Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill believes that it’s best to have prospects “over ripen” and over develop in the AHL. Although Dallas fell short in this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the patience paid off as AHL players made instant impacts for the NHL club.
That mentality has created quite a logjam of talent in Cedar Park, Texas, where Dallas’s AHL affiliate Texas Stars reside. And with the number of “over ripe” prospects closing in on NHL opportunities, the 2015-16 prospect awards for Dallas were gobbled up by AHL players.
Hardest worker: Curtis McKenzie, LW, Texas Stars (AHL)
McKenzie has earned every opportunity he has been given in the Stars’ organization and should make the NHL roster on opening night next season. The former Miami University winger isn’t the most talented winger in the Dallas system, but his work ethic, intensity, and willingness to do anything for his teammates are evident on each shift. He also grew as a leader this season and consistently set an example for younger prospects.
Hardest shot: Brett Ritchie, RW, Texas Stars (AHL)
Ritchie likely wouldn’t still be considered a prospect if a pre-season injury had not kept him from establishing an NHL job this season. The 22-year-old has the quickest release and heaviest wrist shot in the Stars’ prospect pool. With 53 goals in 141 AHL games, Ritchie is a proven goal-scorer but also a player who has matured in his game.
Best defensive prospect: Stephen Johns, D, Dallas Stars (NHL)
Johns was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks last summer and the deal has already paid off for Dallas. After starting the season in the AHL, the big blueliner was given an opportunity late in the season and never let go of an NHL job. On a team full of speedsters, Johns is the physical battering ram on Dallas’s blue line and was a key contributor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Fastest skater: Julius Honka, D, Texas Stars (AHL)
There are a couple prospects in Dallas’ system that could give Honka a run for his money – Cole Ully comes to mind immediately – but the 2014 first-round pick is by far the smoothest skating prospect. Honka turned 20 this season and had 44 points in 73 AHL games for Texas.
Prospect of the year: Radek Faksa, C, Dallas Stars (NHL)
Whispers of “bust” surrounding Faksa one year ago have been forgotten as the 22-year-old center burst onto the national stage during the Stanley Cup playoffs. He won key face-offs, scored timely goals, and solidified Dallas’s center depth with Tyler Seguin injured.
Faksa missed most of the 2014-15 season with a shoulder injury and started this season in the AHL, where he was a game-changing player on both ends of the ice. Once given a full-time NHL opportunity in February he did the same thing for Dallas and hasn’t looked back.
Breakout prospect for 2015-16: Jason Dickinson, C, Texas Stars (AHL)
Dickinson was one of the most-well rounded rookies in the AHL this season. The 2013 first-round pick showed off an offensive touch, was good defensively, won face-offs, and developed as a special teams asset in Texas.
Dickinson also scored on his first NHL shot in a one-game cameo with Dallas late in the regular season. The center also showed off his ability to play on the wing, and that versatility will be an asset for Dallas in the future.
On a side note, Devin Shore should get an honorable mention for this award. The rookie had a superb start to the season was named the AHL Player of the Month in October, but had his season cut short after undergoing shoulder surgery in December.
Most improved prospect: Matej Stransky, RW, Texas Stars (AHL)
The 22-year-old winger was also a candidate for the hardest working prospect and really escalated his stock this season. Stransky had just 16 goals combined in his first two AHL seasons before putting home 23 during his 2015-16 campaign.
And this all happened after he was a healthy scratch on opening night. After that scratch Stransky moved up the lineup and grew into a leadership role, also picking up added responsibilities on the penalty kill and power play.
Overachiever: Maxime Lagace, G, Texas Stars (AHL)
This one was a bit of a no-brainer. The undrafted free agent signing went from an afterthought in the Stars organization to the stabilizing presence in Texas’ crease.
Last season Lagace bounced back-and-forth between two ECHL organizations and struggled in each location. This season he earned an AHL opportunity and appeared in a team-high 36 games and he had a .913 save percentage.
How well will Lagace be able to follow up that performance? That’s the biggest question in an organization that is still looking the goalie of the future.
Underachiever: Jack Campbell, G, Texas Stars (AHL)
While one goalie blew expectations out of the water, another had another season of disappointment. A 2010 first-round pick, Campbell was relegated to the ECHL for the second time in two seasons and asked to find his game at the AA-level. The goalie is a restricted free agent this summer and may have played his last game in the Stars organization.
Highest risk/reward prospect: Denis Gurianov, RW, Lada Togliatti (KHL)
Dallas made a bold pick when it took Gurianov with the 12th overall pick in the 2015 draft. The 18-year-old Russian has offensive upside that Dallas believes in, but he had a difficult 2015-16 season that included being left off of Russia’s World Junior Team for a foolish slashing major.
Talk is that Gurianov may be in North America next season, which could help his development after a rough year in the KHL.
Prospect of the month
The Texas Stars had their season came to an end in a first-round playoff loss to the San Diego Gulls, but that didn’t stop Esa Lindell from being one of the better players on the ice. The big Finnish defenseman had four points in four playoff games and has now joined Team Finland for the IIHF World Championships.
Lindell is also headed to the World Cup this September as a part of Team Finland and could be an opening-night NHL player for Dallas.