Whenever I get the chance to head out to Austin, I always do my best to stop by Cedar Park to take in a Texas Stars game and get a good look at some of the notable prospects that are close to making their way up to the NHL at some point in the near future. While it's tough to get a truly accurate and comprehensive read on every player based on just one game, it's still easier to do a bit of scouting in person versus the rare game I get to see on AHL Live; whenever I do get to see a Texas game in person I try to pass along some thoughts on specific players as best I can.
Therefore, here are some random thoughts and observations -- I hesitate to call them true "scouting reports" but that's the best term for the sake of simplicity -- on the Texas Stars and several of the notable prospects that are gaining valuable experience in the AHL this season.
I want to start off with a few general observations, beginning with just how incredible it was to finally see players like Patrik Nemeth, Jyrki Jokipakka, Curtis McKenzie, Brett Ritchie and Matej Stransky playing significant roles on the Stars' AHL roster. These -- among others -- are players we have covered and followed extensively over the years here at DBD after so long of discussing these "prospects" from a rather removed point of view. No longer are they just stats and notes on the prospect report, these are players that make up the very foundation of the top team in the AHL right now.
Also, if you've never had the chance to actually get out to a Texas Stars game in Cedar Park -- you have to find the chance to go if you have the time and the means. The minor league hockey experience is always so different than that of the NHL and much more intimate -- these fans have a more personal relationship with the team and the players, and overall are incredibly engaged and active in the game being played.
Take the most fanatic and vocal 6,000 fans at any Dallas Stars game, and put only those fans in the Cedar Park Center, and you've got what a Texas Stars game can be like. The fans are all yelling individual notes of encouragement -- or derision -- at the players on the ice and given the intimacy of the CPC itself you know for a fact the players can hear it. It's an incredible dynamic and after spending the last 40 minutes of the game in the stands -- I can't wait to go back and just be a fan without having to worry about what I'm putting in my notebook.
One important note about the game itself, which was a 3-1 loss to the Charlotte Checkers. The Stars were missing Travis Morin and Colton Sceviour, who were not only the leading scorers on the Texas roster but also the two leading scorers in the AHL and the catalyst for the top-ranked power play in the league. It's like taking away Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin and telling the Dallas Stars to go out and be just as productive, although the scoring is a bit more balanced for Texas overall.
The Stars began the game great and got on the board early with a Matej Stransky goal, before falling apart in the second period and allowing two goals off horrible defensive coverage and turnovers in their own zone. The Stars put up 44 shots on goal on John Muse, including 16 in the final period, but couldn't get the bounce they needed to turn the game back around. The power play in particular was exceptionally ineffective, due in large part to the team not being able to practice with the revamped lineup and newer players -- an excuse that coach Willie Desjardins wasn't willing to use after the loss.
Moving on to the actual observations (note, some are more extensive on certain players than others, just depended on who I was focusing the most on):
Jyrki Jokipakka, D
Jokipakka was a bit of an unheralded late-round draft pick in 2011, but had good size and was seen as a decent all-around defensive prospect. Jokipakka benefited from playing on a very poor Ilves team in the top league in Finland, and received top pairing minutes and valuable experience across two seasons before making the jump to the AHL.
He's the type of defenseman where you barely even notice his presence on this ice, which is a great thing. He's a true two-way defenseman who is strong in his own zone but also possesses an excellent first pass and vision out of the zone. I don't think I saw a bad decision in the one game I was able to watch, and he was rarely outworked along the boards. He didn't activate quite as much as I'd hoped but that was also due to the nature of the game itself, I think. Jokipakka reminds me of what Brenden Dillon is for the Stars right now, although he's not as big or nasty, but that sort of all-around defensive role is where he thrives. Trevor Daley is also a good comparison, although Jokipakka is not as speedy.
Pros: Great vision, smart and crisp passes, booming shot from the point, strong defensive awareness in his own zone.
Cons: Needs to use his size better, needs to activate more to take advantage of his offensive instincts and abilities.
Patrik Nemeth, D
Nemeth was perhaps the player I was most excited to see, if nothing else because of his potential at the NHL level and the need for a defenseman of his caliber at the NHL level in the very near future (or now). When Nemeth was drafted in the second round in 2010 it was overshadowed a bit by the Jack Campbell/Cam Fowler controversy, but he's done nothing but impress since then. Nemeth spent two years in the SHL before making the jump to North America last season, and ever since his arrival in Austin all I've heard is how "teams simply don't score when he's on the ice."
I don't like the stat, but Nemeth has the highest plus/minus among defensemen (plus-11) and has just eight points on the season. Since the AHL doesn't keep very good stats overall, that's the best example I can use of his effectiveness when he's playing.
Nemeth is the mean, physical and downright nasty defenseman the Stars are needing in front of the net. He has great size (6-3, 235) and uses it very effectively along the boards; he's not exactly a big, open-ice hitter but he never lost a puck battle that I saw and used his above-average strength to out leverage opposing players in the crease. There was one play where the puck came into the low slot and two Checkers players were alone with Nemeth right in front of the goalie -- not only did neither get a shot off, he didn't allow either to even touch the puck. It was an incredibly impressive play.
Pros: Big, hulking defenseman with better puck skills than his numbers suggest. Very strong in his own zone and can effectively move the puck.
Cons: Can be more creative offensively and take more chances using his puck skills, and could still get "nastier" in his own zone.
Matej Stransky, RW
Another late round pick who sort of gained steam as a prospect after he was drafted, Stransky has sort of fallen off the top of the list when it comes to top prospects in the system. He put up a pair of 80-point seasons in the WHL before making the jump to the Texas Stars, but there were concerns about his consistency and ability to produce against top competition. This season, Stransky has just seven goals and 18 points in 53 games, but has been playing mostly third line minutes with a variety of linemates -- none who are exactly knocking down the door to the NHL, either. It's just his first professional season, though, and he'll need a bit more time before he's ready to make the jump himself, if at all.
Stransky's biggest issue is his skating, which continues to be an issue for him. He just doesn't have a very quick first "step" and has no explosiveness at all in his skating, which makes separating himself from the opposition when in transition difficult. His odd low release on his shot is also a bit of an issue at this level, and in the one game I was able to see his puck skills and possession weren't at the level I expected them to be at after the past few seasons.
Pros: Very tenacious around the net, very hard shot (in spite of the odd release) and willing to put the puck on net from anywhere and everywhere.
Cons: Odd release on his shot hurts his accuracy (just 7.3 shot pct on 96 shots), and needs drastic work on his skating ability in tight spaces.
Brett Ritchie, RW
Ritchie is enjoying a nice start to his pro career after a bit of a breakout season last year in the OHL, when he put up 41 goals and 76 points in 53 games. It was unknown whether he could keep up that production without Ryan Strome as his center and so far Ritchie has performed admirably in more of a second line role and as a power play specialist, with 15 goals and 34 points in 54 games this season for Texas.
It's clear that the comparisons to James Neal are certainly apt; he possesses a wicked shot and and he puts the puck on net at a very high volume. He also isn't that adept at carrying the puck up ice and prefers to be a finisher rather than a true playmaker, but certainly has above-average passing skills and is very strong along the boards and in his own zone. He also loves to drive the net and uses his size and strength well in front of the crease, where he's been very effective this season on the power play -- when's he's played there.
Ritchie had a bit of a quiet night in the game I watched, although he did make several strong defensive plays that made me take notice.
Pros: Hard, quick shot and high-volume shooter. Good size and decent two-way ability.
Cons: Not a playmaker, disappears at times when the puck isn't on his stick and is suffering a bit with his shot accuracy (8.4 pct on 178(!) shots on net).
Curtis McKenzie, RW
McKenzie was the other player I was most interested in seeing in person, given his extraordinary breakout year in his first season of pro hockey. McKenzie was always the forgotten prospect at Miami University given the presence of Reilly Smith, and didn't put up double-digit goal totals until his senior season of collegiate hockey. Yet on the top line in Texas he's been given a bit of a different role than he enjoyed in college and he's absolutely thriving playing next to Travis Morin and Colton Sceviour.
The question all season, however, is how much his production (20 goals, 54 points in 60 games) is due to playing with the aforementioned and how much his game truly has matured since being drafted. McKenzie was primarily a third-line grinder in college, using his decent size and tenacity to open up things for the more offensively-minded on his team. For Texas, McKenzie has morphed into something so much more and I'm happy to say that -- based on one game, at least -- I think it's safe to say we should certainly be excited about his NHL prospects moving forward.
McKenzie has much better speed and skill with the puck than you'd imagine and plays a decent all-around game. He's physical, loves to drive the net and is another high-volume shooter, third on the team with 184 shots on net. He's slippery quick when the puck is on his stick and has a very deceptive shot from distance and more importantly -- was commanding and driving play despite not having either Sceviour or Morin on his line for this game. I really loved the way he took the puck right to the net and played the sort of game we've seen from Alex Chiasson when he has been at his best.
Pros: Good size and tenacity with the puck, good puck skills and a very good shot, and has a nose for the net and the "hard" areas of the ice.
Cons: Could be a bit better in his own zone and doesn't show the same level of intensity when the puck isn't moving up the ice.
Jack Campbell, G
This one will be short and to the point. We all know about Campbell, his history and the pressure he faces as he moves forward in his development. Last year in the AHL he struggled to seize control of the starting job and this season was derailed by knee injuries, but it's safe to say the excitement about his future is certainly renewed given his success and level of play so far this year.
When he's "on" and at his best, Campbell is the most in control goaltender I've ever seen in person. Never out of position, absolutely perfect positionally and mechanically and he's grown much more confident in his own ability to overcome mistakes and move on. His weakness has always been what's going on between his ears and how that affects his game, and right now it seems he can't be shaken.
Campbell did allow two goals in the second period, although one was a complete defensive breakdown that basically led to an empty-net goal that was not even close to the goalie's fault. The other goal was one that he'll definitely want back, but was far from the "soft" variety that might have plagued him in the past.
I've been nothing but impressed the few times I've seen Campbell play in person, and he has obviously matured and grown in just the few short years he's been in Austin. He'll need a bit more playing time and minutes in the AHL before he's ready for even backup duty behind Kari Lehtonen, but a decent playoff run with Campbell leading the way could do wonders for his continuing development.
Pros: Incredibly sound mechanically and positionally and possesses stellar athletic ability and reflexes.
Cons: Can get caught overcommitting and playing a bit too aggressive at times, puck handling needs work.
Other quick observations:
** Scott Glennie has once again slid into the "third line defensive specialist" role this season and played another very strong game overall. Unfortunately, he's just not able to produce at the level expected of a top-10 draft pick -- for whatever reason. He's not putting the puck on net very often and seems more content to distribute the puck rather than lead the offensive charge himself. His skill is obviously way above most others on the ice with him, and he possesses a wickedly accurate pass and was the best forward on the ice at moving the puck out of his own zone -- but actual production still escapes him, and it's easy at times to forget he's a top 10 draft pick when watching him play.
** Many of you will ask about Jamie Oleksiak and my response will be: nothing has changed. Same scouting report as always. He's so big, and has such a tremendous reach, that while he's solid defensively you want him to be so much more than that. He can lead the charge with the puck and will flash some puck skills that leave you breathless, but he rarely makes a play that makes you really sit up and take notice. Perhaps that's a good thing, but I tended to notice his partner, Derek Meech, much more often than Oleksiak himself.