Dallas Stars’ AHL group bears the weight of expectations

By Mike Farkas
Photo: Jack Campbell has not yet lived up to his billing as a top goaltending prospect (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Jack Campbell has not yet lived up to his billing as a top goaltending prospect (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

It has been a trying year for many in the Stars’ minor league affiliates. In the AHL the high amount of roster turnover and personnel changes has left Texas a lesser group than the Calder Cup champions of a year ago. Derek Laxdal is struggling  to get ideal hockey out of this group and the frustration has been evident at times. Many prospects have not taken major steps forward in the first half of the season, but as adaptation occurs, the potential still exists for this talented group to emerge.


Jack Campbell, G, 23

Expectations were high for Jack Campbell coming off a wonderful, though abbreviated, season in 2013-14. Coaching and roster changes, plus some hiccups of his own, have Campbell watching more often than playing at the moment. He has appeared in just 19 games so far, sporting a 3.36 goals against average and .890 save percentage. Campbell has absorbed the majority of the clubs’ losses, going just 3-10-4 as minor-league vet Jussi Rynnas and, to a lesser extent, former NHL backup Anders Lindback get the bulk of crease time.

The former first-round pick seems to lack confidence, creating more work for himself by overplaying shots. The Stars are much more porous defensively this year, which will have a negative effect on goaltending to be sure, but Campbell has not picked up where he left off. The constant influx of veterans eating up his reps has not had any evident positive impact on his development.

Brett Ritchie, RW, 21

Like many of the Texas holdovers from 2013-14, Ritchie got off to a slow start with just three goals coming into December. But he eventually took the club lead in goals before being called up for his NHL debut. The top line winger has gotten opportunities and was just beginning to really get going at potting his chances. Undoubtedly the shooter, Ritchie is often the recipient of veteran Justin Dowling’s passes.

When he is on his game, Ritchie is a budding power forward. This player type can be frustrating sometimes, as they can appear to be conserving energy on the ice and Ritchie is no exception to this. That said, his best has a good chance of beating most defenses and Ritchie’s ability to score from distance with his shot will keep him on the scoresheet at any level. The second-year pro is learning the balance between being a sniper, a power forward and an over-zealous power forward. The NHL -even if it is just spot duty early on- cannot be far off for Ritchie.

Matej Stransky, RW, 21

Czech winger Matej Stransky has largely continued as a depth player, just as he was during the Calder Cup run in 2014. Not yet knocking on the 40-goal door like he did in the WHL, he is developing his skating and checking abilities so that he can contribute in more ways than just walking off the wall for a long shot. He is learning how to use his body to protect the puck both in open space and along the boards.

Stransky is a player who has wide shoulders and a wide skating base. When he gets moving on the cycle, he can be tough to handle. The 6’3 right-handed shooter has been matched against some tough competition for much of the year. His scoring totals will likely be held down until he can earn himself top-six minutes regularly.

Branden Troock, RW, 20

An injury-studded junior career has led to an unfortunately similar professional start for Troock. In the AHL, Troock has 24 games and six points under his belt after netting two points in five games at the ECHL level. Used as a depth player for now, the 2012 fifth round selection is adjusting to the pro game and could turn some heads in time due to his size, skating and skill.

‘Project pick’ and ‘intriguing upside’ are terms that sometimes can be thrown around liberally, but those tags really do apply to the big Western Canadian lad. A prospect who will need a lot of time in the minors -especially factoring time lost due to injury- Troock can potentially be a player in a lot of different roles depending on how he grows as a player. There are a lot of tools at the disposal of the 6’2 right winger.

Curtis McKenzie, LW, 23

With 27 goals and 65 points in 75 games last season, McKenzie was a great story and won the AHL Rookie of the Year. The former Miami University Redhawk has come back with 16 points in 21 sporadic games while getting some extended looks at the NHL level. At the NHL level, McKenzie has played limited minutes in 14 games.

At the AHL level, McKenzie scores from in-close or off the cycle. His individual technical skills probably do not lend themselves to such extravagant point totals, but his work as a tough-to-spot complementary goal-scorer as led to his meshing with advanced offensive players. As McKenzie continues to work on his skills and skating, he will be more prepared for a possible NHL future.

Brendan Ranford, LW/RW, 22

The Philadelphia Flyers opted not to sign their seventh round selection from the Kamloops Blazers. He joined the Texas Stars in 2013-14, earning himself an entry-level contract from Dallas the following offseason. Ranford has taken his game to another level this season. He has 31 points in 44 games, good for second on the club behind Travis Morin. Ranford has adjusted into a more disciplined player, both on the rink and in his preparation off of it. Texas is reaping the rewards of that so far.

Ranford is an offensive winger who plays the game with tenacity. He drives the net hard and makes himself a pest in the attacking zone. He can work the front or side of the net on the power play as well. Ranford is not a hulking player, but he does get up and underneath defenders around the cage and finds loose pucks or deflects shots. His skating may not be up to NHL standards, but time remains to improve certainly.

Radek Faksa, C, 21

Despite playing in more than 20 Calder Cup Playoff games in 2014, Faksa comes into the 2014-15 season as a rookie with the benefit of some big time experience. As the offensive spark in his game waned a bit in the OHL, Faksa has developed reliability on the defensive side of the puck. Primarily a third line center, the young Czech takes on a lot of tough matchups, defensive zone faceoffs and penalty killing.

Heavy and heady, Faksa thinks the game well and can clean up messes in the defensive and neutral zones. The playmaking ability and the cycle game show that some offensive upside still exists, but it does not project to being that of a top-six player at the NHL level. Though the draft position – 13th overall in 2012- makes it a tough sell to the fan base, if Faksa can become a stalwart third line center in the NHL it would be a nice haul. He is on his way.

Gemel Smith, C, 20

Offensive center Gemel Smith has been afforded some unique opportunities recently as a young rookie. Due to injury and illness in Dallas, the center depth has taken a hit in Texas. As a result, Smith has been inserted into top-line minutes and has responded quite favorably. After not scoring for his first 21 AHL contests, Smith has 14 points in 37 games.

Smith has generally been more of a reserve player than a top-line threat and that was expected to be the case early in his pro career. He brings a lot of speed to the lineup and can work well down low as needed. He appears to have put on a good amount of weight since his early junior days and that makes him more effective at the pro level. The former OHLer is becoming tougher to knock off the puck and production has followed.

Scott Glennie, F, 23

Time is running short on Glennie. The eighth overall pick in 2009 will be 24 next month and will require another qualifying offer to remain on deck. Glennie has been getting the minutes necessary to produce and with 21 points in 41 games, he ranks as a quality contributor to the offense. He can open up play with his speed, but the rest of his offensive game is not quite on a level some might expect from his draft spot.

The former Brandon Wheat King will need to make himself a specialized asset in order to be an impact NHLer. But first, being a consistent and productive member of the AHL Stars will help decide whether he garners another NHL contract.

Taylor Peters, C, 23

The Texas Stars’ resident fourth line center is undrafted free agent Taylor Peters. The former Portland Winterhawk is a reliable checker and defensive center. Peters is not a consistent offensive threat at this level of play and his three assists through 27 games should not be considered much of a surprise. The no-frills checking center can only continue to improve the minute details of the game if he wants a crack at a similar role in the NHL.

Julius Honka, D, 19

Thanks to a rarely-used loophole, Honka was permitted to play in the AHL instead of the WHL this year. The Finnish defenseman has been given a fair amount of responsibility early on and is the best puck-carrying defenseman on the team already. Paired typically with veteran Derek Meech, he is out there with a lot of experience, if not with the most insulating of partners. With Honka just learning the pro game, both players have been saddled with some minuses.

Honka thinks the game extremely well and that will carry his development far. He has a somewhat slender frame still but a great skating base. Honka is a fluid skater who can move as well laterally as anyone in his draft class. The upside for Honka is as high as any prospect in the organization and it may not be long until the diminutive Finn takes a big place in the Dallas lineup.

Jyrki Jokipakka, D, 23

Second-year defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka brings a steadying presence to the Texas blueline when not up in the Dallas lineup. The 2011 seventh-round pick has split the season between the NHL and the AHL but his production and quality of play has not shifted tremendously. In the AHL, Jokipakka has a better chance to move the puck and shoot it. Additionally, he can handle a little bit more important minutes. In the NHL, Jokipakka is a ‘Steady Eddy’ who handles players one-on-one and battles in front of the net well. He is generally a good decision maker but a player without a lot of offensive upside who gets limited power play time. Clean and efficient play allows the good-sized Finn to translate his game across multiple high-level leagues in a short amount of time.

ECHL

Henri Kiviaho, G, 20

In an unexpected move, the Dallas Stars brought young Finnish goaltender Henri Kiviaho over to the ECHL for further development. Kiviaho left KalPa (Liiga) as an inexperienced backup and has come to the Idaho Steelheads to become a backup to Olivier Roy. In 14 games, Kiviaho is 5-5-1 with a goals against average of 3.11 and a save percentage of .892. Being on a team that might hit cruise control down the stretch should help Kiviaho get some more pro games under his belt. Big but raw, Kiviaho sets up in a low crouching style and slides across the crease to take away the low portions of the net. He has a lot of holes in his technique and is prone to letting goals get through him. As with many larger goalies, patience will be the key as he is certainly a long-term project.

Maxime Lagace, G, 22

Maxime Lagace wrapped up a turbulent QMJHL career by playing for three teams in his overage season and four teams overall in his junior career. Lagace struggled to keep even nine out of ten pucks out of his net in the QMJHL and the same can be said about his young ECHL career. Loaned to the Missouri Mavericks for a chance at game action he would not have gotten in Idaho, Lagace has appeared in 14 games behind Mike Clemente. The undrafted free agent signing is 5-6-2-1 with a 3.01 goals against average and .885 save percentage. Currently, Lagace lacks the qualities of an NHL prospect.

Ludwig Karlsson, LW, 24

A low-key aspect of the Jason Spezza deal, Karlsson has remained in the ECHL through most of the 2014-15 season. Karlsson possesses better hands than his five goals and six assists in 30 games would indicate, but lacks finish and polish in his game. He is a bigger winger who moves around the rink well and can make some one-on-one plays. The 6’3 Swede is a middle-six forward who sees some power play time near the net. Karlsson’s lack of finishing abilities is exacerbated by his inability to pull off many of his moves at even moderate speed. He still looks like a player that could contribute at the AHL level despite his lackluster stats, but at 24 years old and limited AHL exposure, it would be stretch to consider him a true NHL prospect at this time.

Troy Vance, D, 21

Following his overage season in the QMJHL with Charlottetown, the big American defenseman joined up with the Idaho Steelheads to work on his skills. Not a marksman by any stretch, Vance has cobbled together two goals and eight points in 37 games for the first-place Steelheads. He makes a decent first pass and Vance could likely hack it at the AHL level as a physical depth defenseman. With the amount of defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart with pro experience, it makes more sense for him to start out in the ECHL to get as much exposure as possible. Vance has always been a willing combatant and as a 6’5, right-handed rearguard, he is going to be given opportunity to succeed in the organization.

Non-Minor League/Junior Prospect Update

Hard-shooting defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn finished his eight-game recall to the KHL early in December rather abruptly. An injury has kept him out of the lineup for an extended stretch of time. While in uniform, he notched an assist and a +3 rating while getting good minutes for Dinamo Minsk. He even eclipsed the 20-minute mark in a game against SKA. Presumably carving out at least a semi-regular KHL spot in his first season back, the future may be bright for the high-upside blueliner.

Dallas Stars Prospect of the Month

cole_ully_kamloops

Cole Ully continues to dominate the WHL even if his team has not experienced the same level of domination on the league’s table. Ully had a wonderful December scoring in all but two games during the month – including six multi-point efforts. Ully captured 16 points in 11 games all told as he continues to be one of the top scorers in the West. Ully also signed his first NHL contract with Dallas just before Christmas.