[Ed. Note: Be sure to read this good take on the prospects from Brett, who there at the tournament.]
Yesterday we received our first 'real' hockey of the new season, getting a chance to watch the Dallas Stars prospects take on the New York Rangers during the Traverse City Tournament. Thanks to MSG and the NHL Network, Stars fans were able to watch some of the top prospects in the system play together for the first time since being drafted.
Jamieson Oleksiak, Brenden Dillon, Matt Fraser, Scott Glennie, Brett Ritchie, Jack Campbell and Troy Vance were the big names on the team this year for the Stars. After taking down the Carolina Hurricanes team 8-2 on Saturday, the Stars were handed a whooping of their own as they lost 6-2 to a very talented and competitive Rangers team.
It was apparent at times that this was a team pieced together and was relying solely on individual efforts -- not a system -- I wanted to approach this evaluation on an individual basis. The loss was unfortunate, but there were many good things on display yesterday in Michigan.
This was who I was excited to see, the top pick from this summer's draft for the Stars who is on a skyrocketing development curve after decided to head to Saginaw instead of continuing his career at Northeastern University. There were initial thoughts that he was likely three years away from the NHL when he was drafted but a few great performances this summer -- including the red/white game for Team Canada -- has some thinking he's likely much closer than that. Playing against some of the top prospects in hockey, this game was a good measuring stick for where he sits.
What's interesting about Oleksiak is that he doesn't automatically stand out on the ice because of his size. He's obviously much bigger than those around him but unlike other players of his height in the NHL, he seems to be much more proportional and not as "gangly" as someone like Tyler Myers appears to be. This is also because Oleksiak's best asset right now is his skating ability which is absolutely phenomenal for a player of his size -- he's smooth and athletic and not lumbering, something you'd normally expect from a 6'7" player at his age.
More importantly, Oleksiak didn't stand out because of size alone. They say you can't teach size, and it's valuable to have, but a player also has to know how to use it. Oleksiak is effortlessly strong along the boards and has a great touch to his passes out of the zone. Apparently he struggled a bit with this against Carolina but he looked very confident with the puck against New York. He's also not afraid to join the rush, consistently sneaking off the point to try and get in on the offense, as he possesses good puck skills and an above-average shot.
His best play came on the Stars' first goal, when he used his tremendous reach to create a turnover at the blue line. He then joined the rush he created and puck a good shot on net off a brilliant pass. The resulting rebound was knocked in for a big goal.
Overall, you had to be pleased by Oleksiak's performance and it was great to see him so comfortable and commanding on the ice.
Perhaps the most controversial draft pick in Dallas Stars history, Campbell has had a tough time since being drafted last summer aside from another brilliant performance in the World Juniors. He started off with some struggles playing for the Windsor Spitfires last season but was much better as the year carried on. This summer, he's looking more confident than ever and he's vowed to at least make the Dallas Stars think that he belongs in the NHL...right now.
Campbell's greatest assets are his mechanics and his competitive attitude. Unfortunately, there are times when one influences the other and his mechanics break down. This was a game where it's very tough to really judge the goaltender, however, as there were numerous goals scored on fluky plays in front of the net with pucks bouncing off sticks and skates and the defender even scoring on his own goal.
It's obvious that Campbell possesses superior mechanics as a goaltender. He's incredibly athletic and has outstanding lateral movement -- what he lacks in overall size he makes up for with ability to cut down angles and cover the net as the puck is moving around him, and he does it faster than many goaltenders in the NHL. Unfortunately, his mechanics tend to break down when things get hairy in front of him -- he's not a scrambling goaltender just yet and he struggles when the puck is loose in front of him.
He also tends to cheat a bit from time to time, as evidence on his allowed goal on a 3-on-1. No matter what, the goaltender is supposed to worry about the shooter and trust his defensemen to take away the pass. In this case, Jayce Coyle and Oleksiak both hurried back to take away the pass and forced the shooter to make a play. Unfortunately, Campbell was cheating on the pass and allowed his pads to open up -- an easy goal for a good scorer.
Overall, however, Campbell had a solid game. There were many breakdowns defensively and he was the reason the score wasn't much worse than it was in the end.
I don't know what more can be said about this guy. He's ready for the NHL, that much is clear. He's a leader on the ice and in the locker room and he has full command of the game when he's on the ice. It's amazing that a player of his caliber went undrafted and unsigned until this season but thankfully the Stars were able to snatch him up.
Dillon has said he wants to be a complete defenseman and in this game he showed that ability. He uses his size well in the defensive zone and is strong along the boards. He makes confident and accurate passes out of the zone and he's more than capable of joining the rush. He skates like a forward but has the size and defensive ability to be a steady blueliner on the back end as well.
More importantly, Dillon has a calming effect on his team when he's on the ice. He's able to slow things down and get the puck moving in the right direction and aside from a bad whiff on the puck in front of the net on the Rangers' first goal, I saw hardly any mistakes from this suddenly exciting prospect.
This was the first time I've seen Fraser play, ever, and I was more than impressed by what was on display. It's painfully obvious that he's outgrown this level of competition and is ready to move up. He's got great ability with the puck to create offensive chances and he's solid defensively as well. He's a solid skater with decent speed and a very good hockey sense to what's going on around him.
I'm still skeptical of what he might be able to bring to the NHL, should he get the chance. Is he ever going to be top-six material? It's doubtful, since normally a player who is dominant at the junior hockey level at his age isn't going to suddenly dominate at the highest level of hockey. There's a steep curve there and normally you see 18 year old players riding it.
All that being said, the hype that came with Fraser was all true. He's a very exciting prospect with good size and a high-potential skill set who is obviously ready for the AHL. He'll get his chance to shine in the preseason and in training camp with the Stars but you wonder if he's the next Aaron Gagnon - a player who came on late but never was able to truly turn that into NHL magic.
I love his energy and his competitive side, however, and I can't wait to see what he does against stiffer competition during training camp -- starting at the end of this week.
Many eyes were focused on Glennie, the top pick for the Dallas Stars in 2009. He comes highly touted as one of the highest scorers in the WHL, who has struggled to make any sort of impact whatsoever at a higher level. He's dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness the past few summers with the Stars and as he embarks on his first full season as a pro hockey player the pressure is on for him to impress -- immediately.
Glennie stood out in this game, more so than any other time I've watched him at this level of competition. He plays much bigger than one would expect if you've ever seen him off the ice and he uses his size well -- he's able to win puck battles along the boards and box out defenders with his frame while playing along the wings.
What was interesting in this game was how he and Fraser switched around from wing to center. Glennie played primarily at wing before being switched to center last season with Brandon and there's a though that the Stars would like for him to develop at that position -- something that would seemingly be ideal for a playmaker of his caliber.
In this game, it appeared as if Glennie was more comfortable playing on the wing. He was able to make several good plays along the board and spring scoring chances with a couple of very nifty passes. I didn't see much of Glennie carrying the puck up ice himself and pushing the offense aggressively, putting pressure on the Rangers with speed and power up the middle.
In fact, that's the only complaint I have about Glennie. He needs some fire in his blood, some intensity and aggression. If he could put that together with his apparent skills, he'd be one hell of a special player. As it is, I was pleased with what I saw and he looked like a top draft pick out there on the ice.
Some other thoughts:
** Not much to say about Troy Vance, who was at an apparent disadvantage while playing with short sticks -- his were broken upon arrival in Michigan. He is obviously a big body on the ice and made some good plays along the boards, but it was apparent he wasn't comfortable out there on the ice.
** Brett Ritchie is one aggressive, phyical guy. He didn't jump into the play as often as I'd like but he provided some needed grit and physicality on the top line with Fraser and Glennie.
** Nick Layton was signed to an AHL contract this summer with the Texas Stars, but he did a lot of great things in this game that might make the big team take notice. He has an excellent touch to his passes and made some very nifty moves with the puck on his stick. Very aggressive and impressive game for him against New York.