With the playoffs underway, the Dallas Stars have proven adept at acquiring top-shelf NHL talent under General Manager Jim Nill, who has now been at the helm for three years. Other avenues of procurement have yet to pay such immediate dividends, but the Stars have some good players in every major league – including college hockey and the European leagues. Although some of the players are off the radar for the casual fan – and perhaps even management – others put together some encouraging work in the 2015-16 season.
Michael Prapavessis, D, RPI (ECAC)
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2014
The very late season peek at potential in 2015 became realized in 2016. The mobile sophomore defenseman became the go-to man on the back end in what turned out to be a better-than-anticipated season for RPI. With 19 points in 40 games, Prapavessis easily led club blueliners in scoring and finished tied for third overall on the club in points. Not only is the Ontario lad a threat in transition, but he is also relied upon to handle the toughest defensive minutes on the club as well. With a good group returning to Troy, NY next season, Prapavessis hopes to get his team to the next level and his name on a few all-star ballots – he certainly has the upside for both feats.
Joseph Cecconi, D, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted 5th round, 133rd overall, 2015
The term ‘solid’ is rarely an accurate measure of a game or season for anyone, but in freshman defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s case, it might be apt. He is a stout defender who showed he could handle some heavy workloads early in his college career. Not a very flashy player – seven assists in 38 games – but he played very well within his means despite playing with two very different partners over the course of the season. At times, he was the partner in crime of the physical Cutler Martin and at others, the safety valve for offensive wanderer Zach Werenski. In the mean time, he collected pluses and blocked shots. With the departure of Werenski to the pros, the thought is that everyone will need to slide up a rung and pick up the slack.
Henri Kiviaho, G, Ilves (Liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 144th overall, 2012
After coming over to the ECHL last season and playing 21 games, Henri Kiviaho was loaned back to Finland’s Ilves Tampere club. Kiviaho served as the primary backup for Hannu Toivonen in what was a poor season for the club. He was then loaned to the second-tier Mestis league, where he did not appear to be much of a difference-maker on another team that failed to get close to playoff contention. The big Finn is having trouble getting meaningful game time in recent years. With just 19 high-level professional games played in the last two seasons (21 in the ECHL and 10 more in Mestis), is he really getting the reps necessary to improve his tool set? The Stars have him under contract for 2016-17 and can decide how they want to handle him. It seems likely that they will move on from Jack Campbell, which will open up a spot in their own nest.
Markus Ruusu, G, JYP-Akatemia (Mestis)
Drafted 6th round, 163rd overall, 2015
The Stars own the rights to another Finnish goaltender in Markus Ruusu, a player who tasted professional hockey for the first time in 2015-16. Ruusu split the season between Finland’s top junior league and their second-tier pro league (Mestis). Essentially, the same steps that 2016 eligible and fellow JYP player Veini Vehvilainen took last season before exploding onto the Liiga scene and winning a WJC gold medal as part of Team Finland. The Stars are hoping that Ruusu can duplicate Vehvilainen’s feats.
Ruusu is a competitor who moves very well in his crease and has a snappy glove hand. He is a smart player who does a fine job not regurgitating unforced rebounds into the high quality areas of the ice. JYP U20 goalie coach Roy Hellgren told Hockey’s Future that “(Ruusu) loves to rob players with his glove hand and is disappointed if the player shoots wide and he can’t use his glove.”
Aleksi Makela, D, Ilves (Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 182nd overall, 2013
Gritty Finnish defenseman Aleksi Makela actually saw his role reduced a bit in his sophomore season. Not high on technical skills, Makela’s best asset is probably his viscosity – his ability to stick to a man in the defensive zone. With two assists in 42 games, Makela rarely gets involved in the offensive rush clearly. Even when he went down to the junior level to help Ilves U20’s playoff push, he only notched one point in eight total games (seven were playoff games) – though his club did win the championship. He is a no-frills player – maybe a Jyrki Jokipakka type with even less puck skills – so it seems somewhat unlikely that the Stars will be inclined to sign this sparsely-used rearguard.
Miro Karjalainen, D, HIFK U20 (Liiga Jr. A)
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2014
Gigantic Finnish defenseman Miro Karjalainen has been slowed considerably by injuries over the past couple of seasons. He played just 26 regular season games over three leagues (17 at the junior level) and on top of that, he spent a lot of time sequestered from the action by spending 130 minutes in the penalty box in 2015-16. Karjalainen is strong and tough and does a fine job getting shots through for tips, not unlike Hal Gill. Also not unlike Gill, he has the turning radius of a battleship and it creates wonky gaps for him on the rush. The Stars’ fifth-round pick seems to have limited upside even from a Finnish league perspective.
Troy Vance, D, Assat (Liiga)
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2011
The Stars have utilized a loan to Finnish club Assat Pori, an avenue they have exercised in the past. The move seems to have worked out nicely for the American blueliner. He went from an overager in the QMJHL to a player bounced to three ECHL teams in a little over a year to being one of the top minute munchers in the entire Finnish league. The point totals are respectable at three goals and 19 points in 59 games, but quietly Vance finished 10th among league d-men in shots at about four per game. Vance is mobile for his size and his passing has improved nicely. His NHL upside is probably not there, but at the Liiga or AHL level, he could certainly be useful.
John Nyberg, D, IK Oskarshamn (Allsvenskan)
Drafted 6th round, 165th overall, 2014
Another year spent loaned down to Allsvenskan play is probably not what the Stars were hoping for on John Nyberg. He only saw action in six SHL games, of which only one did he eclipse 15 minutes of ice time. Instead, he spent the majority of his season in the second-tier league with IK Oskarshamn, where he was used as a depth defenseman. He picked up nine points in 46 games and a minus-2 rating.
It remains somewhat muddled what Nyberg’s true calling is. He seems caught in between what he wants to do and what he ìshouldî be doing on the rink. As a result, there are some fairly disastrous shifts. It does not appear as if he has the mobility to be a puck carrier and his outlet passes are negatively affected by a lack of poise and confidence. Defensively, he hangs near the front of his net and puts sticks on his guys, but, too often, he is not effectively covering them. He needs to keep his feet moving, as he is very prone to stopping and reaching and pulling himself out of the play as a result. Barring a surprising turnaround, Nyberg does not seemed destined for a future in the NHL nor perhaps North America at all.
Niklas Hansson, D, HV71 (SHL)
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2013
Niklas Hansson wasted no time jumping onto the SHL scene and making an impact. With 22 points in 44 games, Hansson finished 12th among all league blueliners. Despite the offensive numbers, he really is not one of the league’s premier minute munchers – as he played less than 20 minutes per night – nor is he the main power play quarterback. Though, regarding the latter, he did fill in for Chris Campoli quite well when called upon. While he has good on-ice vision, Hansson is lacking defensively. He hemorrhaged a lot of goals in the Swedish League this season (minus-12, by far the worst d-man on the team; and the only player out for two shorthanded goals against).
Hansson needs to be more diligent around his own net in order to make it in North American hockey. He has a tendency to drift around watching while play and is frantic around his own netminder. As a result, he was seldom ever on the ice in the SHL Playoffs. Particularly against a good Skellefteå team, he played just one shift combined in games 2 and 3.
If he can clean up his soft play near the net, he has the talent to be a player. But he will need to get stronger to keep the puck and keep it out of his net. He was recently rewarded with an entry-level contract, joining the Texas Stars (AHL) for their stretch run.
Dmitry Sinitsyn, D, Dynamo Balashikha (VHL)
Drafted 7th round, 183rd overall, 2012
21-year-old Russian defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn failed to establish himself as a KHL regular in 2015-16, once again splitting the season between the KHL and the VHL. Even when he does participate in KHL action, it’s on the bottom rung of the team. With just one assist in 11 games, it comes as no surprise that Sinitsyn can rarely be seen playing ten minutes in a game. Returning to Russia after a strong season with Regina (WHL), has left Sinitsyn without a ton of opportunity. The rangy right-handed defenseman is unlikely to get a look from the Stars before his exclusive rights expire this summer; in the meantime, his KHL contract also expires at the end of the month.
Roope Hintz, C, HIFK (Liiga)
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2015
The 2015-16 season for Roope Hintz was an exceptional one overall. He further established himself as a quality player in the top Finnish league with his new club HIFK, he won a gold medal at the World Juniors and he has really started to find some consistency in his offensive game. Hintz set a career mark with 20 points in just 33 games with HIFK and his plus-15 rating helps to highlight how few goals-against he was on the ice for this season as well. Not at all lost in his increased offensive totals is his defensive play, which remains top notch. An intelligent, clean and effective player, the Dallas second-round selection has a future in the NHL if he continues at this rate.
Denis Guryanov, W, Lada Togliatti (KHL)
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2015
Failing to get off the mat in the KHL, Denis Guryanov opted to terminate his contract in Russia’s top league and will likely sign with Dallas at the first possible opportunity. Relegated to a fourth-line role with Lada, Guryanov seldom got the opportunity he needed to develop his technical skills against quality competition. He did try to make some noise in his scarce shifts: he was one of the most prominent hitters on the club and with 66 shots, he ranked seventh among Lada forwards in that category despite being last in ice time among regular players. But with just four goals and one assist to go along with a droopy minus-11 rating in 47 games, the situation is not a productive one for the young Russian.
Already with one of the best shots in his draft class, Guryanov needs to improve upon his ability to make space for himself by way of skill plays and puck protection. He did show improvement in those areas over the course of the season, but – somewhat ironically – failed to finish the chances he generated. Either way, he needs more shifts against quality competition to really bring out his upside. Finding a coach with a good track record for skill development will be key as well, as Guryanov will need to be a more thoughtful player instead of one that relies solely on physical traits a la Nail Yakupov.
Prospect of the Month
Not a very highly regarded goaltender out of the QMJHL and then very much un-noteworthy in his first pro season in the ECHL, Maxime Lagace put together a January and February to remember. A veteran of just 11 AHL games when the calendar flipped to 2016, Lagace guarded the starter’s net with gusto for quite a stretch. A winner of ten straight decisions from January 16 to February 17, the French-Canadian netminder suddenly became a viable option in net – aided by the fact that Jack Campbell, he of previously high regard, has failed to get in the way of anything this year except other goaltenders. All told, Lagace went 10-2-1 in January and February, with a 2.51 GAA and a .926 save percentage. His March save percentage of .918 was also admirable as he looks to solidify his role for the Calder Cup playoffs.