With excellent scouting and drafting, the Stars have had a lot of inexperienced pros force their way into the Texas Stars lineup in recent years. With an experienced coach leading the charge, the Stars have been rather successful despite the youth.
Supplementing weak spots on the organizational depth chart with key AHL signings, the Stars are halfway through another quality season. They generate a lot of offense (the most in the AHL) and not a lot of it comes from the backline either. The Stars, impressively, feature three of the top four scorers in the circuit. There is lots of ice time to be had for the organization’s depth on the wings and blue line and they are not disappointing.
Recent first round pick Valeri Nichushkin will likely graduate from prospect status before the season is over, Alex Chiasson might be headed that way as well. Antagonist Antoine Roussel has graduated from prospect status and continues to be an effective depth player at the NHL level after being snapped up as an undrafted free agent.
Jack Campbell, G, 22
Jack Campbell, who recently ticked up to 22 years of age, has had much of this season pulled out from under him by injuries. He has played just a handful of games, but when manning the nets he has been resplendent. The athletic, aggressive netminder has been nearly peerless, surrendering just seven goals in five games. The first round pick from 2010 has not been dealt a loss this season and with a 1.40 goals against average and .947 save percentage. He also appeared in one NHL game this season where he gave up nearly as many goals as he has this season in the AHL. Campbell hopes that 2014 is a healthy one so he can regain the starter’s role.
Brett Ritchie, RW, 20
First-year pro Brett Ritchie has made a relatively smooth transition to the American Hockey League. Only Curtis McKenzie has more rookie points on the club. Ritchie checks in with a respectable eight goals and 18 helpers in 38 games. The burgeoning power forward has been an important mainstay in the lineup. The former Niagara IceDog (OHL) has found that many of his finest moments came with the much-maligned Scott Glennie and farmhand Chris Mueller. The line has been quite potent, but has been disrupted by Glennie’s ailments.
Ritchie has a lot to offer right now but will have a lot more to offer in the future. He plays that power forward game. He forechecks frantically, he seals off the wall well, he can score goals from in close, and he makes a mess of the place below the dots. How well his technical skills develop will decide how impactful he will be on offense in the later stages of his career. Regardless, he should have no problem being at least a complementary addition to a scoring line in the NHL sooner rather than later.
Matej Stransky, RW, 20
Former Saskatoon Blade (WHL), Matej Stransky figured to be a fairly similar player to Ritchie but without the skating ability. The lackluster skating is proving to be something of a hindrance for Stransky at the pro level in the early going. He has been scratched at points this season or otherwise playing in a depth role. While that is not uncommon for a young player in the professional ranks, it is of some concern. He has 14 points in 34 games while being a minus-7. The points are nothing to scoff at, and while he is not a defensive ace by any definition of the word, the lopsided rating is also a product of his matchups, which are generally unkind.
Stransky has hands and a shot; he needs to get a backside like Jaromir Jagr’s so he can shield the puck as well as Jagr did in his prime. The skating stride is pretty flat and it lacks a lot of pop, but the Stars have done a fine job making terrific NHL players out of players with fairly weak skating, including their current captain, Jamie Benn. Stransky’s ETA is not being kept on the same scoreboard as Ritchie’s right now. The hefty Czech is years away from making an impact in the NHL.
Austin Smith, RW, 25
After what was setting up to be another split season between the AHL and the ECHL, Austin Smith has been loaned to Assat Pori of the SM-Liiga. He appeared in ten AHL games and four ECHL contests before departing; he registered a single tally and 22 penalty minutes. The Stars have exercised their loose affiliation with the Finland-based Aces in the past with other prospects, including John Lammers and Tom Wandell. Smith’s contract is up at the end of the season.
Curtis McKenzie, LW, 22
Curtis McKenzie is another rookie who is making a colossal impact after four years at Miami University. His best season in terms of goals at the collegiate level was 11, in terms of points, 27. He has surpassed both of those figures in just the first half of his first AHL season. McKenzie is not an offensive wunderkind by any stretch of the imagination. However, he is projecting to be a handy glue guy on a scoring line and has been just that for the Stars top line this season. AHL veterans Travis Morin and Colton Sceviour have been showing him the ropes and the chance to produce at a high level. The linemates are first, second, and third in scoring on the club. McKenzie represents the number three in that triumvirate with 41 points in 42 games – tied for fifth in the AHL.
He is a heavy hitter that does great work along the boards and on the forecheck. He can support himself in front of the net and make some hay in the process. His 53 officially-mandated minutes of sequester lead the club and show that the Western Canadian lad is not just toeing the turbulent pro waters. While the raw numbers may be a little misleading for his skillset, the ability to produce with savvy offensive players is nothing to knock.
Scott Glennie, C, 22
Perhaps there is a renaissance afoot for 2009 first round selection Scott Glennie. Though still riddled with injuries, Glennie has shown a glimmer of hope in an otherwise disappointing development arc. Limited to just 19 participations in 2013-14, Glennie provided a spark for Chris Mueller and Brett Ritchie that yielded him a dozen points in that stretch. He also has worked on both special teams units.
Glennie is a speedy player when he gets into the lineup. The former Wheatie shows glimpses of the skill that made him a top-ten pick years ago. The question for Jim Nill at the end of the year is: is it worth it to continue to invest in the development of this player? Glennie is due a hearty qualifying offer by late June and the verdict is still out on his long-term plans in the organization. His maturation as a prospect has impressed some in the organization.
Taylor Peters, C, 22
Overage signing Taylor Peters has jumped right into the mix at the AHL level. The former Portland Winterhawk (WHL) is a gritty, checking ace. He is not expected to light the lamp but the hope is that he can turn the lights out on opposing scorers. He is an intelligent player – on and off the ice – who is doing his best to carve out a niche at the pro level with the hopes of turning it into a full-time NHL role somewhere down the line. He anchors the bottom line and works hard on the penalty kill.
Jamie Oleksiak, D, 21
With a couple stints in the NHL over two seasons, one might think that the AHL would come a little easier for the 6’7 defenseman. However, he is still a little uneven in his play. The raw numbers are down for starters. After 33 points in 59 games last season, he has answered with just nine points in 37 matches thus far in 2013-14. He does rank high in plus/minus among club blueliners while usually playing top pairing minutes.
Oleksiak is working on smoothing out his game. He has yet to really put it all together consistently. There are still defensive hiccups, poor decisions, bad turnovers, passive play mixed in with the brilliant stick work, great puck rushes, super passes and booming shots. He still needs a good deal of seasoning in the AHL and although there is a pressing need for competent defensemen at the NHL level, it might be best to let Oleksiak over-ripen instead of taking the chance of leaving him underdeveloped and overwhelmed at the NHL level.
Patrik Nemeth, D, 21
Though the box score might not suggest it, Patrik Nemeth is one of the load-bearing pillars of the Texas defense. Unfortunately, he has been spending more time convalescing than playing over the last little while. The big Swede has been limited to just 19 games this year after having his season cut short at 47 contests the year before. The Stars backline does not generate a lot of offense at any level and Nemeth is no exception to this with just two assists on the year. To his credit, he is a plus-6 rating on the year.
Nemeth has a good skillset for a big man. He can skate, he can play physical, he can play defense, and he has underrated puck carrying skills. If he can stay off the injury list for an extended period of time, the 41st selection in 2010 might just be on the cusp of putting all those tools into their respective box(es). If and when that happens, Nemeth could help bolster the NHL lineup within a year or so.
Cameron Gaunce, D, 23
Sturdy defender Cameron Gaunce continues to play his simple, effective game at the AHL level. With just a goal and nine helpers in 35 games, Gaunce is hurt by the lack of statistics to measure goals prevented. After clearing waivers to start the year, Gaunce appeared in nine NHL games – his first with Dallas and first in the NHL overall since March 2011 – around the holidays. He is a good defensive player with a physical edge to his game. The former second round pick of the Colorado Avalanche is not a great skater nor does he have much in the way of puck skills. This will limit his value to an NHL club, even as a defensive guy, it is imperative that a defender can escort the puck out of the zone to safety.
While Gaunce looks like a fringe NHL player at this point, he had a good showing in his first NHL stint in years. He can provide good, sound organizational depth.
Jyrki Jokipakka, D, 22
Very quietly, Jyrki Jokipakka is making quite an impression in his first North American pro season. Only Maxime Fortunus – his normal partner – has more points among club blueliners, as the Finnish import has three goals and 13 points in 38 games. He can play in all situations and not make a mess of things thanks to his good anticipation.
Jokipakka does a fine job with and without the puck. While he is not a game breaker, his savvy makes him effective. Not a very dynamic skater, or puck rusher or shooter, nor is he very physical, the seventh round pick can kind of blend into the backdrop if you are not watching for him. He has a good eye for detail and unlike many other AHL rookies, he had the experience of more than 150 top-level league games in his native Finland and it has aided him greatly.
Hubert Labrie, D, 22
Hubert Labrie, an undrafted free agent plucked from the Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL), has split each season of his entry-level contract between the ECHL and the AHL. However, the ECHL time has diminished significantly this season, Labrie has dressed for 23 in the AHL this season to just four down in Idaho. He is decidedly not an offensive defenseman, even going back to his days in the QMJHL, but he is a plus player despite being unable to produce on a regular basis.
Labrie is a smaller defenseman who has the will of a warrior. He has to fight for every inch and does so readily. He skates well and is very smart and determined. While Labrie’s NHL upside is limited, he is hoping to carve out at least the role of an AHL regular. Labrie is in the final year of his entry-level deal and given the quantity of rearguards in the Stars ranks, it seems fairly unlikely that he is kept – though, that is not necessarily an indictment of his play.
Ryan Button, D, 22
Ryan Button was another entry on the long list of defensive acquisitions made by the Stars recently. Button came over from the Boston organization where he was up and down between the AHL and the ECHL. This season in the Stars organization has been no different. Button put together 11 points in 13 games in Idaho, which is a stark contrast to his other pro stat lines. Back up in the AHL, he could not keep the pace.
Ryan Button is a curious case. He skates very well and it seems like he has more raw skill than he leads on during games too. Although, for whatever reason, he has yet to even firmly entrench himself as an AHL regular much less a productive one. Eighty AHL games into his career and just two goals and three assists to show for it. This season, he has spent some time at left wing as well. It is the last year of Button’s contract as well and depending on how strong he finishes will probably help to decide his fate.
Valeri Nichushkin, RW, 18
The Dallas Stars “got their guy” and their guy has got them. Valeri Nichushkin has given Stars fans lengthy glimpses of a future franchise player. Early in the season, Nichushkin was elevated to the coveted right wing spot on the top line with stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, where he has fit in very nicely. He has the frame, strength, and skill to impose his will on would-be defenders. Further, his calculation and awareness of the geometry of the game is a rare find. He has 11 goals and 25 points in 48 games with a plus-13 rating and for a team that is three points ahead of last in the Central Division and sporting a minus-five goal differential, Nichushkin is obviously part of the solution no matter which way it is sliced up.
Young Nichushkin missed out on the World Junior Championships due to his impending NHL stardom, but was named to the Russian Olympic team, quite a “consolation” prize.
Alex Chiasson, RW, 23
While Alex Chiasson has cooled down significantly from his first handful of NHL games, he still projects to be a quality NHL player. After 16 points in his first 16 games, Chiasson has recorded just 15 points in his last 40. Which, normally, would not be numbers of great concern for a rookie, but Chiasson has been rolling in invisible ink for many of his games recently and his impact – along with confidence – has diminished. In addition, the Stars inability to keep the puck while Chiasson is on the ice has hindered his ability to do his best work. Lindy Ruff’s men are leaking goals at an alarming rate when the former second round pick is on the ice. Chiasson is tied for fourth on the club in points, but he is deeply entrenched in last place in plus/minus.
Perhaps a stint in the AHL would help Chiasson re-discover his strength, his confidence and his game. With the Olympic break coming up, the coming days might be a good time for that. The NHL sent out a memo months ago that stated if a player played more than 15 of 20 games leading up to the Olympic break, that player would be ineligible to be sent down. Meaning, a decision on Chiasson would need to be made fairly soon.
Kevin Connauton, D, 23
Defenseman Kevin Connauton was acquired from Vancouver late last season, and given his newfound waiver eligibility, has stuck with the big club despite being a frequent press box occupant. Connauton has found himself in roughly half the contests this season, registering a goal and six assists. He was able to appear in some AHL contests thanks to the utilization of a conditioning assignment back in November.
Connauton is an offensive defenseman who owns a powerful shot. He brings a lot of mobility to the backline as well. Still adjusting to the speed of the NHL game, Connauton is used sparingly and rarely handles tougher minutes. He sees some power play time and might see some more as the season goes on because nothing seemed to work on the man advantage in the first half of the year. As the season goes on, consistency and maturity as a player are going to be key factors in determining Connauton’s long-term place with the organization.
Tristan King, C, 23
Tristan King has played just 11 games in the AHL since leaving Medicine Hat (WHL) in 2010. Since then, stops in Idaho, Greenville, Ontario, back to Idaho, San Francisco, Fort Wayne and now Evansville all thumbtacks in his ECHL map. Following a run-in with the law late last season, King has just eight goals and three assists in 28 games for two clubs. This is the final year of his entry-level contract and he will not attract a look from any other NHL club going forward.
Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter: @MichaelFarkasHF