Not too long ago Ivan Vishnevskiy was the Dallas Stars' top defensive prospect. Now he's playing in Russia and, thanks to some wonderful scouting, the Stars have re-stocked their defensive pipeline to the point that it might be their greatest strength going forward.
In the last few years guys like Brenden Dillon, Patrik Nemeth, and Jordie Benn have gone from relatively unknown prospects to important pieces of a defense corps still in transition. At one point or other, each of these guys was seen as someone who could maybe crack the lineup one day as a bottom pairing type guy, and each of them has stepped up at a different time to show what they're really worth. Brenden Dillon has become one of the Stars' stalwarts in the D-zone and Jordie really showed this past season that he was a viable option the second pairing as well.
Patrik Nemeth was perhaps the most hyped of these players when he first joined the organization, but even then he was mostly an unknown who didn't start to assert himself until the 2011 World Junior Tournament where he assisted on Mika Zibanejad's tournament clinching goal. When he joined the Stars late this season, we all heard the description that nobody scores when he's on the ice. While obviously this is statistically impossible, he was a calming force in the defensive zone for most of his time in Dallas, and will likely make the team out of camp next season.
With that being said, I've chosen to take a stab at guessing who of Jamie Oleksiak, John Klingberg, and Jyrki Jokipakka will be the next to step up into the NHL ranks and make an impact for the boys in green.
Jamie Oleksiak: 6'7", 250lbs, 21 yrs old.
Oleksiak was drafted 14th overall in the 2011 draft and went on to 32 points in 59 games in the OHL. In his first year in Cedar Park, Oleksiak was extremely impressive. He quickly became a dominant player at that level, using his long reach well in both the offensive and defensive zone. I remember once talking to Brandon about him and he said Oleksiak was inconsistent. After I voiced a little concern and frustration, he assured me that the inconsistency was between being good and being downright dominant in the AHL.
Oleksiak's career hit a bit of a speed bump this season. His offense dried up a bit as he scored 23 points in 69 games after 33 in 59 the previous year. On top of that, concerns about his physicality which were pushed to the back of everyone's minds came back up after he failed to dominate in the AHL and looked lost at times in a short stint in Dallas.
The bottom line is that Oleksiak is a huge guy, and playing with that kind of frame at the pace of professional hockey takes a lot of getting used to. Patience is the key with the young Oleksiak (he just recently became old enough to order a beer) since he does possess all the tools to become a dominant defenseman. Take Zdeno Chara for example: It took him years to establish himself as a good NHLer and now he's been one of the league's best rearguards going on five or six years. Oleksiak likely won't reach those heights, but with the right development he'll become a great NHL defender.
John Klingberg: 6'2, 180lbs, 21 yrs old
John Klingberg has been tempting Stars fans for years now. He's a smooth skating, puck distributing defenseman with the skill to potentially revitalize the lackluster powerplay.
After a couple of tough seasons where ice-time was hard to come by for the young Swede he truly broke out with Skelleftea of the SEL after scoring 13 points in 25 games. Unfortunately an injury cut his season short, but that snippet was enough to get everyone interested again.
Klingberg quickly put to bed any worry about lingering effects of his injury this past season with Frolunda, where he scored 28 points in 50 games and established himself as a very good puck moving defenseman in one of the toughest leagues in the world. He came over to the Texas Stars after Frolunda's season ended but got injured after only four games.
John Klingberg is a one of a kind player for the Stars. The Stars' system is littered with d-men who are solid in all three zones but will most likely make their livings on defensive hockey. Klingberg, on the other hand, is pure offense in a bottle. He has the capability to carry the puck up the ice himself, and he's got a great first pass. On top of that his hockey IQ is extremely high and he can make quick decisions in the offensive zone to deadly effect.
While the injuries are becoming a bit worrisome, Klingberg possesses the kind of offensive talent that could turn him into a great powerplay quarterback and second pairing offensive defenseman at the NHL level. Stars fans have a lot to be excited about with this kid, but he just has to refine his defensive game.
Jyrki Jokipakka: '6", 176lbs, 22 yrs old
To me, Jokipakka has the best chance to make a big impact on the Stars before Klingberg or Oleksiak. He's another one of those players in the Stars system who does everything well, but nothing spectacularly.
What makes Jokipakka seem like he could end up with the big club sooner than expected, and for much longer than expected, is the experience he's had already. If you look at his raw stats from last year, his -29 rating in 2012-13 immediately jumps off the page. This isn't completely fair to him because his team, Ilves Tampere, was pretty awful.
The bright spot of that season for Jokipakka was that the weakness of his team meant that he was turned to as the go-to guy. For Tampere, he was the minute munching defenseman who was called upon in every situation to help his team, and he performed admirably. He continued his great play by coming over to Texas and putting up 21 points in 68 games to go along with a +5 rating.
He has a bit of an edge over the other two guys on this list because he's led a team before. He's been "the guy" against grown men in the SM-Liiga. He knows how to play professional hockey, and he knows how to excel at professional hockey.
He may never score as many points as John Klingberg and he may never be able to physically toy with an opponent like Jamie Oleksiak, but for now he seems like the best option for the next call-up to the NHL level. He's shown that he can adjust to new speeds and new players, and that he has the mental and physical makeup to battle with professionals on an even playing field. I really think he's the most NHL ready and will make a push for the Stars out of camp this summer.