to the Ducks on Sunday, which currently leaves Dallas with the minimum number of forwards at 12, meaning a roster move could be made later in the week to provide some depth.