Honka leads a deep blueline group among the Dallas Stars Top 20 prospects

By Mike Farkas

Cole Ully - Dallas Stars

Photo: Dallas prospect Cole Ully has had a tough go as a rookie pro, but his talents make him a good bounceback candidate for next season (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

10. (13) Roope Hintz, LW/C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2015

Roope Hintz thinks the game extremely well and that should really buoy him to where it is that he needs to go. Capable at center and wing, Hintz is in his second Liiga season but first with HIFK Helsinki. Hintz finds himself in a third-line center role more often than not and acquits himself very well. The point totals are modest at 18 points in 32 games, but that is still a per-game improvement on last season. His plus-14 rating suggests a lot of good things happen when Hintz is out there and not a lot of pucks end up in the net he is defending either.

His line’s performance in the World Juniors was only average despite being with nearly NHL-ready players Kasperi Kapanen (TOR) and Mikko Rantanen (COL) although they were used in a checking role. Nonetheless, Hintz is set up to do a lot of winning early in 2016 as Finland won the gold medal at the WJC and his club, HIFK, finished first place in their league en route to the postseason.

9. (14) Esa Lindell, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2012

The increment from a depth Liiga defenseman to being Finland’s blueliner of the year really put Esa Lindell on the map. He has since jumped into the AHL and after a bit of shaky start, has really become comfortable in the minors. Lindell, who loves to jump into the charge late and right down the middle, has 11 goals and 34 points in 59 games with Texas. He has started to add a little more of an edge to his game here and there as well.

There are some rough edges to Lindell’s game – the angles he takes defensively and his transition skating being principal among them – but he has noticeably improved since the beginning of the season. If he could find consistency in his game as often as he finds the back of the net, his NHL future becomes a prudent area of discussion in October 2016. One advantage for Lindell is that he is going to come into training camp already warmed up after being named to Finland’s World Cup team.

8. (10) Stephen Johns, D, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Chicago, July 2015

The former Fighting Irish defenseman has been a rock on the Texas blueline this season. He is the lead purveyor of pain on their blueline and became the Stars captain in his first year with the club. Johns is not just a guy who sits on his heels the whole game though, he can carry the puck and shows good puck poise in his own zone. Never afraid to pepper the puck on net, the big right-handed shot has 24 points on the season.

How Johns translates to the NHL will depend on how well he plays within his means. He can ill afford to chase big hits at the NHL level, but his physical nature ought to liven up a fairly friendly Dallas blueline. The added value to Johns is that he is not devoid of puck skills or poise and his skating has really come around since his draft year.

7. (16) Devin Shore, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2012

Devin Shore rises back to a prominent place on the Stars list. Shore had the benefit of an extended look at the AHL following his final season with the University of Maine which clearly prepared him well for his first full professional season. At one point, Shore was leading the AHL in goals before shoulder surgery ended his season. Shore figures to be the only Texas Star to finish better than a point per game – he left off with 15 goals and 26 points in just 23 games.

Shoulder surgeries can often be a bug-a-boo for around 18 months depending on the damage done, so this will be a major challenge for the intelligent center. The other challenge will be finding consistency in his ability to finish, the goal totals are certainly a great sign but he is unlikely to score on more than a quarter of his shots going forward (15 goals on 54 shots this year). Shore has been a noted pass-first player, even playing on the point of the power play for the Black Bears, so the hope is that his twine tickling was not an anomaly.

6. (9) Mattias Backman, D, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Detroit, March 2015

Mattias Backman has been quite an acquisition for General Manager Jim Nill and company. His first full season in the AHL has been impressive. With 25 points from the backend and a team-best plus-22 rating, Backman has been sharp as a tack almost all season. Often overshadowed by younger players with more hype like Julius Honka or Esa Lindell, Backman may be the most well-rounded Stars defenseman.

A phenomenal skater with great hockey sense and puck-moving abilities, Backman is no slouch defensively either. Not a physical blueliner by any stretch, Backman can move laterally so well and knows exactly when to lean on opposing forwards that it makes him quite effective. The only real negative to Backman’s game is that he does not have a powerful shot, but he has improved his ability to shoot while his feet are moving and shooting off the pass, which will help him get useful pucks through for deflections and rebound chances. With a good summer in the gym, Backman should be a fit for more than a few NHL rosters if the Stars opt not to use him.

5. (4) Denis Guryanov, RW, 7.5D
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2015

Like many youngsters in top-tier foreign leagues, Denis Guryanov will have to earn his way up the ranks. On the season, the green winger played just ten minutes per night and ended up with just five points in 47 games in the KHL. He was also the worst forward on the team in terms of plus/minus at minus-11. His club, Lada, was one of the worst in the 28-team circuit. Near the end of the season, Guryanov was sent down to the MHL where he amassed six points in just seven games.

The Dallas brass are unlikely to be pleased with how this season went for their surprise first-round pick from 2015. The young Russian is not as dynamically skilled as he probably could be, but instead is more of a bulldozer towards the net. Though a selfish penalty played a part in it, he was a late cut from one of the least technically-skilled Russian junior teams we have seen in a long time. The 6’3 winger could certainly use some more time at a lower level to sharpen his technical skills, but it seems unlikely that that opportunity is going to be afforded to him.

4. (3) Cole Ully, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall, 2013

Despite some modest production, Cole Ully remains high on the list because he might just have the highest-end technical skills, playmaking ability and vision of any forward in the prospect pool. With 13 points in 34 AHL games this season, Ully is not lighting the world on fire but he has a little steeper development arc than some of his peers. Playing mostly lower-line duty, the former Kamloops Blazer is used to making something out of nothing on a nightly basis.

The 2013 fifth-round selection is as slippery as they come on the Texas Stars and has been used at all three forward positions at some point over the year. As some of the depth thins out in Texas and players like Brett Ritchie, Curtis McKenzie and even Radek Faksa move on, Ully will get his chance to shine.

3. (6) Jason Dickinson, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2013

Savvy, versatile forward Jason Dickinson has been a revelation after completing his feeling-out process of his new league and surroundings. Among rookies, only Mikko Rantanen and Riley Barber (WSH) have more points than Dickinson’s 45. The rangy center can play in any situation and is a threat to score shorthanded with his combo of speed and smarts that is tough to match at this level. Where Dickinson has surprised most this season is his ability to finish plays. Something that did not seem as likely to translate from his junior career has become a major positive for him as a rookie pro.

The adjustment period for smart players that lack supreme physical or technical skills is usually a little longer than even Dickinson has demonstrated. The Stars second first round pick in 2013 tallied in just one of his first seven games and had just five goals at Christmas, but everything seemed to click for him when the calendar flipped. Dickinson followed up a strong January with a 16-point February (11 games). Though his ceiling may not be immense, Dickinson is looking like the ultimate high-end utility player who can do anything and play with anybody.

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

An offseason injury likely cost Brett Ritchie a spot on the Dallas roster coming into the year, but he has made the best of it. Already a physical force and net-front presence, Ritchie was able to get even more time at a lower level to exercise his offensive muscle even further by developing a more lethal technical skill set. Despite playing just 35 games in the AHL, Ritchie has 14 goals and 14 assists and, when necessary, can impose his will on the competition.

The 6’3, 220-pound winger seems to be getting some good advice on his development: at lower levels, he eases off the accelerator with blunt, physical force and tries to work with his skill package, but as we have seen, when he gets introduced to a higher level – such as the WJCs or the NHL – he sets out to be a menace. He made his 2016 NHL debut earlier this month against New Jersey and wrecked up the place. The organization knows what they have in Ritchie and trust him, as his first game of the season was spent playing with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

1. (1) Julius Honka, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 14th overall, 2014

As his second professional season winds down, the 20-year-old Finn has really started to turn the corner in the AHL. Beyond being one of top scoring d-men in the AHL with nine goals and 36 points on the year, Honka has been playing with a lot more confidence the last several weeks and it has reflected in his play. He trusts his instincts much more and has become a noteworthy puck carrier across multiple zones.

Honka is a wonderful skater with great hockey sense and he is quickly establishing himself as a top-flight defenseman in the AHL. The bonus bucks in all this for Dallas is that he got most of his professional hiccups out of the way as a teenager. As opposed to coming in at 20 or 21, he is already a number-one defenseman on a playoff team. Though the Texas Stars have an exceptional defense with a lot of players very close in stature, Honka is separating himself from the pack and at a younger age to boot.

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