Junior Lessard is starting to live up to the high expectations placed upon him during the 2003-04 season after leading NCAA DI college hockey in scoring. He had a slow rookie pro season in the AHL last year, but this year he’s averaging nearly a point per game.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth star scored 32 goals and 31 assists in 45 games in 2003-04, was named the WCHA Player of the Year, an NCAA West First All-American, and a member of the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. The recipient of the Hobey Baker Award, awarded to the top U.S. collegiate player, signed with Dallas on Apr. 15, 2004, and expectations were high for the right winger. However, playing for the split affiliation Houston Aeros in 2004-05 proved frustrating. Lessard scored only 11 goals and 11 assists in 71 games. The 24-year-old did not see as much ice time as he had hoped, as the Aeros were the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate with the Dallas Stars only assigning a few players to Houston and others to Hamilton.
Dallas sent all of its prospects to the AHL expansion Iowa Stars for 2005-06, and it has proven a very good thing for Lessard. The 25-year-old leads Iowa with 13 goals in 26 games and is second in scoring with 11 more assists. The second-year pro missed nine games due to injury after suffering a separated shoulder against Hamilton Nov. 18, but came back strong after the injury. He especially hit his stride to start the New Year, going on a five-game scoring streak in which he scored 6 goals and added 4 assists. The Quebec native was named the AHL Player of the Week Jan. 8 thanks to a two-goal, three-assist performance against Chicago Jan. 7, involved in all five goals Iowa scored in the 5-1 victory.
Lessard has also played his first few NHL games this season as well, starting with his NHL debut Oct. 22 against Calgary. In two recalls he has played five games for Dallas, scoring his first NHL goal Nov. 6 against the Oilers in Dallas.
Hockey’s Future caught up to the Dallas Stars’ top scoring prospect on the Iowa Stars Jan. 14 after a 2-1 loss to the Cleveland Barons, also the end to Lessard’s five-game point streak. Despite the loss, Lessard is optimistic and is working hard to make his way back to the Big D.
HF: You had the five-game point scoring streak, AHL Player of the Week, your points are up, what has been the source of your offensive surge of late?
JL: Keeping it simple I think. I think it all starts from defense. Since I’ve come back from my injury that’s what I’ve been focusing on. It just seems that I get a lot more offense by taking care of my defense first.
HF: How has playing with Toby Petersen helped things?
JL: It’s been great. I’ve been lucky all year that I’ve been playing with him. My left wingers have been pretty much the same guys, either (Mathias) Tjarnqvist or (Loui) Eriksson, so we’re really getting to know each other and we know where each other is on the ice. We’re creating offense. Unfortunately tonight it didn’t work all that well, but has been in the past.
HF: You’ve had a cup of coffee up in Dallas this year, how much motivation does that provide you to get back up there?
JL: Oh, it’s always fun. Once you get a taste of it, you always want to go back. It helps you make you work twice as hard when you come back down. This year Dallas has been pretty fortunate, they haven’t really been hit by injuries, so I just have to keep working here. I know sometime I’m going to catch a break, but right now I’m just trying to work on the things I can control, and right now it’s just working hard, getting some offense, and creating some things for my team.
HF: How did it feel to score your first NHL goal?
JL: It was great, especially the fact that it was assisted by Mike Modano. It was a dream come true and it’s just a great feeling, you could probably tell by the smile on my face after that first goal.
HF: You’re nearly a point per game this year, what’s the biggest difference this year from last year in Houston?
JL: I’d say experience, ice time as well. Last year was a pretty tough year for a rookie to break into the AHL. In our case splitting a team with Minnesota wasn’t always fun, but it forced us to work harder and play harder, and the competitiveness was really high. Here I’m getting lots of ice time and I’m getting a chance to play in every situation, so I think it’s helping my development a lot.
HF: What do you think are the strengths of your game?
JL: Well, I think I’m a good forechecker, kind of a power forward. I drive the net hard, get in front of the net, find the open space in the slot and just trying and get open. Also, I have to be physical, and, believe it or not, lately I think defense has been one of my strengths as well.
HF: What are the areas you’re still working on to play in Dallas?
JL: I think defense was a big part of it. I think now in the NHL you can’t, if you’re not good on defense, unless you’re Sidney Crosby or that kind of guy, I don’t think you can’t play in the NHL. I knew I had to work on my defensive game and coach gave me a chance to do that here, and so far I’ve taken advantage of it. So, I think it’s going to help me a lot to make a decision next year.
HF: Going back to college, your first three seasons you had a fairly steady progression and then you had the Hobey Baker year. What accounted for the huge surge in points?
JL: It was just, it’s always been the same year after year, just keep working harder and harder and try to improve in some areas. It’s been the same since I was young. Like you said, year after year I kept getting better. Skating was a big weakness when I first started and I worked on it in the offseason, tried to put all the chances on my side. And confidence, year after year you just get more confidence and that was a big part. In my fourth year I had, I was getting along really well with my linemates and we just had an unbelievable year.
HF: Who were your normal linemates?
JL: Evan Schwabe and Tyler Brosz.
HF: You mentioned your skating improved at UMD, what other areas do you feel developed a lot under coach Scott Sandelin?
JL: My ability to get open on the ice and just to be more creative. I think when I came in the expectations were really high. It was kind of hard for me because of my speed. I think I kind of improved everything year after year. The offense started coming because I really worked hard on my shooting and trying to get that quick release, and that was probably why I scored so many goals my senior year.
HF: How big of a jump was it from Portage to college hockey?
JL: That was a pretty big jump actually. Manitoba is a decent league, but it’s not the best league in Canada. I went there because they gave me a chance to play, and nobody did before. So I went there. I didn’t expect it to be that hard, to be honest with you, I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a step, but the every time you move up one level it’s always quicker and quicker. It took me almost a full year to get used to that speed, and it’s a different game. There was no red line at the time, I was playing with a red line at the time in Canada, just a bunch a little things like that. I started going to school, and after missing two or three years, and also in English, so it was kind of hard. All of those things together were a learning experience.
HF: How was it that you ended up in the Manitoba Junior League?
JL: A scout from the Estevan Bruins came to Quebec and watched me play during the summer and brought me and a couple other of French guys to training. Training camp was going good but he had no room for me, so he decided to trade me to Manitoba. I didn’t think I was going to go out that way, I thought I was just going to go home, but it was on my home so I just decided to stop. I stayed there for two years and had two great years.
HF: What would you say the biggest difference is between the AHL and college hockey?
JL: Once again, the speed and the goalies are better, they’re harder to score against, the defensive coverage is a lot better too. Maybe you have a second in college to shoot, here you have half a second, and maybe a quarter of a second up in the NHL. So it was another step. It was a little more physical too. You have bigger players, stronger players. All the guys up in the American League were usually tough players on their team. So, it’s all good players playing, so it makes it harder.
HF: After you won the Hobey you were obviously a very marketable player, what made you decide to sign with Dallas?
JL: I know they had been following me all year and they had been serious all year. They gave me a good look. We looked at the depth charts, and my agent and I thought it was the best place for me and the best fit. I just hope it’s going to work out.
HF: Going way back, when did you start playing hockey and what was your favorite team?
JL: I started when I was about five. My favorite team was definitely the Quebec Nordiques. I was a diehard fan. I’m still upset they left. A guy like Joe Sakic, probably guys like Bill Guerin and Mike Modano as well. My favorite one was probably Cam Neely though. I actually got meet him in the Frozen Four too, that was great.
HF: And now they’ve inducted him into the Hall of Fame.
HF: What are your goals for the rest of this season?
JL: Just keep getting better. Lately the offense has been coming and I think it’s all the result of hard work. Hopefully, I’m not going to lie, I’d like to get called back up, but right now I’m here to help the Iowa Stars. We have a really good team. We’ve grown quite a bit since early in the season, so I think we can be a pretty big threat until the end of the year. So, I’m excited, looking forward to playoffs, and I’m going to give everything I have here.
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