Developing hockey prospects isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon, mixed in with an obstacle course for good measure.
Sure, teams would always prefer to have their guys in the NHL and making an impact sooner rather than later. But no two development paths are ever exactly the same, and the goal for organizations is to develop each individual prospect along whichever path best prepares them for sustainable long-term success.
Which brings us to Riley Tufte.
Despite being a recent first-round draft pick by the Dallas Stars (25th overall, 2016), Tufte doesn’t get much publicity in the media — including from me, here in this weekly prospects column.
He won two NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but he was never his team’s best player or much of a prolific scorer. He won a bronze with Team USA at the 2018 World Juniors, but he was a depth player on that roster. And now he’s a member of the AHL’s Texas Stars in his first year of professional hockey, but so far he’s been stuck mostly on the fourth line, and is still searching for his first professional goal after 32 games.
RILEY TUFTE makes no mistake on a Gopher turnover. UMD ties it 1-1 pic.twitter.com/a6Py9l3J2Y— FOX Sports North (@fsnorth) January 28, 2017
So, what does this all of this mean? Who is Tufte as a prospect, and what is his future with the Dallas Stars?
Before I go any further, let me quickly address a couple of specific questions that I’m sure many people reading this article are already itching to start typing out in the comments section below:
Was Tufte the right pick at 25th overall in 2016? No, probably not.
By now it’s no secret that instead of taking Tufte, the Stars could have selected Alex DeBrincat, who went 14 picks later to the Chicago Blackhawks and is now a bonafide star in the league. Likewise, they also passed up on a number of different players (Sam Girard, Carter Hart, Sam Steel, Filip Hronek, and others) who were chosen slightly after Tufte and are already making an impact for their NHL clubs.
Regardless of how Tufte develops from here on out, it’s safe to conclude that the Stars whiffed on this pick, yet another tough outcome in a recent string of first-round selections for Dallas that ended up leaving better options on the table.
For the sake of everyone’s blood pressure, let’s all just quickly process this information, accept it and move on for now.
So, does this mean that Tufte is a bust? This answer is also no.
Okay, I know this one is going to be a tough sell, but let me plead my case here.
Even though Tufte is never going to be a 40-goal-scorer like DeBrincat, a starting goaltender like Hart, or a flashy puck-moving defenseman like Girard, he still has the potential to become a valuable bottom-six player in the NHL. While that’s not exciting, that also wouldn’t make him a “bust.”
Is Radek Faksa a bust? Or Jason Dickinson? Both guys are former first-rounders, but they’re definitely not busts because both have developed into valuable NHL players. And there’s still plenty of time left for Tufte to do that too. He’s already shown that he can take big steps forward in his defensive game:
Head Coach Scott Sandelin of @UMDMensHockey was asked about Riley Tufte's (@rileytufte27) decision to sign with the Dallas Stars. Tufte played 3 seasons with the Bulldogs, helping them reach 3 Frozen Fours and 3 NCAA Title Games as well as win 2 NCAA Championships: pic.twitter.com/V5WU0aNB9Z— Dan Williamson (@Dan_Williamson) April 17, 2019
Which brings us back to development and patience.
When the Stars picked Tufte in 2016, they did so because they loved his tools: his huge frame, his excellent mobility, his soft hands, and his good shot. Those same tools are why he was ranked pre-draft in the No. 20-30 range by pretty much every independent scouting service.
Fast forward four years later, and Tufte still has all of those same tools. He just hasn’t fully figured out how to use them yet. That learning process is starting to take hold, however. I’ve made sure to keep a close eye on Tufte when I’ve watched Texas Stars games this season, and even though he doesn’t show up often on the score sheet, he’s making the kinds of plays that lead to good things happening for his team.
If this story sounds a little familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before with two other Stars first-rounders: Jamie Oleksiak and Denis Gurianov.
Both players were drafted because of their impressive toolkits. Both players had rocky developments because it took them a long time to fully learn how to use their tools. Both players had the “bust” label get thrown at them from time to time when things weren’t going well. But now, however, both players are valuable, productive members of the Dallas Stars.
Now, I’m not guaranteeing that Tufte is going to become as good as Faksa, Dickinson, Gurianov, or Oleksiak — or anyone else, for that matter. As no two development paths are the same, this is also true for players. And I will fully acknowledge that Tufte still has a long way to go to become a successful NHLer, and there’s going to be a lot of working and learning for him to accomplish along the way. Most talented prospects eventually put the puzzle together — but many others do not.
But what I will say is that players with his unique toolkit — a toolkit that provides an incredible advantage in the NHL — are very rare, and that it’s way, way too early to write off a prospect with a rare toolkit when he’s still just 21 years of age. Tufte still has what it takes to become an impactful member of the Dallas Stars, even if he has to blaze a bit of an unconventional path to get there.
As has already been covered here on Defending Big D over the weekend, Saturday’s return of Stephen Johns on a conditioning stint was a big Texas Stars story.
But it wasn’t the only one, with Friday’s game between Texas and the Toronto Marlies ending in an automatic win for the Stars after the Marlies forfeited last minute. The reason? A scary medical emergency for Rob Davison, a team assistant.
Per AHL rules, Texas was awarded a 1-0 victory in the situation. However, the health of Davison and mental well-being of his shocked colleagues and players was far more important than one hockey game, so kudos to the Marlies for doing the right thing, even if the rules on this topic seem flawed and unfair.
The two teams did manage to play each other on Saturday, though, with Texas skating away with a 5-3 victory. Beyond the already-reported heroics of Johns’ comeback, third period goals from Jason Robertson and Tye Felhaber set up a dramatic come-from-behind win.
North American Juniors
Ty Dellandrea returned from his foray to the Czech Republic for the World Juniors and hit the ice in the OHL with a little extra spring in his step, scoring this magnificent, highlight-reel goal on Saturday:
The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro chatted with Dellandrea over the weekend about the young center’s gold medal-winning experience with Hockey Canada.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Dellandrea said. “Going to celebrate with the guys and flying back over and then having the (Toronto Maple) Leafs honor us the way they did before a game and now getting back (to Flint), it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. It’s still felt like you are high on life for a little bit, and you get to re-live a bit of those memories as you talk to your buddies about it.”
Windsor Spitfires forward Curtis Douglas went full beast mode for a game-tying goal on Sunday, using some incredible tenacity and resilience to will the puck into the net on a great individual effort. Highlights of the goal can be found at the 1:34 mark of this video. The win bumped the Spits into the sole top spot in the OHL’s Western Conference.
Defenseman Dawson Barteaux will be finishing up his 2019-20 season with a different WHL club, getting traded from the Red Deer Rebels to the Winnipeg Ice in exchange for a pile of draft picks. The trade must be bittersweet for Barteaux. On one hand, he was the captain of his Rebels squad, and was looked up to by his younger teammates. On the other hand, the Ice are a team that could win a few playoff rounds, and maybe even challenge for a WHL title.
Shapiro also took some time this weekend to chat with Dallas Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell about the other two Stars prospects who played in this year’s World Juniors — forwards Albin Eriksson and Oskar Back.
“With Albin, the ice time level, I just can’t put my finger and I don’t understand it on the limited minutes he plays in his league (with Skellefteå AIK). When he does play he’s a threat, and it’s hard for me to understand the coaches over there and how they treat Albin,” McDonnell said. “Every time I see him, he competes. He has a good skill set, and he creates when he plays, but it’s a matter of getting the proper minutes, and hopefully that’ll change in the second half.”
“With Oskar, he’s shown some maturity and growth as well and is now a solid 200-foot guy,” McDonnell said. “You’d like to see a little bit more offense, but he has really detailed his defensive game and he does a great job at that.”
For a full database of the organization’s prospects and their stats, check out the Stars’ “In the System” page on Elite Prospects.