The Dallas Stars may have gotten away from the NCAA route a little bit more now than Joe Nieuwendyk is no longer at the helm. On the other side of the coin and ocean, the Stars always seem to be actively seeking out European defensemen no matter who is running the show.
The Stars have five European blueliners in their ranks, plus two forwards and a netminder. They have two very promising and highly skilled NCAA prospects to feature prominently as well.
Henri Kiviaho, G, KalPa (SM-Liiga A)
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2012
Though he is of the poorest teams in the Finnish League, KalPa, it is promising that a 20-year-old goaltender is seeing time in the Liiga. He will be the backup next season to former Dallas Stars draft pick Eero Kilpelainen as KalPa looks to rebound. Kiviaho split the 2013-14 season between the J20 team and the pro team. With the big club, Kiviaho appeared in 13 contests, allowing 2.92 goals per game with .881 save pct. Those numbers fall comfortably between the team’s starter and fringe third stringer Antti Ore.
Kiviaho is a raw prospect still. He is big and relies fairly heavily on the butterfly. It appears as if he will not have the luxury of having a tidy defensive club, so Kiviaho will have to be a more active saver instead of relying just on blocking techniques. The big Finn needs to continue to work on his stick positioning and handling, as well as reading shots as they come from his opponents’ lumber.
Austin Smith, RW, Assat Pori (SM Liiga A)
Drafted 5th round, 128th overall, 2007
With the amount of players the Stars have available to them at the AHL level, Austin Smith has been losing out on the numbers game since turning pro late in 2012. As a result, the Stars have loaned Smith to another quality league – SM-Liiga A in Finland. Smith appeared in 28 games and registered 13 points for Assat Pori. Smith was moved up and down the lineup from the fourth line to the first line with former NHL players like Niklas Hagman and Kamil Kreps. All in all, he was a net positive for the club in all facets.
Smith’s game is well known by now, as he has been a Stars prospect for seven years now. It appears to be the end of the line for Smith in the Stars organization. He has signed a one-year extension with Assat for next season. The Stars will have the option to qualify him and retain his rights, but with Smith turning 26 early next season, retention seems unlikely and/or unnecessary.
Emil Molin, C, Rogle (Hockey Allsvenskan)
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2011
For a third straight year, Emil Molin was unable to make any significant headway in Sweden’s top league. With his usual Brynas mates, Molin finished the season with 21 goal-less games, only notching three assists and a minus-3 rating. Molin was loaned to Rogle of Hockey Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second-tier league. With the opportunity to play more meaningful minutes, Molin found himself on the score sheet much more often. With 10 assists and 12 points in 21 games and a notable impact in Kvalserien, Molin had the best stretch of his professional career to date.
The 21-year-old Molin has already been signed to an entry-level contract but is expected to stay with Rogle for the 2014-15 season, as he has already inked an extension with the club. He desperately needs a chance to stretch his legs offensively, as he is more offensively-inclined than his numbers would dictate. All parties involved, including the Dallas organization, felt it would be best for Molin to obtain better ice time with a better chance to succeed as an individual. The hope is that Molin is AHL-ready in 2015-16.
Ludvig Bystrom, D, Farjestad (SHL)
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2012
Young defenseman Ludvig Bystrom left MODO for Farjestad in 2013-14 and it seems to have really sparked him. Bystrom looked to be a more confident and mature player this season. While the point totals increased, the more important stat for the young Swede is better logged by a stopwatch than an abacus. Though the second round pick was used sparingly during the SHL playoffs, Bystrom gained a lot of experience in 2014.
A defenseman who does fine work in forward transition and on the point, Bystrom has a wealth of potential. He can skate well, especially laterally along the line. His passing is thoughtful and well-timed. Defensively he is going to get better as he learns about the union of timing and positioning. The skilled blueliner is already signed to an entry-level deal and could play in the AHL as soon as next season.
John Klingberg, D, Vastra Frolunda (SHL)
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall, 2010
Fluid defenseman John Klingberg gave us a taste of what he can bring to the table in 2013 with Skelleftea. In 2013-14, he provided a full serving of what he can bring to the table. Now a member of Frolunda, his fourth consecutive season with a team change, Klingberg will finally move to North America and try his hand at being an impact offensive defenseman in yet another league. The small, puck-rusher established himself as one of the SHL’s finest offensive defensemen. His 28 points in 50 games put him among the elites in terms of raw production.
A finely-tuned skater and electric talent, Klingberg could be confused as Erik Karlsson Jr. some nights. The key will be the adaptation to the size, speed and geometry of the NHL rinks and style of play. Klingberg will turn 22 over the summer, he has varied and valuable experience in multiple high-level European leagues and international play. There are few defensemen in the Stars system that have gamebreaker ability like Klingberg has, but he is far from a sure thing.
Niklas Hansson, D, Rogle (Hockey Allsvenskan)
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2013
Joined by prospect-mate Emil Molin, Niklas Hansson became a fixture of the Rogle lineup in 2013-14 as a 19 year old. The raw stats: two goals, 11 assists, and a plus-7 rating in 47 contests, ranking favorably among his teammate peers. Hansson seemed to get better and better as the year went on and may have played his finest hockey in Kvalserien when Rogle tried to regain their place in the SHL. With unfinished business on the table for Hansson and his mates, the finesse blueliner will play at least one more season in Rogle.
The Stars third round pick is a good technical skater, not unlike former prospect Philip Larsen in how he moves around on the ice with his slender frame on the back line. Hansson needs to tune his game without the puck a little bit more and use the less-extensive scheduling of Allsvenskan hockey to help him boost his overall strength. Beyond being a steady pro at such a young age, Hansson is expected to be in contention for Sweden’s 2015 World Junior Championship team next winter.
Aleksi Makela, D, Ilves U20 (Jr. A SM-Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 182nd overall, 2013
Aleksi Makela capped another strong junior season in the Ilves Tampere program. Once again, the Stars seventh round selection saw spot duty with the men’s league club. However, he was slowed down by injuries. He missed the early portions of the year with a hand/wrist injury and then was bothered by some nagging ailments throughout the year. His parent club has suffered from general malaise themselves over the past several seasons and that may allow Makela to jump right into the SM-Liiga A on a more regular basis in 2014-15.
Makela brings size and a proficient skating base to the table. He is still plying his trade and his offensive upside remains somewhat untapped, perhaps, due to a lack of confidence. Still something of an unknown in terms of ability due to the somewhat limited exposure he has gotten. Though, that is expected to change for the better part of 2014-15.
Esa Lindell, D, Jokerit (SM-Liiga A)
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2012
Helsinki native Esa Lindell completed his first full season in the SM-Liiga A with Jokerit in 2013-14. Overall, it turned out to be a very good season for Lindell. He became a regular at Finland’s highest level, he represented his country well at the World Junior Championships and was signed to an entry-level contract by the Dallas Stars. While the offensive-minded defenseman was limited to just five points in 44 games this year, that is because his playing time was limited due to age and circumstance. His plus-8 rating showed that he worked well with his usual partner, Jeremy Dehner.
Lindell is a raw prospect still. There is some awkwardness in his game. His skating is still a bit clumsy at times and his defensive positioning and reads on the fly are a little off kilter. Offensively, he makes better sense of things though. He is moving to Assat, as some Dallas prospects are prone to do, next season and he will have a better chance to spread his wings offensively without being behind as many established Finnish stars.
Alex Guptill, LW, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2010
Many highly thought of collegiate prospects have their NCAA careers end with a contract. On the ice, Guptill‘s ended with something of a thud. His junior season saw a career low for goals (12), assists (13) and points (25) but still saw him a healthy scratch for disciplinary reasons once again late in the academic year. Unsurprisingly, Guptill has forgone his senior season under Red Berenson and turned pro. At 22, Guptill is going to be asked to get his act together fairly quickly if he does not want to fall behind in this highly competitive field.
Guptill is a skilled forward with good size and a snappy wrist shot. Guptill might not have gamebreaker talent, but his main issue is work ethic. He has not shown a consistent ability to drive himself to take the next step. He plays the game without a lot of urgency most nights and that will not play well to professional coaches (nor did it to Red Berenson). With that said, it is rather unsurprising that Guptill made very little progress in his three years in Ann Arbor. If the alarm clock goes off for Guptill, he has top-six forward upside.
Devin Shore, C, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2012
After his impressive freshman season, the statistical explosion for Shore was not difficult to predict. As a sophomore, Shore was one of the best players in college hockey this past season despite it being a trying time for his program. At 14 goals, 29 assists and 43 points, Shore was the lead purveyor of awesomeness for the Black Bears in 2013-14. No other player notched 30 points, only two others topped 20 points. Shore does nearly everything for U of Maine and next season, he will be their captain.
What Shore lacks in explosive skating ability, he makes up for in hockey sense. The Ajax, Ontario native can be counted on to make smart decisions regularly and, as a result, his coaching staff plays him in any and all situations regardless of the score. Shore has terrific vision and plays a very sturdy two-way game. His outstanding efforts were also recognized by Hockey East voters, as he was a First-Team All-Star interrupting the Boston College triumvirate of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold (Honorable Mention).