The Dallas Stars have begun to really tap in to their prospect pipeline. Particularly, John Klingberg has quickly become a major contributor to the club after blowing through the AHL in short order. No Dallas skater plays more at even strength than Klingberg this year. Young wingers and defensemen abound both in the NHL and at the World Junior Championships.
Brett Ritchie, RW, 21
Budding power forward Brett Ritchie has started his NHL career with a boom. A New Year’s Eve call-up and the game-winning goal to show for it was a great way to enter 2015 for the 6’3, 220-pound winger. Ritchie is obviously still very raw, with just nine NHL games so far for him, but he already has three goals, plenty of shots and a bushel of hits. The 2011 second-round pick has already found himself with supernovas Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. When Ritchie plays with even more assertiveness and develops more strength – particularly in his lower body – he will be quite a force. He has designs to own the front of the net and the boards below the hash marks in the attacking zone. Unlike some big men, Ritchie can get his shot off in a hurry as well, so his ability to play sniper on the rush will also be a valuable asset amplified by having splendid playmakers like Seguin and Jason Spezza on his team.
Curtis McKenzie, LW, 23
After a marvelous rookie season in the American Hockey League, Curtis McKenzie jumped into the NHL in mid-October to try his hand at the big show. The hulking winger had his work cut out for him in the NHL in terms of scoring. McKenzie is hockey’s version of a goal-line back in American football: an in-close scorer who sets up shop in front of and around the opposing net looking for tips and loose change. What he lacked in scoring he made up for with some physicality. McKenzie does not possess a lot of technical skills, but could work out as a complementary scorer in a good situation. The likely potential is that of a grinding winger at the NHL however. He has been returned to the AHL to continue to work on his skills and skating.
Jamie Oleksiak, D, 22
Much-heralded 2011 first-round pick Jamie Oleksiak has been taking some promising steps forward as this season rolls on. His previous stints in the NHL were evidently rushed and he had a lot of trouble with the tempo of the game. The mammoth defenseman skates well for his size and can join the rush readily, but his decision-making is still not as quick as one might hope. The major plus is that he can get away with being a half-beat late on some reads because of his skating and reach. Oleksiak has also shown an increased willingness to show his teeth during NHL contests, showing a stronger physical component that coaches and fans have craved from him. Eight points in 32 games is not world beater status, but the bigger key for Oleksiak is to string together consistently good games one after another to build confidence.
John Klingberg, D, 22
John Klingberg has made his much-awaited stay in North America. He had a couple of cups of coffee in the AHL over the past two seasons, but this is the first season that he has started in the state of Texas. After 12 points in ten AHL games, Klingberg was vaulted right into NHL action. As an offensive-minded, right-handed defenseman, the agile Swede fills an immediate need for the Dallas blueline. Quickly, Klingberg contributed offensively – especially at even strength.
Using his fantastic skating ability and vision, Klingberg is a graceful puck carrier across multiple zones. He provides a great first pass and can open up new lanes with his effortless lateral skating. It often seems as if he is barely touching the ice when he skates. Consequently, he still struggles with puck battles and net-front clearance. He leans on his man well enough, but it takes a lot of concentration for him still and he has trouble getting his stick involved while shielding off the incoming forward. The defense will improve over time as he understands the game well and since he constantly plays the game on his toes, he tightens gaps and attacks the play swiftly. His offensive upside is very high and with 28 points in 39 games, he is a force at the NHL level already.
Patrik Nemeth, D, 23
Large Swedish defenseman Patrik Nemeth was all set to be a regular NHLer until a severe arm injury put his season in jeopardy. In just his fifth game of the year, Nemeth was cut deeply by the skate of Flyers forward R.J. Umberger and the subsequent surgery will keep him out for most, if not all, of the regular season. Based on his progression since being drafted in the second round of 2010, the 6’3, 230-pound blueliner certainly appears to be trending in the right direction and could help solve a lot of problems on the Dallas backline for years to come. Nemeth has responded well to treatment and rehab and is making a push for a potential return later this spring.
Jyrki Jokipakka, D, 23
After one season adjusting to North American play in the AHL, Jyrki Jokipakka has contributed well to a somewhat ragged Dallas defense corps. He has split the season between the minors and the show to date, but because of his consistent, no-frills game he is a reasonably good and safe fit at either level. His game remains about the same in both settings as well. Not a real heavy lifter in terms of minutes or matchups, Jokipakka goes out with the intent on making smart, crisp passes and battling in front of the net. His skating has improved since being drafted in the seventh round in 2011 as a 20-year-old and it has translated into some moderate NHL success. The upside on Jokipakka appears to be that of a third pairing player if he continues to clean up his game on both sides of the puck.
2015 World Junior Tournament Update
The Stars had three representatives at the 2015 World Junior Championships, although none from the host country, as versatile forward Jason Dickinson was a late cut from Team Canada’s camp. Matej Paulovic donned the Team Slovakia jersey and performed fairly well. The surprising Slovaks seemed destined for the relegation pool early in the tournament before going on a spectacular run to the bronze. Paulovic had just one assist in seven games, but did good work defensively. His play in the neutral zone was particularly good and the Muskegon Lumberjack (USHL) worked doggedly on the boards. Unfortunately, Paulovic’s skating is nearly prohibitively sluggish and that will hurt his chances of being an impactful player down the line.
The other two participants are both Finnish defenders. The AHLer Julius Honka was the linchpin of the Finnish attack from a puck-carrying standpoint. That said, it was a disappointing tournament in terms of production for the Finns. They only scored eight goals in the tournament and Mikko Rantanen (2015) had half of them. Honka had one and helped on another himself. While he was essentially the sole generator of offensive chances from the backline, he was a little too adventurous defensively at times. At best, he was inconsistent in the context of the tournament; at worst, he was taking a lot of unnecessary risks that often did not pay off.
Aleksi Makela played a quieter game by contrast. He was a thorny player that stuck to a lot of opponents around the net. He played within his means and tried to make smart, conservative plays in his somewhat limited time. He put up just one assist, but had a +3 rating to lead all Finnish rearguards: a stat line that is pretty indicative of the quality, even if somewhat anonymous, outing for the seventh round selection.
Dallas Stars Prospect of the Month
Esa Lindell has been a revelation since moving to Assat (Liiga) over the summer. A 25-minute per night defenseman, Lindell plays in every situation for the spaded-jersey club. The defenseman had nine points in 11 games in the month of January while sporting a +2 rating. Lindell has peppered the opposing net to the tune of 65 shots over that timeframe. A strong puck mover and power play quarterback. Lindell is still working out the kinks in his defensive play and skating. His coverage while back-skating is borderline awkward at times, as is his understanding of the geometry of the rink. The big Finn’s skating has improved and is passable, but he has a high center of gravity and seems to be limited laterally. He is getting all the ice time he can handle and that will hopefully help him improve into being a player in North America as well.