Less than a year ago, Jason Dickinson was struggling with cementing his spot on the Dallas Stars roster. But, after some changes to his mentality and a new role from a new coaching staff, he’s found a way to resurrect his young NHL career and become one of the team’s most consistent depth forwards.
While every NHL player has his own personal “battle marks,” it’s not typical to see multiple fresh gashes on their cheeks and chin at the same time, held together by a handful of stitches. They just don’t appear that frequently. And on top of that, he picked up another shiner on Monday night in a 4-1 win over Edmonton that required a quick doctoring, moving his total up to 12 stitches over the past month.
But for the 23-year-old forward, it’s just a part of the game and his role.
“It’s about, honestly, bad luck at the same time as just being in the right spot,” Dickinson said with a chuckle when I asked him about the scars.
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And when you put two-and-two together using that, you come to the conclusion that Dickinson is in the right spot rather often. That would be a fair assessment through the first 28 games of the 2018-19 season.
Jason Dickinson has skated in 26 games for the Stars this year. He’s one game shy of matching his career-high in NHL starts in a given season, but has blown every other one of his career-high marks out of the water so far in the 2018-19 year.
He has five goals (fourth on the team) and 10 points along with a +7 rating (fourth on the team) this year. His former goal high? Two during the 2016-17 season. His former point high? Two in 2017-18. And his former +/- high? A +1 which he posted in his NHL debut in 2015-16 that turned out to be his only game of the year with Dallas.
Dickinson owns a shooting percentage of 15.6 percent with 32 shots on goal, has blocked 18 shots (his previous career-high was five), is skating an average of 12:33 per game (over four minutes more than last season), and is well on his way to a new career-high in games played.
Considering he has not been a regular NHL starter until this season, his success may not seem like a surprise. But for no. 16, it means a lot.
“It’s been nice,” Dickinson said. “I mean, I’ve always believed in myself. Coming into this season, I didn’t think I deserved anything less. It’s just been a matter of putting it together. I try to do the little things on the ice. I try to be on the right side of the puck. It took a few games to get some bounces my way in order to get on the scoresheet to make it look even better than what I was doing. It’s nice to get that recognition and be able to get some more ice time.”
Dickinson began the 2018-19 season as a fledge starter, skating an average of 8:49 through his first four starts and serving as the healthy scratch in two of the Stars’ first six games (vs. Toronto and vs. New Jersey). Throughout those first few weeks, it looked as though Dickinson might once again fall victim to an overstocking of NHL forwards and fall to the Texas Stars roster in the AHL as a result.
But, unlike in previous seasons, he didn’t let that happen.
Da Windy City
Dickinson tallied his first point in his sixth start of the season with a primary assist against Los Angeles and followed it up with a two-goal, three-point performance against the Anaheim Ducks just two nights later.
From there on out, the job seemed to be Dickinson’s to lose. Since then, he’s been one of the Dallas Stars’ most consistent depth forwards.
Dickinson has found his place in Jim Montgomery‘s new system, slotting in as the fourth line center and providing a scoring kick to round out the offensive attack. Whether he’s between Gemel Smith and Valeri Nichushkin or Mattias Janmark and Blake Comeau, he’s finding ways to succeed and produce. Using his size and speed, he’s been able to conjure up consistent offensive zone time, generate scoring chances, and work to make the fourth line an asset for the Dallas Stars.
“I like how straight up he is,” Dickinson said of Montgomery. “He doesn’t beat around the bush. He tells you what’s what and exactly what he expects. It’s nice to have that kind of clear path of, ‘This is what is expected of me and if I do this I should be alright.’ His game plan really does breed success because if you’re on that right side of the puck and if you’re doing all of the little things that he preaches, you’re going to get chances. It’s worked out well for me.”
“He’s playing so well, I actually think I should have him playing more minutes,” said head coach Jim Montgomery following the win over the Bruins on Nov. 16. “And I’m trying to. It’s just, the balance right now of where he is as a center, sometimes the flow of the game, especially in the first period when all the situational stuff, it hurts.”
As a 2013 first-round pick (29th overall), Dickinson built a successful campaign with the Texas Stars before earning his first call-up at the end of the 2015-16 season. But since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of transactions, leaving many to wonder if he truly was a piece of the Stars’ future.
In the 2017-18 season, that uncertainty hit a breaking point. Under the coaching of Ken Hitchcock, Dickinson was involved in 17 different transactions, bouncing him back and forth between the NHL and AHL.
His play in the AHL showed promise, but his NHL play told a different story. When he was in Dallas, Dickinson was repeatedly shifted through the lineup, playing both at center and on the wing while simply trying to establish himself. The result? No goals, two assists, and a -2 rating in 27 games along with a career-low in average time on ice.
"“I think it was a mentality. I think, a lot of the call-ups last year in the second half of the season after I had had the first few where I felt like I could really contribute and I didn’t; after that, I was just coming up here and I was trying not to lose games. I was trying not to let the guys down. Unfortunately, that’s not a great way to go into games. It’s going to hurt you more times than not because you’re just going to be scared to make plays and you’re not going to make great reads. It worked against me.” – Jason Dickinson on his 2017-18 season"
Though he had a down season, the Dallas Stars brought the pending RFA back on a one-year contract worth $875,000. In other words, it was very much a “prove it” deal.
And through 26 games, he is doing just that. He’s playing with energy and passion and makes every shift count. As a result, Montgomery is rewarding him in games.
Dickinson now plays a crucial role on the Dallas penalty kill. Though he has served on various penalty kills throughout his career, he never gained the opportunity in Dallas until this season.
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“It’s been great,” Dickinson said about his new role. “Especially when you’re on that fourth line and you’re not getting huge minutes, that PK keeps you in the game. It keeps you intense and keeps you ready and on your toes. It’s been nice because I’ve always been a PK guy, so it’s not anything unfamiliar to me. I can go out there and I know my reads and I know the positioning and I know all that, so it’s not like I’m out there like a headless chicken. I’m pretty sound out there on the PK, so it’s nice to get that opportunity as well.”
He’s been a solid asset when the Stars are shorthanded and has even drawn a handful of penalties while on the PK using his speed and reach. He’s been trusted with the task of handling the opposition’s top line on a handful of occasions over the past few games and has done well so far.
His consistency is leading to extended roles in Montgomery’s system, which is only feeding his confidence.
Of the Stars’ three overtime wins this season, Dickinson is responsible for two of the game-winning goals. He intercepted a puck and beat Braden Holtby in a 4-3 win over Washington and followed it up 13 days later with a rebound goal in a 1-0 win over Boston. He’s getting chances in 3-on-3 overtime, a spot that is typically reserved for the superstars on the team, and is making them count,
“I mean, it’s pretty awesome,” Dickinson said about his new role in overtime. “If you had asked me before the game if I was going to score the OT winner, I probably wouldn’t peg myself. But, I’ve gotten some good opportunities there and Monty has trusted me to go out there. It’s important to go out there in those situations. In 3-on-3, there’s a lot of ice and a lot of area to really mess up. To be able to get that opportunity to get those chances is fantastic and I’m grateful for them.”
“He’s someone that I really trust because he plays the right way,” Montgomery said. “His details have been fantastic and his speed and his ability to drive the net in 3-on-3 situations gets us in a lot of advantages and he’s done it twice now.”
As Dickinson continues to regain his confidence following a rough NHL transition over the past few seasons, it’s intriguing to see where he could go. His unique skill set give him the opportunity to be a prime cog in the Dallas Stars offense for seasons to come, and his recent production provides promise for that. He’s a young asset at the age of 23 and has shown that he can thrive when in the right system and given the right opportunities.
But, for right now, Dickinson is more focused on where the team is going.
“I think we’ve still got so much more in us,” Dickinson said on Black Friday. “There’s a lot that we haven’t tapped into. There’s so much depth in this team that, if we can get going on a consistent basis; you saw it in the Island where we played as a team, all four lines were going, we had [defense] involved, and everything was clicking. So, if we can get that on a consistent basis, we could be a real deadly team.”
The Dallas Stars once again showed flashes of brilliance on Monday night in their 4-1 defeat of the Edmonton Oilers. In the middle of the big win was Jason Dickinson, scoring the opening goal of the game, taking an uncalled hi-stick to the face, and using his speed and playmaking abilities to keep the Dallas offense deep and dangerous.
And if a team can get all of that from their fourth line center, they are in pretty good shape.