Stars Top 20 prospects

By Kevin Wey

Top 20 at a glance

1. (5) Loui Eriksson, LW
2. (3) Matt Niskanen, D
3. (12) Perttu Lindgren, C
4. (8) Niklas Grossman, D
5. (17) Vojtech Polak, RW
6. (NR) Mario Scalzo, D
7. (7) James Neal, LW
8. (NR) Mike Smith, G
9. (9) Mark Fistric, D
10. (14) Junior Lessard, RW
11. (NR) Tobias Stephan, G
12. (15) Dan Ellis, G
13. (10) Johan Fransson, D
14. (16) Tom Wandell, C
15. (11) Rich Clune, LW
16. (13) Yared Hagos, C
17. (NR) John Lammers, LW
18. (NR) Marius Holtet, RW
19. (19) Raymond Sawada, RW
20. (20) Matt Nickerson, D

The Dallas Stars Top 20 entering the 2006 stretch drive and playoffs sees a great deal of upheaval since the preseason list. Three of the prospects previously in the top six have graduated. Jussi Jokinen has been dynamite on the Dallas power play and in shootouts and has established himself as a future top six forward for the organization. Defenseman Trevor Daley has had an up and down season in Dallas, but he still figures to provide puck movement and a physical presence for years to come. Two-way forward Antti Miettinen is also a staple in the Dallas roster now and joins Jokinen with an ever-growing number of Finns on the Dallas roster. Defenseman Shawn Belle had a disappointing transition to the AHL, and has been traded to the Minnesota Wild organization.

Amidst the upheaval, Loui Eriksson, playing for AHL affiliate Iowa Stars, now finds himself atop of the Dallas prospect depth chart. Eriksson has passed 2005 first round draft pick Matt Niskanen by becoming one of the I-Stars top scoring threats as a 20-year-old rookie. While Niskanen had an admirable rookie season for the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the ubercompetitive Western Collegiate Hockey Association, especially considering he had only played Minnesota high school hockey previously, Eriksson has fewer question marks surrounding him.

Perttu Lindgren established himself as a candidate for the Finnish Elite League (SM-Liiga) rookie of the year after finishing the season very strong for Ilves. Accordingly, he has moved to No. 3 on the Dallas chart. Vojtech Polak too has moved up considerably on the prospect chart after an impressive training camp, an early Dallas recall, and a solid first half of the AHL season. Polak has lost his touch and first line ice time with the I-Stars in the second half, but the potential is there.

Goaltender Mike Smith now finds himself in the top 10. He’s established himself as Iowa’s top netminder, over the highly competent Dan Ellis, and should make Dallas think hard about whether to resign Johan Hedberg as Marty Turco’s backup. Ellis too has moved up a bit after another solid AHL season.

Swiss netminder Tobias Stephan has worked his way onto the list after playing nearly every minute of the three seasons for the Kloten Flyers in the Swiss Nationalliga A, a league full of players with NHL experience, top European players, and many of the best that the quickly rising Switzerland has to offer. In addition, Stephan has had strong numbers the past three seasons and is already an AHL-caliber netminder.

Free agent acquisition Mario Scalzo has established himself as a legitimate NHL prospect as well, into Dallas’ top 10. He has become Iowa’s top puckmoving blueliner in Patrick Traverse’s absence and knows when and when not to pinch. The diminutive defenseman has also been improving his defensive awareness to overcome his lack of size.

Former Hobey Baker winner Junior Lessard is back in the top 10. After a disappointing season in Houston, Lessard has broken out with the I-Stars and was selected to play in the AHL All-Star Game. The hardworking scorer looks to lead the I-Stars in goal scoring in 2005-06 and should contend for a spot in Dallas in 2006-07.

With four prospects leaving the list, defenseman Niklas Grossman has kept pace and moved up exactly four spots, having become one of the I-Stars most dependable defensemen. Swedish center Tom Wandell moved up two spots, but, like Grossman, he did not pass anybody who was previously ahead of him.

Forwards John Lammers and Marius Holtet have also found their way into the Top 20. Lammers had his breakout year with the Everett Silvertips and now looks poised to play for the Iowa Stars in 2006-07. Holtet had a frustrating 2004-05 in Houston, but he has flourished in Iowa, given far more ice time than he received last season.

Forwards Rich Clune and Yared Hagos have both fallen, but this is due more to the rise of others than any potential failure on their part, although it took Hagos a while to start making an impact in Iowa. Johan Fransson has dropped out of the top 10 despite the graduation of Jokinen, Daley, and Miettinen and the trading of Belle, because of a largely mediocre 2005-06 season in Sweden. Fransson’s contract with Lulea is up, and assignment to Iowa could help expedite Fransson’s slow development.

James Neal, Mark Fistric, Raymond Sawada, and Matt Nickerson have all maintained their previous spots in the top 20. Neal had an excellent start to the OHL season, a slump mid-season, but finished reasonably strong. Fistric has bounced back from an injury-plagued 2004-05 and is poised to transition to the AHL in 2006-07. Sawada may not have big numbers with Cornell, but stats don’t tell the whole story. Dallas reversed the Finnish pipeline and sent Nickerson to Finland, and the aggressive, physical defenseman acquitted himself fairly well with Assat, although he now holds a dubious SM-Liiga record.

The only player to drop out of the Top 20 is B.J. Crombeen, who was ranked 18th in the last list and did not miss the Top 20 by far. The 20-year-old has struggled to stay in the Iowa line-up as the season has progressed, but has demonstrated the upside to be a physical fourth liner in Dallas some day. Crombeen would be one of many Stars prospect to benefit if Iowa does not bring in prospects from other NHL teams next year. This is a distinct possibility, as Edmonton is apparently considering placing their AHL franchise about three hours east of Des Moines in Moline, Ill., where the United Hockey League Quad City Mallards currently play.

1. Loui Eriksson, LW Age: 20
Grade: 7.5 B
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 33rd Overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

Unlike Perttu Lindgren, Loui Eriksson did not put up big numbers in his native Elite League. However, he was named the Swedish Elite League (SEL) Rookie of the Year in 2003-04 when he scored 8 goals and 5 assists in 46 games for Vastra Frolunda as an 18-year-old. Eriksson did not receive the expected boost in ice time when NHLers flooded the SEL in 2004-05, so Eriksson’s production as a 19-year-old, 5 goals and 9 assists in 39 games, did not increase much. However, he’s scoring plenty in the AHL in 2005-06 with the Iowa Stars.

After 65 games, Eriksson was third in I-Stars scoring with 21 goals and 21 assists, behind veterans Toby Petersen and Junior Lessard. Although his 42 points barely places the Swede in the Top 20 AHL rookies in scoring, Eriksson’s 4 goals and 6 assists in March have been vital in Iowa’s push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference after a disappointing February. While Mathias Tjarnqvist has been recalled off and on by Dallas, Eriksson has skated on Iowa’s first line the second half of the season. Eriksson’s speed and stickhandling abilities make him effective in getting the puck out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone, and keeping it in the attack zone. The 6’1, 183-pound winger is effective along the boards for these same reasons, even though he does need to fill out his slender frame. Additional leg strength could give him even better acceleration, agility, and top speed, although none of these areas are currently poor.

Adjusting to the North American game, Eriksson lacked confidence early in the season, but he established himself as a fairly consistent offensive force the second half of December and, except for a team slump in February, Eriksson has been putting away the chances he used to miss earlier in the year. Now, when Eriksson gets a breakaway, he tends to light the lamp. While Eriksson’s offensive abilities should further define him as a second liner in the NHL, like many Swedish forwards, Eriksson does play a two-way game. His overall hockey sense makes him effective in his own zone, although he does not provide an overly physical presence.

While Eriksson may not putting up the numbers of such AHL rookies as Houston’s Patrick O’Sullivan, the 20-year-old still has the potential to become a strong second line scoring winger who is also responsible in his own zone. Despite Vojtech Polak receiving recall to Dallas early in the season, Eriksson is the Stars top prospect. Becoming more and more confident, Eriksson only needs additional muscle and experience before he’s NHL ready.

2. Matt Niskanen, D Age: 19

Grade: 7.5 C
Acquired: 1st Rd, 28th Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

As a first round draft pick, both Dallas Stars and University of Minnesota-Duluth fans might have expected a flashy high-scoring offensive defenseman who could dominate college hockey as a freshman. Instead, what both teams have is a young defenseman who has a lot potential and is far from a finished product.

Skating for Mountain Iron-Buhl in Class A high school hockey in Minnesota before playing for UMD, Niskanen had not played at a high level over the course of an entire season prior to NCAA DI college hockey. Niskanen’s 27 goals and 38 assists helped lead MIB to their first Minnesota high school state tournament, but it was a far cry from the Tier I or Tier II Junior A hockey that most collegiate prospects play before going to college. However, Niskanen proved he deserved steady minutes as a true freshman from the first weekend of the Bulldogs season. The 19-year-old had 1 goal and 8 assists heading into the World Junior Championships, where he played for Team USA. Although Niskanen went scoreless in seven games skating on Team USA’s third defense pairing, Niskanen returned with a new confidence.

Unfortunately, his return also coincided with a seven-game losing streak, and UMD limped into the WCHA Tournament. However, Niskanen proved to be a vital cog in the Bulldogs upset of defending NCAA Champion Denver University in the first round of the WCHA Tournament. Pairing with Philadelphia Flyers prospect Travis Gawryletz, Niskanen had an assist in each game of the three-game series against the Pioneers. St. Cloud State eliminated UMD in the Final Five preliminary game, but Niskanen’s playoff performance helped him finish with 1 goal and 13 assists in 38 games, first among all UMD defensemen in scoring.

Although Niskanen is a strong skater with good puck skills, he is not a flashy offensive defenseman at the collegiate level. He can, however, put up points on the power play through his poise with the puck and his intelligent puck movement. A two-way defenseman with UMD, Niskanen rarely makes poor offensive decisions, especially for a defenseman as relatively inexperienced as he is. At 6’1 195 pounds, UMD would like to see Niskanen continue to use his size more, as he can lay down hard hits. Despite not playing Junior A hockey or playing for the National Developmental Team, Niskanen has the talent to become one of the top defensemen in the WCHA, despite not being named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team.

A natural athlete, Niskanen has the potential to become a second or third defenseman in the NHL. While his puck skills against the lesser Minnesota high school competition stood out, he will have to continue to adjust to the speed of the collegiate game. However, when one considers that Niskanen went directly from Minnesota high school hockey to a regular shift in the WCHA and a spot on Team USA’s WJC team, it’s easy to see why so many believe he has so much potential.

3. Perttu Lindgren, C Age: 18

Grade: 7.5 C
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 75th Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Perttu Lindgren blitzed Finnish Jr. A in 2004-05, averaging over a point per game in the regular season with 12 goals and 29 assists in 38 games and scoring 7 goals and 10 assists in 17 playoff games to lead Ilves to the Junior A championship. However, a disappointing U18 tournament dropped Lindgren to the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Failing to star on the international stage and with only two games of Finnish Elite League (SM-Liiga) prior to this season, it was difficult to know what to expect out of Lindgren in his first full season of professional hockey. By the end the 2005-06 season, Lindgren had further established himself as one of Finland’s top young players.

Lindgren started the season centering Ilves third line and kept playing their up until the World Junior Championships. Finland’s third youngest player on the team, born Aug, 26, 1985, Lindgren again found himself on a third line. Although Lindgren tied for second in Team Finland scoring, five of his six points for the tournament were against Team Norway in a 9-1 victory. After scoring the game-winning goal and four assists against the Norwegians, Lindgren had another goal the following day against Switzerland. However, he had no points against the other top teams in the tournament.

Lindgren returned from Vancouver to the Ilves roster for the team’s Jan. 11 game, again cetering the third line. He again centered the third line Jan. 14 and Jan.19, but Lindgren scored two goals and an assist in Ilves 3-2 overtime win over TPS and was named the First Star of the Game. After that game, Lindgren found himself centering 2001 Florida Panthers seventh round draft pick Toni Koivisto and Jussi Pesonen on the first line. In his final 18 games of the SM-Liiga season, from the Jan. 19 game on, Lindgren scored 8 goals and 14 assists. Had Lindgren maintained such a scoring pace over the entire season, he would have beaten HIFK’s Tony Salmelainen for the SM-Liiga scoring title. As it is, the 18-year-old did lead the SM-Liiga in rookie scoring with 13 goals and 24 assists in 51 games, second only to Pesonen in Ilves scoring and 16th in SM-Liiga scoring.

Ilves faces HPK in the first round of the SM-Liiga playoffs and now looks to Lindgren to create offense. A playmaking center with good vision and excellent stickhandling skills, Lindgren will need to improve his quickness and explosiveness in order to find continued success on the smaller North American rinks. However, after establishing himself as an offensive force the final 18 games of the SM-Liiga season, Lindgren is suddenly a bona fide NHL prospect and perhaps worthy of AHL assignment with the Iowa Stars in 2006-07. Dallas could be the sole supplier of players to Iowa next season, leaving the team in need of a talented young player like Lindgren to center the second scoring line. On the other hand, Lindgren has yet to prove he can maintain such scoring over the course of an entire SM-Liiga season, so it is possible he will stay with Ilves for another season. The Tampere native is a certainty to play for Finland at the 2007 World Junior Championships, assuming he’s healthy, this time on the first line.

Already known for its contingent of Finns, the Stars may have another ready to play in the “Bid D” in three years or so. Long term, Lindgren has the potential to become a playmaking second line center who could fill in on the first line if needed. At 6’0 187 pounds, Lindgren will need to add some muscle, but his size is not of great concern.

4. Niklas Grossman, D Age: 21

Grade: 7.0 B
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 56th Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

One might be apt to overlook Niklas Grossman if looking at the stat sheet. He only had 2 assists in 31 games with Sodertalje in the Swedish Elite League in 2004-05, and he only has 3 assists in 50 games with the Iowa Stars this season, but he’s actually one of the best young defensive defensemen in the AHL in 2005-06.

Grossman, who turned 21 in January, was a healthy scratch early in the season and then suffered a shoulder injury Nov. 18 that kept the him out of the I-Stars line-up for 10 games. Despite this difficult beginning to the season, the 6’4, 201-pound blueliner has become one of the I-Stars most dependable defensemen in his own zone and has provided a physical presence that has been vital since Edmonton prospect Matt Greene was recalled by the Oilers. The young Swede would like to become similar to Los Angeles King defenseman and fellow Swede Mattias Norstrom, and that’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Although Grossman has not put up numbers in the SEL or the AHL, he does have some offensive potential. Grossman’s powerful shot is always evident, but he shows flashes of puckmoving ability from time to time. He generally has good outlet passing, but he also occasionally skates the puck out of the zone and does quite well. While he has a ways to go before becoming a fixture on an NHL or AHL power play, he has shown the requisite stick skills needed to be a successful third or fourth defenseman in the NHL.

A good skater, especially for his size, Grossman must continue to work on his backwards acceleration and just continuing to gain experience and further fill out his frame. He should return to the Iowa Stars line-up in 2006-07, the first season Grossman will return to the same team as the previous season at the professional level. Although Dallas is not currently in need of a defensive defenseman, Grossman helped make John Erskine (part of a trade to the New York Islanders for Janne Niinimaa) and Shawn Belle expendable. Jon Klemm and Willie Mitchell are holding the role now, but Grossman is one of Dallas’ defensive defensemen of the future.

5. Vojtech Polak, RW Age: 20

Grade: 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 36th Overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

At the beginning of this season, it appeared as if Vojtech Polak had established himself ahead of Eriksson in the Dallas Stars organizational depth chart. The 20-year-old Czech was recalled by Dallas Oct. 21 for a three-game stint and returned to Iowa Oct. 30, making Polak and Lessard the first Iowa Stars recalled by Dallas. Polak played on Iowa’s first line the first half of the season, but by the end of December, it was apparent that Polak was not the consistent scorer that Iowa needed paired with center Toby Petersen. Lessard and Eriksson are now both firmly entrenched on either side of Petersen on the first line.

It’s not that Polak lacks skill. He has decent speed and skating skills, slick stickhandling, and is close to a sure-thing in a shootout, where he often goes to his backhand and roofs it past the goaltender. Often playing on a checking line the past three months, Polak has accepted this role and has played a more physical game. Despite this, Polak is poised to pass Yan Stastny (since traded by Edmonton to Boston) for fourth in Iowa Stars scoring with 12 goals and 18 assists in 52 games.

Once possessing the innate confidence that Loui Eriksson needed to step up his game, Polak is now the one searching for answers. His stick skills and finishing ability could make him a second line player in the NHL, but he will have to improve his defensive awareness and his consistency to make it to the NHL. The 6’0, 180-pound Polak will also have to continue to adjust to the longer, more physical, 80-game schedule of the NHL and AHL.

Polak first played pro hockey as a 15-year-old in the Czech Republic and was a regular in the Karlovy Vary line-up as a 17-year-old, but it is possible that Polak topped out at a young age. With two more years on his entry-level contract, Dallas and Polak have time to figure it out.

6. Mario Scalzo, D Age: 21

Grade: 7.0 C
Acquired: Signed as Free Agent Aug. 5, 2005

Despite being a member of the QMJHL All-Rookie Team in 2003 and being named to the QMJHL’s Second All-Star Team in 2004, all 30 NHL team passed on Scalzo over 18 rounds in two NHL Entry Drafts. However, after scoring 24 goals and 50 assists in 62 QMJHL games for Victoriaville and Rimouski, the Dallas Stars signed the free agent defenseman August 5, 2005.

Named to the 2005 QMJHL First All-Star Team, Scalzo had proven himself as one of the top offensive defensemen in major junior hockey. However, Scalzo’s 5’9, 187-pound frame left questions as to whether he could eventually cut it in the NHL. The rules of the new NHL help Scalzo’s cause. He’s an excellent skater who is quick, has excellent hands, and can quarterback a power play with his vision. Scalzo’s hard point shot also makes him effective with the man advantage. So gifted offensively, Scalzo’s defensive awareness needed improvement to start the season, and he was also regularly overpowered in one-on-one battles.

Over the course of the 2005-06 season Scalzo has improved his defensive awareness and is now trying to out-think opponents to win physical battles. Scalzo has also become a bit more physical and even stands up opponents at the blue line from time to time, thanks to his skating skills. Although Scalzo’s 3 goals and 22 assists in 61 games is not overly impressive, he has established himself as Iowa’s top offensive defenseman in Patrick Traverse’s absence due to recall and injuries.

Defensively, Scalzo has more work to do, although he has shown steady improvement. He still gets outmuscled in the corners and along the boards often, which will prevent him from starting 2006-07 in the NHL. However, Scalzo is the best puckmoving defense prospect that Dallas has. If he can add more muscle, improve his defensive awareness, and use his stick more intelligently on defense to compensate for his lack of size, he just might be able to become a second tier offensive defenseman at the NHL level.

7. James Neal, LW Age: 18

Grade: 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 33rd Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Although 35-year-old Bill Guerin’s career appears to be winding down, the Dallas Stars prospect cupboard is not bare of big power forwards. Six-foot-three, 190-pound left winger James Neal has the potential to be both a physical and offensive force.

The 18-year-old Plymouth Whaler had a modest 21 goals and 37 assists over the course of 66 games, but the first half of his season revealed some of his true scoring potential. In 32 games before the Christmas break, Neal had scored 13 goals and added 25 assists, with 8 of those goals and 16 of those assists coming on the power play. Neal was named the OHL Player of the Week Dec. 12 after two three-point games the previous week.

Last season Neal’s second half lagged because he needed additional strength, having not truly grown into his body at that point. This season, Neal’s strength is better, but he still went through a slump in the second half, at least compared to his first half of the season. However, Neal contributes more than just scoring. He’s an excellent body checker and he keeps his feet moving in pursuit of the man or the puck.

Neal’s regular season ended fairly strong though. In the final 13 games of the season, Neal scored 7 goals and 7 assists skating with Chicago Blackhawks third round pick Evan Brophey as his center.

Long term, Neal has the potential to be a second tier power forward in the NHL. He must continue to hone all of his skills and work on his conditioning and increase his strength in order to reach this potential. His first order of business is just to put together a full season averaging over a point per game for the Whalers and providing a physical presence.

8. Mike Smith, G Age: 24

Grade: 7.0 C
Acquired: 5th Rd, 161st Overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

The Dallas Stars already have one of the best puckhandling goalies in the NHL in Marty Turco, but they also have one of the best puckhandling goaltenders in the AHL, Mike Smith. Oh, and he can stop the puck too.

Smith tied an AHL record for assists by a goaltender in one game with 3 against Peoria Mar. 3. The last goaltender to duplicate this feat was a certain Martin Brodeur, then playing for the Utica Devils. In 41 games this season, Smith has 6 assists, three more than Niklas Grossman. The fourth-year pro can launch passes from the crease or the trapezoid to the far blue line and is also a goal-scoring threat if the net is empty, although he has none this season. Not only can Smith handle the puck well, he skates well enough to cut off the puck before it reaches the goal line if necessary, where he can also make crisp passes.

While Smith’s puckhandling exploits make the news, Smith is equally as adept at stopping pucks. His 2.60 goals against average places him eighth in the AHL and his .913 save percentage is good for 11th among AHL goalies. The I-Stars are chasing eighth place in the Western Conference for the final spot in the playoffs and Smith appears to be the goalie the team is going to ride down the stretch. Smith has been tabbed to start eight of Iowa’s 10 games in March and has a .919 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average, although his most recent start against Toronto, Mar. 19, did not go well. His skating helps him serve as a third defenseman with the puck, but it also gives him excellent crease movement. At 6’3 210 pounds, Smith is an imposing figure in net and does not allow the shooters much net to see. His quick glove is also an asset that has helped him earn three shutouts this season.

In addition to tending net for the Iowa Stars, Smith also played for Team Canada at the Loto Cup in Slovakia and was an emergency recall to Dallas for the Jan. 18 game against Atlanta to back up Johan Hedberg.

Smith has all the talent to tend nets in the NHL, but he must pick and choose when he becomes involved playing the puck or attempting to play the puck, especially since pucks can take odd bounces off the boards or the glass from time to time. After four years of ECHL and AHL hockey, Smith is ready for NHL action. Dallas will have to make a decision whether to maintain Hedberg as the backup or introduce Smith.

9. Mark Fistric, D Age: 19

Grade: 6.5 C
Acquired: 1st Rd, 28th Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Mark Fistric didn’t have an entirely healthy season, as he missed 10 games due to a broken foot, but it was much better than his 2004-05 season, and he was again the dominant physical defenseman he was when Dallas drafted him.

The Vancouver Giants captain missed most of the 2004-05 season with two broken jaws, but he still managed to rebound with personal scoring records of 7 goals and 29 assists in 60 games. The 6’3, 220-pound blueliner finished third in Vancouver defenseman scoring, but his primary contribution remained his physical play and his steady play in his own zone. The hulking defenseman skates remarkably well for his size, which allows him to better use his size to level opponents or angle them off. Despite suffering the injuries, Fistric still fights when needed.

Despite having fellow Giant blueliners Paul Albers and Cody Franson (Nashville) named to the WHL Western Conference First and Second All-Star Teams respectively, Fistric’s worth to the Giants is reflected by the fact he was named Co-MVP with goaltender Dustin Slade and Co-Defenseman of the Year with Albers. Captain Fistric was also important in helping lead Vancouver to the best record during the 2005-06 WHL regular season.

Fistric and the Giants will chase the WHL Championship and the Memorial Cup for the rest of this season, but the 19-year-old will play in the Dallas system in 2006-07, as he turns 20 this summer. Signed by Dallas to a contract before the 2005-06 season, Fistric is slated to play next season for the Iowa Stars, where he should provide the I-Stars with a physical defensive defenseman. With additional experience and work on his offensive skills, Fistric should eventually become a punishing stay-at-home defenseman on the Stars second or third pairing.

10. Junior Lessard, RW Age: 25

Grade: 6.0 B
Acquired: Signed as Free Agent April 15, 2004

Junior Lessard was signed by the Dallas Stars Apr. 15, 2004, after earning Hobey Baker honors by leading NCAA DI scoring with 32 goals and 31 assists in 45 games with the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Also named the WCHA Player of the Year and an NCAA West First All-American, much was expected out of Lessard with Houston entering the 2004-05 season. With only 11 goals and 11 assists in 71 games with Houston last season, Lessard was looking to rebound in Iowa in 2005-06. He has.

Lessard was selected to represent the Iowa Stars at the AHL All-Star Game, playing for the Canadian All-Star Team, and is now second in Iowa scoring with 22 goals and 23 assists in 54 games. The right winger missed nine games after suffering a shoulder injury against Hamilton Nov. 9, but he also missed three I-Stars games while in Dallas. Recalled by Dallas for two short stints in October and early November, Lessard scored his first NHL goal Nov. 6 against Edmonton, his lone point in five games.

The 25-year-old had Iowa’s first five-point game Jan. 7 against the Chicago Wolves and was named the AHL Player of the Week Jan. 8 for his three-goal, three-assist week. Although Lessard is Iowa’s leading goal scorer, he is not a flashy offensive player. Lessard scores most of his goals through hard work around the net and by using his hard shot, which he is never reluctant to use. The 6’0, 200-pound winger is also never reluctant to battle for the puck, although he is not physical in a checking sense.

Lessard’s future is probably as a third line forward who works hard and chips in offensively. His speed is only average by NHL standards, so he will not be burning anybody wide or splitting the defense. However, any team that can set up in the offensive zone with Lessard down low or around the net has a chance to score. Primarily a scorer, Lessard is not devoid of playmaking ability, and he’s also conscientious defensively, realizing that defense leads to offense.

11. Tobias Stephan, G Age: 22

Grade: 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 34th Overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Switzerland’s Martin Gerber and David Aebischer have both become NHL starters and both impressed at the Olympics in Torino, helping Swiss hockey take the next step toward establishing a Big 8 in the hockey world. The next Swiss goaltender in the NHL could be Tobias Stephan.

Most goaltenders love being the go-to guy, getting a large workload and shouldering a lot of responsibility. The Swiss Nationalliga A is known for favoring number ones, often starting every game of the schedule, and this has been Stephan most of the past three seasons for the Kloten Flyers. Stephan played every minute of the Kloten Flyers 44-game schedule in 2002-03. Daniel Manzato, a fifth round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, and Favio Ludke received some ice time in 2003-04, but Stephan played all but 90 minutes in 2004-05 and all but 22 minutes in 2005-06, as Simon Pfister started one game. Kloten barely made the Nationalliga A playoffs, but Stephan helped lead the Flyers past Bern in the first round of the playoffs and now play Lugano in the semi-finals.

The each of the past three seasons including 2005-06, Stephan has had 5 shutouts, 4 shutouts, and 5 shutouts. The 6’3, 185-pound netminder has size similar to Smith and also has the crease movement to match Smith. Stephan’s contract with Kloten runs through the 2006-07 season, so he may not be brought to North America next season. However, he does have the talent and ability to play in the AHL now.

The Stars face a difficult task in bringing Stephan to North America. He is not a bluechip prospect, and he has a fairly leisurely schedule in small Switzerland, which does not require much travel. The Swiss Nationalliga A also pays very well, which is why numerous former NHLers and top Europeans play in the league. Only by playing in the NHL will Stephan earn what he’s earning in the Nationalliga A. So, will Stephan make the move to Iowa in pursuit of the NHL or will he stay in Switzerland, where he’s comfortably a starter and plays nearly every minute of the season? Perhaps the possibility of following in Aebischer and Gerber’s footsteps will be enough, because it won’t be for the AHL money.

12. Dan Ellis, G Age: 25

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 60th Overall, 2000 NHL Entry Draft

Dan Ellis was the USHL Player of the Year in 2000, owns much of the University of Nebraska-Omaha record book for goaltenders, was the ECHL Kelly Cup MVP after leading the Idaho Steelheads to the ECHL championship, and has played two and a half solid seasons of AHL hockey, but Smith has surpassed the 25-year-old.

Ellis had a .909 save percentage in 20 AHL games for Utah in 2003-04, a .908 save percentage for Hamilton in 2004-05, and a .907 save percentage in 29 games for Iowa this season, making Ellis’ time in the AHL quite consistent. His 2.94 goals-against average is also very respectable, but Smith appears to be establishing himself as the dominant goaltender down the stretch.

A strong goaltender technically, Ellis does not roam to play the puck as much as Smith, but his rebound control is not as good as Smith’s, so he does create some work for himself that way. Ellis also flops a bit much at times, but he’s still a solid AHL goaltender and was recalled by Dallas Dec. 26 to back up Hedberg in St. Louis. He was reassigned to Iowa the next day.

Ellis has the potential to be a solid backup netminder in the NHL, but he’s in an organization that has 30-year-old Marty Turco, who should play for a few more years, 32-year-old Johan Hedberg, and then 24-year-old Mike Smith all in front of him. Hedberg is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but Smith is the one who would likely be tabbed for NHL duty. Turning 26 this summer, Ellis is scheduled to become a Group VI unrestricted free agent. Ellis is not likely to be signed by an NHL team for any other purpose but to play in the AHL, at least to start the season. Thus, it is probable that Ellis will be re-signed, but to again play in Iowa and serve as the first recall if injuries strike the big club.

13. Johan Fransson, D Age: 21

Grade: 7.0 D
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 34th Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Once considered one of the top young Swedish defensemen, Johan Fransson has not developed the past two seasons as was hoped and he has almost stalled in the Swedish Elite League.

Injuries limited his playing time in 2002-03, so he opted out of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. But he rebounded well the next season and became a regular in Lulea’s line-up as 19-year-old in 2003-04, after which Dallas drafted him in the second round of the 2004 Draft. Considered to be an excellent skater with strong puckmoving potential, Fransson’s production the past two seasons was nearly identical to his production in 2003-04, when he had 3 goals and 3 assists in 44 games. This season, Fransson scored 3 goals and 5 assists in 50 games and did manage to become a regular on Lulea’s second pair with Pekka Saravo, although he was fifth among Lulea defensemen in scoring.

Fransson started the Swedish Elite League playoffs well enough, with a power play assist and the game-winning goal in double-overtime, but that would be the 21-year-old’s only plus marker in the playoffs, as he finished a team-worst -7.

The 6’0, 185-pound defenseman has the potential to become a second tier puckmoving defenseman at the NHL level, but he has a ways to go. Fransson’s contract with Lulea is up at the end of the 2005-06 season, making it a prime time for Dallas to begin to direct his development with the Iowa Stars. With a few Swedes and a Norwegian who can speak fluent Swedish due to be on the I-Stars roster again next season, there may be no better time than to begin Fransson’s transition to North American pro hockey than in 2006-07 in the AHL, perhaps even pairing with Niklas Grossman.

14. Tom Wandell, C Age: 19

Grade: 7.0 D
Acquired: 5th Rd, 146th Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Tom Wandell had played Swedish J18’s as a 15-year-old and averaged over a point per game. He then had 22 points in 33 games in Swedish J20’s as a 16-year-old, leaving many to believe the 6’1, 183-pound center would be one of the top Swedes available in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Unfortunately for Wandell, he tore his ACL and missed nearly the entire 2004-05 season.

Dallas still took Wandell on the chance that he develops along the path he had been on, and the 2005-06 season was a decent rebound season when the circumstances of 2004-05 are considered. Wandell had 19 goals and 20 assists in 41 regular season games for Sodertalje’s J20 team, making him one of the top scorers in Swedish junior hockey.

However, there had been hopes that Wandell might be able to graduate up to part-time Swedish Elite League hockey with Sodertalje in 2005-06 as well, but that was not the case. Sodertajle currently joins Leksands in playing against the four top Allsvensken teams (Skelleftea, Malmo, Rogle, and Bofors) to qualify to play in the SEL in 2006-07. Despite Sodertalje being the second worst team in the SEL in 2005-06, Wandell only played in five games with the big club.

If Sodertalje is relegated to the Allsvensken league, Wandell will likely make the jump to full-time professional hockey. If Sodertalje avoids relegation, then the 19-year-old becomes one of many who will attempt to crack the roster. For Wandell’s own development, it might be better if Sodertalje is relegated to the Allsvensken league and he begins playing against men sooner rather than later. Even at the J20 level, Wandell still has something to prove, as his only point in four J20 playoff games was an empty net goal against Huddinge.

After a healthy 2005-06, the 2006-07 season should serve as a better indication of how Wandell will continue to develop. With the offensive talent he demonstrated prior to 2003-04 and some of the flashes he showed this season, he has the potential to become a second line center in the NHL. However, the chances of him becoming nothing more than a second line center in the Swedish Elite League seem equally as plausible at this point.

15. Rich Clune, LW Age: 18

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 71st Overall, 2005 NHL Entry Draft

Rich Clune’s 20 goals and 32 assists in 61 games for the Sarnia Sting may not be overly impressive, especially for a former third round pick, but his two-way play has caught the attention of the OHL and Team Canada.

Clune played for Team Canada at the 2004 U18 Junior World Cup and the 2005 IIHF U18 Junior Championships last season and played for Team OHL in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge Series in November. Although Clune’s team had a difficult season, finishing with the worst record in the OHL, the 18-year-old co-captain was one of the bright spots of 2005-06. Third in team scoring, Clune was recognized by the OHL Western Conference coaches as one of the best body checkers in the conference, polling at third behind London’s Jordan Foreman and Plymouth’s Jared Boll, a 2005 draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Physical play, skating, and effort are the three strongest points of Clune’s game. A strong skater with good speed and agility, Clune puts his skating skills to good use on the forecheck, backcheck, and in his own zone. Clune’s skating and intensity help him make his 5’11, 194-pound body seem much larger to opponents when he lays them out.

Though they have the first pick in the draft, Sarnia is due to lose Atlanta Thrashers draft pick Chad Painchaud to pro hockey in 2006-07, so the Sting will need Clune to step up his offensive game and to continue to lead by example. Long term, the Stars have a future third or fourth line checking winger on their hands.

16. Yared Hagos, C Age: 22

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 70th Overall, 2001 NHL Entry Draft

Yared Hagos established himself as a good two-way center in the Allsvensken League with AIK in 2002-03 and then two seasons with Timra in the Swedish Elite League, so the expectations for the 22-year-old Yared Hagos were higher than for some of the younger Iowa Stars prospects. However, Hagos did not immediately adapt to the more physical North American style and soon found himself as the I-Stars fourth line center. Hagos missed the first half of January injured and was held scoreless the second half of the month, part of a largely disappointing season up to that point.

Despite being held scoreless, it was after returning from injury that Hagos began turning the corner. The 6’1, 205-pound center began to assert himself physically, with a turning point seeming to come against Grand Rapids Jan. 28. The Swede had demonstrated his two-way awareness and his playmaking abilities for most of the season, although without much offensive production, but when Griffins forward Valtteri Filppula came to check Hagos on the forecheck, the I-Stars then stationary center let Filppula come and then proceeded to flatten him, after which he proceeded to break the puck out from beside the net of the defensive zone as if nothing had happened.

Since then, Hagos has shown some of the aggressiveness and intensity he’ll need to play in the NHL. Hagos has quick feet, but he could afford to make his stride more powerful. Hagos has decent stickhandling skills, but he needs to continue to venture into traffic more and more. The extra intensity has helped Hagos score 3 goals and 9 assists in his last 20 games, production that would indicate some NHL potential.

Because he does have soft hands and playmaking abilities, he has the potential to become a third line center. It’s more likely that he’ll become a fourth line center who can fill in on the third line if needed. Hagos will not crack Dallas’ roster in 2006-07, but he’s now showing the progress necessary toward eventually playing in the NHL as a defensive center with some offensive upside.

17. John Lammers, LW Age: 20

Grade: 7.0 D
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 86th Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

After three full seasons with Lethbridge, John Lammers finally had his breakout season, only it was with the Everett Silvertips under former NHL head coach Kevin Constantine.

Lammers had long been considered a highly talented player offensively, a speedster with excellent agility and soft hands. However, he had also been considered a player who floated and did not drive to the net as he needed. Skating on a line with center Zach Hamill and right wing Brady Calla, the Silvertip left-winger struck the WHL like a hurricane to start the season. The 19-year-old had 12 goals and 12 assists in his first 16 games, thanks in part to playing with the highly-talented Hamill.

Lammers lost Hamill to mono in early November, and his production trailed because of it. In the first 16 games of Hamill’s absence, Lammers only tallied 3 goals and 5 assists. However, the game before the Christmas break, Lammers had two goals and an assist in a 3-2 victory over Seattle, and his scoring has been back on track since. Hamill returned after the Christmas break, and Lammers had 21 goals and 20 assists in 35 games with Hamill as his center again.

Playing in all but two games and setting Everett team scoring records with 38 goals and 37 assists in 70 games, Lammers was named Everett’s Team MVP. With only 25 penalty minutes, Lammers is the Western Conference’s finalist for the WHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year award.

Dangerous on the power play, Lammers tallied 16 power play goals and added 22 assists with the man advantage. A regular on the Everett penalty kill, he also tallied four shorthanded goals. More willing now to venture into traffic to make plays and score goals, and with a talented center like Hamill, Lammers’ production increased accordingly in 2005-06. The 20-year-old’s next stop is likely the Iowa Stars, where the 5’11, 190-pound forward will have to prove he can handle the bigger, stronger, and faster opponents of the AHL. With only one season of impressive scoring in the WHL under his belt, questions still remain about Lammers, but the 2005-06 season leaves reason for optimism.

18. Marius Holtet, RW Age: 21

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 42nd Overall, 2002 NHL Entry Draft

Norwegian Marius Holtet failed to crack the Swedish Elite League while playing in Sweden and only had 7 goals and 5 assists in 54 games with the Houston Aeros in his first season of North American hockey. The 2002 second round draft pick was even assigned to Louisiana of the ECHL for four games in 2004-05. He started the 2005-06 season on the Iowa Stars fourth line, but the hustling Holtet is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite missing the final four games of February and the first two games of March due to injury, Holtet has found his scoring touch in February and March. With Mathias Tjarnqvist up in Dallas, Kyle Brodziak up in Edmonton for a stint, and Yan Stastny now traded, Holtet has received more ice time in recent weeks and has responded. The 21-year-old has 2 goals and 9 assists in his last 15 games, boosting him to 8 goals and 11 assists in 56 games. Despite skating on the third and fourth lines for much of the season, Holtet had displayed his heavy shot, stickhandling skills, and playmaking ability most of the season. Only Team Norway, at various junior tournaments, relied upon Holtet in offensive situations thus far in his career, so Holtet is just starting to gain confidence in his offensive abilities.

When not scoring, Holtet has still been useful. A strong player with a low center of gravity and decent speed, the 6’0, 190-pound forward has finished his checks all season, with force. A tenacious forechecker, Holtet does still need to improve his defensive awareness to forecheck more intelligently, but the effort put forth is a strong start.

Holtet is still at least one more AHL season away from competing for a spot on Dallas’ fourth line, but his recent increase in offense has been encouraging. Once seeming destined to only be a fourth liner in the NHL, if that, Holtet is now starting to fulfill his potential as a third line NHL forward. The next step is to become a second line forward for the Iowa Stars.

19. Raymond Sawada, RW Age: 21

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 2nd Rd, 52nd Overall, 2004 NHL Entry Draft

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Raymond Sawada only had 6 goals and 12 assists in 29 games, putting the sophomore forward third in scoring on the Cornell Big Red. While these offensive statistics might often be alarming for a second round draft pick, Sawada plays for one of the most defense-oriented teams in all of college hockey.

Cornell has had a great deal of success in recent seasons, and Sawada has been a big part of that the past two seasons. The 6’2, 205-pound right winger is one of the most physical forwards in the ECACHL, but Sawada does it without racking up unnecessary penalty minutes. Sawada’s hockey sense and skating allow him to make his hits fairly and keep his team at even strength.

Sawada averaged nearly a point per game with the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL as an 18-year-old, demonstrating he does have sufficient offensive ability. Allowed to fight in the BCHL without being disqualified for a game, Sawada could also bring this aspect to the Stars line-up in the future, although Sawada does not search for fights.

The undrafted and unheralded Mike Iggulden has put up respectable numbers with the Cleveland Barons this season after putting almost no numbers while playing a defensive role for Cornell, so Sawada could easily one-up the forward now signed by San Jose. Sawada may never put up big numbers for the Big Red, but his skill set still gives him the potential to become a third or fourth line checking forward for the Stars.

20. Matt Nickerson, D Age: 21

Grade: 6.0 C
Acquired: 3rd Rd, 99th Overall, 2003 NHL Entry Draft

After aborting his collegiate career with Clarkson College after one season and a largely unimpressive season with Victoriaville in the QMJHL, 6’4, 230-pound project defenseman Matt Nickerson appeared a likely candidate to develop his game with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL with some call-ups to the Iowa Stars during the 2005-06 season. Instead of allowing Nickerson to play in a minor pro league replete with goons, the Dallas Stars reversed their Suomi pipeline and sent an American to Finland to develop his game.

With the Iowa Stars’ roster full with both Dallas and Edmonton prospects, Nickerson was assigned to Assat of the SM-Liiga, where he would not be allowed to focus entirely on his intimidation. Lo and behold Nickerson has already become a fixture in SM-Liiga lore, as he packed 218 penalty minutes into only 29 games to beat out Jarkko Ruutu’s 215 minutes in 50 games during the NHL lockout. While Nickerson did finish the season with 236 penalty minutes in 36 games, he also managed to earn on a spot on Assat’s first defense pair with Pasi Peltonen. The 21-year-old tallied 5 goals and 8 assists, demonstrating some usefulness on the Assat power play, where he had 2 goals and 8 assists.

Despite averaging over seven penalty minutes per games, Nickerson was far from a loose cannon (by North American standards) in the SM-Liiga. Although he was suspended on a few occasions, Finland assesses 25 penalty minutes for fighting (the standard North American five minutes combined with an automatic 20-minute game misconduct.) With five, ten, 20, and 25-minute major penalties available for assessment, it is easy to accumulate penalty minutes if one fights or plays overly aggressively in the SM-Liiga.

With Edmonton looking to have its own AHL affiliate in 2006-07, the Iowa Stars should have room for Nickerson next season. In fact, with Garrett Burnett released, Francis Wathier out for most of the season, and Zach Stortini reassigned to Milwaukee by Edmonton, Iowa has been in need of a big policeman lately. Long term, Nickerson has the potential to become a punishing, physical sixth defenseman. He will need to continue to improve his skating, but Nickerson’s experiment in Finland went far better than Phoenix’ aborted attempt with Dan Focht in 1999.

Just missed the cut

B.J. Crombeen started the 2005-06 season as a fixture in the Iowa Stars line-up, providing a physical forward along the boards with an imposing 6’2, 212-pound frame. As the season has progressed, Holtet and former ECHLers Krys Barch and Jamie Johnson have firmly established themselves ahead of Crombeen. Crombeen has a fairly powerful stride and physicality on his side, but the offense has been lacking. The former Barrie Colt has 4 goals and 7 assists in 43 games for the I-Stars this season, but he’s also been assigned to Idaho of the ECHL, where he has scored an encouraging 5 goals and 3 assists in 8 games. Once a member of Canada’s U18 team, Crombeen topped out in the OHL with three seasons of 46 to 50 points. Crombeen could become a future fourth liner for Dallas, but he’ll have to reestablish himself in Iowa down the stretch and in 2006-07 first.

Janos Vas too has struggled to stay in the I-Stars line-up, be it to assignment to Idaho, or the broken wrist he suffered from a slash against Peoria, or the sprained MCL he suffered against Manitoba Mar. 5. The 22-year-old missed 11 games with the wrist injury and could be out the rest of the season with the MCL injury if Iowa fails to make the playoffs. Vas only has 2 goals and 7 assists in 29 games with Iowa, but his 4 goals and 5 assists in 10 games with Idaho provides some hope. A second round pick of the Stars in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Vas has begun to look more and more like Holtet as 2005-06 as progressed. Vas has a powerful shot and some playmaking ability, but he’s also begun to finish his checks and contribute when not scoring. When healthy, he has served on a wing pair with Holtet and has also killed penalties with Holtet. The 6’1, 203-pound Hungarian has a similar upside as Holtet, but he’ll need a healthy 2006-07 to begin reaching his potential as a checking line forward in the NHL.

Joel Lundqvist is back on the Dallas Stars prospect map after scoring 10 goals and 22 assists in 49 games for Vastra Frolunda. Although he was fifth in Frolunda scoring, he was 20th in SEL scoring. Having improved his skating, Lundqvist’s 32 points were close to the 37 points he scored in 2003-04, when he was second in Frolunda scoring behind former NHLer Niklas Andersson. The 24-year-old’s production is encouraging, but it is Lundqvist’s grit and effort, on top of his skill, that could get him to the NHL as a fourth line center. Lundqvist’s contract with Frolunda expires at the end of the 2005-06 season, so he could be a candidate to come to North America in 2006-07. Although he would likely start the season with the Iowa Stars, Lundqvist could end up a candidate for NHL recall if injuries struck Dallas.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.