There was a time when Julius Honka was considered a lock to become a fixture on the Dallas Stars’ blueline. In fact, looking back through past editions of The Hockey News’ Future Watch issue, scouts had high hopes for the rearguard.
Take the year after he was selected as the 14th overall selection in 2014, for instance. Honka was ranked as the 23rd-best prospect by a panel of scouts and topped the list of future Stars in Future Watch 2015. By the next season, he had risen, if only slightly, to 20th overall, again topping the list of the best of what was to come in Dallas. And what followed was his pinnacle. In Future Watch 2017, on the heels of a seven-goal, 31-point performance in the AHL across 50 games, the scouting panel made the blueliner the 17th-highest ranked prospect. He was ahead of rearguards such as Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour and Sam Girard, to name a few.
That feels like a distant memory right about now, though. Over the past two seasons, during which Honka has basically been a full-time NHLer, the 23-year-old rearguard has come to feel less like a once-promising prospect and more like dead weight on Dallas’ roster. He skated in 42 games in 2017-18, registering one goal and four points, but followed that up with a campaign in which he mustered four assists in 29 games before falling out of favor with the coaching staff and finding himself a healthy scratch in the final 48 games of the Stars’ season, including all 13 playoff outings. Combined, he’s played 71 games over the past two campaigns, averaged little more than 13 minutes per outing and has one goal and eight points.
So, it should come as no surprise that all signs are pointing to Dallas doing what it can to find a new home for a defender who was once considered a potential defensive cornerstone. A change of scenery could do a world of wonders for Honka, too. Sure, he hasn’t shown the expected offensive flair in the big league, but a specialized role with some guidance might be just what he needs to take a step forward and find his game. It has been clear at points, particularly during his time in the minors, that Honka can produce in the right situation. That’s what he needs now.
But will anyone step up to take Honka, who is currently a restricted free agent, off the Stars’ hands? Only time will tell, but given there’s no room for him on the Dallas blueline, it seems likely he’ll be rehomed before training camp. He’s not the only youngster who could benefit from such a change, however. Here are five others under 24 who might be open to fresh starts:
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers
He was bound for this list like a heat-seeking missile, so let’s just lead with the obvious. Puljujarvi has made it fairly clear that he wants to find a new home, and who could blame him? It simply hasn’t worked out for him in Edmonton. Not only has he bounced back-and-forth between the minors, but he’s managed a mere 17 goals and 39 points in 139 games in the NHL thus far. Once projected to be in competition for the first-overall selection at the 2016 draft, Puljujarvi fell to fourth and the decision by the Columbus Blue Jackets to pass over the winger in favor of Pierre-Luc Dubois seems prescient at this point.
It’s unlikely the 21-year-old starts next season in Edmonton. If he does, it’s going to be a last-chance scenario, and if he flops early, it won’t be long before he’s sold to the highest bidder.
Josh Ho-Sang, New York Islanders
From one obvious choice to the next, because frankly, Puljujarvi is a newcomer to the change-of-scenery scene compared to Ho-Sang, whose name has been floated in talks of this kind for what feels like eons.
Ho-Sang, 23, has clear-cut offensive ability and he’s showcased it at every turn. In 156 AHL games, he has 26 goals and 110 points, including a career-best 43 points this past season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He’s had a near-impossible time sticking with the Islanders, though, and he hasn’t shied away from the talk of New York trading him. At this point, if the Islanders have no intention of using him in the lineup and are going to get anything of value for Ho-Sang, it’s time for him to be moved along. An outfit with room for an offensive player who can be a power play specialist might be the perfect fit.
Sonny Milano, Columbus Blue Jackets
He was picked two spots after Honka in the 2014 draft and ended up one spot ahead of the Stars defenseman in Future Watch 2015, but their tenures with their respective clubs have been similarly disappointing. Milano has had moments where he’s shone with the big club, including his 14-goal, 22-point performance in 55 games during the 2017-18 season, but he saw only eight NHL games last season, he’s been passed on the depth chart and is in no way a lock for the roster despite the Blue Jackets’ need to replace scoring up front.
His run-in with the law earlier this summer might scare some suitors off in any potential trade, which is concerning given he’s entering make-or-break territory. The offensive upside is there, but it’s a matter of a team finding the right way to bring it out of the 23-year-old consistently.
Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames
If we could go back and reorder the top-five prospects in Future Watch 2015, it goes without saying that we would do so in a heartbeat. Bennett, who hasn’t been able to earn anything more than a bottom-six role with the Flames, was the second-ranked prospect behind Sam Reinhart and ahead of Leon Draisaitl. In fourth was Nikolaj Ehlers, while Max Domi was fifth. Again, the quintet could use some rejigging.
Nevertheless, Bennett, 23, finds himself on this list not because he’s become disgruntled or has been mired in the minors but instead because he hasn’t been able to rise above third- and fourth-line duty with the Flames and a cap crunch in Calgary might necessitate such a move. And maybe that’s not the worst thing. In a new home, maybe Bennett could break into the top-six and earn a steadier offensive role. He did score 18 goals and 36 points in his first full NHL campaign, so the offense is there. It’s just a matter of finding a place where he can utilize those talents regularly.
Julien Gauthier, Carolina Hurricanes
Gauthier doesn’t fit the bill in quite the same way as any of the aforementioned players. After a difficult debut in the AHL in 2017-18, Gauthier took a significant step forward with a 27-goal, 41-point output with the Charlotte Checkers last season. But the rub here is that 21-year-old is sliding down the depth chart and Carolina’s own prospect rankings. He’s been passed by Martin Necas, who is primed to start on the wing as early as next season, and there’s something of a logjam ahead of him down the middle. Where he fits at this point is in question, and he’s not expected to really crack the lineup as a full-timer for another couple seasons at best.
He’s a good trade chip right now and one who showcased his upside last season. If Carolina needs to move someone in interest of improving their roster, Gauthier might be just the player.
Honorable Mentions: Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils; Michael Dal Colle, New York Islanders; Zach Senyshyn, Boston Bruins; Evgeny Svechnikov, Detroit Red Wings
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