Dallas Stars Preseason Wrap-Up

By Keith Riskey

Though we are at last approaching the end of what has seemed like the most prolonged, listless summer since the Stars came to North Texas, this lengthy off-season yielded some big gains. New personnel (and an exciting new era of change) have been ushered in, a bunch of new guys we hardly know are now sporting Stars apparel, and I can now finally report that there are 623,124 bumps in my bedroom ceiling. To top it off, quite a few of our young futures look like they will make an impact on the big club soon.

Defense

Naturally, we were correct in predicting that one Dallas Stars prospect would make the team outright from camp this season. We were just a little off when we picked John Erskine over his estranged twin brother, Niko Kapanen (who is virtually indistinguishable but for 9 inches of height and 50 pounds in girth). John seemed like a shoe-in because he really started to play well at the end of last season. The big lug was making smart passes out of the zone, stepping up at the right times, holding the point well, and hitting people like he really wanted to be a permanent Dallas Star.

The move to pick-up young Canadiens defenseman Stephane Robidas from the waiver draft (via trade), however, sealed his fate. Robidas is a surprisingly decent pickup for the waiver draft. While he had the ultimate nightmare season playing on his off-side and completely failing to adjust, he played very well on the natural right side for Habs just two years ago. He makes intelligent decisions with the puck, crisp outlet passes, and has that offensive inkling that Tippett seems to want to move towards. And since the Habs are overstocked with experienced defensemen on that side of the ice, he landed in the Stars’ proverbial lap.

Unlike, say, Sami Helenius, Erskine consequently seemed a poor choice for a number 7 guy. The almost assured lack of ice time would certainly stunt his development, and another defenseman like Sami would have to clear waivers if sent down. Moreover, the word on Tippett is that he loves speed on the back end. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Stars less speedy defense gave him a severe migraine (or three), and adding Robidas over one of the hulking backups seemed a good, low-risk place to start addressing this “issue”.

One defenseman who really impressed the Stars this preseason is highly talented (and touted) youngster Trevor Daley, whom Dallas just drafted this summer. Daley skates only slightly faster than greased lightning on speed, and Tippett (again: a big fan of this type of player) absolutely loved Trevor’s style. It’s unusual for a kid as young as Daley to make it far in camp, but Trevor lasted until nearly the final week. He had great time, said he learned a lot watching guys like Zubov and Sydor, and will return to the CHL with renewed vigor. Daley has a bright future with the Stars, and we will no doubt all be able to drool over his talent on a more regular basis sometime down the road.

Russian defenseman Alexei Komarov made a surprise appearance at camp this year and also had a good showing. Komarov is a stay-at-home defenseman, but he plays a more European, finesse-oriented style of defense. His defense is more positional and cerebral than physical. He will often prefer to poke check (with his long reach) or outsmart opposing forwards rather than simply outmuscle them. Admittedly, Komarov is more offense-minded than your typical “stay-at-home” defender, and is actually capable of generating offense or even joining the rush from time to time. Komarov is nice player to have for a call-up, and he can plug nicely into a variety of roles. He may still develop into an NHL caliber defenseman, but NHL style defense preaches taking the body rather than taking the puck (the players are just too good for the latter), and he may have some difficulty adjusting. If he does manage to make the adjustment, however, he could wind up being a better overall player because he has a very high skill base to work from.

Martin Vagner was our first-round pick this summer, but he did not stay long at camp. Vagner has the basic tools to develop into a great, all-around defenseman, but the Stars knew going in that this way a few years off. Vagner will spend a long time in Juniors (and beyond) before finding his way up to the NHL level, but he could be a fantastic player some day. Big and talented Vagner is pretty much the epitome of what NHL teams look for in a young defenseman.

Jeff Macmillan and Dan Jancevski also made appearances at camp, and both are very competent defensive prospects. Unfortunately, the Stars defense seems so loaded and established, both of them remained well below the radar of most people. Macmillan remains patient and smart, if a bit uninteresting, and Jancevski seems like a less developed version of Helenius or Erskine. Neither one is likely valuable enough to get much in a trade themselves, but they might make some of the Stars’ higher profile players more easily parted with if the team ever needs to make adjustments.

Offense

This year’s most impressive preseason players were Niko Kapanen, Steve Ott, and Jon Sim (in that order). The former made the team, the next made it very apparent he was going the Stars best young forward, and the latter may have missed his final opportunity to play for the Dallas Stars.

After nearly becoming a regular Dallas Star last season with no North American hockey experience, bantam-weight playmaker Niko Kapanen received little play time working for a team in turmoil and was mercifully relegated to the Utah Grizzlies. There, he saw actual ice time, adjusted well to Western style hockey, saw marked improvement in his game, and became one of the Grizzlies best forwards. With more experience under his belt, Kapanen “wowed” the new coaching staff with an impressive display of skill and consistency in training camp and preseason. Kapanen lead the Dallas Stars in preseason scoring, showed off some very slick moves, played competent defense, set up some very nice goals, and even scored some himself. Kapanen eventually showed enough to fully earn himself a spot on the roster, and may wind up centering the 3rd or 4th line. Kapanen’s major (and perhaps only) weakness is that he is really tiny. Prospect scouts tend to overplay the size element, but in this case it is not overblown. Kapanen is just extraordinarily small for an NHL player. However, Tippett hopes this weakness is less pronounced for someone playing the role of a playmaking center. Certainly, he has Pierre Turgeon as a role model.

The other very significant forward in training camp was the well-publicized Steve Ott. Ott, an all-star, point-leader, and locker room guy in Juniors, graduated from the OHL, put on some pounds, gained some inches and is rounding into NHL form. Ott showed a little more in camp and preseason this year than in the previous: grit, skill, a great work ethic, and some nice offense (particularly in the playmaking department). But ultimately, the Stars are just too deep at forward for Ott to make the team. Tippett was very pleased with Ott’s performance, and remarked that a little growth in the minors will do wonders for his game. He even went so far as to state that Ott would have made the Stars outright, if they did not have an overabundance of quality wingers this season. He is on-the-cusp, and he may get called up to play wing this season if there are injuries. Ott has a great attitude, and he says he will do whatever it takes to make it as a player for the Dallas Stars. We will also be anxiously observing how Ott develops his elite “goaltender jeering” prowess in the minors.

Steve Gainey and Barrett Heisten both had very disappointing camps. Feisty LW Gainey was among the list of those who were competing for a roster spot this preseason, but he has failed to demonstrate much in way of real offensive potential, and the Stars appear too deep to take a chance on a pure grinder. Left winger Barrett Heisten just keeps slipping as well. Once a highly touted prospect for the Rangers, he has been a major dud with the Stars. It looks like this guy will miss the boat and remain a minor leaguer for awhile. Though he has some offensive skill and a mean edge to boot, he just can’t seem to put it together with any consistency.

As we reported earlier, college winger Anthony Aquino (one of the Stars best goal-scorer prospects) has dropped out of school to concentrate on hockey. At first glance, this might seem a good thing for Stars fans, but Aquino could slip away from the Stars through a free-agent loophole. By joining the OHL, he can be drafted again next season if the Stars don’t have him under contract. Aquino – who is still pretty undeveloped — was not that significant a player in camp, and there’s no guarantee the Stars will do anything to stop him from re-entering the draft. That’s too bad because Aquino, although a very incomplete player as of yet, has talent to spare.

Young Czech winger Daniel Volrab only joined the Stars for a little while, and he looks like he’s a ways off in his development. He definitely seems talented, but lacked strength and didn’t seem to be quite in tune with the North American game. His attitude is great, however. He really wants to improve, and he worked his butt off.

Marcus Kristoffersson is a frustrating player. At times, it seems like he has everything it takes: size, intensity, skill. But most of the time, he just looks like a minor leaguer.

One guy who has been slipping off our radar in a big way is Russian center Artem Chernov. Though Chernov was once a top 10 scorer in the Russian Hockey League, he has still not shown much after moving to a new team and playing with less talented wingers. Chernov is now centering the fourth line as a checking center.

On the upside, Russian center Alexei Tereschenko is off to a decent start (3 goals in 6 games). Tereschenko is billed as a skilled, 2-way forward, a little reminiscent of former Stars prospect Roman Lyashenko (who is clearing waivers today for the New York Rangers).

In Sweden, sniper Joel Lundqvist has ushered in the season in his usual way — by scoring a few goals (how soon can we get this guy over here anyway?). And, in Finland, Jussi Jokinen and Teemu Elomo are both racking in the assists and scoring at about a point per game clip in the stingy Finnish league.

Mr. jinxed, Mathias Tjarnqvist is of course struggling with an unusual injury again (this team appendicitis), and last year’s breakout prospect Antti Miettinen could struggle early as he recovers from off-season surgery.

Goaltending

Not much to say about goaltending this time around. Jason Bacashihua and Dan Ellis have both been fantastic. However, both are a year or two off from being at all NHL-ready, so we must hope Marty Turco and his backup Ron Tugnutt are up the task for now. Tobias Stephan is still a long way off, but we’ll watch him closely this coming year.