Nichushkin leads new-look Dallas Stars Top 20 prospects ranking

By Mike Farkas

Valeri Nichushkin - Team Russia

Photo: Valeri Nichushkin, the Stars’ 10th overall pick in 2013, will make the transition to North America in 2013-14 (courtesy of ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The Dallas Stars, now under the new management of long time Red Wings assistant General Manager Jim Nill, continue to augment their stellar prospect group. Adding blue-chip prospect Valeri Nichushkin really helps to push the Stars further into the elite category among league-wide cupboards.

Between Joe Nieuwendyk’s trade deadline coups and Nill’s drafting, the Stars have really supplied a good amount of depth to the list as well that should serve them well sooner rather than later in a lot of cases.

1. (NR) Valeri Nichushkin, LW/RW, 8.5C
Drafted 1st round, 10th overall, 2013

A pronounced, blue-chip skater prospect has eluded the Dallas Stars organization for some time now. Jamie Benn’s unexpected rise to stardom notwithstanding, the Stars appear to have netted one of the biggest fish in the 2013 sea. Jim Nill’s actions seemed to exclaim, “Russian factor be damned” when the Stars selected the much-discussed, supremely-talented power winger and promptly signed the former Chelyabinsk standout to a three-year deal.

Another former Chelyabinsk standout, Sergei Gonchar, was acquired prior to the draft and could really help Nichushkin get acclimated to the American lifestyle and language. On the ice, Nichushkin will not need much help. With his excellent skating ability and complex understanding of the geometry and timing of the game, he seems like he may turn out to be a fast learner at the North American pro level.

His skill level is through the roof, and his one-on-one prowess and finishing ability are of great quality. He could still improve his distribution skills, as he has a tendency to put his head down and just try to muscle his way into prime real estate. It should not be a big surprise if Nichushkin spends the majority of the season in an NHL lineup.

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

Armed with a reasonable workload and a reasonable defense, Jack Campbell had his best season since being drafted by the Stars back in 2010. The first-year pro was saddled with the unfortunate task of being his club’s only line of defense for a lot of nights in juniors, but under new head coach Willie Desjardins, Campbell played well merely as the last line of defense at the AHL level. Though he was held out of playoff action last year, Campbell showed that he is still one of the top young goalies around and will look to take the reins this year down in Cedar Park, Texas.

As a result of the more controlled atmosphere he is now in, Campbell has matured his style quite a bit. He really put his athleticism on display in previous years, almost to a fault. Last season, he was not left flailing all over the place and seemed much more relaxed but still confident in his ability. Despite a professional veteran being on the AHL club as well, Campbell should be given at least the “1A” role this season.

3. (7) Brenden Dillon, D, 7.5B
Signed as a free agent, March 2011

Strong defenseman Brenden Dillon only remains a prospect because of the NHL’s unsightly work stoppage that claimed nearly half the season. Dillon has progressed admirably in a short amount of time and his coaches have taken note. The undrafted blueliner led the Stars in even strength ice time in 2013 and still managed to be a plus-1 on a team with a negative goal differential.

Dillon is a competent all-around defenseman that does not necessarily excel at any one thing, but has very little in the way of weaknesses. His offensive upside is somewhat limited, but his physical play and defensive awareness are not. The Stars have a nice piece that can help to cover for more offensively-focused rearguards like Alex Goligoski and Sergei Gonchar.

4. (3) Alex Chiasson, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2009

It was an impressive rookie campaign for former Boston University standout Alex Chiasson. He quickly adjusted to the professional game at the AHL level amidst a lot of younger players and stood out as a lead catalyst for offense on a team that is still forging an identity under coach Willie Desjardins. Though he only appeared in 57 AHL contests, he finished fourth on the club with 35 points. Further, he registered six goals and seven points in his first seven NHL games.

A big, intelligent forward, Chiasson really seems to understand the offensive zone well. Typically more a playmaking winger, Chiasson adapted into more of a net crasher and soft-zone-finder when he got called up to the NHL as he modified his game to match the new speed and intensity of his new environment. Once he redevelops his puck poise and patience for the NHL game, Chiasson should be able to be counted on for loads of possession time and a good mix of passing ability and finishing touch.

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

Hulking forward Brett Ritchie morphed into full-on monster mode for most of the previous season despite all the talent that was stripped away around him in Niagara (OHL). He completed his junior career with a sixth place finish in goals despite missing 15 games between bumps, bruises, and international competition. He earned a Second Team All Star berth as well before jumping to the American League.

Not at all deterred by the IceDogs early exit from the OHL playoffs, Ritchie quickly acquainted himself with the professional game and did not look out of place. He scored five goals in 14 games (regular season and playoffs combined) and will be looked upon heavily as a rookie this season to replace the goals that Matt Fraser took with him to Providence/Boston. Beyond his adept finishing ability, Ritchie is a powerful hitter and does well for himself on the forecheck. He has improved his skating and strength and looks more determined on a shift-to-shift basis than he did when he first jumped into junior hockey.

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

It is not an indictment of his play that Oleksiak falls out of the top-five, just a matter of circumstance in a deep prospect pool. The towering blueliner had a strong minor league season and ranked highly among his teammates in points with 33 in 59 games. His plus-19 rating led all team blueliners handily. The former Northeastern University stud also appeared in his first 16 NHL games where he registered two helpers and a minus-5 rating.

Oleksiak was clearly unready to step into the NHL with such limited pro experience under his belt. He seemed over-matched by the speed quite a bit and it prompted some questionable decisions on both sides of the puck. Optimistically, this describes a lot of young, athletic and incredibly tall defensemen that first step foot on NHL ice. Oleksiak has a boatload of potential given his attributes and he will be granted every opportunity to prove himself at the AHL and NHL level this year it would appear.

7. (7) Alex Guptill, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 77th overall, 2010

Though the numbers improved a bit (33 points in 41 games jumped to 36 points in 38 games), it was not quite as impressive of a season for Alex Guptill at the University of Michigan these past two semesters. Perhaps the expectations were set a little too high after his excellent freshman season or the fact that legendary coach Red Berenson had to remind him that he cannot rest on his laurels for long, but a potentially dominant season was left on the table.

Guptill is a skilled craftsman but not so skilled that he can coast into the show. He is definitely not a finished product and is not exceptionally polished overall either. Between his frame and his puckhandling, the package is certainly intriguing. As he transitions into being an upperclassman at Yost Ice Arena, he will be looked upon as a leader for his teammates and a load-bearing rock for coach Red Berenson. How he handles this season may glean a lot into his future as a professional player – to add to that, this will probably be Guptill’s final collegiate season.

8. (NR) Jason Dickinson, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2013

With the Stars second first round selection, they snatched up skilled forward Jason Dickinson from the Guelph Storm and he debuts highly on the very competitive list. Dickinson has a lot of tools at his disposal and despite his somewhat dismal ending to the season gone by, he is very worthy of his first round designation. He put up a respectable 47 points and led all of his forward teammates with a plus-19 rating in 2012-13. With more consistent, determined play, Dickinson could emerge as a top flight OHL talent.

Should Guelph patch up a couple of lineup holes, they could really put together a nice little run this season and Dickinson will be expected to shoulder a lot of the offensive load. He has a projectable frame, excellent skating, and a good head for the game. He can play the skill game, he can play it both ways, he can even play some physical hockey, but he has yet to do it all together on a consistent basis. If he can put all of his skills to good use at the same time, the rich get richer in terms of winger depth in this organization.

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

The precipitous rise of Devin Shore will hopefully coincide with a resurgence of Maine Black Bears hockey under new coach Red Gendron. Though the numbers are not awe-striking at a cursory glance, his 26 points in 38 games led the club. And these were hard-earned points no doubt, Maine’s limp offensive attack mustered just 77 goals on the season and that means Shore had a direct hand in more than one-third of the Black Bears’ offense.

Shore was used in a few different situations, including his first foray into running the point of the power play. The most consistent thing about Shore’s usage is that good things happened while he was on the ice an inordinate amount of the time. Shore is an intelligent player with terrific vision and sneaky-good skill. He is clean, industrious, and has shown to be a good decision maker. This year he could emerge as one of the finest players in the Hockey East Conference and bump the Black Bears a little higher on the table.

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

It was a trying year for sophomore junior Radek Faksa. Saddled with injuries and ailments, the Czech-born center was limited to just 39 games and just nine goals (31 points in all). It was a pretty lean offensive year for the Rangers (OHL) all told as well – at 216 goals, only non-playoff qualifiers Windsor and Erie set off fewer red lights. He was growing in terms of offensive creativity while still minding the fence defensively before his season was derailed. His World Junior Championships was far from dominant, but his respectable two-way play definitely was not holding the Czechs back at all.

Faksa is still very much a quality prospect, but bigger, longer strides need to be taken offensively if he wants to reach the lofty first-line potential that was placed over him. He is expected to have another junior season to polish his offensive tools, which should help him with confidence in all facets of his game. Faksa is a fine checker and board player; as an added bonus, he is also strong on faceoffs.

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

Just as Patrik Nemeth was really starting to come around and put the pieces together a little more consistently, the injury bug bit. Nemeth’s season was cut in half and he missed the entire postseason as a result – not the ending that the mammoth Swedish blueliner had envisioned for his first North American season. He showed a number of gifted moments during the first half of the season but was still clearly figuring things out on the fly in his new environment.

The former second round pick is a really neat package of size and capability. Though he projects as more of a physical, defensive-minded defender; Nemeth has good skating ability and even showed flashes of being able to rush the puck this past season. As long as health does not become an issue long-term, Nemeth – especially given his lower-than-deserved place on this list – is an underrated player who could catch many by surprise in the near future.

12. (11) Matej Stransky, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 165th overall, 2011

It was a slow start for Matej Stransky and his Saskatoon Blades and then a quick finish to his WHL season. In between, Stransky was a noteworthy goal scorer. He eclipsed the venerable 40-goal mark after coming just one goal shy the year before. He led the Blades in plus/minus at plus-32, which does not really describe his defensive game accurately, but the number (in part) backs the fact that he is a possession monster. Using his big size, strength and reach, the Czech import owns the boards and can shield off junior players with relative ease.

Unfortunately, Stransky could not power the Blades beyond the first round of the WHL playoffs nor could they avoid early elimination in the Memorial Cup as the host team. Despite his pronounced goal-scoring totals, Stransky is a bit of a project. He will turn pro this season and the expectation is that there will be ample time needed for him to adjust to the speed of the new game. Skating is not his strength; he plays a slower, more deliberate game. He can still be effective, but it will be a learning process for him.

13. (NR) Kevin Connauton, D, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Vancouver, April 2013

Offensive defenseman Kevin Connauton came along with a second round pick from Vancouver in exchange for center Derek Roy near the NHL trade deadline last season. The former third round selection was an AHL All-Star in 2011-12 and made his presence felt immediately in Texas. He registered six points in nine regular season games and then five more points in another nine playoff games. The Stars clearly wanted to address the organizational depth at defense and they did just that by adding the offensive pop that Connauton brings.

The Edmonton native grew up playing forward, but to utilize his skating and slap shot, Connauton was moved back to defense late in his development. He is good at moving the puck forward and he has an NHL caliber shot already. Away from the puck, he will need to iron out some things certainly. He just needs to find that consistency game to game to become an NHL player. The Stars have invested heavily in him by inking him to a three-year contract in the summer. Since Connauton requires waivers to go down to the AHL, there may be enough term on this contract to scare away would-be waiver poachers if it is necessary for Connauton to be demoted at all.

14. (NR) Philippe Desrosiers, G, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2013

The athletic, composed netminder from Rimouski (QMJHL) was Dallas’ pick at 54 in the 2013 NHL Draft. In a year where goalie talk was dominated largely by Zachary Fucale (MTL), Desrosiers quietly put himself on the radar with a quality season for the Oceanic and then with a mind-numbing performance for Canada the U18 WJC. Not at all a stranger to accolades already, Desrosiers was named Quebec AAA’s best goalie prospect in 2012, then was named to the QMJHL All-Rookie Team in 2013, won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in the same league, and then won a gold medal at the U18 World Juniors.

Desrosiers is an active butterfly goalie that does not just rely on pucks hitting him. He can get up out of his stance quickly and reset himself just as fast, which is valuable for lateral movement. He has an advanced grasp of rebound control which is always a great sign. His stickhandling is certainly above par as well. Of course, “some assembly required” is stuck on the side of the box for any young goalie. Desrosiers has the talent to emerge as one of the top goalies in the Q.

15. (14) Emil Molin, C/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2011

Now with a second professional season under his belt in the newly-rebranded SHL, Emil Molin should finally get some increased looks in the Brynas offense. Though he has appeared in 34 contests in each of the past two seasons, he has been limited to a combined two goals and six assists thanks to limited ice time. When he got a chance to really stretch his legs in the World Junior Championships, he was impressive. He was an aggressive, energetic player that showed some flashes of skill that will hopefully translate to the pros in Sweden.

The compact Swedish forward has a nice little motor on him and an above-the-mark skill level. He is quick and elusive, a key to surviving as a smaller player. A slick, playmaking center is something that the Stars organizational depth chart surprisingly lacks and Molin could really make a name for himself with a strong season.

16. (15) Jyrki Jokipakka, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 195th overall, 2011

Another rather successful season on an individual level for sturdy defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka coincided with another unsuccessful campaign for the struggling Ilves club in Finland’s top league. The best news for Ilves is that they still remain in Finland’s top league as they were saved in relegation. The former seventh round selection will try his hand at the North American game for the first time this fall as he moves to the American Hockey League.

An intelligent Finnish player that does his best work in defense of his cage, Jokipakka’s biggest challenge this year will be just recalibrating his angles to the smaller rinks on this side of the ocean. Already 22 and without a North American pro game under his belt, the clock is ticking a little faster on Jokipakka but he plays such a composed game that he should be able to adjust to his new surroundings quickly. 159 games in the SM-Liiga certainly will not hurt.

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

It has been a wild ride for mobile, offensive defenseman John Klingberg. Constantly changing teams, scenery, leagues, tiers and dealing with injuries on top of all that. The diminutive blueliner returned mid-season from an injury and posted an impressive 13 points and plus-10 rating in 25 games and had a very good playoffs on his way to an SHL championship. He came across the pond to dress in one AHL playoff game and now will return to Frolunda over in Sweden.

He will strive to establish himself as one of the premier offensive defensemen in Sweden’s top league before trying his hand full-time at the North American pro game. He is an elusive, bordering on adventurous player with the puck on his stick but he is a chief catalyst for promising zone exits. The former fifth round selection is a major question mark overall, right now to his willingness to come over to North America.

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

More valuable pro experience was gained by the smooth skating second round pick in 2012-13. With 30 games played and three each of goals and assists, Bystrom was a secondary contributor to Modo (SHL). Despite a myriad of injuries to the Swedish blue line corps during the World Junior Championships, Bystrom was not named to the team. Additionally, he passed up potentially major minutes in the OHL after he was selected in the CHL Import Draft. Bystrom looks to have settled with Farjestad in 2013-14 with the hopes of gaining more ice time.

Bystrom is a creative offensive defenseman that can skate very well. He seems to lack focus and determination on the rink and can find himself in penalty trouble as a result. In the pros, he is much more reserved but plays a little bit more tentative than his skill set would indicate.

19. (19) Mike Winther, C/W, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2012

Versatile Mike Winther had another quietly successful season on the Prince Albert Raiders (WHL). Though his goals were knocked down by 10, he worked on other parts of his game this season behind Mark McNeill (CHI). Unfortunately, the Raiders and Winther played a very uneven, inconsistent game down the stretch and were quickly dispatched in the WHL playoffs.

The speedy forward will really have a chance to show off his abilities all season long on the Raiders, mainly because McNeill is turning pro. Winther will be challenged every night to shoulder the load both offensively and defensively on this team in transition. Unhappy with his performance down the stretch, Winther and his lightning quick release could make a big splash in the WHL in 2013-14.

20. (17) Scott Glennie, C, 7.0D
Drafted 1st round, 8th overall, 2009

It could be last call for former top-10 pick Scott Glennie on the Stars top 20 unless he turns it around this season. This will be his third pro season and he has not shown much in the way of improvement since being drafted. Habitually limited by injuries, Glennie was relegated to checking line center late in the season. Strangely, he embraced the role fairly well and utilized his speed very well. It might well be another tease for Stars fans who have been just as impressed with Glennie’s efforts as coaches/management.

The pure sniping ability is hiding somewhere in there, but it seems that the former Brandon Wheat King will need to carve out a niche as an energy player if he wants to be an NHL regular. Though raw data is not everything, his five goals and 14 points in 37 games are pretty indicative of his season in 2012-13.

Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter: @MichaelFarkasHF