Stars 2003 draft evaluation

By Mike Farkas

The 2002-03 Dallas Stars cruised to the top spot in the Western Conference.  Division rival Anaheim ended the Stars season in six games in the second round of the playoffs.  They weren’t so angry that they stopped talking to the Ducks, however.  The Stars dealt away their first round pick (28th overall) in 2003 in a draft-day deal with Anaheim that saw them receive the 36th pick and the 54th pick. 

The Stars came away with three second-round picks in a deep draft but, outside of Loui Eriksson, managed only meager returns.  Only one player from this draft is currently ranked in HF’s Top 20 Prospects for Dallas — Vojtech Polak (20th).

The Stars come up with similar results from their 2002 endeavor: one regular NHLer and a possible fringe player or two left with NHL potential.  Despite 11 selections, including three second rounders, the Stars only managed one legitimate NHL talent.  With half of a decade gone, the Stars’ 2003 draft class has yielded just 12.8 games per selection.  Five of these players remain in the Dallas organization today (Eriksson, Polak, Crombeen, Naurov and Wathier). 

Loui Eriksson, LW – 2nd round, 33rd overall (Vasta Frolunda Jrs., Sweden)

Status: NHL player
NHL Games Played: 128

While the Stars original position at 28th became Corey Perry, they did a fine job with their first selection in the second round.  After a 2006-07 campaign that saw the Swedish winger spend time with both Dallas and Iowa (AHL), Eriksson has established himself as a regular NHL winger at 22 years old.  He notched 14 goals and 31 points in 69 games while seeing borderline second/third line minutes. 

Eriksson really matured quickly over the course of the year.  It looked like he was heading for a season of being a fringe player who saw bottom six minutes and perhaps a few trips back to Iowa.  However, after an early-season shoulder injury, Eriksson worked hard to improve and round out his game both with and without the puck.  Gradually, he became a more responsible player who played with more confidence than he ever had previously at the NHL level.  Finding prime scoring areas and a stronger two-way game were two of the things that gave his head coach, Dave Tippett, confidence in the 6’1, 183-pound forward.   

Eriksson could be a second line winger for the Stars if he achieves his full potential.

Vojtech Polak, RW – 2nd round, 36th overall (Karlovy Vary HC, Czech Republic)

Status: NHL prospect
NHL Games Played: 5

Polak has gotten a small taste of NHL action, to the tune of five games split over two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07).  The young Czech winger pieced together a 17-goal, 45-point campaign in 67 games for Iowa in 2006-07 and showed signs of progression.  However, while fending off an ankle injury, Polak only registered 16 points in 35 games for the AHL‘s Stars.  A season that culminated with Polak being loaned back to his former club, Karlovy Vary HC (Czech Republic) at his request.

The 6’0, 183-pound winger cited that he wanted to rediscover his passion for the game and would accomplish that by going home and getting more playing time.  While Polak certainly has the offensive skills to become an NHLer, he needs to make big improvements in his two-way game and tolerating the physicality of the North American game.  While Polak’s contract expires June 30, the Stars have suggested that they are leaving the door open for his return.  However, at this point, it’s yet to be determined if Polak ever comes back across the pond.

B.J. Crombeen, RW – 2nd round, 54th overall (Barrie, OHL)

Status: NHL prospect
NHL Games Played: 8

Since 2005, Crombeen has been all over the map.  After leaving his junior team, Barrie, he split the 2005-06 season between Iowa and Idaho (ECHL).  Crombeen signed with Assat Pori (Finland) for much of his 2006-07 campaign where he finished third on the team in goals with 13.  Crombeen’s hard work finally resulted in a full year in the AHL with Iowa where he appeared in 65 games, tallying 14 goals and 14 assists.

Crombeen also saw the NHL over a couple mid-to-late season call-ups that yielded eight games in Dallas.  The 22-year-old forward also played in five playoff games for the Stars during their run to the Western Conference Finals.  Crombeen doesn’t seem to have the skill or the consistency to being a productive NHLer; however, he has good size and a strong work ethic to help his team win at any cost.  If he can continue his progression at the current rate, Crombeen could establish himself as a solid fourth line grinder.

Matt Nickerson, D – 3rd round, 99th overall (Texas, NAHL)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Nickerson was thought to be a raw but fearsome fighter at the time of his draft.  He turned out to be too much of a loose cannon whose skills did not keep up.  The stay-at-home defenseman tried to develop his game in many different venues since his drafting from the Texas Tornado of the NAHL.  Stops at Clarkson University (NCAA), the Victoriaville Tigers (QMJHL), Assat Pori (Finland), the Idaho Steelheads (ECHL), Iowa Stars (AHL) and most recently Ilves Tampere (Finland) has left Nickerson with many suspensions but no closer to the NHL.

The hulking 6’4, 235-pounder is very well known for his sideshow antics in Finland.  It is relatively routine for Nickerson to be suspended for cheap shots and attacks of players both on and off the ice.  Before his transfer to Ilves Tampere, he was a fan favorite in his two stints with Assat Pori. 

Nickerson asked to be released from his entry-level contract with the Stars and is not expected to make the NHL.

Alexander Naurov, F – 4th round, 134th overall (Yaroslavl Jrs., Russia)

Status: NHL bust
NHL Games Played: 0

After a brief stint with Dallas’ Finnish partner Assat Pori, Naurov made the jump to North America.  However, he has not been able to climb out of the ECHL yet.  Naurov was loaned from Idaho to Bakersfield (ECHL) where he quickly set a new career high in points (10) in just 13 games.  After he was not a major component in the Steelheads’ 2007 run to the Kelly Cup, Naurov registered five points in six playoff games as a member of the Condors in 2008.

Despite this sudden surge in points, the Russian forward remains an NHL longshot.  The fact that as a 23-year-old he has not yet even played in the AHL is not a good sign.  Naurov is not very big, but he is strong on his skates and on the puck and could be a valuable forechecker at the next level.  The 2008-09 season, the final year of his entry-level contract, will go a long way to showing his future in North America.

Eero Kilpelainen, G – 5th round, 144th overall (KalPa Jrs., Finland)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

This fifth-round selection was acquired when trading the rights to Ed Belfour to Nashville and fittingly was used to draft a goaltender.  However, Kilpelainen is not quite on the same path as Belfour.  The Finnish netminder has spent most of the last three seasons with Assat Pori but has also been loaned to second-tier Hermes Kokkola and LeKi Lempaala at times.  Kilpelainen has not had a full season in which his GAA was under 3.00 since 2003-04 in a Finnish junior league.

The small, but athletic goalie was not signed by Dallas before his rights were lost and isn’t likely to garner any attention in North America.

Gino Guyer, C – 5th round, 165th overall (Univ. of Minnesota, NCAA)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Hard-working center Gino Guyer averaged about 30 points per season in each of his first three years as a Golden Gopher.  However, in his senior season he was snakebitten: just 14 points in 41 games.  He was still commended by his coach and teammates for being a determined, two-way center who would go against the opposition’s best players and was one of the premier penalty killers in college hockey.

The former Gopher captain signed a tryout with the Philadelphia Phantoms (AHL) at the conclusion of his collegiate career.  After a rather unsuccessful invite to Blues training camp, Guyer bounced around the ECHL for a bit before being acquired by the Phoenix Roadrunners.  He has found some success with the Roadrunners, scoring 39 points in 49 games.

The 24-year-old has a long road ahead of him if he wants to work his way through the ranks.  His determination may earn him a few chances to move up along the way, but as nothing more than a fourth liner.

Francis Wathier, LW – 6th round, 185th overall (Hull, QMJHL)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Wathier made the Hull Olympiques (QMJHL) as a walk-on during the 2001-02 season.  This is a testament to his determination and work ethic, which is second to none.  After four full junior seasons, Wathier earned a contract with the Stars organization and has spent most of his professional career in Iowa of the AHL. 

The 6’3, 198-pounder is a bottom six forward who can drop the gloves, circumstances permitting.  However, this offseason appears to be the crossroads of Wathier’s career.  He was injured for most of the season, but was still recalled by Dallas as an emergency replacement for the playoffs.  His contract expires in a few weeks and it is unclear whether the Stars will offer him a second.

Drew Bagnall, D – 6th round, 195th overall (Battlefords, SJHL)

Status: NHL bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Bagnall did not spend a long time in the Dallas Stars organization. He was shipped out at the 2004 trade deadline in a package to acquire Valeri Bure from Florida.  The Panthers and Bagnall did not come to terms on a contract and he was subsequently signed as a free agent by Los Angeles in August of 2007.

During all that, Bagnall spent his time at St. Lawrence University where he developed into a key two-way defenseman for the team and Hobey Baker finalist.  At 6’3, 220 pounds, with the ability to both play the body and join the offensive rush, Bagnall has been a valuable member of the Manchester Monarchs (AHL) this season.  That said, his NHL potential doesn’t look nearly as good.  He’ll be 25 already at the start of next season and may be too old to be in the Kings’ future plans.

Elias Granath, D – 6th round, 196th overall (Leksands Jrs., Sweden)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Two-way defenseman Elias Granath, who was part of Sweden’s World Junior Championships team in 2005 seemed to hit his peak at that very point.  He has been part of a Leksands IF team that slides back and forth between Sweden’s first and second tier league and his stock has plummeted during that time.  The Stars did not sign him to a contract when his rights were due to expire.  Granath was a long-shot pick and a project to begin with and likely has no future in North America.

Niko Vainio, D – 8th round, 259th overall (Jokerit Jrs., Finland)

Status: NHL Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Vainio is an offensive defenseman who made a brief appearance in North America in 2004-05 when he played 11 games for Peterborough (OHL).  He notched six points and was a minus-10 in his short stint before returning to Finland to play for Assat Pori the very next season.  Vainio played one game for Assat Pori in 2005-06 and then retired due to chronic back problems.