It is generally accepted that over the past four years, despite having only one top 10 picks in that time, that the Stars prospect system is stronger than it has been for a while. The management has made a conscious shift away from trading draft picks, especially first round picks, for players and has taken up the new trend that is beginning within the NHL. That is to build your team through the draft rather than relying upon picking up the top free agents and trades to become dominant. Though you need free agents and trades to keep the team winning the main part of the team's core should come through drafting.
As much as some of us may have disliked seeing the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup, though it was very much deserved reward for their post season dominance, it was interesting to see the make up of that winning team. Their team had a lot of players which were home grown and they were complemented with some big names that were traded in during the season: Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.
A team can't rely solely on the draft to create a Stanley cup winning team but it needs to draft well and have picks to make sure that they have the best talent and can trade away surplus players to solve any organisational weakness.
With the Stars recently unable to attract the top free agents and having had their hands tied financially in the past few years they have taken on this new model of an NHL organisation. But is the prospect system shaping up to be able to take our Dallas Stars back for an extended journey into the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Where to start when analysing whether the Stars are ready to jump back into the thick of the action?
Our goaltender situation prospect wise is good, with Jack Campbell appearing to be able to become the franchise goalie of the Stars. His development is strong and despite having numbers in the OHL and AHL that appear lower than they should be he is still a very good goaltender. The teams who played in front of him in the OHL were not the top tier teams and most nights he was the one who kept them in contention at all. It was the same story in the AHL at the end of last season with the Texas Stars having not performed well after the departure of Glen Gulutzan. He has taken several steps along the road to become the future goaltender of the Stars but he needs time to develop in the AHL, at least another year or two.
Richard Bachman is the latest success story for Dallas Stars goaltender prospects and he has proven himself capable of performing in the role of backup. He doesn't have the high expectations of Jack Campbell but he could be one of those late round picks that turn into capable starting goaltenders. However he has received a one year contract with the Stars which makes his future appear to be dependent on the development of Jack Campbell and the evolution of the goaltending tandem in the coming years.
Tyler Beskorowany future with the Stars is questionable, especially following the free agent signing of Christopher Nihlstorp. Nihlstorp will either successfully seize the backup role from Bachman or become backup for Jack Campbell in the AHL. With the signing of Robinson to an AHL/ECHL contract a possible future with the Stars for Beskorowany seems increasingly unlikely.
The Stars blueline was considered its biggest weakness prospect wise only a few short years ago. We traded our top defensive prospect at the time, Ivan Vishnevskiy, in the Lehtonen deal and beyond Philip Larsen there was no real defensive depth. How things can change in three years of drafts.
The Stars now have several prospects knocking on the doors to the NHL due to a mixture of developing prospects and good free agent signings. Undrafted defenseman such as Brendan Dillon and Jordie Benn have played in the NHL, albeit for a single game and a couple of games respectively. Dillion appears to be certainly bound for the NHL next season while Benn is likely to be one of the first defenseman called up in case of injuries.
Next season there are a pair of defensive prospects who are turning pro who could loom on the Stars blueline in a few years: Patrick Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak. Both big, smooth skating and talented defenseman are likely to have a big impact on the Texas Stars defense and definitely have a future in the big club. Oleksiak at the very least is expected to be a top pairing defenseman in the NHL in a couple of seasons. These two top defensive prospects are likely to bring a huge home grown boost to the Dallas blueline in a few years and make it one of the bigger bluelines in the NHL.
Beyond these prospects who are likely to make an impact within two years we have project defenseman. Those whose chances of making the NHL are a lot less than Oleksiak and Nemeth but could become effective players if they develop well. Players such as Troy Vance, Jyrki Jokipakka and John Klingberg. They all show good potential which if tapped in only one of them could be a boast to the blueline. Picking up Ludwig Bystrom as well in the mid second round helped create a strong future for the blueline.
If even three of the prospects named could reach the NHL level then it would be a hugely beneficial for the Stars. Firstly to have a lot of players to choose from and increase competition for places and secondly in a stacked position the possibilities of trading from a position of strength for a position of weakness are greater. We saw this when the Stars traded a scoring winger James Neal, where we had a lot of strength at the time, for an offensive defenseman which the Stars lacked Alex Goligoski.
As a group these prospects have taken a step forward and there appear to be multiple above average prospects, mostly on the right wing. Though there are no real bluechippers amongst this group of players the fact that they are generally above average is a real advantage for the Stars. Instead of having all our eggs in 3 baskets like some teams do we have at least double digit number of prospects who have the potential to be a top nine forward, and the majority having high potential than that. Having only a fraction of them reach the NHL would be excellent. Considering the group of forwards that the Stars have in their prospect cupboards includes: Radek Faksa, Reilly Smith, Austin Smith, Scott Glennie, Alex Chiasson, Brett Richtie, Matej Stransky, Emil Molin, Matt Fraser, Mike Winther, Devin Shore and Alex Guptill. That's not a bad group of prospects at all and if only 20-25% of them get to the NHL that is still 3 players (ish). I personally think, and I'm going out on a limb here, that at least 5 of those players reach the NHL. Maybe not as Stars' players but in one form or another.
Currently this has become the Stars biggest weak point in the prospect system. There are three prospects that could potentially be top nine or top six here: Matt Fraser, Alex Guptill and Mike Winther. I expect considering the Stars shotgun style drafting system that they will draft more left wingers in 2013 or attempt to pick up some in another way (Trade/Free Agency). Fortunately it's not as hard to shift wingers from one wing to the other as compared to shifting them to the centre position. Alex Guptill appears to be progressing pretty well with the University of Michigan and has impressed many scoring 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 41 games in his first season. Matt Fraser was the top scoring rookie in the AHL but needs to improve upon his defensive game, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him play with the big club at some point next season if injuries strike. Mike Winther needs more time in the juniors to develop but could be a surprise. He's got excellent feet but needs to make sure he continues to use his linemates effectively.
The Stars improved what had been an area of weakness by selecting three natural centres (Winther is listed as a centre but played most of his junior career as a LW so that's why he is there) and also picking another one up in a trade. Before this there were only two prospects who played centre one of whom was Emil Molin. Emil Molin has been developing nicely in Sweden and if he goes to North America it will likely be in the next couple of seasons. Cody Eakin was part of the trade that sent Mike Ribeiro to the Washington Capitals and played 30 games in the NHL last season scoring 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists). I expect Eakin to play in Dallas next season and be centring either the third or fourth lines.
Of the three centres who have played in that position in the past season there is one player clearly above the rest and potentially NHL ready within a year or two. That is of course Radek Faksa. He has the size and talent but in my opinion will need to be polished more within the juniors. Devin Shore is a smaller forward but appears to have some excellent puck handling skills and has a potential as a second line centre, he is the Stars NCAA guy of the draft and he will spend the next few years developing with the University of Maine. Gemel Smith has been described as a Steve Ott type player and I completely agree with that assessment. He might not be destined for top line glory but he has excellent forechecking skills and a reputation as an effective agitator.
With the addition of these four players the Dallas Stars have helped strengthen what was a position of extreme weakness. However I still expect them to attempt to select at least one centre in the next draft. With Radek Faksa only one or two years away from the NHL, Eakin on the third/fourth line and Devin Shore and Gemel Smith developing and ready to turn pro a few years down the line it is certainly look more promising.
It's important not to forgot Scott Glennie, who has spent a lot of time going from wing to centre to wing over the past few years but he has settled down as a centre in the AHL. Though he hasn't yet reached the high hopes that many Stars fans had he appears to be developing nicely into a third line centre who has the potential to fill in higher up if necessary. Glennie could be one of those we see in Dallas next season, though potentially playing on the wing rather than centre.
It's on the right wing that the Dallas Stars have a tonne of potential. Reilly Smith, Alex Chiasson, Austin Smith, Matej Stransky, Brett Ritchie and the intriguing Brenden Troock. Three of the six have turned pro and will spend next season with the Texas Stars and could be called up if injuries hit the Stars hard. Its this area that the Stars have stocked up with a lot of talent with nearly all of those named above seen as top six talent.
Looking at that list the Stars must be hoping that they can get at least three or four of those prospects to the NHL level. Hopefully some of these can shift to the opposite wing to make up for the lack of depth there however there is another option. I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest if in a year or two some of these prospects are traded away to acquire pieces to solve any organisational weaknesses.
If these players continue to develop as hoped then they could form part of an intimidating forward grouping that could be very impressive at the NHL level.
So When Will The Stars Challenge For The Stanley Cup?
I referred at the beginning of this piece to the LA Kings and their home grown talent and how essential it was to their success. A lot of their players were home grown and not free agent acquisitions. Some of the players they traded for, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, were exchanged for players that were developed by the Kings to a high standard. The Stars are not the LA Kings but they are following simular paths in terms of developing their team.
Looking at the prospect system the Stars have a lot of talent that could be NHL ready in time for either the 13-14 season but more likely the 14-15 season. Instead of having a one or two prospects join the big leagues every season it could be a flood. By the beginning of the 2014 season the Stars hope that Jack Campbell, Patrick Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Reilly Smith, Austin Smith, Alex Chiasson, Radek Faksa, Scott Glennie, Matt Fraser and maybe even Matej Stransky and Brett Richtie will have become NHL ready. That's a big influx of talent and though its statistically likely that not all of them will make it there should be enough to make the Stars a young and very talented team. Some might get traded away to acquire new pieces to solve weaknesses and might not play their careers in a Stars jersey but for now they are still forming part of a strengthening prospect system.
Our prospect system isn't the best in the NHL though its probably now within the top 10-15 (Puck Prospectus has the Stars at 13). But the Stars have multiple above average players who are going to be NHL ready in a couple of years. It's going to be the 2014-2015 season that is going to be the start of the Dallas Stars real return to the NHL. The Stars will make some noise this season with older veterans but the Stars will become perennial contenders with the arrival of this group of young and talented prospects. They've been crippled with financial restraints for the past four seasons and have suffered because of it. The Stars have been marginalised and forgotten with the playoff drought that the team and us as fans have endured.
But with the influx of new prospects all I can tell you is this:
Circle the 2014-2015 season in your minds. That's when the home grown Dallas Stars are coming to town - And the rest of the league better watch out.