Dallas Stars Top 20 ranking includes depth on offense and in the defensive end

By Mike Farkas

Devin Shore - Maine Black Bears

Photo: Maine’s Devin Shore had a breakout season in 2013-14, registering 43 points in 35 games as a sophomore (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

On the back of a first line and a first-rate goaltender, the Dallas Stars have found themselves in the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Regardless of how the greatest tournament in professional sports plays itself out, a great deal of help is on the way. The Stars bolster one of the finest prospect pools in all the land and with a great talent evaluator at the helm in Jim Nill, the rich expect to get richer.

It is a strong group that shows little in terms of weaknesses. Even bug-a-boos of previous lists – center and defense – have really progressed nicely in the past year and are really rounding out a splendid group. With Valeri Nichushkin quickly graduating to the NHL, Jack Campbell recaptures his crown as the Stars’ number-one prospect. With such depth that is so close in terms of upside and proximity, six new players debut on the list.

1. (2) Jack Campbell, G, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2010

With the graduation of monstrous Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin, Jack Campbell recaptures the number-one spot on the Dallas Stars’ prospect list as he recaptures his number one spot in the Texas nets. A nagging knee injury has limited Campbell to just 15 games this season, but his stellar play has limited the Stars to just one loss in those games. While the sample size is razor thin, so is Campbell’s goals against average, which is encouraging – if nothing else. Campbell’s line is 12-1-2, 1.32 goals against, .949 save percentage and four whitewashings.

The goaltenders without Campbell average about 2.75 against per game. In the crease, Campbell is clearly the best of the group and if he can keep up anything near this stingy pace, the Stars will enter the postseason with meteoric velocity. The athletic goaltender might have a chance to backup Kari Lehtonen in 2014-15, though without a full season under his belt this year, those plans may be altered.

2. (5) Brett Ritchie, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2011

Since being drafted, Brett Ritchie has been playing like a house afire. He finished his junior career with a sonic boom and the residual noise has carried right into his first pro season. He is a load to handle and has a more dynamic skill set than the old-school power forward types. Ritchie ends up on the score sheet in two out of every three games on average, which is terrific for a player of his ilk and experience level. Time will tell whether Ritche evolves into more of a consistent ruffian or if he ends being more in the Rick Nash mold. In either case, the upside is promising with Ritchie and he appears to be on the fast track to the NHL.

While he may get a strong look for the NHL next season, more AHL time might be best for him. A chance to be a full-on top-line player in the AHL next year where they have done a fine job developing the influx of youth, could go a long way to maximizing Ritchie’s potential. As the Stars brace for the postseason, Ritchie will have a chance to really shine. Besides one deep run in 2012 with Niagara (OHL), the 2011 second round pick does not have a bevy of playoff experience. With Texas lining up to go on a championship push, the experience could be great for Ritchie.

3. (8) Jason Dickinson, C/W, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2013

What a year it was for Guelph (OHL). With just a dozen regulation losses and an average of five goals per game, the Western Conference leaders certainly took the Ontario League by storm. Jason Dickinson was a little late to the party but has finally been planted in a good spot in the lineup – first line center. He finished very strong and ended up leading his team in assists with 52. As a center, Dickinson can make even better use of his playmaking skills, skating, and hockey intelligence.

Dickinson may be the most versatile player in the Stars system. He can play any forward position, in fact, due to injuries early in the season, Dickinson even skated back on defense at practice a la Sergei Fedorov. He has looked more comfortable and been more consistent at center and his strong production prior to the finish line is a testament to that. With 36 points (27 of them being assists) in his final 27 games, Dickinson may have found a permanent home. Given the organizational need for centers, this could be a real boon for Dallas down the line. In the meantime, Dickinson will try to help the Storm to an OHL championship over the next several weeks.

4. (6) Jamie Oleksiak, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall in 2011

The hulking defenseman has gotten a couple of NHL test drives; neither has been particularly noteworthy, but he is improving in the American League – even if the raw stats do not necessarily hash that out. In fact, his offensive numbers are actually down from 33 points in 59 games to 22 points in 67. He is focused on handling forwards on the rush and making smart, effective outlet passes. The Stars forwards do the rest and they do pretty well with scoring regardless of what defensemen have their collective backs.

Oleksiak’s reputation as a big, mobile defenseman precedes him. There are some questions about him and what kind of upside he is capable of reaching. The skill and snarl seem to go in and out and that may smooth over with maturity and, in turn, consistency. A bigger concern may be the decision-making when the game gets faster. A great practice ground for Oleksiak will be the upcoming Calder Cup Playoffs, as Oleksiak has about as much playoff experience as Ritchie does. It will be great test for Oleksiak to prepare for the NHL, which is a very real possibility next season given how underwhelming the current Stars defense is most nights.

5. (9) Devin Shore, C, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall in 2012

It is not at all unexpected to see Devin Shore jump from top-ten to top-five even in this great prospect pool. Shore provided a sneak preview to what looked like a great feature film – and sure enough, Shore has taken a big step at the University of Maine as a sophomore and has nearly twice as many points (43) as the next forward on the club (23). Beyond the score card, Shore seems more engaged in the game. Which is not to say he was lazy as a freshman, but rather, he was playing a very cerebral game. Now, he has upped the physicality a bit, upped the willingness to shoot and get to the net a bit and he even lost his temper once or twice this year – as Maine had a very frustrating end to their season.

On the subject of improvements, Shore is getting a little more out of his skating now. Though, when a player has his brand of hockey sense, the need to be a speed skater is pretty well mitigated. He is a skilled distributor and can play the game two ways. Shore was voted as the captain of the club for next season, which is perhaps a good indication of his desire to take the Black Bears to the next level.

6. (14) Philippe Desrosiers, G, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall in 2013

As can often be the case for goaltenders drafted just months prior, an early season malaise mired Philippe Desrosiers’ start to the 2013-14 season. The second half of the season was an altogether different story. How about 19-4 with a .931 save percentage since the calendar change, including a 14-game unbeaten streak? Along the way, he broke the QMJHL record for length of a shutout streak as part of one of the best months of goaltending in recent CHL memory.

Desrosiers is a quick goaltender who is eager to learn and improve. Like many Quebec goaltenders, he is of the butterfly variety, but he has a little more to his game as well. He has a good amount of quickness to his game, side-to-side, but also up and down – which is an underrated aspect in the proliferation of the butterfly style. Desrosiers does not just let gravity do the work for him; he is active in his crease. Hoping for a long playoff run, Desrosiers stopped 68 of 72 attempts in a first round sweep. Rimouski lost in the second round in a tight seven-game series against Blainville-Boisbriand.

7. (11) Patrik Nemeth, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 41st overall in 2010

The Swedish behemoth, Patrik Nemeth, has been once again limited by injuries but when he has played, he has been about as impactful as any blueliner as the Stars employ. Just ten points in 37 games, but a team-best plus-19 is always good. He does a lot more than meets the eye. Though the numbers might not suggest it, he has good offensive awareness and can jump into the play and get good shots coming late down the slot. He can also keep pucks alive at the line and join the cycle if necessary.

The package is an interesting one. Nemeth is a big man, he can move, he can shoot, he can hit, he can play defense and with all that one or two casual observers might wonder aloud if he does not end up as a better NHL player than the much more highly-touted Oleksiak. He is a really great competitor and has a good eye for some little details that sometimes make him jump off the page. He could be just what the doctor ordered for a Dallas defense that is in obvious peril. That said, he still has a couple of dents to punch out and some polish still needs to be applied. But it would not be a surprise if the Stars pushed Nemeth into the NHL first among the listed rearguards.

8. (10) Radek Faksa, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 13th overall in 2012

The junior career of Radek Faksa has concluded. Not dissimilarly to Jack Campbell’s, it ended with something of a thud and, also not dissimilarly, the feeling is he might end up as a better pro than a junior player – relatively speaking. Faksa was dealt by the flailing Kitchener Rangers to an average Sudbury Wolves team that was trounced in the first round of the OHL playoffs. After a banner rookie season that saw him score 67 points in 62 games, Faksa would only go on to accumulate 79 points in his final 98 games. His playoff runs were fairly short-lived as well: 28 playoff contests and 15 points in them. The Rangers just kind of petered out and Faksa, also slowed by various ailments, followed in kind.

Doom and gloom may not rule the day though. He has a lot going for him as a prospect. The Czech pivot owns a big frame, some sandpaper, a good head for the game, and a willing attitude. His attention to detail and work ethic should find him in the good graces of his future pro coaches. Perhaps the offensive ability will not pan out as well as initially hoped, but he should be a useful pro, even if it is in a checking line role. Faksa is smart enough to be a plenty versatile player as a professional.

9. (7) Alex Guptill, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall in 2010

Alex Guptill, like Faksa, joined a quality development league and started out very strong and received freshman accolades. Though the statistical production has remained steady and of high quality, Guptill has failed to take that big next step in his development. The simplification (maybe over-simplification) of it is: Guptill is basically the same player he was as a freshman that he is as a junior. The, now, former U of M Wolverine has a good deal of skill and he can make a lot of things happen from the low neutral zone and through the attack zone. He can finish well from near the net as well.

The questions about Guptill, who found himself in some hot soup during his collegiate tenure, are in the mental department. He has had some issues evolving into that professional mentality and his poor practice habits probably have a lot to do with his lack of obvious improvement over the last couple years. Though the aforementioned paints a negative picture, he has enough upside – as a sizeable skilled winger – to sign and give a considerable look. With the right coach and a little bit of determination, Guptill could be more of an impactful player down the line.

10. (17) John Klingberg, D, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall in 2010

John Klingberg’s breakout season was prefaced by a 13-point, 25-game season with Skelleftea in 2012-13. This season, he was one of the finest offensive defensemen in Sweden. His 11 goals and 28 points ranked highly among all SHL rearguards. He is a particularly potent power play trigger man, registering nine tallies and nine helpers with the man-power advantage. Klingberg was the leading clock puncher for Vastra Frolunda, exceeding 20 minutes most nights.

Klingberg is an electric player who rushes the puck very well. He joins the rush like a fourth forward often. He will not hesitate to lead the charge and direct a shot on net – or near it, at least. With this type of player, a coach runs the risk of being out-numbered in transition the other way. However, Klingberg, if he adapts to the North American game, could be a very useful asset if he does not have to do battle with the Ryan Getzlaf, David Backes, Joe Thornton types on a nightly basis. His ability to transition the puck and move it through all three zones is an underrated and difficult quality to find.

11. (18) Ludvig Bystrom, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall in 2012

After a couple half-seasons in the SHL, Ludvig Bystrom doubled his Swedish top-league experience in 2013-14 and became a full-time SHL player in the process. Part of the reason for his new-found playing time, was the offseason move from MODO to Farjestad. The pie is split pretty evenly in terms of ice time for FBK. Young Bystrom was a number-four or number-five for most of the season, however, he was used sparingly on special teams. Further, he has been a non-factor in the SHL playoffs – which is not at all unusual for a young player. The 2012 second round selection posted a respectable 11 points in the regular year and led the club’s blueliners with a plus-10 rating.

Bystrom is still a work in progress, but he has shown some maturity and a good step forward this season. He is a good passer both in terms of outlets but also from the point. He controls the puck well against the blue line and his skating and vision allows him to walk the line and find forwards in better position to score. Like many young players, he still has some things to learn defensively and ultimately, the best thing for him would be ice time. He needs time to figure out the geometry of the game before he can be considered close to NHL ready.

12. (NR) Cole Ully, LW/RW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall in 2013

It was a trying year for the lowly Kamloops Blazers. One of the few bright spots in their 14-win season was the Blazers top line that featured slick winger Cole Ully. Only one player was able to surpass the 20-goal marker – that was Ully at 30. Only one player collected 50 points on the team – that was Ully at 72, 27 more than defenseman Josh Connolly. Although not everyone was able to go the distance in terms of games played in Kamloops, it is telling that Ully had more than twice as many points as the next forwards on the club.

Beyond the numbers, Ully is an organic creator of offense. The only real chance of puck advancement on the Blazers on a nightly basis is if Ully and Chase Souto work their magic. Ully is a smooth operator, thin as a rail, but he competes just fine. His brand of stick sorcery has been tested by wave after wave of resistance in the tough WHL and he can weave between all comers. He has great offensive awareness and on a better team would likely have finished a little higher than 32nd in WHL scoring. Next season, if the Blazers improve, Ully should be a top-20 scorer.

13. (NR) Dmitry Sinitsyn, D, 7.0C
Drafted 7th round, 183rd overall in 2012

Russian defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn jumped ship from UMass-Lowell to join the Regina Pats (WHL) after being selected high in the CHL Import Draft. Sinitsyn quickly became the Pats’ best and most reliable blueliner. He led his club’s positional peers in goals (10), assists (34) and points (44). The Pats had a very good season and finished second in the conference, however, their playoffs ended abruptly when the undisciplined Pats amassed 31 minor penalties and were swept out of the first round by Brandon. Despite that, Sinitsyn proved to be one of the more promising unknowns in the WHL.

There are few weaknesses in Sinitsyn’s game besides the fact that he is a little raw and needs more game action. Defensively, he progressed so much during the year that the Pats were saddling him up with 16-year-old defense partners to help the babysitting process. He is a strong puck-mover and has one of the hardest shots in the West. The decision on whether or not Sinitsyn will return as an overager has not been made, though the Regina coaching staff would not at all be disappointed if he returned.

14. (NR) Branden Troock, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 134th overall in 2012

Derailed by a multitude of injuries, Branden Troock scrounged together 58 regular season games and tallied an impressive 58 points, including 24 goals. Despite missing a handful of games, Troock was second to Alexander Delnov (FLA) in forward scoring on the team. It has been an arduous road for Troock just to play in a postseason game in his junior career – which he finally did and was a force in the postseason to be sure. Though, Seattle was sunk in the second round by Kelowna.

Troock has a unique skill set and is a package of very interesting upside. He is massive, he has surprisingly good wheels, he can shoot, he can deke and he can mash you to the boards and glass with authority. Even his release is improving. The jury is still out on whether he can put it all together – in good health – at the pro level, but he has a terrific amount of upside and may be the Stars most under-appreciated prospect.

15. (NR) Curtis McKenzie, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall in 2009

At Miami University, one of Curtis McKenzie’s coaches once told Hockey’s Future that McKenzie might just make a better professional player than college player. Prophetically, McKenzie scored nearly as many goals as an AHL rookie as he did as a four-year player with the RedHawks. Certainly the beneficiary of some of the AHL’s finest, McKenzie was the guy that did the dirty work for his talented linemates – namely center Travis Morin. Complementary goal scoring wingers like McKenzie are tough to draft and are worth their weight in gold when discovered.

A heavy forechecker and courageous mucking make McKenzie a great fit for the Western Conference in the NHL one day. He has collected enough loose change near the net and in the slot this season to buy a house. He lacks in grace, he makes up for in gumption. He is a net-front fiend who looks like an unlikely gem in the rough. He captured the AHL rookie of the year honors for his efforts this season with Texas.

16. (12) Matej Stransky, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 165th overall in 2011

Hulking winger Matej Stransky has graduated to the pro level after three seasons in the WHL. Though he was unable to step right in and dominate the first column of the stat sheet like he did in the final two Dub seasons, Stransky shows a good deal of potential. Bigger players that are not as fleet of foot tend to take a little longer to adjust to the next level up and Stransky is no exception. Just 20 points and a team-worst minus-12 in 60 games is not very flattering. But he is a grinding winger that shows potential to emerge as a puck-possessing sniper.

Stransky is a heavy player and, in turn, he plays a heavy game. He could become a pretty dominant player along the boards. His hands are not nearly as heavy as his feet and the latter could be the real bug-a-boo for him. He has not one ounce of nimble or one joule of explosiveness in his skating stride. When he has the puck on his stick, he has trouble making things happen while his feet are moving. The big Czech has the skill and the body and the puck protection ability to make him an interesting project nonetheless.

17. (NR) Gemel Smith, C/LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 104th overall in 2012

Spark plug Gemel Smith enters the list after another spectacular array of offensive gusto and world-class vigor. Now a member of the London Knights, Smith seems poised for a productive Memorial Cup after the tournament’s host team bowed out of the OHL playoffs in the second round to Guelph. He has been a premier scorer in the Ontario League since his sophomore year. Nearly a point-per-game player in the past three seasons with Owen Sound and now London, Smith has been a terrific story over the course of his OHL career.

Smith plays the game with some grime, a good amount of flash, and a lot of dash. Though just a featherweight when he came into the league, the Dallas fourth round pick is now a solid middleweight. It may have cost him some of his speed, but he is now a little tougher to throw off the puck down low. He had speed to spare anyhow. The question about Smith is what he becomes at the next level: energy player or legitimate, consistent scoring threat.

18. (NR) Niklas Hansson, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall in 2013

Niklas Hansson graduated from the Swedish junior system for good in 2013-14 and became a full-time pro at the Allsvenskan level. He appeared in 47 club games for Rogle netting 13 points and a plus-7 rating. His point totals were good for third among team blueliners (ninth overall) and his plus/minus rating was a sturdy second among rearguards (third overall). In the Kvalserien, Hansson was in fine form. He was good for 10 points and a plus-7 in 16 games as Rogle narrowly missed promotion to the SHL. Despite a bit of a rocky start, Hansson has become of the club’s best defensemen over the course of the year.

The smooth skating defenseman moves the puck well and his small-area footwork is already terrific. There is not much to him, but he is graceful on the ice and sees the game well with the puck on his stick. He still needs to physically mature and become a more consistent player before too much is made of him. He will remain with Rogle next season despite interest from SHL clubs and is expected to garner considerable interest for Sweden at the 2015 World Junior Championships.

19. (15) Emil Molin, C, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall in 2011

Another thin forward with a high motor resides at 19th on the list in Emil Molin. The 21-year-old Swede has struggled to make great head way in the Swedish League, though he has logged a lot of games as a youngster. He touched the century mark in terms of games played in his entire SHL career, but has just two goals and ten assists to show for it. He finished the season in Sweden’s second tier attempting to help Rogle BK move back in the top level.

Molin has more skill than his numbers lead on. He is crafty with his mitts and has some quick feet. Unfortunately, he has been relegated to just scraps of leftover time in the SHL. He was a help to Rogle’s chances of returning to the SHL, but ultimately, he did not find himself in any sort of heavy hauling role even at that level. It seems like as good of a time as any to make the jump to North America, as he is not moving up the ladder in Sweden.

20. (13) Kevin Connauton, D, 6.5C
Acquired via trade with Vancouver, April 2013

The Vancouver Canucks moved on from their 2009 third round pick at the 2013 NHL trade deadline. The Stars have used him sparingly at the NHL level this season, with just 36 games of duty and eight points to show for it. Lindy Ruff has not found a regular place for him in the lineup and that may continue to be the case going forward as well. Connauton does a good job with the puck on his stick and he is improving his ability to carry the puck. However, his game is uneven and inconsistent. At 24, Connauton has failed to gain the complete trust of his coaching staff. Though, Ruff is on record of saying that he has been improving.

The left-handed defenseman can really crank them out from the point. Though, his offensive game just is not quite good enough to justify how flimsy he is defensively. His defensive awareness is somewhat limited and he often gravitates to the front of the net as he has trouble dealing with concentrated attack zone time against him. He handles guys on the rush fairly well because he is a fine skater. Still though, after more than 250 professional games, he often looks like he is just going through the motions defensively as opposed to actually being an effective difference maker in his own end.

Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter: @MichaelFarkasHF