SUNRISE, Fla. – The deal was simple, agreed upon by both parties in advance, so Mattias Janmark packed his bags accordingly. The 22-year-old Swedish forward would fly to training camp with the Dallas Stars, compete in their prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., participate in their main camp and play in at least one exhibition game. Not much more was expected, neither by the Stars nor Janmark. He believed he needed one more season in the Swedish Elite League. Dallas took no issue with this plan.
He arrived stateside with two weeks’ worth of clothes, never thinking he would need more. He drafted his fantasy hockey team with old teammates in Sweden, never thinking he would spend the season beside NHL players he picked. He got his social security number, because that was always part of the schedule after signing his two-year contract with Dallas, but otherwise his mind was focused on Frolunda HC, the club that awaited him whenever he left the Stars.
“Mentally I was prepared to play one more year at home and prepare for the next year to move here,” Janmark says. “I knew if I was going to stay this year, I’m going to go here the year after. It was going to be a preparation year. Last year was too. I’ve been thinking about it, but I didn’t prepare for it, because then I would’ve brought stuff for it. It’s not that hard either. They take care of you here. We live a pretty easy life here. It’s not too bad.”
Long before Janmark scored his first career NHL goal on his first career shot 99 seconds into his first career game, and before he scored his second goal on his first shot in his second game, and even before he realized that he wasn’t going back to Sweden, teammates in Dallas sensed he would stick around. During an untelevised exhibition visit to Tampa on Oct. 1, the Stars’ penultimate preseason game, forward Jason Spezza was lounging on the couch at home, his children asleep, texting a public relations official who was at Amalie Arena. When the official relayed that Janmark had labored through his first shift against the Lightning, Spezza’s next message relayed hope that the kid would turn it around.
“I was just curious to see how he was doing, because I wanted to see him make it.” Spezza says.
One lackluster shift might not have mattered anyway for the decision-makers in the Stars’ front office. Several years ago, during his time with Detroit, Dallas GM Jim Nill helped scout Janmark for the Red Wings, who took him in the third round of the 2013 NHL draft. Nill later flipped veteran Erik Cole to his old club in a trade for the Swede and defenseman Mattias Backman at last season’s March 1 deadline. It was a win-now move for the Red Wings and an accumulation of prospects for the Stars—Backman is now with the Texas Stars in the AHL and Janmark, despite logging one AHL game at the end of last season, was projected to help lead Frolunda’s attack in 2015-16.
Then Nill watched Janmark play during the preseason. The agreed-upon plan soon crumbled apart. A fast, agile skater, Janmark flashed an extra gear that allows him to beat a defender to the outside. He was extremely confident with the puck, a creative playmaker but unafraid to shoot rather than look for a veteran, the common sign of a rookie’s deference.
“After about the third exhibition game, I said we’ve got to sit down here, the coaches and I, we’ve got to make sure we get him lots of games here, because usually guys come in, they might have a real jolt of energy and really do well, but then it falls off,” Nill says. “He went the other way. He kept getting better and better. We kept playing him games, back-to-back games, he didn’t tire out. He earned it. It wasn’t given to him and he earned it. So it’s good.”
A big hockey fan who often stayed up late in his home country to watch Eastern Conference games being played six hours ahead of his time zone, Janmark found his anticipation increasing each week he stayed with the Stars during the late summer. At first, like Nill, he expected little beyond the prospect tournament and maybe one or two preseason appearances, laying the foundation for a more permanent move in 2016-17. Then he was calling his mother—still from his Swedish number—and asking if she could bring over more clothes during her next visit.
“I think [my family was] shocked, I think, I guess,” Janmark says. “I don't know. I think they saw it coming too, for every week that went. When I was going here, I expected to go back in one or two weeks, then I stayed for another week, and another week. Yeah. We’re here now.”
Not just here in the NHL, but skating on a line with Ales Hemsky and Cody Eakin, working on the Stars’ second power play unit, ranking fourth among rookie forwards with 3.57 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. He moved into defenseman John Klingberg’s house and leaned on his fellow Swede in order to learn the rhythms of the league. His fantasy hockey team finished second last season but has remained idle this fall, relegated by the demands of this new job, and he hasn’t yet told teammate Patrick Sharp that he drafted him in a “pretty early” round.
“I’m giving him some space,” Janmark jokes. “If he doesn’t produce, I will tell him further on, but for now, just giving him his space.”
Among a stellar rookie crop that features marquee names like Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid, and early-season upstarts like Max Domi and Dylan Larkin, Janmark passed through the first week relatively under the radar, despite becoming the first Stars player to begin his career with a four-game point streak.
“Right now there’s other names, but he deserves to be with the rest of those guys,” Nill says. “And he’s going to get noticed. That’s him, though. At first you watch him, say maybe he’s not quite ready, then all of a sudden you watch him, you go boy he’s really ready. That’s just him. That’s just who he is.”
And who he is right now, against all initial belief, is an NHL player here to stay. He still has some work to do, particularly in the face-off circle and his own end of the ice, but he's willing to learn and put in the needed effort. His ability to play all over the Stars’ top nine has only made him more valuable.
“Of course, if everything went well, I had hopes to stay here, but I didn’t expect that,” Janmark says. “For every week that went, you got closer. Just tried to play my game. That was a good thing. I wasn’t nervous or anything. Just came here, no expectations and all, just tried to perform every day. But no, I didn’t feel any pressure at all, because I had a good plan. I knew I’d get great practice at home with Frolunda. I didn’t expect this, but tried to achieve it, so I’m glad it happened. I’m glad it worked.”
So are the Stars.