Diamonds in the rough and later-round gems have added a touch of glimmer to a once lackluster prospect pool. The Dallas Stars have only missed the playoffs once since 1996-97 and within that timeframe, they haven’t selected above 25th overall in the entry draft. Combine that with some recent deadline deals, the Stars’ group of prospects have had a hard time getting off the ground. However, all that is starting to turn around, slowly but surely, while the Stars continue to manufacture a strong team on NHL ice.
The group is currently very forward-heavy, due to a couple recent defensive graduates (Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen). And defensive defenseman Mark Fistric is close to graduating from prospect status. The potential for top-end forwards is growing and the addition of sought-after Swede Fabian Brunnstrom certainly didn’t hurt that aspect of the organizational depth chart. In net, Tobias Stephan has made the jump from AHL starter to NHL backup for Dallas.
The Stars’ strongest point is on the left side. James Neal (who can also play at center), Fabian Brunnstrom and Jamie Benn head up a very impressive list. Both Brunnstrom and Neal have made the jump to the NHL out of training camp this season, while Benn has started the year off on a furious pace for Kelowna (WHL). The Stars selected Benn in the fifth round (129th overall) in 2007 and after an impressive rookie campaign in the WHL, he has returned even stronger, netting 14 goals and 27 points in his first 14 games.
Chris Conner, who will turn 25 in two months, is off to a fast start with the Peoria Rivermen (AHL) – gathering four goals and seven points in eight games. Age is becoming as much as an issue as his size at this point though. Conner might be useful to have in an organization, but a steady NHL future doesn’t seem terribly likely at this juncture.
After returning from a 2007-08 campaign spent partially in Finland, John Lammers has joined the Houston Aeros (AHL) for his third professional season. Six points in six games has him already gaining fast on an AHL career-high 14 points (set in 52 games in 2006-07). He’s a shifty forward, but his overall game lacks dimension and will make it very tough for him to break into the NHL on even a semi-regular basis.
Vojtech Polak bolted for home towards the end of last year, leaving Iowa (AHL) for Karlovy Vary HC. This year, the dangerous offensive forward is suiting up for Trinec Ocelari HC and it seems somewhat likely that we won’t see Polak back in North America again any time soon.
The Stars possess some potential role players in Michael Neal, Francis Wathier and Luke Gazdic. Neal, James’ younger brother, was dealt to Sarnia (OHL) from Belleville this season, he has gone goal-less through 13 games. The younger Neal hopes to make up for lost time after missing the entire regular season with a knee injury last year. It would not appear as if Michael has the scoring prowess that James possesses. Wathier, who was one of the final cuts for Dallas this season, has found himself in Iowa once again; the hard-working winger leads all forwards in penalty minutes (38) through eight games. The former QMJHL walk-on hopes that he can latch on with the Stars as a role player who isn’t shy about standing up for his teammates.
Gazdic, meanwhile, finds himself back in Erie (OHL) for another season. The 6’4, 238-pound tough guy has only found himself in one scrap this year, from which he suffered an undisclosed injury. Because of that, Gazdic finds himself with only nine penalty minutes (to go along with five points) in 10 games, an unusually low total for someone who has compiled nearly 300 in the past two years. The big man’s propensity for dropping the gloves makes him valuable to an organization, but his nose for the net makes him a slightly more intriguing prospect.
With Neal shifted over predominantly to the left side, the Stars center crop is lead by Perttu Lindgren. The creative center has the ability to rack up the assists with regularity. This is a pivotal year in Lindgren’s development. The 21-year-old is playing for Lukko Rauma (SM-Liiga A) and is having something of a slow start. This opens up the chance for Ondrej Roman and Nico Sacchetti to surpass him on the organizational depth chart. Unfortunately, due to some ongoing feuding between North America and European leagues, Roman has not been able to return to Spokane (WHL) and has found himself, instead, playing for Vitkovice HC of the top Czech league. The Stars hope that Roman’s sudden jump to European pro doesn’t stunt the growth of his breakout season last year. The 19-year-old Czech was found just seven spots after Benn in the 2007 draft and is by far the youngest regular on Vitkovice HC this season. Both Roman and Lindgren are two of the most pass-heavy and creative players in the system.
Jumping back to the North American side of the pond, Nico Sacchetti has begun his collegiate career for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Minnesota native will need to improve his play to match the competition in the college hockey ranks. If he can get back to the prominent play that made him a standout in high school, he might be able to turn some heads inside the organization, and out.
The Stars have a series of what could be called "utility" forwards at this time. Scott Winkler, Matt Tassone and Alexander Naurov cannot, yet, be narrowed to role players nor can it be certain that they have high scoring potential. Winkler is playing with the USHL‘s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders this season before making the jump to NCAA hockey. The next two years will be crucial in identifying which way Winkler breaks in terms of potential. Tassone seems to be in the role player mold, but has gotten a strong jump out of the gate for Swift Current (WHL) this season that might make some think twice about his future ability. He is a hard worker, but like most late-2008 draftees, he has a lot of improvements to make before anyone can consider them to have a long and successful NHL future. While Naurov has once again been sent to the ECHL, but has not suited up for a game yet in 2008-09. The 23-year-old Russian forward is a tireless forechecker and has an above average shot, but the fact that he has not yet appeared in an AHL game at this point in his career his concerning and likely deflating to future NHL hopes.
The Stars system also houses some longshot, offensive forwards. David McIntyre from Colgate University is a tremendous skater with strong offensive acumen. He has all the offensive tools to be mentioned with some of the Stars’ upper-tier center prospects. If he can continue to improve, McIntyre could quickly rise up the ranks in the Stars system. Creative all-around forward Matt Watkins from the University of North Dakota is another player who could rise quickly with a breakout year. Watkins spent much of last season at left wing and may need to develop a specific niche. Adventurous center Tom Wandell has returned to Timra IK of the Swedish Elite League and isn’t likely to make a return any time soon. The Stars appeared to have gambled and lost on the offensively-gifted Swede.
Meanwhile, two-way center Aaron Gagnon is struggling to match the relatively lofty offensive totals that he mustered with Seattle (WHL) but is hoping to make the jump to the big show by playing a strong defensive game and being a faceoff specialist.
The stock of Raymond Sawada is rising. After a strong conclusion to his collegiate career at Cornell and a good showing at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, Sawada is continuing his impressive play in the AHL. He has four points in eight games as a rookie. The physical, two-way player might find himself in Dallas before too long.
After a trade to the Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) last season, Colton Sceviour‘s offensive totals skyrocketed. His torrid pace has not slowed much has he leads his club in scoring so far in 2008-09 (only one player is less than 10 points behind him). Predominantly a goal scorer, Sceviour may see his stock rise even more this year.
Industrious forward B.J. Crombeen has made the jump to the NHL, after eight games last year (plus five more in the playoffs), the Stars have put him to good use this season. His five points through 10 games has him besting James Neal and just one point shy of Fabian Brunnstrom.
After being acquired from Los Angeles, Lauri Tukonen is back in Finland with Ilves Tampere. The 11th overall pick in 2004 has battled issues both on and off the ice throughout his career and has not lived up to his potential. The Stars are trying to salvage this project, but won’t be able to get a good read on Tukonen before seeing the year he has across the ocean.
Sergei Korostin has made his intentions quite clear – he wants to play in the NHL. He left Russia‘s top league to join the NAHL’s Texas Tornado last season and now has moved on to the London Knights (OHL). Korostin needs to further grasp the concept of the North American game before he can make significant strides, but playing for the Knights is a good place to learn the ropes.
Meanwhile, Tyler Shelast showed off some of his offensive talents in Traverse City and hopes to continue to impress with Hamilton. The undrafted winger is not on a lot of radars at this point, but even a strong campaign in Hamilton (AHL) could change all of that. Also, Texas native Austin Smith has moved on to Colgate (NCAA) where the Stars hope the undersized forward can develop into something of an offensive, energy forward for them down the line. Smith is batting a point-per-game average in his infantile collegiate career thus far.
Hulking defenseman Mark Fistric, at 47 NHL games played, is set to graduate from his prospect status early in the 2008-09 season. Fistric filled in nicely after the Stars blueline was riddled with injuries last year and has earned a regular spot in the Stars lineup.
Talented offensive defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy has superb offensive abilities and explosive skating stride. The Russian blueliner is getting his first taste of professional hockey this year in Peoria. While the defensive aspects of his game aren’t all there, the Stars hope that Vishnevskiy can quarterback the power play when Sergei Zubov decides to hang up his skates.
2008 draftee Philip Larsen is one of the best skaters in the Stars prospect pool. The Danish defenseman has excellent vision and is a creative passer. Larsen is expected to get a full-time crack at the Swedish Elite League. Fellow 2008 pick, Mike Bergin, has moved on to RPI (NCAA). Bergin is a smooth-skating, 6’3, 200-pound two-way defenseman who enjoys dishing out the rough stuff. If he can continue to progress, the Stars may have found a valuable player to the organization in the last round of the draft.
Sizeable netminder Tobias Stephan has accepted the reins as Marty Turco’s backup with the big club. The 24-year-old was able to enjoy his first NHL win over the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 29.
The Stars used their first selection in 2008 on Owen Sound Attack (OHL) goalie Tyler Beskorowany. Beskorowany is a big kid who can play the puck very well. The Sudbury native looks to help Owen Sound rebound from a disappointing 2007-08 season, where the Attack surrendered more than 35 shots per game. Based on where he was drafted, the Stars have to be hoping that Beskorowany can replace Turco one day.
Richard Bachman put together an impressive campaign in 2007-08 for Colorado College; he became just the second ever player to win the WCHA Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. The athletic goalie hopes to challenge Beskorowany one day down the road for a top spot in the Stars organization.
Twenty-five-year-old Matt Climie is one of the players that is most affected by the Stars not having an AHL affiliate in 2008-09; he has been assigned to the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL for the time being. The big goalie, who left Bemidji State (NCAA) late last season, serves as organizational depth for the time being until the Stars other goalie prospects can progress further. Finally, Pat McGann will likely slot into the third goaltender spot at Quinnipiac University (NCAA) this season, which in and of itself is not a ringing endorsement for a professional future.
The chain of budding forwards seems especially strong but the recently drafted goalies and defensemen should not be overlooked either. At this rate of improvement, the Stars could find themselves competing with Western Conference rival Detroit for the "most late-round gems" award.