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With Stars A Long Shot For Playoffs, Opportunities Abound For Prospects

Brett Ritchie and Jamie Oleksiak have been promising prospects for some time. A flurry of deals in a disappointing season have given them the opportunity to become something else.

NHL: New York Islanders at Dallas Stars
The Big Rig has a Big Chance, maybe his last Big Chance.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After all the hype, hope, and speculation, the Stars wound up as sellers at this year’s trade deadline. Adios Patrick Eaves, Jordie Benn, Johnny Oduya, and Lauri Korpikoski. Each player will leave a hole in the Stars’ lineup, is one perspective, but I tend towards another. With each departure, the Dallas Stars have created opportunities within their lineup.

Two players, in particular, seem to have been impacted by the Stars’ actions. Both are prospects, young and unproven, and both have bounced rather wildly from boom to bust and back again. The physical gifts of Jamie Oleksiak and Brett Ritchie are impossible to miss, but to-date, neither has really caught full sail at the NHL level.

Now, each will have an opportunity to open the next chapter of their NHL lives. Lineup decisions, draft strategy, contract extensions, all hinge on how the pair perform over the next month.

Even before Dallas shed a pair of veterans in Johnny Oduya and Jordie Benn, things were already trending up for the Big Rig. Since returning from a hand injury February 11, Oleksiak has been a fixture in the Stars lineup. Throw out a lost night in an Arizona penalty box (and the healthy scratch that followed), and Oleksiak has beaten his season average of 15:42 every single game. In 4 of 8 games he’s surpassed 17 minutes, including 17:43 against the Islanders. Save a 7 game cameo in 2013-2014, Oleksiak has never seen this much sustained use at the NHL level.

To say that the coming weeks are the most significant in his career is not much of a stretch. In many ways, Oleksiak has become the poster child for Dallas’ glut of yet-to-prove-themselves prospects. Even if Greg Pateryn is “the business” there’s an open slot on the backline. With Julius Honka down in Cedar Park it’s basically down to Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth. One of them has to play.

If you squint and tilt your head just right, there are actually some encouraging signs. I’m not just talking about a likely unsustainable 5 goals on 20.8% shooting offensive explosion. While a 48.5 CF% isn’t typically cause for celebration, Rig has actually made up quite a bit of ground relative to his peers. Last season, his 50.1 CF% was 2.2% worse than his peers. This season, that figure has dropped to 0.7%. It’s a single data point, but it is progress.

Given the time it’s taken to reach this point, it’s hard to use words like “thrilled,” but Stars management cannot be entirely displeased at their situation. Oleksiak has what amounts to an eighteen game tryout before becoming a restricted free agent. If he proves himself, the Stars gain a defenseman. If he doesn’t, they can cut bait.

Speaking of ice time, Brett Ritchie logged 17:05 last night. Same as Oleksiak, that total was well above his season average (12:41). This was perhaps aided by an injury to Antoine Roussel, but also offset partially by the return of Ales Hemsky. Call that a push. The point is, the kid is going to be a part of things moving forward.

One more goal will officially double Ritchie’s previous career high (6 set in 2014-2015). For a Stars team desperate for offense outside of 90-91-14 that’s important. For a team missing Mattias Janmark, just now re-integrating Hemsky, and holding its breath every time Patrick Sharp hops over the boards, the emergence of secondary scoring has very nearly supplanted goaltending and defense as THE definitive Dallas storyline.

The Stars seem willing to give him a look. In the previous five games Ritchie has spent significant time with both Jamie Benn (32.06% of his shifts) and Jason Spezza (13.94% of his shifts). Last night, the line was Ritchie, Devin Shore, and Cody Eakin (52.17%), which given Shore’s strong debut and Ruff’s affection for Eakin, isn’t exactly a demotion.

If Ritchie can find consistency, his underlying numbers suggest his performance so far is sustainable. At even strength the young winger is a positive possession player (51.5 CF%). He also is not shooting at an abnormal clip (8.7% shooting versus 7.7%) for his career.

It would be nice to see Ritchie maintain a place on the Stars’ power play (1:38 APPTOI). It would be nicer to see that unit actually produce. A pair of points (1 G / 1 A) represents a big bucket of cold water. More power play production could also help the winger avoid another goal drought like the 12 game gap between Toronto (Jan 31) and Pittsburgh (Feb 28).

He and Oleksiak both will have every opportunity to assert themselves. The Stars certainly need gamers at this point.