Dallas Stars prospect system balances top-end talent and depth

By Mike Farkas

Alex Guptill - Michigan Wolverines

Photo: Winger Alex Guptill has two goals, two assists through his first five games of 2013-14, contributing to Michigan’s 4-1-1 start to the season (courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

The Dallas Stars, amid management and coaching changes, have gathered quite an impressive herd of prospects in recent years. The aforementioned front office changes obviously have a trickle-down effect with regard to the on-ice product and as a result, many of these terrific prospects have gotten at least a taste of NHL action.

The pool itself was pushed over the top with the addition of a blue-chip prospect in Valeri Nichushkin this past summer and he is already making his mark on the NHL. It is an elite-level prospect pool and Stars’ brass and fans alike are hoping for continued positive progression in 2013-14.

Left Wing

The Stars possess a diverse group of talent at the left wing position. It is headlined by skilled University of Michigan product Alex Guptill and Guelph Storm standout Jason Dickinson. Both players have shown a terrific amount of skill but are still maturing as players and working out the kinks in terms of consistency. Not far behind them is a less-heralded fifth round selection in Cole Ully from the Western circuit. There is not a lot on Ully’s bones at the moment, but he has a craftiness about him and is off to a point-per-game pace with Kamloops to start the young year.

The next tier of left side wingers have a lot of grind in them. Remi Elie, a second round pick from a year ago, is thought to have the most potential out of the lot. He was traded from London (OHL) early in the season to have a chance to show his scoring prowess in Belleville. So far, the results are promising with five points in five contests after just a 17-point campaign in 2012-13. He has been used in all situations for the Bulls already, a team that will need all the help they can get going forward.

Curtis McKenzie picked up right where he left off when he was at Miami University. He is a glue guy, a real mucker that does a lot of dirty work for the more polished offensive talent around him. McKenzie is off to a good start in his niche-carving campaign as a rookie in the AHL. Nicholas Paul is coming along fine on the recently-relocated Battalion. Matej Paulovic, a sluggish, lanky winger, is still working on adjusting to this style of hockey.

Antoine Roussel is not quite on the same scoring pace as he set for himself last season, but he is certainly finding more time in the sin bin. The French rabble-rouser is carving out a career as a pesky energy winger. He just needs to avoid taking costly penalties at inopportune times to remain in the lineup full-time. Lane MacDermid, a grinding, physical winger, has been relegated to the press box for much of the season at the NHL level.

Center

The Stars made a commitment to improving the organizational center depth. Acquiring Tyler Seguin in an earth-shaking deal was a good start certainly and recent draft picks seem to be making good progress as soon-to-be reinforcements. Clever University of Maine center Devin Shore is projected to have a big year despite the club’s struggles from last season still fresh in mind. A first round pick in 2012, Radek Faksa is hoping to stay healthy in 2013-14. He already has nearly matched his goal total from last season after just nine games.

Mike Winther does not feature very high on the top 20 list, but he is a quality sleeper prospect that now has a path to the top of the depth chart out in Prince Albert (WHL). He is a quick player that is very versatile. Motorized forward Emil Molin is still working on becoming a more prominent fixture in the Brynas (SHL) lineup. So far, he has three helpers in 13 contests. Strikingly, Molin has played 92 top-level Swedish games (regular season and playoffs) and has yet to be escorted to the penalty box.

Energetic forward Gemel Smith is on fire to start his fourth year of major junior hockey, he currently is tied for second in the OHL in goals with 15. To date, Smith has factored in on 28% of the club’s goals and is trying his best to drag Owen Sound up in the standings. The hope is that the goal scoring translates to the next level so he can be more than an energy forward.

Taylor Peters, primarily a checking forward, is getting his feet wet at the AHL level after being signed from Portland (WHL). Scott Glennie is trying to make the best of – likely – his last shot. Tristan King’s last shot has come and gone without notice.

Right Wing

The big highlight on the right side of the dot is hulking Russian winger Valeri Nichushkin. After being a much-discussed first round pick, Dallas has inserted him directly into the lineup in a depth role so he can adjust to the North American game without being expected to put on a show every single night. It is reasonable to expect Nichushkin to be moved around the lineup and see where he finds chemistry and productivity.

Alex Chiasson has picked up right where he left off late last season: on a torrid scoring pace. He lit it up to the tune of seven points in as many games in 2013 and already he has another five goals and four assists in just 12 games this year. The Quebec native is using his smarts to drive the net and collect deflections and rebounds while he crafts his finesse passing game.

Brett Ritchie is quickly embracing the pro game and is showing that he is a force to be reckoned with. The former second round pick is proving to be a fairly tough player to check at any level. It seems like only a matter of time before Ritchie is throwing his weight around at the NHL level. A little bit longer-term project, Matej Stransky, has a big body and puck protection skills but is behind Ritchie in his development curve. Stransky twice flirted with the 40-goal mark in the WHL, he has top-end marksman abilities.

Cody Payne, acquired from Boston late last season, just barely makes the age cut-off to not be an overage player at the CHL level and has returned to the OHL. Now with his third team, Payne is pacing the Saginaw Spirit in goals with six. The Florida native gained a bigger role for the first time last season and eclipsed his previous career high in goals (five) by plenty with two dozen in 2012-13. Oft-maligned winger Branden Troock was limited to just 19 games in 2012-13, but the hard shooter is off to a fine start here in 2013-14. The heavy right-hander has 11 points in 15 games after netting just 37 in his last two seasons combined. Troock has teamed up with import Alexander Delnov (FLA) as they try to maintain pace with the Mathew Barzal/Roberts Lipsbergs combo to keep the upstart Thunderbirds near the top of the heap.

Utility man Austin Smith led the Idaho Steelheads (ECHL) in scoring last season despite just 38 games played. He seems ready to make the jump to being a full-time AHL player, but the organizational depth has held him down to fringe duty. A quick, talented player, Smith should get a long look at the AHL level in 2013-14 – unfortunately, time is of the essence, as Smith turns 25 in early November.

Defense

After the center ice position, the organization put a premium on shoring up their defensive depth. On Joe Nieuwendyk’s way out, he acquired a number of blueliners at the trade deadline and they have not been shy about gathering them come draft day either. Leading the way is undrafted free agent Brenden Dillon who has already arrived and deserved a few more Calder Trophy votes than he garnered in the shortened season last year.

Gargantuan defensemen Jamie Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth are working on their respective games down in the AHL. Oleksiak, a 2011 first round pick, got a healthy look at NHL action last year but was overmatched. Nemeth succumbed to injury during the campaign. Neither has set the world on fire offensively in the AHL so far: both just have one assist, Nemeth leads all club defenesmen with a plus-8 rating while Oleksiak is plus-1. Both have shown plenty of glimpses of their big-time outstanding upside.

Offensive-minded blueliner Kevin Connauton has been travelling with the NHL club but has appeared in only one NHL game so far this season. He would require waivers to go down, so in the meantime, he has had an eagle-eye view of the struggles of Sergei Gonchar and Alex Goligoski and hoped to get his chance. Connauton followed through with a plus-2 rating in his season debut October 24.

Defensive-minded defenseman Cameron Gaunce cleared waivers and has been a steady, if unspectacular, force on the Texas (AHL) blue line. The same could be said for Jyrki Jokipakka minus the waivers part – the Finnish blueliner is thought to offer a little more in terms of upside as well.

The Stars’ cupboard is ripe with European defenseman still early in their development curve. Ludvig Bystrom and John Klingberg appear to be at the top of that list. Bystrom is one of the few plus players on his club. He plays third pairing minutes with limited special-teams time, but not a lot of pucks have filled the cages behind him. Klingberg is more known for pushing the pace offensively and he logs a ton of minutes now, especially on the power play. He is among the league leaders in rearguard tallies.

Niklas Hansson – a 2013 third round pick – is not in the SHL but the Allsvenskan as his club (Rogle) was relegated last season. Hansson will likely see some protected minutes at the pro level while getting a chance to hone his skills against weaker competition at the junior level.

In Finland, Esa Lindell is also eager to make an impact and gain a larger role with a deep Jokerit team. He has gone scoreless in 12 games so far this season and might spend time in the second-tier Mestis league over the course of the year. The Stars’ brass is intrigued by his upside and with Olli Maatta (PIT) and Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF) likely sticking in the NHL, Lindell should be able to capture a spot on the World Juniors team.

Seventh round selection Aleksi Makela has been injured and is expected to appear on the Ilves U20 team any time now.

Jumping ship from the NCAA to the WHL is Dmitry Sinitsyn, another seventh round defenseman. Regina fails to get a lot offensive push from the back line, so Sinitsyn’s smooth skating and deceptive skill will be welcomed with open arms. This will be a unique schedule for the Russian blueliner, who has played relatively few games over the last couple years. On the other side of the continent, Troy Vance is getting a lot more ice time in Charlottetown (QMJHL) than he would get in the AHL this season. The big, defensive blueliner leads all club blueliners in points – not at all unexpected from an overage player.

Ryan Button and Hubert Labrie appear to be fringe players at the AHL level currently and their status in the organization seems nothing more than tenuous at this point.

Goaltenders

Jack Campbell is head and shoulders above the pack at the moment, pending the development of Philippe Desrosiers. Right now, Jack Campbell can at least be mixed in with the “present” when Kari Lehtonen is unable to go due to injury. Meanwhile, he should continue his steady upward trajectory in the AHL and is expected to be at least the 1A down in Cedar Park.

Desrosiers is the clear-cut starter on a middling Rimouski (QMJHL) team. A little bit more is expected out of the Oceanic this season and Desrosiers would have needed to really set the nets on fire to get a strong look for Team Canada. All hope is not lost on either front, but the expectations are high for the 2013 second round pick. Expectations are not so high for Maxime Lagace – now a member of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL) – as he remains nothing more than a platoon or backup option at the junior level. Lagace’s biggest issue is his inability to keep the red light from activating; he is off to a better start on that front though with a goals against average just a shade under three and a quarter.

Finnish netminder Henri Kiviaho was slated to be the backup for KalPa in the newly-rebranded Liiga over in Finland. It appears that he may yet lose that spot and be loaned to his junior club or a Mestis League club before too long. Kiviaho remains a long-term project but his immediate future remains in some question.

Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter: @MichaelFarkasHF

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