The NCAA playoffs are now officially underway, and that means that it’s now crunch time for a handful of Dallas Stars prospects.
It’s an interesting time right now for the Stars with regards to NCAA prospects. They have four players plying their trade in college, all of whom could or will turn pro after their seasons come to an end — some maybe even immediately.
Two of them are juniors, who have to decide between signing their entry level contracts and turning pro or going back to school for one more year. The other two are seniors, so once their games are done for the year, so too is their NCAA eligibility — and maybe even their time within the Stars’ organization.
Here’s a quick rundown of the four and what their upcoming games look like.
Junior Riley Tufte and the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs enter the postseason ranked as the fourth best team in the nation. They’ll face off against the unranked Omaha Mavericks this weekend. UMD narrowly dropped their final two games of the regular season to St. Cloud State, who are ranked No. 1. Tufte had a pair of goals in the two losses.
Junior Jake Oettinger and his Boston University club go into the playoffs unranked and are set to meet the 18th-ranked UMass Lowell River Hawks. Neither team scores very much, so it should be quite a goaltending duel between Oettinger and UMass Lowell’s Tyler Wall, who is a New York Rangers draft pick.
Senior Rhett Gardner and the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks ended their regular season on a high note, taking a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory over Omaha on Saturday. Gardner had one primary assist in the win. UND, who are ranked 19th, will be the underdogs as they head into their opening playoff series against Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery’s former team, the University of Denver, who are ranked eighth.
In a weird bit of NCAA scheduling, some playoff series have already taken place, including the opening round for senior Joseph Cecconi and the University of Michigan Wolverines. It was a short-lived postseason, as the Wolverines were eliminated by the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in back-to-back losses this past weekend. Cecconi was a senior, so his NCAA career has officially come to an end. The big question now is which NHL team does he decide to sign his entry level contract with? The Stars still hold his rights and could sign him soon and assign him to the AHL’s Texas Stars, but if Cecconi prefers to wait he can become an free agent in the summer.
Dallas tried to convince the defenseman to sign a professional contract last spring after his junior season but he declined and said he wanted to return to Michigan for his final year. This season it became publicly known that he was a candidate to pursue free agency when his mother sent out a since-deleted tweet in May of 2018 that congratulated her son on being named captain at Michigan, but also included the hashtag #freeagent.
The Stars haven’t said much about Cecconi this year. Each time I’ve asked, they give a diplomatic answer; that he’s playing out his senior season and the Stars hope to sign him. There haven’t been any public comments from Cecconi’s side, but according to a source familiar with his situation, he was still leaning toward not signing with Dallas.
The Stars have Cecconi’s draft rights through Aug. 15.
North American Juniors
Boy, what a pleasant surprise Riley Damiani, a 2018 fifth round pick, continues to be for the Stars. The cerebral puck-moving forward had seven points in three games last week, including a four-point outing on Sunday, which is the fifth time this season he’s recorded four or more points in a game. Damiani is now tied for 17th in OHL scoring, despite missing 10 games and still being just 18 years old.
Tye Felhaber had three points on Sunday to keep himself in the race for the OHL scoring lead after being held off the score sheet in his two games prior. He’s now up to 103 points on the season, five back of Morgan Frost of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and three points back of fellow Stars prospect Jason Robertson.
The Texas Stars had themselves quite a wild week of action. They were blown out 6-2 by the Milwaukee Admirals on Tuesday and then 5-2 by the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday before flipping the script, beating the San Antonio Rampage 6-4 and 7-4 on Saturday and Sunday.
A number of the team’s prospects led the charge offensively, with defenseman Niklas Hansson, of all players, being first and foremost. The 24-year-old defenseman hasn’t been much of an offensive contributor since coming to North America from Sweden, but he picked up a whopping seven points over his past three games. His game seems to be taking steps forward ever since he found a consistent defensive partner in Dillon Heatherington earlier in the season.
Denis Gurianov was also a key player for Texas. The big, speedy winger had three goals and two assists in the four games.
Beyond those two main contributors, Heatherington had four assists, Gavin Bayreuther and Ben Gleason both picked up three apples each, Adam Mascherin and Tony Calderone each had a goal and two helpers, and Nick Caamano scored twice.
Goaltending and defensive zone play were issues for the team, however, as both Landon Bow and Philippe Desrosiers got lit up a lot in the four games (some of which was their fault, some wasn’t).