Dallas Stars minor league system a proving ground for NHL prospects

By Mike Farkas
Mattias Backman - Dallas Stars

Photo: Despite struggles early in his career with the Grand Rapids Griffins, Dallas Stars prospect Mattias Backman has started to come along as a pro (courtesy of John Rivera/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Dallas Stars organization is brimming with potential in their minor pro ranks. With many recent draft picks graduated from the junior and collegiate ranks, their AHL club is practically overflowing with potential. As a result, the junior and collegiate ranks are a little short on upside, but the proximity of their best and brightest is promising and exciting for management and fans alike.


AHL (Texas Stars)

Jack Campbell, G, 24

After the completion of his entry-level contract, Jack Campbell was re-signed to a one-year deal effectively construed as do-or-die. The 2010 first-round pick has the least competition he has ever faced and still finds himself in a three-way split for starts. With 12 games, there is not a ton of minutes to hang one’s hat on statistically, but the 4.27 GAA and .868 save percentage are horrid under any lens.

Campbell looks decidedly uncomfortable in the crease. He chases the play or guesses on shots every night. He often pulls himself out of position in needless desperation. There is time to turn the ship around this season, but that might only be enough to pull him out of dead last in league stats. At the moment, he gives up more than half-a-goal per game more than any other AHL regular. He has been better in Idaho, but it may not be enough.

Julius Honka, D, 20

Honka closed strong in 2014-15 and has largely picked up where he left off. Honka is second among club d-men in points with 21 in 38 games. One of the bigger battles for Honka is dealing with his lack of size, but he does a fair job making up for it with his mobility and smarts. Though sometimes he can get caught making a risky play or taking a chance making an aggressive play on the puck, these are part of the process for a player who started his second AHL season at just 19. The progress overall has been strong on a team that has a lot of young defensemen jockeying for organizational positioning. Honka needs to continue to improve his confidence with the puck on the rush; he already seems to have a comfort level walking the line and getting shots through.

Mattias Backman, D, 23

Picked up from Detroit at the trade deadline in 2015, Mattias Backman returned from Sweden and is in the midst of his first full season with Texas. The numbers are not startling: nine points and a team-best plus-15 rating in 32 games, but Backman has been the most underrated Texas Star this season. For a player of his type (a more offensive-minded defenseman), he has gravitated towards playing excellent defense so far, as a lot of offensive situations end up in the hands of Honka and Lindell, who are not as good defensively as Backman has shown. A terrific skater with very good hockey IQ, Backman probably has more to offer offensively than he leads on but has been clean as a whistle no matter his partners.

Esa Lindell, D, 21

After being named Finland’s best defensemen in 2014-15, Esa Lindell crossed the pond to play in the AHL for the first time. He has adapted well and has been used mostly with Stephen Johns as the team’s top pair. In fact, that is one of the few recurring themes on the team this year as a lot of players have shifted around from night to night. Lindell has seven goals and 27 points from the blueline to lead his team – those numbers place him top-ten leaguewide as well. Lindell does a good job joining the rush late and getting off an accurate wrist shot. Still just an average skater, he needs to continue to improve his defensive awareness, as he is sometimes caught standing still struggling to find where the action is.

Stephen Johns, D, 23

Burly blueliner Stephen Johns has proven to be a great add to the Texas lineup. Beyond the 14 points in 36 games, Johns provides a strong defensive presence and an intense physical game on a team lacking punch on the backend. The Notre Dame man has to be one of the strongest players in the AHL. Paired with Lindell, Johns mops up a lot of things in and around the Texas crease. His puck poise is impressive and there is not a lot of panic in his game. The right-handed shooter is probably not far from a call-up once the Dallas roster figures itself out, as he has been Texas’ best d-man this year.

Ludwig Bystrom, D, 21

After an extended look late last season, Ludwig Bystrom has become a semi-regular figure on the Stars blueline this year. He has gotten into 30 of 39 games, netting one goal and seven assists. The inexperienced Swede has been used on the third pairing, doing what he can to lower the quality of the scoring chances against his goaltender. Bystrom has shown a decent defensive game as well as capable outlet passing, but the ceiling does not seem high in the early going of his North American career. As players graduate up to the NHL, Bystrom will have the chance to be put on display more.

Cole Ully, LW/RW, 20

Slick and creative winger Cole Ully has been caught in a numbers game in his young pro career. Texas has a deep group fighting for ice time. As a result, some of the younger players may sit out or get sent down to the ECHL. Both scenarios have hit Ully this season already, but he has been impressive at both levels. Despite limited AHL minutes, he knocked off seven points in just 14 games. In the ECHL, a level he is clearly too good for, he scored six in six and shattered the glass with a shot.

Ully has some of the highest offensive potential in the organization and should earn playing time on merit as he gets more acclimated to the pro game.

Remi Elie, LW/RW, 20

Elie’s versatility has been put to the test a great deal in the last few years. He started out as a depth player with a good London (OHL) team, then was one of the top forwards of a defensive Belleville club, before moving on to play on a line with Connor McDavid in Erie.

Likewise, Elie has moved up and down this Texas lineup frequently as a rookie. Sometimes acting as a complementary forward on the top lines or as a grinding forward with the likes of Cory Kane. He adapts well to any situation, but he is still finding his way in pro hockey. Given the depth of this club, Elie’s ability to fit many roles makes him more likely to get a jersey every night. He has also not looked out of place near the net on the power play, a role that will become more up for grabs when Brett Ritchie is called up for good.

Curtis McKenzie, LW, 24

Now an established complementary winger, Curtis McKenzie has been of good use to the Texas Stars this season after splitting the year between AHL/NHL in 2014-15. McKenzie has a modest five goals and 14 points in 26 games so far, but that speaks more to the depth of the team than McKenzie’s having a faulty season. The goals will come for McKenzie – provided his team-high 61 PIMs don’t get in the way. He provides a strong physical presence and is a threat to score from in close. Before McKenzie ends up in Dallas for good, the Stars would love for the former Miami Redhawk to impart his knowledge on Remi Elie, a younger player of similar stylings.

Brendan Ranford, LW, 23

Ranford has been a reliable minor league producer for the third straight season. Tracking towards another 50+ point season, Ranford has 28 in 39 games thus far playing in a top-six role. Something of an agitator with good finishing ability, the 2010 seventh-round selection of the Philadelphia Flyers is probably just short of being an NHL regular, but could provide useful organizational depth for most teams. He has improved his skating over the past few years, which has helped him become a productive AHLer. He is in the last year of his deal with Dallas and the Stars have enough younger forward depth to move on – which may benefit both parties actually.

Devin Shore, C, 21

After a somewhat underwhelming junior season at the University of Maine, Shore’s extended taste of AHL action late in 2015 really laid the foundation for him to become an excellent player as a rookie in 2015-16. Though out with an upper body injury, Shore remains one of the league’s leading scorers with 26 points in 23 games. Shore’s smarts have never been in doubt but he has shown exceptional finishing ability in his young pro career, far better than he had shown in college quite frankly. With better teammates and a more predictable pro game, Shore has taken to it like a duck to water. He already enjoyed a cup of coffee in the NHL as well – playing in three contests.

The Ajax, Ontario native will be the first to tell you that he has plenty to do, but this is certainly a promising AHL start for the Stars who have been looking to craft useful young centers out of draft picks for the last several years.

Jason Dickinson, C, 20

Like Devin Shore, Dickinson is a savvy rookie center who is making a nice first impression in the more mechanical confines of the professional game. Dickinson is up there with the team leaders in both assists (18) and plus/minus (+9) in 37 games while seeing time in all situations. With great hockey sense and a lot of range between his size and skating, Dickinson fits in easily with this group. The question becomes: how far can Dickinson stretch his offensive upside? He will have some time and help to figure out if he is tracking towards being a second or third line player, but the 2013 first-round pick figures to be quite useful in some way down the line at this rate.

Gemel Smith, C, 21

Sparkplug Gemel Smith has been used in mostly a depth role in his time as a pro. However, he has produced pretty well, scoring 27 points in 68 games as a rookie, plus a very respectable 14 in 31 games this year – showing that some of his scoring prowess from the OHL did carry over. Moreover, in Smith’s brief stints with more talented linemates, he has shown he can keep up with the star players on his team. The key is consistency for Smith: being productive, while also being destructive to the opposition on the forecheck and backcheck. The Stars sent Smith down to regain his form a bit and he scored four points in four ECHL contests before recall. The 104th pick of the 2012 draft does not have huge upside, but he has been an asset to the Stars since signing.

Brett Ritchie, RW, 22

Ritchie started the 2015-16 campaign with a wrist surgery that delayed his season up until just recently. After splitting last season between the NHL and the AHL almost evenly, Ritchie will get back up to speed in the AHL. He has already shown that he is a load to handle, with nine goals and eleven points in 16 games down in Cedar Park. The budding young winger may not be down for very long. He could check off a lot of the boxes that would designate a player as a power forward as his career materializes.

Branden Troock, RW, 21

Troock is one of the most intriguing prospects in the system, a burly but mobile and skilled right-handed shooter who has been held back by injury in his career. He has netted ten points in 20 games playing a depth role this season but looks pretty impactful some nights. Like a couple of the young forwards, Troock was temporarily dispatched to the ECHL to get some ice time, but he certainly has the skill and the size to be an AHL regular. The biggest obstacle for Troock is health, but he remains an interesting figure, especially with finishers like Brett Ritchie and Curtis McKenzie likely seeing NHL call-ups in relatively short order.

Matej Stransky, RW, 22

Matej Stransky looks to be putting together some of that potential that has been evident since his days in Saskatoon. Just 21 points in 37 games (though, against a career-high of 23 points in a season, this is a terrific start) but he looks much more dangerous on the ice now with the puck, whereas in previous seasons, he was just short of having that menacing blend of skill and size and puck protection and poise all working in unison. The young Czech seems to be finding his stride and getting a feel for how to handle defensemen in this league. The patience from the Stars may yet pay off on the aspiring Jagr.

ECHL (Idaho Steelheads)

Philippe Desrosiers, G, 20

Following a successful junior career with the Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL), Philippe Desrosiers has become an ECHL starter in this first professional season. He has been the best goalie on a somewhat flimsy team so far. In 20 games, he has gone 8-6-2-1 with a 2.46 GAA and .907 save pct. The numbers are below average on a league-wide scale, but Desrosiers does a lot of work to keep the Steelheads in games. Desrosiers is striving to perfect his style as he adjusts to the pro game. An early thought is that he could move up to replace Jack Campbell in the organization as soon as next season.

Maxime Lagace, G, 22

Somewhat surprisingly, Lagace has earned split duties between the AHL and ECHL this season. He has not been particularly noteworthy in either setting thus far. He is 5-4 with a 2.94 GAA and .907 save percentage in the AHL which has made Jack Campbell look worse for wear. Down in the ECHL, he backs up Philippe Desrosiers. Lagace is giving up more than three goals per outing and stopping 88.6% of shots fired his way. Lagace still does not project as anything more than a minor league backup.

Emil Molin, C/LW, 22

After sputtering to nearly a complete stall in Sweden, Emil Molin hopped over to try his hand at North American hockey. Unable to crack the AHL lineup, Molin has played a prominent role in the ECHL. In 34 games, he has 29 points – good for second on the team. Molin is at the end of his agreement with the team, so unless he blows someone away in Idaho, he is likely headed to unrestricted free agency at season’s end.

Dallas Stars Prospect of the Month

Brett Pollock - Dallas StarsSizeable winger Brett Pollock continues to do some great work with the Oil Kings of the Western League. He has come on strong as the season progresses, which includes a 17-point November. The all-situations player leads his club in assists (26) and points (46) and is the only player on the club in double-digit territory for pluses (+17). Pollock’s fine work netted him a three-year entry-level contract from the Dallas Stars on December 9.