Mark Fistric is an interesting study for a number of reasons.
First, it's intriguing to ponder exactly what the 24-year-old defenseman can become in the NHL. And second, you could learn a lot as an organization in studying how he got to where he is right now.
There are a couple of insiders I talk to who believe that Fistric right now is better than either Nicklas Grossman or Matt Niskanen, and that he has the ability to exceed both in overall ability. Now, there's a lot of subjectivity in those opinions, and the people I talk to love the physical side of the game (so that favors Fistric in their eyes), but it certainly makes for a good debate. This isn't to pit teammate against teammate or to start any kind of fight, but they believe it is an interesting study into whether it's smart to make a player fight for every inch of ice in his climb to the NHL.
Mark Fistric has had to that, and then some.
Fistric was drafted 28th overall out of junior hockey in 2004, which actually puts him in the same spot as Niskanen (28th overall in 2005) and an earlier pick than Grossman (56th overall in 2004), so it's not a stretch to say he has the ability to be better than either. And, in that regard, you have to credit both Grossman and Niskanen for moving ahead of Fistric in the earliest camps where the three were fighting for roster spots.
Fistric stayed an extra year in junior hockey because of injuries that cut short his 2004-05 season. Grossman came over from Sweden and played 61 games for Iowa in the AHL in 2005-06. Fistric started out with a fantastic AHL season in 2006-07 with two goals and 22 assists for 24 points in 80 games(Grossman had 10 points in 67 games on the same team). So all was in place for Grossman and Fistric to move up together and take spots on the 2007-08 Stars.
But that's where Fistric had his biggest hiccup. Grossman became an early lock on the team, and Niskanen won a battle by playing well beside Sergei Zubov in training camp. That meant Fistric had to head to Iowa again, while the others took a step forward. Fistric earned the chance to play 30 NHL games that season, and he also was used for nine playoff games. However, Niskanen played in 80 regular season games and 16 playoff games, and Grossman jumped up to the top pair with Stephane Robidas in the playoffs, playing all 18 post-season games.
Fistric then started the 2008-09 season in the NHL, but was eventually sent back to the minors. He split his time between Dallas (36 games) and Manitoba (35 games) ended up playing 22 playoff games with Manitoba and helped the Moose to the AHL Final. He then followed that up with an outstanding performance last season where he played in 67 Stars games, had a goal and nine assists and led the team at plus-27. His plus-minus was 19 better than his next closest teammate (Brian Sutherby at plus-8) and ranked 10th overall in the NHL.
Stars coach Marc Crawford explained some of the reason for the huge plus total with the fact Fistric played on the third pair and didn't have to face the other team's best players, but I think that only goes so far. Plus-minus is a stat that can vary widely and you can get lucky from a nice run of good circumstances, but the bottom line is Fistric played 14:55 a game for 67 games and was on the ice for a whole lot more goals for than he was goals against. To me, that means he played pretty well.
So what's the reason? A lot of people think it was because Fistric was brought along slowly and was forced to claw his way through the minors. The kid obviously has talent, otherwise he wouldn't have been drafted so high, but he also has a hunger burning inside that seems to have been built by a hard climb.
Will that hunger continue this season? Could he get complacent now that he seems to have a roster spot? Again, that will be interesting for the franchise to watch. Last season, Fistric missed five games with a head injury, five games with a knee injury, one game with food poisoning, and was a healthy scratch for four games. He will be expected to be an everyday player this season and also be expected to up his minutes. A lot of people think that will be a good thing for him. If Fistric gets the opportunity to show what he can do, there are those who predict he will become one of the team's most reliable defenders. He appears to have more physicality than any member of the defense, and he seems to have the skills to skate and pass within the Crawford system.
If he does, you wonder if the team might make more kids fight their way out of the minors.