Stars CHL prospects season review

By Kevin Wey

Drafting a number of players from Europe and a number of players heading to college hockey in recent drafts, the Stars only had five prospects playing in major juniors last season, with none in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Two of the five are set to graduate from the major junior level to the professional level in 2006-07. Vancouver Giants defenseman Mark Fistric had two broken jaws limit his action in 2004-05, but he rebounded in 2005-06 to set personal scoring records and to become his team’s Co-MVP.

After struggling to meet expectations with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Everett Silvertips left winger John Lammers had a breakout season with his new team. Lammers was named Everett’s Team MVP and set a new team scoring record after scoring 38 goals and 37 assists.

Swede Fredrik Naslund made the move to North America in 2005-06 with the Peterborough Petes after years in the Vasteras system. Playing on a team full of veteran major junior players, Naslund skated most of the season on the third and fourth lines, but he’s starting to make an impact in the OHL playoffs.

Plymouth Whalers winger James Neal has continued to establish himself as one of the top young power forwards in the OHL. Improving on his offensive numbers from 2004-05, Neal still had a mid-season lull that kept him below a point per game, but he’s making his presence known in the OHL playoffs.

Rich Clune and the Sarnia Sting missed the playoffs, but the 2005 third round draft pick put up decent numbers and did a number on opponents, as detailed below.

Rich Clune, RW Age: 18
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 204
Sarnia Sting (OHL)

Drafted by the Stars in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Sting left winger Rich Clune boosted his production from 21 goals and 13 assists in 67 games in 2004-05 to 20 goals and 32 assists in 61 games after skating in Stars training camp, but time at the camp almost hurt Clune at the beginning of the OHL season.

“When he came out of the NHL camp he was trying to do too much with the puck, trying to be good one-on-one all the time and whatnot,” Sarnia Sting assistant coach Greg Walters said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “When he got back to dumping the puck in and banging and crashing, he really had success.”

Clune started putting up points with five goals and 11 assists in his 20 games of the season, but the goals weren’t coming. Despite missing two games in mid-November, Clune was able to play for Team OHL in the Canada/Russia Challenge Nov. 24.

Christmas came just in time for Clune, as an injury suffered just before the Christmas break only caused him to miss three games while the league took a rest. Despite playing half of the season from the effects of a broken hand and then also suffering a groin injury, Clune still managed to score 10 goals the second half of the season. Although the Sting ended the season on a down note, six straight losses, Clune scored four goals and five assists in eight games to close his own season strong.

Although Clune’s numbers in March bode well for 2006-07, he’s best known for his aggressive, physical play. Clune was voted as the third best hitter in the OHL Western Conference in the coaches poll. Clune’s game is based on his skating, speed, strength and hitting, often in combination.

“When he’s making his hits he’s always at top speed. He’s a big strong kid, so he knows how to make hits and he’s very successful at it for sure,” Walters said.

Despite playing much of the season injured, Clune was able to use his intense forechecking to further his playmaking skills in 2005-06.

“He really showed a knack of setting players up and he did that by getting in on the forecheck first and banging a defenseman and getting a loose puck and then making a good play,” Walters said.

Sarnia’s team captain, Clune leads by example with his work ethic and hustle, but he could afford to utilize his energy more efficiently.

“He has to find that happy medium between running around and trying to finish every hit, going out of his way, and sort of just tone it down so he’s not running out of position all the time and to show energy to bring his game to, getting a little bit more control,” Walters said.

With one more season of major juniors to play before turning pro, Clune will be expected to average over a point per game in 2006-07 and to lead Sarnia out of the basement of the OHL. Long term, Clune figures to provide Dallas with a checking forward similar to Steve Ott.

Mark Fistric, D Age: 19
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 225
Vancouver Giants (WHL)

Vancouver Giants defenseman Mark Fistric was back and better than ever after breaking his jaw twice in the 2004-05 season and missing most of the campaign. Aside from missing 10 games in late January and early February with a broken bone in his foot, Fistric was relatively healthy and the results followed.

After scoring four goals and 24 assists in his first 164 WHL regular season games, Fistric had seven goals and 22 assists in 60 games in 2005-06. Known as a physical defensive defenseman, Fistric’s offense developed with an expanded role.

“We’ve really tried to work with him to move the puck quicker and jump up into the play,” Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “We also worked with him on the power play to put him in more of a skill position that he hasn’t really been used to playing in.”

Fistric’s improvements offensively helped him finish third in team defenseman scoring behind Paul Albers and Cody Franson, but his defensive and physical play helped him earn Giants Co-MVP honors with Albers. At 6’3, 225 pounds, Fistric has impressive skating skills.

“Mark is real quick guy for a big man,” Hay said. “If somebody does get away or get open on him, he’s got the ability to get back really quick.”

Mix the skating skills with one part size and one part aggressiveness, and Fistric is a punishing hitter.

“He’s one of the most physical guys in our division,” Hay said. “When he’s hitting people, he really takes them out of the play and is physical with him, and then they know that for them to get to the net, they’re going to really have to pay a big price.”

Extremely effective in the corners and in front of the net, the Giants captain also provided leadership that proved to be the difference in 2005-06. After a mediocre 2004-05 season, Vancouver’s 47-19-0-6 record was tops in the WHL Western Conference, with Fistric playing a vital role.

“We missed having his leadership and character in the dressing room last year,” Hay said of Fistric. “We had a solid group of players, but we never seemed to reach our potential. I think Mark has really been the key guy in us reaching first place in our division and getting 100 points.”

The 2004 first round draft pick signed with Dallas last September, and the work Fistric has put in this season on his puck skills should ease his transition to the AHL Iowa Stars in 2006-07. Long-term, Fistric should become a stay-at-home defenseman for Dallas, providing the Stars with some mobile and physical “Big D” that they’ll need.

John Lammers, LW Age: 20
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 186
Everett Silvertips (WHL)

After the 2004-05 season, one might have wondered if Dallas’ third round pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft was going to pan out. Playing for the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Lammers scored 47 points in 2004-05 after he scored 45 points in 2003-04. The offensively gifted forward did not seem to be progressing. Lethbridge traded Lammers and a fourth round bantam draft pick to the Everett Silvertips for Curtis Billsten, Keegan Bourelle, and a fifth round bantam pick on July 11. The change of scenery proved pivotal, as Lammers had the breakout season he needed.

The 20-year-old left winger led Everett in scoring with 38 goals and 37 assists in 70 games and was named the Team MVP and was nominated as the WHL Western Conference’s Most Gentlemanlike Player. Silvertips head coach Kevin Constantine knew he was getting a talented player from Lethbridge, but he got more than he expected.

“We knew we were getting a pretty good offensive player, and he delivered in that department,” Constantine said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “The other parts of his game we didn’t know very much about, but he impressed us with his leadership, his coachability, his work ethic, his interest in improving his game, and his willingness to add some details and some fundamentals to his offensive ability.”

Previously considered an underachieving player, Lammers had to work on his game away from the puck for the points to come.

“He had a breakthrough year because he didn’t care about the points part of it,” Constantine said. “I think points are a by-product of worrying about more basic, simple things, like your work ethic, your physical play, playing with energy every night, playing both sides of the puck, being responsible defensively and creative offensively.

“The bottom line is he just went to work on the basics and tried to play hard every night, and some of the stats and that kind of thing take care of themselves when you do that.”

The speedy Lammers busted out of the gate with 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 16 games. October ended in an offensive supernova, four goals and seven assists in the final four games of October, earning him WHL Player of the Week honors, but November almost became a black hole.

Lammers’ center, Zach Hamill, went down to mono in early November and Lammers’ production plummeted. In 10 games from Nov. 4 through Nov. 26, Lammers tallied only two assists. He had three goals and three assists in his next eight games, showing some signs of life, but a three-point performance Dec.18 against Seattle and the return of Hamill after the Christmas break put Lammers back on the scoring path.

Lammers finished the season ninth in WHL scoring with 75 points and helped lead Everett to the U.S. Division title with a team-leading seven game-winning goals. Dangerous on the power play, Lammers had 16 goals and 22 assists with the man advantage, making him one of the WHL’s top power play scorers. More of a two-way player in 2005-06, Lammers also saw regular time on the penalty kill, but he did manage to provide a little offense on the PK with four short-handed goals.

The diversification of Lammers’ game may be just enough to earn him an entry-level contract with the Dallas Stars.

“Maybe a year ago you’d have to look at John and say he’s got to be a guy who can play on the top two lines because he doesn’t play that well away from the puck,” Constantine said. “I don’t think he has that limitation now.

“If you want him to be a fourth-line, energy, responsible, defensive, penalty-killing forward, I think he’s ready to that. Because he’s added those elements to his game, his opportunity to go all the way to the NHL doubles because he has more dynamics to offer an NHL team.”

There are still questions whether the 5’11, 186-pound Lammers will be able to handle the size and strength of the NHL, but his odds of staying within the Dallas organization and playing for the Iowa Stars in 2006-07 have greatly increased thanks to developing his play away from the puck.

Fredrik Naslund, RW Age: 19
Ht: 6’4 Wt: 204
Peterborough Petes (OHL)

Drafted by the Peterborough Petes with the 19th overall pick of the CHL Import Draft, Fredrik Naslund made the move to North American hockey in 2005-06, but it was with a team loaded with veteran players.

Peterborough’s veteran-laden team finished with the best record in the OHL Eastern Conference, and Naslund found himself limited to third and fourth line duty.

“We have a veteran team here, so he hasn’t been playing on the specialty teams, power play, and penalty kill,” Peterborough head coach Dick Todd said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “He does have the skill level to be playing on the power play, but with the players that we have here and the experience they have, we haven’t been able to fit him in there.”

Despite seeing limited power play time, Naslund did lead Peterborough in rookie scoring with nine goals and 31 assists in 66 games. At 6’4 204 pounds, the 19-year-old Swede has impressive size and can use it to his advantage.

“He’s a big guy that’s tough,” Todd said. “He wins a lot of battles with his reach, so we’re able to match him up against younger player a lot of times and, as a result, that’s part of why he’s been successful.”

Peterborough took Naslund in the CHL Import Draft on Dallas’ recommendation that the Stars 2004 third round draft pick could “come out of the corners and score goals,” according to Todd.

Although Naslund has excellent size and good hands, his development will depend upon his feet.

“You think of Sweden and you think of fast skaters, and I’m not saying that he’s a slow skater, but, maybe with his size, he still has to get a little less awkward,” Todd said.

Peterborough also helped Naslund improve his conditioning, but the Swede still had trouble scoring consistently during the season. After scoring three goals and six assists in his first 12 games, Naslund’s 2005-06 season appeared very promising after the first month of play. However, throughout the rest of the season, Naslund’s offense came in spurts, and he only scored two goals and eight assists in his last 34 games of the season. Due to be an overage in 2006-07, Naslund is not likely to return to Peterborough.

“We wouldn’t probably entertain having overage European players on the team unless they were superstars,” Todd said.

Despite an underwhelming regular season, Naslund may still find himself in Dallas’ plans. Naslund has found his scoring touch early in the OHL playoffs and may be the Petes darkhorse hero that successful playoff teams seem to have. How Naslund does in the OHL playoffs, and potentially the Memorial Cup, could make the difference as to whether Dallas continues with their project winger and sign him to a three-way contract or lets him return to Sweden.

James Neal, LW Age: 18
Ht: 6’3 Wt: 190
Plymouth Whalers (OHL)

After his second full OHL season, 2005 second round draft pick James Neal has yet to put together a consistent season of scoring, but he’s on his way.

In the 32 games leading up to the Christmas break, Neal scored an impressive 13 goals and added 25 assists. He was named the OHL Player of the Week Dec. 12 for a pair of three-point games, a one-goal, two-assist performance in a 6-3 win over Sarnia Dec. 8 and a three-assist performance in a 6-3 over Owen Sound Dec.10. After the Christmas Break, Neal’s production cooled.

I think he was a little hesitant to shoot the puck,” Plymouth head coach Michael Vellucci said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “He was getting all the chances, that’s obviously the positive, he just wasn’t getting all of the breaks that he needed and it started to playing into his mental game a little bit.”

Neal scored 18 goals and 26 assists in 67 games in 2004-05, respectable numbers for a 17-year-old OHL rookie, but his production in February and March shrank as his fatigue grew.

“Last year, I think he wasn’t very strong,” Vellucci said. “Up to that point, his body was still growing and his strength hadn’t caught up to him yet.”

Now 6’3, 190 pounds, Neal’s starting to fill out his frame, making him one of the best younger power forwards in the OHL.

“I think he’s probably one of the best hitters in our league, if not our best body checker,” Vellucci said. “He’s really physical out there.”

After a lean January and early February, Neal was able to finish the season strong, scoring seven goals and seven assists in his final 13 games of the season, including a hat trick against Plymouth in Mar. 17. Entering the playoffs with 21 goals and 37 assists in 66 games during the regular season, Neal caught fire again in the first round of the playoffs.

Third in Plymouth scoring during the regular season, Neal leads the Whalers in scoring after the first round of the playoffs with five goals and four assists. After beating the Windsor Spitfires in Game 7, Neal will have the opportunity to build on his totals in the OHL Western Conference Semi-Finals.

Along with putting together a slump-free regular season, Neal has another tangible goal for the 2006-07 season: playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Despite his hot start in 2005-06, Neal was noted invited to Team Canada’s Selection Camp in December.

“I was kind of shocked he wasn’t invited to camp this year,” Vellucci said. “I don’t think he gets enough recognition for how good of a hockey player he really is. He’s always been on the backburner to a lot of guys his age. I think he’s an exceptional player and I don’t think he gets enough credit.”

With 35-year-old Bill Guerin’s career appearing to be winding down, Dallas will be in need of a power forward in the next few years. Neal must continue to fill out his frame and improve his skating, but he’s still the Stars prospect most likely to provide size, physicality, and some “O” in the “Big D.”

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