This season begins with a brand new arena, a boatload
of new players, but unfortunately very little opportunity for a youngster to crack the big club.
Still, Coach Hitchcock has stated that anyone can earn a spot, and quite a few prospects have shown promising signs in rookie camp, training camp, and preseason so far.
Future Stars’ #1 Marty Turco has continued defying goaltender convention this preseason by remaining calm, collected, and confident — refusing to embark on a single destructive tantum. However, Turco still has plenty of time to work on developing the irrational, childish behavior so many #1 NHL goalies seem to possess (the only significant #1 calibre attribute that still seems missing from Marty’s game). While aging Belfour is supposedly going to take less regular season starts this season, Turco is very unlikely to capture the primary spot from him for any very significant amount of time barring a 3rd Belfourian tirade this coming year. But Turco is looking solid, confident, and better all the time. Thanks to a minor groin injury for Belfour, Turco racked up lots and lots of ice time during training camp, and has played
significant portions of both preseason games against the Hawks wherein he showcased that fantastic dexterity and steady demeanor of his yet again. In game 2 against the
BlackHawks, Turco looked his usual calm and confident self with two consecutive periods of shutout hockey. In fact, according to Coach
Hitchcock, last year’s save percentage king was the best player on the ice last game. But this should come as no surprise, since Turco’s ability to win a game singlehandely has become apparent to most Stars fans over the past season.
2001 First round pick, young Jason Bacashihua, also was able to have an NHL preseason start before being sent to his pre-planned destination in Canadian Juniors.
Bacashihua let in one goal in the first period (his only period against the Hawks), and he looked very quick and athletic. In fact, he even
managed to generate a jaw-dropping, highlight calibre save on a breakaway versus Hawk’s forward Alexei Zhamnov. “Cash” has looked good
good at training camp though also somewhat unfocused — a well-known trait of his that had managed to creep onto his scouting
report in the past. During training scrimmages, for instance, “Cash” went out of his way to retaliate against crease-bumpers
to the extent that he wound up not being in position to make saves on easy shots (remind you of anyone?).
But, Bacashihua will have plenty of time to round out his game, as he will spend the year playing for the Plymouth Whalers of
the OHL. The Stars think very highly of him and his athletic ability, however, so expect to hear more of him in the coming
If those two aren’t enough, Dan Ellis had a fantastic NCAA season last year and garnered huge acclamation. He appears to be yet another fine goaltender prospect in the Stars tradition of drafting and developing quality goaltending. We’ll probably see and hear more from him another few years down the road.
By far the most impressive player at training camp this season has been defenseman Jeff Macmillan. To everyone’s
astonishment, Macmillan crept under the radar of quite a few people last year at this time, and — by the end of preseason —
had even managed to overshadow and outlast everyone’s favorite new guy, John Erskine. While he doesn’t quite possess
the magnanimous proportions or the booming slapshot of Erskine, he has a subtly managed to be a more steady and intelligent
defenseman. Furthermore, Erskine’s groin injury these past few days has surely helped Macmillan gain even more time and acclaim.
Defensively, Macmillan has been a royal pest — walloping forwards who attempt to gain position in the defensive zone and
tying up those who stand in front of the net with timely grabs and positiong. He has also made intelligent decisions with
the puck, including the shot through traffic that netted him the first goal in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Hawks.
If any new defenseman gets called up to the Stars this season, I’ll be willing to wager a case of Lone Star(tm) beer that
that defenseman is Jeff Macmillan.
In the time that he’s had, Erskine has also continued to impressed the Stars coaching staff. He’s big, he’s ornery, and he
shoots — HARD — from the point. Erskine has all the tools any stay-at-home defenseman needs in this league. He just needs
to bring it all together and play more consistently. But Erskine will continue to remain a fine prospect, and he’ll likely
get his shot in the coming years if he can just train that grey matter between his ears well enough to play competent
Another highly acclaimed Stars defensive prospect, Dan Jancevski, made an appearance in training camp and looked
reasonably solid. He had a couple of nice checks and was fairly physical, but he just hasn’t done anything overly remarkable this
time around to warrant a level of interest that would rank him above Erskine, Macmillan, and Helenius. He’s still around, but he’s the 4th defenseman in the Stars system on the bubble. Also, the OHL all-star and captain is all set to likely spend another season in Juniors anyhow.
Unfortunately, odds look very slim for these and other defenseman because of the Stars remarkable defensive core that
includes Zubov, Matvichuk, Hatcher, Lumme, Sydor, Lukowich (who continues to impress), and Helenius. It will probably take
an injury, a trade, or a serious falling out for Erskine or Macmillan to make the team this season. Still, the Stars future
looks very bright defensively. Macmillan and Erskine could well be NHL calibre defensemen now or in the near future.
If there is any spot on the team where a prospect could potentially make the cut this season, it’s forward. There is, at
most, one spot available and this spot could either wind up falling to a veteran (like Hogue or Muller) or it could be seized
by an impressive effort from a new player. So far, there are no spectacular runaway candidates for this spot, but quite a
few have shown glimpses of potential.
From a playmaking standpoint, the two players who been most impressive are Roman Lyashenko (who can only loosely be
called a prospect because he played 50+ games last year) and tricky Niko Kapanen. Naturally, the odds-on favorite is
Lyashenko who showed natural chemistry in the first preseason game with newly acquired Russian Valeri Kamensky —
setting his table with a beautiful cross-ice pass. Lyashenko has shown spurts of brilliant play in the past season and a
half and showcased excellent defense (even stifling Jaromir Jagr during one game). Still, once called by Russian scouts “the best
defensive forward not in the NHL”, Lyashenko has yet to put it all together and mount a significant offensive counterattack
from that stellar defensive play of his. He is often manhandled by bigger NHL players, and so he has taken strides to beef up his
size. More importantly, if he plans to maintain a permanent fixture on the club, Lyashenko must more regularly display that offensive prowess he has only given rare glimpses of in the past. This could well be a make or break season for promising Lyashenko.
Hitchcock has also raved about the playmaking ability of center Niko Kapanen. In a Wednesday evening interview, he
even went so far as to insinuate that the brilliant play of centers like Kapanen and Lyashenko may make it possible for him to
play Modano and Turgeon on the same line (both have played stints at left wing in the past). There are certain elements to
Kapanen’s game, however, that make me worry he might be the next Pavel Patera. Not be one of those NHL “size bigots” yet again, but Kapanen is small and seems to be avoiding physical contact with the bigger players on the team.
Pesky Verbeek clone, Steve Ott, also looked very good during training camp but mainly as a peripheral player. If Ott
makes the NHL in the near future, he will likely do so as a wing. He has looked very solid grinding in the corners and has
shown some offensive ability (he came within an inch of scoring a goal in preseason game number one). Unfortunatey, Ott
still looks too miniscule to play up and down the center of the ice. He is regularly getting taken advantage of and
manhandled there. It’s almost sad because Ott’s energetic style induces him to charge into those sections of the ice where
he is less effective time and time again. But Ott wasn’t supposed to make the big club this season anyhow. The Spitfire
captain is likely a guy who needs more seasoning and growth, and he will get his shot somewhere down the road a year or two
from now. And perhaps the fact that the Stars now have the original Verbeek has made his immediate development this season
less important. For now, he has been returned to the OHL where I’m sure he will have another remarkable and prolific
One of the most disappointed prospects last season was Jon Sim but this season could be the one for him. Last season
Sim was injured early on, and never managed to crack the line-up for any significant amount of time. Sources say that he has
improved his skating and bulked up in the offseason, adding quite a few pounds of much needed muscle. Watching Sim, the
difference is immediately apparent. He has been showcasing that new strength at camp quite often with a nose for physicality
and getting in opponents’ faces. Sim has shown ability to score at the NHL level. Now with more size and speed, he could
finally break the club. Another thing going for Sim? Left wing may be the most pressing need for the Stars right now.
Cameron Mann, said to possess offensive potential galore, has been somewhat of a disappointment so far in preseason.
Maybe he just hasn’t found his niche yet or he doesn’t feel comfortable. For someone as supposedly gifted as Mann is, I’m
very surprised he has fallen so far off the radar for now. We’ll keep watching him, though, and we’ll hope they can get more
out of him than the Boston Bruins organization could.
Another noticeable forward in training camp has been Brampton Battlion captain, Jeff Bateman. Bateman has been one of
the more noticeable players in team scrimmages and was also impressive in Wednesday’s Black and White scrimmage at the
American Airlines center. He has made some brilliant passes to set up teammates and has also shown the ability to score
goals himself. Perhaps even more impressive, Bateman took on Erskine in a fist fight during one practice. Though he got his
clock cleaned, the fact that he was willing to trade knuckles was quite impressive from a character standpoint. Bateman has
just gotten a 3 year contract from the Stars, and it’s clear he wants to make the team soon.
Steve Gainey has also been very impressive at training camp, but he has been more impressive as a “character” player than as an offensive one. Hitchcock really likes players of Gainey’s ilk, but — with only one spot likely open this season —
it’s unlikely Gainey will make the spot. Gainey probably has less offensive potential than some of the other candidates, and
that flaw may prevent him from making the team this season.
Gigantic Swede, Marcus Kristofferson, has looked very good at training camp. He’s big, he’s tough, he’s a Viking with
a great slapshot. Kristofferson’s position was “torpedo” in Djurgarden’s system, and that is basically tantamount to a
forechecker specialist. Kristofferson probably doesn’t have as much offensive potential as fellow “torpedo” Mathias
Tjarnqvist (who didn’t make the trip to camp this season), but he’s got a Brendan Morrow-esque style to him. Perhaps
the forechecker and crease-crasher will show enough ability and drive to make the Stars as a fourth liner this season or the
next. He probably needs to develop more NHL-calibre “skill” to his game, but lack of skill has not necessarily stopped
Hitchcock from playing energetic forecheckers before.
The Stars experiments with former Canadiens 1st rounder Terry Ryan did not last long. The man said to have so much
potential at one time, was quickly released early this week. Younger prospects Daniel Volrab, Ladislav Velcek, and Rusland Bernikov were also returned to their teams on Monday.
An historic allegiance between the rabid hockey towns of Fort Worth and Dallas was just announed earlier this week.
Apparently, the Stars of Dallas and the Brahmas of Fort Worth will embark upon a collective marketing venture. Also, the
Stars will stock the Brahmas with some personnel.
It’s unclear exactly how the Brahmas agreement with the Stars will wind up stocking their club (which is clearly a full level
or two below the AHL Grizzlies), but it appears that the Brahmas are to become a temporary place for the Stars to stash
players whom they don’t want in Utah for a short period of time. More words about this when more explanation on the deal and the concept of “player loans” is forthcoming.
Worst prospects in the league?
The Stars have managed displace the Red Wings as the weakest talent pool in the league according to Hockey’s Future. But if it’s true, Stars fans can at least take consolation in the fact that there is almost no room on the Stars this season for new talent.