Stars NCAA prospects update

By Kevin Wey

The Dallas Stars have come to rely upon Sweden, Finland, and Canadian major juniors for most of their prospects, but the organization does not have a shabby collection of collegiate prospects. University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Matt Niskanen headlines the Stars group of collegiate players as the organization’s first round draft pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft and a member of Team USA’s World Junior Championships entry. Not an overly flashy defenseman, Niskanen does not have big numbers, but he is playing 20 to 25 minutes a game as a freshman straight out of Class A Minnesota high school hockey.

Niskanen was a finalist for Mr. Hockey in 2005, recognition as Minnesota’s top high school player. Fellow Stars prospect center Gino Guyer won the award in 2000. Now in his senior season, Guyer captains the Golden Gophers and is one of the best two-way centers in the WCHA, although his offensive production in his senior season has been disappointing.

Geoff Waugh is Dallas’ other collegiate prospect closing in on his professional career. A senior at Northern Michigan, Waugh is a physical defensive defenseman who also provides leadership. Despite his size and physical play, Waugh’s future with the Stars is uncertain.

Sophomores Raymond Sawada, Matt McKnight, and Trevor Ludwig are all one year wiser. Sawada is one of the top power forwards in the ECACHL and plays in all situations for the Cornell Big Red. Intelligent playmaking center McKnight is key to University of Minnesota-Duluth’s success, but inconsistency in production has hurt both McKnight and the Bulldogs. Ludwig has many of the tools, but is still trying to put it all together at Providence College.

University of North Dakota freshman Matt Watkins rounds out Dallas’ collegiate prospects. Drafted from the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Vernon Vipers, it was hoped Watkins’ offensive success in the BCHL would transfer to the WCHA. Although Watkins has been a regular in the line-up, he has not been a regular on the scoresheet.

The Stars collegiate prospects may not lead the nation in scoring, but they are all responsible defensively, fiercely competitive, leaders, and hard workers.

Gino Guyer, C
University of Minnesota – Sr.
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 192 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 10-14-1983 Coleraine, Minnesota
Acquired: 5th Rd, 165th overall 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Minnesota Golden Gopher center Gino Guyer had scored no less than 11 goals in any of his three previous seasons, but Guyer has been snake-bitten offensively this season as a senior. However, he’s still been a vital part of a team ranked second in the Division I Men’s Poll.

Guyer started the 2005-06 season strong with four goals and three assists in nine games, including a five-game point streak to start the season. In the 19 games since Nov. 11, Guyer has not scored a goal and has had only four assists. Although he’s now tied with freshman forward Ryan Stoa for 14th on Gophers team scoring, he’s still contributing to his team’s success.

“He’s probably our top defensive center,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “He’s a great penalty killer and plays against other team’s top lines.”

The 22-year-old pivot started the season on a line with Andy Sertich and Kris Chucko, a good checking line with some offensive potential. Guyer is still skating with Chucko, but sophomore Mike Howe has been inserted on Guyer’s right wing since the team’s first games after the winter break.

As captain, Guyer sets the pace.

“Without a question, Gino’s one of the hardest working players we have on this team,” Lucia said. “You always want your captain to be one of the hardest working players on your team, and he is certainly that for us.”

Despite his 21-game goalless drought, Guyer has been getting chances and averaging around three shots a game during that period. Despite not being a speedster, Guyer could find success by going slower.

“I think sometimes he could slow himself down,” Lucia said. “Sometimes I think he’s in too much of a hurry and he skates it into traffic, as opposed to when you get to the next level, sometimes you slow yourself down and let the game come to you.”

Guyer’s future as a pro hockey player is likely that of a defensive center.

“I think when he gets to the next level, that’s probably going to be his biggest role, being a guy that can play at both ends of the rink, but be a real good defensive forward,” Lucia said.

Although Guyer is not scoring a lot in his senior season, he’s still a viable prospect for the Stars and will likely make the move south on I-35 and give them a good defensive forward who can win draws and become a leader on their Iowa farm team.

Trevor Ludwig, D
Providence College – Soph.
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 210 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 5-24-1985 Grapevine, Texas
Acquired: 6th Rd, 183rd overall 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Trevor Ludwig’s father, Craig, played eight seasons in the Stars organization, and the 2004 sixth round draft pick could continue the family’s contribution on the ice. But the Providence College Friar has a ways to go to become a stalwart defensive defenseman in the NHL like his father.

Head coach Tim Army has installed an up-tempo game at Providence College, and Ludwig struggled initially, especially because of a broken foot he suffered in the Friars third game of the season Oct. 15.

“I think the injury caught him behind the 8-ball a little bit, because our team really started to progress as a group, playing with a great deal more speed, a much more active attack mentality,” Army said. “I think over that month, it disrupted his rhythm, he lost a little bit of the pace that he had to start the year.”

Army and the Friars staff are trying to improve Ludwig’s pivoting, both backwards-to-forward and forward-to-back, as well as his positioning, especially offensively, be it creating an “offensive cushion” by following the play 15 to 20 feet behind the forwards rushing the puck or by not getting ahead of his defensive partner. Ludwig also has to remember to keep his feet moving.

“He’s had a habit of wanting to make plays standing still,” Army said. “I think part of it is because he gets ahead of the play, but also to stand still and try to overhandle the puck before he makes the play.”

Although Ludwig only has two assists in 18 games and a number of things to work on, he does have a lot of raw talent.

“His hands are good for a big player, he can pass, he can shoot the puck,” Army said.

“He’s obviously got good size,” Army said of the 6’1 200-pound Ludwig. “He’s certainly physically capable and he engages physically.”

The Friars new style of hockey has helped Ludwig reduce his penalty minutes, which is very important in today’s new pro game. In 18 games this season Ludwig has only one minor penalty, in contrast to the 36 penalty minutes he had in 33 games as a freshman.

At the pro level, Army expects Ludwig would be “a good defender, to have presence, and to be able to compete physically.”

Although Ludwig has yet to put up numbers at the collegiate level, Army believes the 20-year-old has the raw skills necessary to succeed with North American hockey’s new emphasis on skill.

“He’s going to need an offensive side as well,” Army said. “He certainly has the capability to provide that.”

Given his father’s standing in the organization, the younger Ludwig will likely be given the benefit of the doubt when his collegiate career is over. Trevor projects to be a physical defensive defenseman at the professional level, but he’ll be a Stars project who may have to start in the ECHL.

Matt McKnight, C
University of Minnesota-Duluth – Soph.
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 185 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 6-14-1984 Halkirk, Alberta
Acquired: 9th Rd, 280th overall 2004 NHL Entry Draft

During the 2004-05 season, University of Minnesota-Duluth center Matt McKnight struggled with consistency after a shoulder injury against St. Cloud State Thanksgiving weekend, although his six goals and 13 assists in 30 games were enough to earn him UMD Rookie of the Year honors. The Stars 2004 ninth round pick is again struggling to consistently contribute offensively, which is what the Bulldogs need out of him most.

The two-way playmaking center started slowly the first two weekends of the year, but once he scored a goal and two assists against Michigan Tech Oct. 28 and 29, the floodgates opened. In the Bulldogs next 14 games leading up to the winter break, McKnight scored six goals and added 11 assists. His two-goal, four-assist weekend against Yale earned him a nomination for the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Nov. 28, and he followed it up with two goals and two assists against Minnesota State the following weekend and was again nominated for WCHA Offensive Player of the Week.

The 20-year-old center’s success is based on his ice awareness.

“There’s no question he’s got real good hockey sense,” UMD head coach Scott Sandelin said. “I think he sees the ice very well, he can make plays, and that’s certainly what you want centermen to do.”

His success has also come, in part, thanks to skating with freshman left winger and former Camrose Kodiaks teammate Mason Raymond. Raymond, a freshman, scored 41 goals and 41 assists in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season, and he’s leading UMD in scoring with 10 goals and 15 assists.

The scoring bounty of November and early December has been replaced by a drought in UMD’s last 10 games. In that time, McKnight only has one goal and a power play assist. To coincide, the team is 2-7-1 in its last 10 games and on a six-game losing streak. As McKnight and Raymond’s line has gone, so have the Bulldogs. In games which McKnight has scored a goal or an assist, the Bulldogs are 8-3-2.

“I think his line is in a little bit of a drought here, so obviously we want to see them get back to the way they were playing in November and December,” Sandelin said. “We certainly need those guys to produce offensively and create opportunities.”

Despite not providing consistent offense, the sophomore has provided consistent leadership for the freshmen.

“He’s been great with our young guys and certainly has provided the direction, both on and off the ice,” Sandelin said.

McKnight currently lies third in Bulldog scoring behind Raymond and senior captain Tim Stapleton. He plays in all situations for UMD, but to become a top center in the WCHA, he’ll need to improve his strength and quickness.

Matt Niskanen, D
University of Minnesota-Duluth – Fr.
Ht: 6’1 Wt: 185 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 12-6-1986 Mountain Iron, Minnesota
Acquired: 1st Rd, 28th overall 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Playing Minnesota Class A high school hockey last season for Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl, Dallas Stars 2005 first round draft pick Matt Niskanen has made the jump from a relatively low level of hockey to become a 20+ minute defenseman for a respected NCAA DI program and a member of Team USA’s World Junior Championship team.

Drafted by Dallas after scoring 27 goals and 38 assists and leading his high school team to their first appearance in the Minnesota State Tournament, Niskanen has stepped into the University of Minnesota-Duluth to play 20-25 minutes a night as a freshman and lead the team in defensive scoring with one goal and eight assists in 26 games. The 19-year-old blueliner is not an overly flashy player, but he is fairly reliable and rarely makes a mistake.

“He’s got a lot of poise with the puck,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. “He moves the puck well, very seldom do you see him make bad plays when he has the puck.”

Niskanen’s ability to move the puck has especially shown itself on the UMD power play, as six of his eight assists this season have come with the man-advantage. Although reliability is a desirable trait, Niskanen could afford to play less safe and assert himself physically.

“He’s got a good ability to step up and make that big hit now and then and also be physical down low that’s just something we want to see a little more consistently,” said Sandelin.

The Stars first round pick has missed two games for UMD this season, but only to represent his country at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver. Although Niskanen failed to tally any points while skating on Team USA’s third defensive pairing, the experience served as a reminder to Niskanen how good he is, but also where he needs to be.

“Just being there and seeing that level of competition and playing like he did in that tournament has really given him a real good perspective of the level of play, and he’s come back very confident,” said Sandelin.

Unfortunately, the additional confidence has not translated into success for UMD. The Bulldogs have only won an exhibition game against the U.S. National Development Team so far in 2006, and Niskanen has been held pointless in seven games since returning, including the 6-3 exhibition game against the USNDTP.

Despite the rocky beginning to 2006, Niskanen still should become one of the top defensemen in the WCHA before he leaves college. Coming directly from Minnesota high school hockey, Class A no less, to be a regular in all situations for the Bulldogs and then to earn a spot on Team USA’s WJC team speaks of Niskanen’s talent. Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle had the opportunity to coach Niskanen as the bench boss of Team USA at the WJC’s in Vancouver and was happy with his contribution.

“He’s got exceptional skills,” said Kyle. “He’s a guy coming out of a relatively low level of hockey and stepped into the World Juniors in a tough place to play and did a good job for us.”

Niskanen should continue to develop under Sandelin and his work ethic may ensure success.

“The thing I love about him is he’s a very coachable kid and he’s very eager to learn and puts the time in to get better,” said Sandelin. “He’s going to continue to get better because of that attitude.”

Raymond Sawada, RW
Cornell University – Soph.
Ht: 6’2 Wt: 205 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 2-19-1985 Richmond, British Columbia
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 52nd overall 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Drafted as a physical power forward out of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, Stars 2004 second round draft pick Raymond Sawada is doing more of the same in the college ranks, establishing himself as one of the top power forward in the ECACHL.

Unlike many aggressive physical players, with 14 penalty minutes in 27 games, Sawada does not have the penalty minutes to match.

“He’s very, very physical, but he’s very smart about it,” Cornell head coach Mike Schafer said

“The only time he really hits anybody from behind or the side is if they see him coming and turn,” Schafer added. “He plays the game with a lot of respect, he makes sure they see him coming.”

And still he flattens numerous opponents even though they do see him coming, largely because the 20-year-old right winger is a strong skater. Another reason Sawada succeeds, as Schaefer noted, is because the sophomore “knows where to be and when to be on the ice surface.”

That awareness not only allows Sawada to be effective as a checker, it also gives him an offensive aspect as well. Sawada is currently fourth in Cornell scoring with four goals and eight assists, already higher than the four goals and five assists he had in 35 games his freshman season.

Sawada plays in all situations for the Big Red. At times he plays Cornell leading scorer Matt Moulson and fellow physical forward Byron Bitz. At other times he plays on a checking line with Chris Abbott and Tyler Mugford.

A physical player in college hockey, Sawada should provide that same element in professional hockey.

“He’s a player that brings a physical element who can compliment and make plays with offensive players,” Schafer said. “He’ll bring a certain level of toughness, an there’s no question that when you play physical at that level, you’re going to run into confrontations, and he’ll be more than happy to back up his physical play.”

Sawada has two more seasons develop his already well-rounded game at the collegiate level, giving him plenty of time to be able to step into the AHL for the 2008-09 season. Should he make it to the NHL, it will likely be as a third or fourth line power forward who is able to chip in offensively.

Matt Watkins, C
University of North Dakota – Fr.
Ht: 5’11 Wt: 180 lb. Shoots: Left
Born: 11-22-1986 Aylesbury, Saskatchewan
Acquired: 5th Rd, 160th overall 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Tenth in BCHL scoring last season with 36 goals and 38 assists in 60 games for the Vernon Vipers, 2005 Stars fifth round pick Matt Watkins has struggled in his freshman season at North Dakota.

“His whole game has to improve, point blank,” UND head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He’s a player that has very good offensive ability, he needs to make to adjustment to this level to the point where he is producing offensive opportunities and producing some numbers on a consistent basis.”

With only two goals and one assist in 30 games, the 19-year-old center is not without upside.

“No. 1, he’s a great skater,” Hakstol said. “He has a strong powerful stride, he has excellent speed, and along with that, he has a nice skill package as far as puck skills and vision on the ice, and most importantly he competes very hard.”

Watkins has also been fairly reliable defensively. He’s played all 30 games for the Fighting Sioux so far this season and has been a minus player only five times this season.

As his collegiate career progresses Watkins should develop an identity to his game, be it as a two-way center or the top six forward UND hoped for when they recruited him. Few freshman forwards who struggle to contribute offensively find their way to the NHL, but Watkins is still young and has three seasons to turn his talent into results at UND.

Geoff Waugh, D
Northern Michigan University – Sr.
Ht: 6’4 Wt: 215 lb. Shoots: Right
Born: 8-25-1983 Winnipeg, Manitoba
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 78th overall 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Northern Michigan University senior defenseman Geoff Waugh may only have three assists in 27 games this season, but he’s still one of the Wildcats top players and one of the best physical defensive defensemen in college hockey.

Waugh has paired with fellow senior Nathan Oystrick, an Atlanta Thrashers prospect, since his sophomore season. Since then, the duo has become one of the best pairings in college hockey.

“They play every night against the opponent’s best players and they do a remarkable job in shutting those people down over the course of each game,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said.

One of the most physical defensemen in college hockey, Waugh has missed one game this season, due to a game disqualification from a checking from behind penalty against St. Cloud State Oct.14. His 68 penalty minutes place him among the leaders in CCHA, although Michigan freshman and Carolina Hurricanes 2005 first round draft pick Jack Johnson is leading by far with 112. Along with providing NMU a physical presence, the 22-year-old defenseman has given the team leadership as one of the team’s alternate captains.

“He’s a guy that we never have any problems with and he’s strong enough to stand up in the room and stand up for what’s right,” Kyle said. “He’s got great character and good leadership.”

While Waugh is one of the CCHA’s top defensive defensemen, he’ll have to improve in a couple of important areas in order to succeed at the professional level.

“Geoff’s going to have to work on his foot speed,” Kyle said. “He’s going to have to work on moving the puck a little bit under pressure.”

The two-time Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League All-Star’s game will provide the Stars organization with a physical defensive defenseman who provides leadership, if the team decides to sign him. Mark Fistric can be expected to play for Iowa in 2006-07, and Matt Nickerson could join him. Mario Scalzo, Nicklas Grossman, and Shawn Belle will be slated to return to the I-Stars, and veterans Patrick Traverse and Dan Jancevski could join them again.

Dallas Stars College Prospect Player Stats 2005-06
Gino Guyer Minnesota
Trevor LudwigProvidence
Matt McKnightMinn-Duluth
Matt Niskanen Minn-Duluth
Team USA
Raymond Sawada Cornell
Matt Watkins N. Dakota
Geoff WaughN. Michigan

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