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2016 NHL Entry Draft: Jim Nill Is A Man With A Plan

When the Dallas Stars selected hulking 6’5″ forward Riley Tufte in the 1st round, 25th overall, on Friday night, little did fans know that it was going to be a sign of bigger of things to come.

(Pun intended on the “bigger”)

When the 2016 NHL Entry Draft came to a close on Saturday afternoon the Stars officially exited the event with a total of six new prospects: four forwards (all of whom are 6’1″ or taller), one goalie (who stands 6’4″), and one defenseman (who is listed at 6’2″).

Notice a trend?

The Stars took something of a “shotgun” approach to the draft, finishing with a group of guys that are all naturally blessed with a large frame. In a league that is becoming more and more accessible to smaller players it was a little surprising to see Dallas shy away from players below 6’0″.

Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though.

Ever since Jim Nill and Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell took control of the organization’s draft endeavors in 2013 the franchise has shifted their focus towards bigger players. In the four drafts since then, only two players under 6’0″ have been selected by the team (Cole Ully in 2013 and Julius Honka in 2014). Tufte is the fourth player that is 6’5″ or bigger, after Miro Karjalainen, Patrick Sanvido and Chris Martenet.

Tufte also joins Valeri Nichushkin, Jason Dickinson and Denis Gurianov as bigger forwards that were drafted by Nill in the 1st round. Dickinson is the “runt” of that group at 6’2″.

Make no mistake, however: the Stars aren’t falling into the same trap of bad drafting from the 1990s, where absurd numbers of high picks were wasted on players whose primary skills were to punch other people in the face. These kids, by and large, can really play hockey.

Tufte is a prime example. Despite possessing gigantic size, he’s also a smooth, fluid skater with an impressive top gear, and has some deceivingly soft hands with the puck. He’ll still use his height and weight to his advantage, but don’t ever expect him to play the game in the way that players like Milan Lucic or Tom Wilson do.

Similar things can be said of the others that were picked this year. Fredrik Karlstrom, Rhett Gardner and Nicholas Caamano can all play with an edge in their games, but scouting reports indicate that they can also effectively be versatile, two-way forwards. There’s next to nothing published on 6th round defenseman Jakob Stenqvist, but he put up some intriguing offensive totals in Sweden’s junior leagues, so he likely has some good abilities with the puck. Colton Point is a goalie, and as the Matt Murray vs. Martin Jones duel in the Stanley Cup Final showed, size is all the rage in that position these days.

The key, it seems, isn’t just to target players with size, it’s to specifically target players that can successfully combine both size and skill.

Heck, McDonnell even said as much in a recent interview with Mark Stepneski, when asked what sort of things the Stars would be looking for in prospects: “Skill level. Skill, size, and skating that you would be looking at, and your hockey sense.”

Is it going to work? While it’s impossible to say for sure this early, there is certainly some debate to be had on the topic.

On one hand, as mentioned before, the league is steadily becoming more accessible to smaller players than it ever was in the Dead Puck Era. Flames whiz kid Johnny Gaudreau has already picked up 143 points in just two seasons in the NHL, and despite being a mere 5’9″ and still looking like he’s not legally allowed to drink in bars, his ability to do damage in the league hasn’t been hindered by his small size. While Gaudreau is undoubtedly a special player, it’s easy to see how he is something of a pioneer and how other small, highly skilled players should be able to follow in his footsteps. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames all bought stocks in small forwards this draft, so it will be interesting to see how those players develop over time.

Additionally, is there something to be said for concepts like variety and balance? As I’ve come back to a few times now in a few separate posts here on Defending Big D, the Stars don’t really have many prospects that have elite playmaking or stickhandling capabilities, and they didn’t add any this draft. While players like Dickinson and Devin Shore are certainly capable in those areas, there’s not really a Jonathan Drouin or a Mitch Marner type of player in the system that truly excels at it. Guys that can make plays at that high of a level, but that also have great size, are incredibly rare.

On the other hand, however, has any team in the NHL ever built what the Stars are building right now? If you’re an opposing team, and you’re trying to defend against a roster full of Redwood trees that can also skate like the wind, just how are you supposed to do it? Being able to consistently cover so much ice surface with long reaches and quick skating could be an unheralded advantage. If it works, it could work incredibly well.

It will still take a few years to find out how this sort of experiment from Nill and the Stars will ultimately pan out, but it’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch along the way.