For a young prospect trying to find his way to the NHL, experience is everything. And Thomas Harley is getting one of the most unique experiences ever thanks to his time in the NHL bubble with Dallas.
The Stars defenseman and 2019 first-round draft pick is officially the youngest player left in the bubble and the only teenager still going in the Stanley Cup playoffs, edging out slightly older kids such as Ty Dellandrea and Jason Robertson on the Dallas "black aces" roster.
Harley even saw his first official NHL action in the second round when he played in the Stars' 4-0 loss to Colorado, logging about 11 minutes of ice time.
"I played pre-season and I played in one of the playoff games and there was no comparison between the two: that game against Colorado was nuts," he said. "It was so much faster and so much harder than in pre-season. It just shows how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup. If every game is like that, it's an absolute grind to win it."
For a kid who just turned 19 last month, Harley is getting a concentrated dose of the NHL lifestyle - albeit an atypical experience where he and his teammates have been limited to a hotel for two months with no access to the outside world. Back in the summer, Harley was home in Syracuse, NY, when the Stars gave him a call. After the promising two-way defenseman turned in a great season with the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads, Dallas brass wanted him in the Return to Play bubble - and he had to drive down to Texas, not fly. So Harley and his mom packed up a car and made the three-day trek, stopping in Cleveland and Little Rock en route to Frisco, where Dallas' practice facility is located.
Once he and the Stars got to Edmonton, everything was set up for them.
"It was pretty smooth, really," Harley said. "The league has done a great job with it and no positive Covid tests is huge."
Dallas' black aces have watched each game of the run to the final at the rink. They were posted up in a restaurant for the first two rounds, then moved to a suite for the Vegas series. When they haven't been on the ice, the Stars have played a big Wiffle ball game at Edmonton's football stadium, participated in golf excursions and hit up food trucks stationed within their quarantine zone. Tim Horton's, ice cream and now a new truck featuring all kinds of wraps have been Harley's favorites. There are also card games and plenty of Call of Duty: Warzone online with his junior buddies or fellow Stars defenseman Stephen Johns, who is apparently a pretty good gamer.
The down time has also been perfect for the youngsters to gather knowledge from their veteran teammates during dinners and other gatherings.
"All of us aces were just picking the brains of the older guys and they're helping us out a lot," Harley said. "When Andrew Cogliano was scratched, he would stay with us after practice and run us through drills or conditioning stuff that he likes to do. That's just one example, but everyone has done things like that for us."
Harley has found himself talking a lot to veteran D-man Andrej Sekera and on the ice, making sure he's bringing his 'A' game to every practice. The teen believes it is already paying off.
"Being here, I can tell I've gotten way better," he said. "Just competing against NHL guys day in and day out has brought my game up. Even with the black aces, you have to compete to win the battle every single time. If you don't bring your best game every day, you're gonna get walked around; you're gonna get embarrassed out there."
One player that Harley has become wary of? Captain Jamie Benn.
"He's sneaky the way he passes the puck," he said. "You don't think he's going to do something and out of nowhere he'll saucer-pass through your legs on a 2-on-1. I'm like 'Oh my god, I thought I covered it. I guess not.' You just go back in line and shake your head."
Harley is also using his time in the crowd to figure out as much about the NHL's current game as he can.
"It's so much of a possession-based game now," he said. "A lot of teams dump the puck in and if you can get back and get the puck up to one of your forwards and break it out with possession, you're going to be way better off than if you have to rim it around or chip it out, because they'll bring it right back in. You're going to be in trouble if you can't get it out of your zone. And in transition, if you can get it up quick and in their zone, it's 200-feet from your zone and you're playing offense."
While Dallas is clearly not starving for 'D' right now, Harley is clearly a part of the near future. And right now, he couldn't be in a better place to prepare for it.