Productive forwards the strength of Dallas Stars’ junior prospect pool

By Mike Farkas
Gemel Smith - Owen Sound Attack

Photo: Center Gemel Smith has been a key contributor in every situation this season for the Owen Sound Attack, one of the OHL's top teams. (courtesy of Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

 
Despite some major graduations from the junior ranks in recent years, the Dallas Stars pipeline continues to churn mightily, especially at forward. The Stars feature some of the finest forwards in their respective leagues including Brett Ritchie and Radek Faksa in the OHL and Matej Stransky out west. The impressive amount of professional-level depth that the Stars have at forward will soon be augmented by these recently-drafted prospects that could fill a variety of roles within the organization. On the back line, Troy Vance is the lone junior prospect for Dallas and his progression has been that of race-winners – slow and steady. In all, the Stars have eight prospects at the major junior level.

WHL

Matej Stransky, RW, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 6th round (165th overall) in 2011

After a breakout year last season, Matej Stransky had a lot of hopes rest on his shoulders going in to the 2012-13 campaign. Unfortunately for Stransky and his Saskatoon team, both got off to sluggish starts. Of late, the Blades are cutting deeply into the deficit in front of them and Stransky is helping to lead that charge from the top line. Though he is just short of a point-per-game pace so far this year, Saskatoon supporters will tell you that the Czech import is really starting to heat up.

After he took a big step last season, Stransky really only needs some more polish to become the player the Stars thought they were drafting in the sixth round in 2011. In fact, GM Joe Nieuwendyk already signed Stransky to an entry-level contract as a display of appreciation regarding his growth. Stransky continues to improve his skating and looks a step quicker than he did when he first joined the league. He uses his edges better and can shield off players on the cycle, not unlike former Czech import Tomas Vincour. His shot has a little more zip on it and it comes off the stick a little quicker as well it appears. Next year, Stransky will be another robust feather in the increasingly burdensome cap that is the Stars’ depth at wing.

Mike Winther, C, Prince Albert Raiders
Acquired: 2nd round (54th overall) in 2012

The pick from the Mike Ribeiro trade was cashed in on Mike Winther from the Prince Albert Raiders and so far it looks fairly promising that Winther will make a name for himself as opposed to being an answer to a seldom-used trivia question ten years from now. Winther, a sniper by trade, has been much more adept at setting up plays this year. Though it has been mentioned that his skillset might be better served on the wing as opposed to at center, Prince Albert has largely kept him behind Mark McNeill (CHI) as the number-two pivot on the club. In the long run, this may prove to be more beneficial for Winther as he can hone his playmaking skills and be challenged to engage more defensively. As an undersized, sniping winger, he may have been more prone to “hiding” during his shifts, only emerging to shoot.

In addition to better passing, Winther has also shown a bit more grit in his game. He will never be a Ryan Callahan-type player, but he has shown that he can handle himself just fine against rugged WHL defenders and is not afraid to defend himself out there. He continues to show off his terrific acceleration and lightning-quick release and he is doing it on fair terms. All nine of his goals thus far have come at even strength and he leads the team with a plus-15 rating.

Branden Troock, RW, Seattle Thunderbirds
Acquired: 5th round (134th overall) in 2012

Injuries were a major concern for Branden Troock coming into his draft year and they continue to be into his time under the Dallas Stars umbrella. Limited to just seven games so far in 2012-13, Troock has two goals and three assists – while a nice clip, it matters not if he cannot stay healthy. He has only appeared in three games in the last two months and none since October 20th due to an upper body injury. A source with the Thunderbirds confirmed that the injury is not related to the head/neck problems that he had had previously and they expect him back in the first week of December.

OHL

Brett Ritchie, RW, Niagara IceDogs
Acquired: 2nd round (44th overall) in 2011

Mitchell Theoret (NYI), Ryan Strome (NYI), and Brett Ritchie: a line – the best the OHL has to offer right now – that has been nearly impossible for opponents to reel in. Isles first-round pick Strome leads the circuit in helpers while Stars second-round pick Ritchie puts them away at a league-leading clip. Between the three, they make up over 44% of the club’s total points and that is not including top defenseman Dougie Hamilton’s (BOS) tremendous share of the action, as he sees a ton of time with the top liners. As Ritchie hinted at late last season, he is in full bloom and the Ontario Hockey League is taking notice. In addition to being a skilled goal scorer, Ritchie is mixing it up along the boards and becoming more consistent in his physical play.

He was selected to represent the OHL in the Subway Super Series and although he got a little carried away by taking two aggressive penalties, his forechecking and physicality put the Russians blueliners on their heels quite a bit. When the dust settled, he led all Canadian players with 14 penalty minutes. When he is on his game, he can be tough to stop. A very good skater, with good hands, a wicked shot, a big body and telescopic reach, Ritchie could emerge as a standout among the glut of wing prospects the Stars possess.

Radek Faksa, C, Kitchener Rangers
Acquired: 1st round (13th overall) in 2012

Fresh off of a splendid rookie campaign, the Czech import went to work on his sophomore season with big aspirations for both himself and this talented Kitchener Rangers team. So far, it has been a bit of a mixed bag for the team but Faksa has been terrific. On a team with quick action snipers like Matt Puempel (OTT) and Tobias Reider (EDM), Faksa has been counted on to provide a little more in the playmaking department despite showing what a good goal-scoring center he could be. The sizeable Czech forward has adapted well and his poise has allowed him to lead his club’s forwards in assists in the early going.

In addition to increasing his passing effectiveness, Faksa has been quite good defensively as well. Thanks to his excellent awareness and imposing board play, the Stars first-round pick finds himself in many key defensive situations. Overall, he has been Kitchener’s most consistent skater for much of the year and because of the high-end talent on the club – including fellow centerman Matia Marcantuoni (PIT) – Faksa does not have to exhaust himself to the tune of 30 minutes per night.

Gemel Smith, C, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 4th round (104th overall) in 2012

With 28 points and a plus-14 rating through 24 games, it appears as if Gemel Smith is going to best his rather lofty statistical marks set last season. The team seems to play a little bit more subdued of a system and that might not exactly show off Smith’s strengths. The defensive-minded Attack allow nearly a goal less per game than last season and have been doing better in transition than on the forecheck – the latter being Smith’s specialty. As a result, the opportunistic scorer, is finding a lot of his points on the power play instead. Seven of Smith’s 13 goals have come with the man advantage as well as four of 15 assists (plus one helper on an empty netter). Despite being undersized, Smith finds himself in front of the net on most power plays, setting up screens, getting deflections and recycling net-front garbage into goals.

Smith has the ability to burn off some of his fuel on the backcheck, but he is far from a specialized defensive player and often is more ineffective than the expectation for a player of his tenacity and speed level. While he does not always have quite the same pep and zip as he did last season, Smith has produced very well (including an 11-game point streak where he did not miss the scoresheet once in October) and has been an all-situation player for the Attack.

QMJHL

Troy Vance, D, Victoriaville Tigres
Acquired: 5th round (135th overall) in 2011

The lone junior defenseman remaining in the Stars prospect cupboard, Troy Vance is off to a very good start in his third season with Victoriaville. With 11 points through his first 21 games, the American defenseman is well on his way to career highs on the scoresheet. Much of his offensive production can be attributed to confidence and consistent ice time. He gets involved in the play a little bit more and while he does not have terrific offensive instincts nor does he skate with the puck all that naturally, he has a heavy shot and can dish short, effective passes to more offensively-gifted teammates.

Vance is a smooth skater that displays good positioning and physicality. He reads the play well defensively and seems to trust is own abilities more and more as his experience continues to mount. He plays a clean game and is not much for rabble-rousing even after the whistle. His progression as a no-frills, defensive presence remains unchanged.

Maxime Lagace, G, Prince Edward Island Rocket
Acquired: Signed as a free agent July 2012

It has been a trying year for Maxime Lagace and it is one that might end with an intimate knowledge of bench door operation. Statistically, he has been just about the worst goalie in the QMJHL so far and is quickly losing ground to young goaltender Antoine Bibeau in terms of minutes. Lagace is 5-5 this year with a 4.55 goals against average and .858 save percentage compared to Bibeau who is 8-4-1 with a 2.68 goals against average and .915 save percentage in roughly the same amount of time. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good and in Lagace’s case this year, he has not been either of those.

His questionable footwork and lackluster mobility make him a prime target for backdoor plays and rebound goals against. Coupled with a weak five hole and his inability to make himself big when going post-to-post, Lagace has a lot of technical work to do before he can be considered an NHL-caliber prospect. Perhaps a change of scenery via trade may do him some good, as the Rocket will likely call on Bibeau more often down the stretch.

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