The Chicago Blackhawks are what every franchise hopes to be. They are a team built in the draft, helped by some top draft picks that were the result of some very mediocre seasons. They've taken a couple of years to fully develop into the powerhouse they are now, but there's no denying their talent. They are a fast and skilled team that is deep at every position except goaltender, and it's beginning to look as if netminding is the only weakness on a very good team. You could see their growth start two seasons ago when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews started taking over games, and now they've just reached the start of what should be a very long and productive run at the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Dallas Stars are just now starting along that same path.
While the Stars have not had the luxury of enjoying a couple of top-three picks in the draft, the team is starting to see the fruition of it's change in team-building philosophy over the past several seasons. Where for years the Stars relied on calculated trades, free agent acquisitions and big-money contracts, finances and the "new NHL" have necessitated a building from within the organization.
With the Stars still working to transition to a new coach and new system, and still stuck in the limbo between old philosophy and new, the future of the franchise is taking shape on the ice right in front of our eyes.
James Neal, drafted 33rd overall in 2005.
Last season, Neal forced his way onto the NHL squad after a powerful performance in the preseason and immediately made it know that he was a franchise player for the future. Scoring 24 goals in his rookie season, Neal was a finalist for the Calder trophy, and showcased his explosive offensive potential with a wicked shot and fierce competitiveness.
This season, Neal leads the Stars with 18 goals and is on pace to shatter his career high of 37 points (he has 33 points through 35 games this season). He's added an ability and willingness to open up the offense for his teammates as well, and has become a playmaker from the boards and not just a simple 'finisher'. His tenacious forechecking and physical style of play is infectious for the rest of the team and he's becoming an on-ice leader, not just a young forward trying to find his way.
Neal is as important to the future of this franchise as any player on the roster. He is solid on defense, is extremely explosive on offense and is an intelligent and physical forward. He is set to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season, but chances are the Stars will lock him up long term once the finances open up a bit more; the Stars do not want to see what happens if Neal is able to test the open market.
Jamie Benn, drafted 129th overall (5th round) in 2007
Not much was known as to how Benn would handle the transition to the NHL after making the jump directly from Canadian junior hockey. Typically the only players able to make the leap without spending time in the AHL are the top overall draft choices, the Sidney Crosby's, the John Tavares's. While Benn certainly didn't enjoy the high profile attention the NHL superstars received on their way to the NHL, he certainly built a considerable buzz after the Stars drafted him in the 5th round in 2007.
Benn led his WHL team all the way to the Memorial Cup final, leading the CHL in playoff scoring and showcasing not just an ability to score from anywhere on the ice but also an inherent leadership ability that Stars had Stars fans salivating. Some thought he would do good to spend some time adjusting in the AHL, but luck and hard work gave Benn the opportunity to not only start the season in the NHL but to also play on the Stars' top lines.
Benn is still taking some time to get his skates underneath him in the NHL, but he's consistently shown why he belongs with the Stars. He's an intelligent player who is just as good in the defensive zone as he is on offense and is perhaps the team's most consistent backchecker. He's also showcased an incredible puck-handling and shooting ability, with one of the quickest wrist shots Stars fans have seen since the days of Joe Nieuwendyk.
Benn still has three years remaining on his entry level contract and if he continues to improve and reaches the high potential he's already shown, the Stars might just be shelling out top dollar for their next franchise player.
Tom Wandell, drafted 146th overall (5th round) in 2005 draft
Tom Wandell is the most surprising player on the roster this season. Drafted in 2005, he spent a season in Iowa (AHL) before playing last year in Sweden when the Stars operated without an AHL affiliate. He made a couple of spot appearances with the Stars last season and made a good impression, but it's doubtful anyone believed how important he would become for the Stars this season, and headed into the future.
With Benn and Neal, the Stars have their future offensive superstars and two players the franchise can hang their hats on. With Wandell, the Stars have their future grinder and defensive forward who is also tenacious in the offensive zone. Wandell has emerged as one of the most complete players on the team; he's extremely intelligent and plays a significant role on defense and on the penalty kill. He routinely sees important minutes in the final minutes of games when the Stars are protecting a lead and is consistently matched up with the opposition's top lines.
He's also a spark plug on offense, and his lines constantly create problems on the forecheck. He's shown the ability to create chances from anywhere on the ice with his speed and tenacity, and Marc Crawford routinely uses his energy to get the Stars going when things get bogged down.
Like Neal, Wandell is scheduled to become a restricted free agent. The Stars will have a tough decision to make when it comes to decide who will stay from among the number of players whose contracts are expiring; if the Stars wish to continue to follow the mold that has led to such success for the Blackhawks and others, then Wandell should be a part of this franchise moving forward.