It might be a new ranch, but it is not his first rodeo. Dallas Stars new General Manager Jim Nill embarked on his first substantial opportunity to put his mark on his new team at the National Hockey League Entry Draft in Newark, NJ in the midst of an otherwise indiscernible June afternoon and evening. Nill and his staff entered the day with nine picks in seven rounds, including five of the first 68 selections. Like many drafts as they approach, this one was touted as the “next great one” and if that is any indication (it normally is not), the Stars were primed to really push their already burgeoning prospect pool to the boiling point.
It was a pretty ordinary course draft for the Stars, hitting their favorite target areas (OHL, WHL, Scandinavia later on) but with one major difference: they selected a Russian player out of Russia for the first time since Sergei Korostin was taken in the third round in 2007 (though an asterisk could be rendered for the curious case of Dmitry Sinitsyn as well). The Stars did not move an inch in the draft and came away with the following nine prospects.
Valeri Nichushkin, LW/RW, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL)
1st round, 10th overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 196 lbs.
Perhaps the most controversial and polarizing of all the lottery selections in the 2013 NHL Draft was Dallas’ Valeri Nichushkin. The much-ballyhooed Russian winger has gotten a lot of press and generated a lot of buzz in his draft year. And for good reason. He is a bull of a player that is extremely difficult to handle one-on-one. He has high-level skating ability and is deceptive with his gear shifting. His terrific shot makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the ice as well.
The always prominent “Russian factor” has probably scared some teams away from the skilled winger, but he sounds committed to the joining the NHL cause – and soon. He has already agreed to terms on a three-year entry-level contract and is going to audition for a spot with the team right off the bat. Should he make the team, it is not at all unexpected that he would get some aid from newly acquired Dallas Star Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar, who housed Evgeni Malkin when he first joined the Penguins and also (along with Sergei’s elementary school-aged daughter) acclimated him to the English language, is from the same town as Nichushkin – Chelyabinsk.
“I’m not going say [exactly] what’s going to happen, but I’m pretty sure I can make the jump to the NHL,” cautiously boasted the Stars first rounder through an interpreter at the Draft.
It’s a promising sign and with long-time fan favorite Loui Eriksson shipped out the door in an earth-rattling move, it would not be at all surprising to see Nichushkin take hold in the NHL quickly.
Hockey's Future shot video of Nichushkin at the 2013 NHL Draft. You can view his extended remarks in this HF video.
Jason Dickinson, C/LW, Guelph Storm (OHL)
1st round, 29th overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 179 lbs.
Typically teams take a swing for the fences with their second first round pick, but Nill and the Stars – for all intents and purposes – went deep with their first pick. That said, Jason Dickinson is not a conservative or safe pick by any stretch of the imagination either. Another skilled player with a more projectable frame than his vitals would lead on, Dickinson had a hot start and a cool finish to his second season with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League.
Perhaps even more enigmatic than Nichushkin, Dickinson is a player with some questions around him. The skill level is undeniable, but what kind of consistency does he display or fire does he play with on a nightly basis? These are inquiries yet to be thoroughly answered by time. That said, he is one of the younger players in the draft. Selected at 17 years old, he has some “bonus” time to fill out a solid frame and mature as a future professional player.
When he is really into it, though, there are a lot of tools that he is building with. “I bring a two-way game, I play both ends of the ice, power play, penalty kill, take big draws or I can play wing,” Dickinson says of his versatility and how he was used this past year in Guelph.
He also admits that in combine interviews that teams expressed concern about his consistency and his ability to finish the season strong. Dickinson went on to say that he wants to make a bigger offensive push next year with the Storm and continue to polish his game.
He is a terrific skater that works well on his edges and he can protect the biscuit very well. He has very good speed, a good first step, and he can stop on a dime. He is blessed with a high quality shot and decent vision as well. He can play it both ways too and is a reliable backchecker. He needs to get mentally and physically stronger. He will need to toughen up his game too; as of now, he only shows flashes of real grit and hard hits. Not every player needs to be a wrecking ball, but in order to score at the professional level, the former Halton Hurricane will need to pierce the juicy middle areas of the offensive zone instead of being a perimeter player. He is a project but his upside is quite high if he can put it all together.
Remi Elie, LW, London Knights (OHL)
2nd round, 40th overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 203 lbs.
When Dallas selected rugged winger Remi Elie with their third selection, they were getting a prospect that was essentially hidden in plain view. Elie benefited from a lot of exposure by playing for one of the flagship clubs in Canadian Major Junior hockey, but it was an obstructed view as the tremendous depth of the Memorial Cup-bound Knights forced Elie into a fourth line role. He made the best of his situation though, trying to provide energy and physicality for London during their stretch run and he did just that.
He is a very raw player that came along slowly as a rookie last year. There are some interesting instruments in his bag, but right now the whole picture is a little blurry. He is a good north-south skater but his stride is a little awkward and it takes him a while to get to his modest top speed. Additionally, his alignment might be out of whack, as he loses his edge a lot on the rink, while tight turns appear to be out of the question at even moderate speed. He makes up for whatever deficiencies there are in his somewhat clumsy overall skating dynamic with a strong desire to compete and work hard. He does fine work on the cycle and along the boards and has no problem using his feet and his strength to jar pucks loose. Knights coach Dale Hunter has it ingrained in him that he should err on the side of caution defensively and, as a result, he always looks to cover for a pinching defenseman or to collapse back to the net to collect loose pucks whenever it seems remotely applicable. His offensive instincts are not quite as sharp, but they are still developing. He can shoot the puck with effectiveness, which is a good start for a potential complementary goal scorer.
He will be pressed into more prominent action next year with the Knights no doubt and with the added pressure of being a Memorial Cup host in 2014 as well, Elie will have a chance to show his stuff under the limelight.
Hockey's Future shot video of Dickinson and Elie at the 2013 NHL Draft. You can view their extended remarks in this HF video.
With their only goalie choice of the draft, the Stars found a neat little sleeper from Rimouski in Philippe Desrosiers. He is a confident, aggressive butterfly-style goaltender that made the QMJHL All-Rookie Team in 2012-13. Though his club was upset in the playoffs, he canceled that right out with a .970 save percentage and a gold medal at the U18 World Junior Championships. One of the few goals that he gave up was batted out of the air in a net-mouth scramble during a two-man disadvantage no less. He is a real strong competitor and seems to channel his emotions in the right way.
Unlike some butterfly goalies that employ a rather limited “drop and hope” strategy, Desrosiers combines anticipation with aggressiveness and athleticism to make saves. He shows good movement in the crease because he can get in and out of his butterfly stance so quickly and not give up his leverage to push across. He has decent reflexes, but he will need to continue to grow on that front as high shots can be troublesome for him sometimes. One of the more advanced aspects to his game, surprisingly, is his rebound control which is quite tidy for a young butterfly goalie. That is a tough skill to master and Desrosiers has a head start on many in his age group on that front.
A 17-year-old goaltender will always have some assembly required, but the Stars have a kid that did not look at all out of place at their recent development camp and who was, at times, masterful against the best of his peers in Sochi, Russia.
Hockey's Future spoke with Desrosiers at the 2013 NHL Combine, a conversation that was captured in this HF video.
Niklas Hansson, D, Rogle J20 (J20 SuperElit)
3rd round, 68th overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 175 lbs.
It was not too long before Jim Nill went back to the Swedish roots that helped make the Red Wings such a prominent team over the past two decades. With the Stars fifth selection, they nabbed Niklas Hansson out of Swedish juniors. Hansson is a right-handed shooting defenseman that skates well and can carry the puck aptly. He is an offensive defenseman that sees the ice very well and keeps pucks in at the right point effectively. He is still a raw player that has not been exposed to the rigors of a long professional season but he received a ringing endorsement from his club late in the season. Hansson received some limited minutes in Elitserien play including a chance to prove himself in the Kvalserien (fighting, unsuccessfully, to keep Rogle from being relegated to Allsvenskan). All told, he logged his first 15 games as a pro, registering one assist.
Hansson is still an immature player that will look to quickly gain polish with more time in Sweden’s second tier league and perhaps even at the World Junior Championships in December. He needs to work on his defensive play and his ability to handle the physical nature of the professional game, especially if he plans on having a lengthy North American career. He does not necessarily need to be a big bruiser, but he must be able to withstand the heavy forecheck and make a poised decision with the puck. As he adds more strength and learns to make simpler decisions with the puck, he should gain more confidence in that aspect of his game.
At this young age, he may remind some Dallas faithful of a little more “juiced up” version of Philip Larsen with the needle tipping a little more towards offense than defense in comparison to the former Dallas draft pick.
Nicholas Paul, LW, Brampton Battalion (OHL)
4th round, 101st overall
Height: 6’2 Weight: 202 lbs.
The Stars went back to the OHL for their fourth round selection when they opted for Nick Paul of the Brampton Battalion. Paul is still figuring things out at the OHL level, so to speak, though he is learning on the job. He spends a good amount of time as a worker bee on the top lines where he digs out loose pucks for some of the more talented players, gets in on the forecheck, backchecks hard, and does all the little things necessary to be a factor. He also plays up high on the penalty kill for the team in Brampton that is soon moving to North Bay.
He has good size and the right attitude for his job, which will probably be limited to “plumber” work along the boards and in front of the net. He can get by on hard work and strength, which compensates for his below average skill set. If he wants to be an effective complementary scorer, he will have to improve his shot – currently there is not as much punch behind it as one might guess for a player of his size and his release ought to be measured with a sundial over a stopwatch. His skating stride is rather awkward and inefficient. His top speed is below the mark, though his first step is not terrible.
Paul and the rest of the Troops play more of a collapsing style of defense, so he will get plenty of skating work. Plus, the team is not brimming with pro-level talent, so he will get the ice time and the opportunities that he needs to improve. It was not necessarily the strong finish that he wanted to end his season, but he was a rookie at the junior level last year and was not even drafted into the OHL his first go around (5th round in 2012) so he will come to camp in a few months knowing what to expect.
Cole Ully, LW, Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
5th round, 131st overall
Height: 5’11 Weight: 164 lbs.
The Stars looked to the WHL for their fifth round pick (a notion that still excites Dallas fans). They snagged slim goal scorer Cole Ully from Kamloops. At the time, he was probably one of the highest skilled players left on the board. But, at all of 5’11 and 164 pounds, there is not much to him and it shows on the ice. He made it work to the tune of 50 points in 62 games as a sophomore in a league that is fairly short on hugs and affection. The Calgary kid can dangle his way out of trouble and his stickwork is well documented already.
He is a pretty advanced player in terms of one-on-one moves, but there needs to be more to his game and to his frame for him to take it to the next level. He is a fine skater with good quickness – he is nimble above all else. He has a little bit of a hitch in his step and combined with his lack of lower body strength, he lacks elite top end speed. His shot is of quality and can find twine from well out on junior goalies, but he will need to quicken his release if he wants to get his goal totals to superstar levels. That said, despite his size, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, generally speaking. He does not play scared, in fact, some of the moves he tries are bordering on audacious at times.
Ully realizes that there is much to improve in his game and his stature, but he seems eager to put the work in. If he does and he continues to progress, Dallas may have plucked themselves another late round gem because the natural skill is evident.
Matej Paulovic, LW/RW, Farjestad J20 (J20 SuperElit)
5th round, 149th overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 187 lbs.
One of the more curious picks in the 2013 NHL Draft was that of Matej Paulovic from Swedish juniors. Paulovic, a Slovakian player, left for Farjestad’s J18 program in 2011-12. Soon after, he was promoted to the top Swedish junior league in 2012-13 but never zipped up the depth chart for any meaningful stretch of time. He put up a respectable 17 points in 34 games, but only had one goal and one helper in seven postseason contests as Farjestad finished third in the circuit. After the season, his junior club cut ties with Paulovic before Dallas nabbed him in the fifth round.
Paulovic is a hulking right-handed shot that can play either wing. He shows a fairly strong attention to detail but plays it fairly passive all told because of his lack of foot speed. He has a compact skating stride but he does not generate as much power as one might expect from a player of his size. His offensive skills are fairly modest overall, but he shows rare flashes of impressive handy work. His wrist shot can get in on netminders pretty quickly as well. That said, it is likely that he tops out as a role player that handles checking assignments down the road.
That long, winding road ahead has a stop in Peterborough of the OHL where Paulovic was selected eighth overall and is expected to report to the Petes as he has no contract with a European club at the moment. To his credit, despite not being very highly regarded in the hockey community after his substandard season, he was selected in four drafts in the previous three years: USHL (2011 – 6th round), KHL (2012 – 4th round), CHL Import (2013 – 1st round) and NHL (2013 – 5th round).
Aleksi Makela, D, Ilves U20 (SM-liiga Jr. A)
7th round, 182nd overall
Height: 6’1 Weight: 195 lbs.
The Stars, never afraid to dip deep into the vast sea of European hockey, selected rearguard Aleksi Makela from the top Finnish junior league. Not unlike Niklas Hansson, Makela impressed enough during the year that he earned a late call-up and also fought the good fight to keep his pro club from being relegated. Makela and Ilves succeeded in their quest to remain north of the Mestis League. Despite playing well shy of a full season with his junior club, Makela led all team blueliners in goals (8) and points (17) in 37 contests.
Nicknamed “Bumba,” Makela is a good skater who can beat forecheckers on the rush with a fair amount of effectiveness. He sets him and his teammates up with nice passes on the breakout and he has a decent shot. More of an offensive blueliner, the Tampere, Finland native reads the play well on both sides of the puck and usually makes the smart decision according to his coach Jouko Myrra.
“He always gives 100 percent in every drill and in every game situation. In juniors, he was a ‘game-winning player’ for us,” Myrra gushed. “I have coached [a lot] of players and Aleksi is top five [among] them.”
Though his first taste of the higher-paced men’s league may have been a wake-up call for Makela, his coach believes that he will become a very good pro player in time. He likens him closer (given the choice of the two) to former NHLer Ville Koistinen more than the more defensive and “easy” Jyrki Jokipakka, the latter is another Dallas seventh round selection.
The Stars new GM showed that he was not shy about taking a player before he was ripe for the picking, as he came away with a lot of longer term prospects in this haul and Makela is no exception. The left-handed shooter needs to improve his strength and conditioning to log more minutes against tougher competition.
Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter: @MichaelFarkasHF