There was a time when the name Roope Hintz was a complete unknown – absent from pre-game scout meetings and arena marquees alike. When opponents would go over how they planned to shut down the Dallas Stars', well, stars, Hintz didn't warrant a mention.
That is no longer the case.
"I'd say last year, he slipped under the radar for sure," said Stars goaltender Scott Wedgewood, who participated in those meetings for years right up until arriving in Dallas at last season's trade deadline.
"I think now he's earned the respect that he's now on most guys' notion...It (the Hintz-led first line) might be an underrated line to some, but you don't realize how high-powered they are until you're around them."
That Hintz remained such a little-known threat even into last season comes as quite a surprise, frankly.
The 2015 second-rounder spent the pandemic-shortened 2021 campaign demolishing the point-per-game barrier, racking up 15 goals and 28 assists for 43 points in 41 games. Before that, he helped lead the Stars to the Stanley Cup final with a 13-point post-season performance in the 2020 bubble just months prior.
In 2021-22, Hintz's breakout became official. The 25-year-old flirted with 40 goals on an offensively deficient roster en route to ultimately ending up with 37 goals and 72 points in 80 games – logging over 18 minutes per game in ice time in the process while shooting alongside his career average.
That exact same pace has been replicated this season, with Hintz currently sitting on seven points in six games while tied as Dallas' leading scorer.
This isn't some flash in the pan or the product of cheeky puck luck. Hintz is simply a very good hockey player. So good, in fact, that teams now have no choice but to plan their systems around him whenever the Stars land on their calendar.
"He's just slowly figured it out," explained Stars captain Jamie Benn, who has overseen the entirety of Hintz's journey in the Stars organization, from second-day draft pick to the player he is today.
"And that just comes with time and experience. He plays with a lot of confidence and has obviously found two linemates (Jason Robertson and Joe Pavelski) that read off him pretty well. But he drives that line. And I think he's still just figuring out his potential and taking advantage of it."
Hintz's rapid ascent to the top of his organizational depth chart has not only come at the perfect time for his wallet – with the pending restricted free agent set to cash in quite handsomely this summer once he hits the market in July – but for his employer, too.
The Stars as they are currently constructed are a very top-heavy team. It's a roster propped up by solid pillars at each positional group with little depth surrounding them.
It's clear who brings home the bacon in this lineup. Last season, the Stars had just seven players on the roster finish with double-digit goal totals – a total equal to that of the 32nd and 31st-placed Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens – while just six of them topped 45 points. The bulk of the club's offense came from that vaunted Pavelski-Robertson-Hintz trio, along with Miro Heiskanen leading the way by leaps and bounds on the back end and Jake Oettinger standing on his head in net.
Without Hintz's continued progression, the Stars' 21st-ranked NHL offense in 2021-22 would have plummeted to catastrophic depths. Benn and Tyler Seguin just aren't the offensive focal points they used to be. Someone else needed to step up.
That someone was Hintz, whose arrival as a legitimate top-line center has miraculously coincided with Benn and Seguin's respective declines. And they know it, too.
"I mean, he's our first-line center," said Benn, who once occupied that role not too long ago.
"That's a job that's very important for us and not easy to do on any team. But he's taken it with a lot of pride, and he's doing a great job of it."
Despite never being a blue-chip prospect or first-round pick, Hintz's emergence into a premier player in this league didn't exactly come out of nowhere, either. Those who faced him at the various levels below the NHL saw glimpses of the potential he'd one day realize. And that includes Hintz's own teammates.
"You could just tell," said Stars forward Mason Marchment, whose Toronto Marlies faced off against Hintz's Texas Stars in the AHL's Calder Cup final back in 2018.
"He had all the tools, even back then. His speed, he's got the vision, he's got the hands. He's got it all. So, you know, he's a big player for us. Really big."
Hintz would ultimately lose the Calder Cup to Marchment's Marlies that year in a dramatic seven-game series. A few months later, he would go on to make his NHL debut, suiting up in 58 games for the big-league Stars and never looking back.
Now, with the Stars pulling out all the stops to give their veteran core perhaps one final shot at a Stanley Cup, Hintz represents the present and future of the organization that believed in him.
Ask anyone around him and they'll tell you the same thing: He's ready.