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What Each First Round Pick of the Nill Era Tells Us About the Stars (Part 2)

Last time, we looked at the Stars’ obvious shortcomings in the 2013 through 2015 drafts. Now let’s look at the more recent drafts, which gives us more mixed results.

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NHL: Washington Capitals at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the trade deadline getting closer, the Dallas Stars seem to be getting serious about acquiring a top-six forward to boost the team’s secondary scoring. But when it comes to the assets required to make such a trade, GM Jim Nill seems to be a bit hesitant about trading the team’s first round pick:

”They’re so valuable,” Nill said. “If you’re doing it, you’re doing it for the right asset. You’re always open to doing anything, any type of trade. But it’s got to be for the right asset.”

Nill has never traded a first rounder, excluding the time the Stars moved up in the 2017 first round to select goaltender Jake Oettinger. It’s clear that management highly values these picks, but that’s the thing about the draft: the picks are only valuable if you select the right player.

A couple weeks ago, we decided to take a look at the Stars’ first round selections in the Jim Nill era, checking in to see how the player has turned out and what the pick tells us about the Stars. We originally covered the first four players – Valeri Nichushkin, Jason Dickinson, Julius Honka, and Denis Gurianov – and today we’ll wrap it up with the most recent picks.

Keep in mind that, unlike the above mentioned players, only one of the following picks is even under contract, let alone playing in a professional game. It’s probably a bit too soon to tell how these prospects might turn out, so feel free to take everything with a grain of salt.

Riley Tufte
Drafted: 25th overall, 2016

Position: Left Wing
NHL Stats: 0 games played

Tufte is a good example about how sometimes in the draft, you simply swing and miss.

Still playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA, Tufte’s college numbers have been a little underwhelming. He has 57 points in 105 NCAA games, and he’s been a bit disappointing this season, arguably taking a step back instead of forward.

I know I just said that “it’s probably a bit too soon to tell” when it comes to these prospects, but when it comes to Tufte and his zero NHL games played, it has less to do with Tufte and more with those picked immediately after him.

Tage Thompson (26th overall) has currently has scored 20 points in 86 NHL games over the past two seasons. Brett Howden (27th) has 15 points in 48 games this year, and Sam Steel (30th) has three points in 13 games.

Those aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, but each of them has gone pro and made some sort of impact on an NHL roster, which is more than Tufte can say. And if you want to reach into the second round, you actually find more impressive players. Alex DeBrincat (39th) looks like a star in the making, as he already has 100 points in just 136 NHL games. Samuel Girard (47th) has 38 points in 125 games as a defenseman, and goaltender Carter Hart (48th) is a dark horse candidate for the Calder Trophy this season.

That all being said, I believe that this is mostly a case of “hindsight is 20/20.” True, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Tufte pick at the time, and you may not have been either, but there wasn’t some big name still on the board that Dallas inexplicably passed on. And for each of those names I mentioned above, there are several more that are in a similar position as Tufte. Not to mention that we’re talking about a late first rounder here; you typically don’t expect to uncover a top tier, core player with one of those picks.

So yes, Tufte has disappointed so far. But out of all of Nill’s misses, he’s probably the easiest to get over.

Miro Heiskanen

Drafted: 3rd overall, 2017
Position: Defense
NHL Stats: 53 games played, nine goals, 13 assists, 23 points

When it comes to the Stars’ drafting in the first round, Heiskanen is proof of the old adage, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

I wrote about the Heiskanen pick specifically a few days after Part 1 of this piece. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check it out, but here’s the short version: the Stars were lucky to win the lottery and get the 3rd overall pick, but Heiskanen wasn’t a player who “fell into their lap.” The Stars has several different options available to them, but they hit a home run with Heiskanen. Only Elias Pettersson (5th overall) might have arguably been a better pick, and that’s up for serious debate.

That being said, it was still the third overall pick. It isn’t impossible, of course, but it’s still difficult to mess up when you’re picking that highly. But more importantly, using Heiskanen as an example of Nill’s first round success is like pointing to a lottery winner as a reason why you should buy some scratch-off tickets. Yes, Nill and his team deserve credit for picking Heiskanen, but that doesn’t excuse their other shortcomings.

Furthermore, Heiskanen’s success overshadows a problem that’s arguably worse for the Stars than drafting: development. Instead of coming over to North America after being drafted, Heiskanen remained in Finland for one more season. When finally arrived, he was already getting penciled in as a top-four defender, and quickly threw away the “prospect” label just a month into the season.

In short, Heiskanen wasn’t developed by Dallas, he was developed by HIFK. When you look at the Valeri Nichushkins and Julius Honkas of the world and wonder “what could have been,” you can’t point at Heiskanen and say, “Hey, this guy our farm teams never touched turned out alright!” and expect to get a pass. It just doesn’t work that way.

Jake Oettinger

Drafted: 26th overall, 2017
Positon: Goalie
NHL Stats: 0 games played

Oettinger is a good example that when it comes to prospects, sometimes you just have to be patient.

Granted, you can say that about pretty much any prospect, but it’s especially true for goaltenders. They take a very long time to develop, with 20-year-old NHL goalies like Carter Hart incredibly hard to come by. They’re also a bit harder to project, which is why they aren’t drafted as highly as they used to be in the 2000s and before.

It’s for those reasons that many Stars fans were upset when the team traded a third round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks to move up three spots and take Oettinger. Many wanted Eeli Tolvanen or Klim Kostin, and the fact that Henri Jokiharju – who Chicago ended up taking with the Stars’ pick – is playing this year and eating hefty minutes seems to rub salt into the wound.

Still, similar to Tufte, Oettinger should be low on your list of first round picks by Nill to complain about. Truth be told, I loved the pick at the time and still do. There’s not a player that they passed on that could morph the Stars into a true Stanley Cup contender, and Oettinger’s development at Boston University is progressing along nicely. Anything can happen – Jack Campbell flashbacks still haunt my dreams – but the idea that Oettinger could be the Stars’ first homegrown goaltender to become an NHL regular since Mike Smith is very realistic.

Maybe I’m biased because I like Oettinger and the Stars’ 2017 draft in general. But for now, let’s just agree to wait until some player picked after Oettinger tears up the league before trashing the pick, opinions on how “you should never draft a goalie in the first round” aside.

Ty Dellandrea

Drafted: 13th overall, 2018
Position: Center
NHL Stats: 0 games played

Finally, Dellandrea is the prime example as to how, despite all their shortcomings, the Stars’ front office has still not learned from their drafting mistakes.

Heading into the summer of 2017, the Stars had a big hole at center in their prospect pool, specifically when it came to potential top-six playmakers. They failed to properly fill that hole in the draft, and so when the 2018 draft came around, the consensus was that they had to draft one this time around.

Of course, they wouldn’t have been in this situation had they not picked Denis Gurianov over Mathew Barzal in the 2015 draft. That year, the team overvalued their own scouting evaluations when they passed on Barzal, and they surely realized their mistake when they watched Barzal take home the Calder Trophy while Gurianov was eating healthy scratches in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Alas, it seems that the Stars did not learn from their mistake. When the Stars went on the clock with the 13th overall pick, the Stars once again passed on the highest rated forward – Joe Veleno – in favor of a projected late first rounder – Ty Dellandrea. Granted, the Stars weren’t alone in their assessment of Veleno, who ended up falling all the way to 30th overall to the Detroit Red Wings, but the center has nonetheless scored 76 points in just 40 QMJHL games.

Now, I don’t want to necessarily compare that to Dellandrea’s 52 points in 46 OHL games, considering the OHL is a tougher league and Dellandrea plays for, by far, the worst team in that league. But the point is that there’s a reason that Veleno was ranked higher by most scouting services, and there’s a reason he’s tearing it up this season.

In addition, there’s more players that the Stars might regret passing on besides Veleno. At center, Rasmus Kupari is doing very well in Finland this season, and if you look beyond “they needed a center” and instead at “best player available,” then Joel Farabee (LW) was there as well, not to mention Ty Smith and his 51 points in 40 WHL games — as a defenseman.

So like Oettinger, it’s still too early to grade the Dellandrea pick. The young center has done great given his circumstances in Flint, and will more likely than not be an NHL regular one day. But when you put his draft position into context and the Stars’ recent history in drafting and development, then one thing is for certain: GM Jim Nill does not deserve the benefit of the doubt.