Prior to the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, I wrote an article here on Defending Big D about what sorts of areas the Dallas Stars needed to target in their prospect pool. One of the areas I outlined was titled “finesse forwards,” and I included the following quote:
The Stars have prioritized a lot recently on adding big, powerful forwards (Roope Hintz was a revelation this year for Dallas, while Gurianov, Robertson, Eriksson, and Tufte are all coming up through the system). However, there is still a notable lack of finesse forwards, prospects who excel when it comes to areas such as agility, stick-handling, playmaking, creativity, offensive vision, and power play specialization. Adding a finesse forward or two would, at least on paper, make the Stars a more diverse and dangerous team offensively.
If that sounded familiar to DBD readers at the time, it might have been because I wrote something similar following the 2017 draft:
Once again, the Stars focused a lot of attention on size and skating ability, but not a lot on playmaking ability. Now, there’s obviously nothing wrong with players that are big and can skate. That’s an incredibly valuable combination to have. Yet, at some point, should a team start to worry about having too much of the same thing and not enough of something else?
Even using later picks could have helped to address this issue... To add a little sizzle to the steak, if you will. I still have some concerns about what Dallas’ power play might look like five years down the road, comically envisioning two small defensemen passing the puck back and forth to each other at the blue line while three giant forwards all try to screen the opposing goalie at the same time.
To hammer this specific point home even further, here is something that I wrote prior to the 2016 draft:
While the Stars do have a number of forwards that are good passers and playmakers, they don’t really have a jaw-dropping “stickhandle in a phone booth” kind of player that can quarterback a power play. This is one of the main reasons why it was so hard to see the team pass up on Mat Barzal last year. Normally this kind of player lines up at center, but a winger could do the trick as well as long as they can work some magic from the half-wall on the PP. Unfortunately, unless Dallas finds a way to trade up in the first round, this type of player probably won’t be available at 25th overall.
Notice a pattern here?
Now, I’m not saying that the Dallas Stars drafts from 2016 to 2019 were bad. In fact, I genuinely think the team did a good job overall in that span, finding big-time value with both their high picks (such as Miro Heiskanen and Thomas Harley) and some of their lower ones (such as Nicholas Caamano and Rhett Gardner). Rather, I’m pointing out certain draft trends that were apparent, ones that had also long been noticed by Stars fans and journalists who cover the team.
Suffice to say, I was expecting the Dallas Stars’ approach to the 2020 NHL Entry Draft to go in a certain direction — a direction that involved big prospects, ones who lean toward the defensive side of the puck, and ones who could be deemed as “safe” picks.
So color me surprised when the Stars went in the exact opposite direction.
When they kicked off this year’s festivities by selecting Shawinigan Cataractes center Mavrik Bourque 30th overall, it was only the third time since 2014 that they drafted a player under six feet tall (Adam Mascherin and Riley Damiani were picked in 2018). It was also the first since since 2013 (goaltender Philippe Desrosiers) that the organization drafted any prospect out of the QMJHL, an absence of picks from that league that had become something of an occasional joke in the comment sections on this website.
The main reason they chose Bourque wasn’t because of his size, of course — it was because of what he brought to the table as a player. As GM Jim Nill described:
“He has high-end skill, high IQ and hockey sense. In the end, we’re very happy we got Mavrik because of his overall skillset.”
After all those years, Dallas finally added a specialist when it came to playmaking, creativity and offensive vision.
Two Goals and 5 Assists for Mavrik Bourque. Crisp pass along the half wall on the power play. If Bourque continues to have nights like this, he will be a top 10 selection on draft night. Elite playmaker. Always seems to deliver the perfect pass.#2020NHLDraft | @FCHockey pic.twitter.com/NmVGSqJ0gT— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) February 2, 2020
But the Stars didn’t stop there.
Lacking selections in the second and third rounds due to prior trades, they used their next pick — which came a long, looong time later, on an unusually slow Day 2 of the draft — in the fourth round and 123rd overall on London Knights winger Antonio Stranges, who is similar to Bourque in many ways, but who is also more flashy with his skating and puck skill.
After taking something of a pure finisher in Daniel Ljungman in the fifth round and 154th overall, they added their third undersized forward with high-end puck skill in Yevgeni Oksentyuk in the sixth round and 162nd overall, using a draft pick that they had acquired from the Florida Panthers in exchange for AHL defender Emil Djuse in February. Oksentyuk is the smallest of the group, at about 5-foot-8, but he is arguably the most competitive — and the most fun.
They closed out their 2020 draft haul by picking large goaltender Rémi Poirier also in the sixth round, 185th overall. You can rarely go wrong with grabbing a goaltender as a project in the final few rounds.
Was this some kind of big change in philosophy in comparison to years past, or more of a coincidence? According to Nill, it was the latter.
“You’re looking for the best player available, and it just kind of worked out this year that the best players were skilled guys,” he said. “They are a little bit on the smaller side, and that’s just the way the draft fell. But it worked out well.”
“You would love to have a player that is 6-foot-2 or whatever being able to do things that say a Stranges can do, but it just goes to show that there’s room for a smaller player,” Dallas Stars Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell added. “You looked at Tampa Bay and the Brayden Points and (Tyler) Johnson. You go back to Mats Zuccarello... There’s always room for them, but they do have to have that special quality.”
What might be the bigger picture here, though, is just what this means for the Stars’ prospect pool as a whole, and how that ties into projections about the team’s future.
As outlined in the article excerpts above that I pulled from years past, the system already had a lot of young forwards with size, skating ability and finishing ability. But in order to maximize those talents, there seemed to be a need — possibly the biggest need for the system overall — for players who could help crack open opposing defenses and create more scoring chances for those others to finish. And that is precisely the type of prospect that Dallas added the most of over the past two days.
Would already having more players like that have made a difference in the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, an opponent that was able to generate more puck possession and offensive chances than Dallas could muster? While it’s impossible to say for sure, the mind can’t help but wonder.
On paper, there is just so much to like about what the Stars did in this draft with the picks that they had. They filled a large and longstanding need when it comes to fielding a balanced and versatile roster in the future. And not only did they do so without going against the wider scouting industry consensus and making reaches, they snagged some players who slid further than expected with regards to that same consensus.
Two things are for sure, though: the Stars’ prospect pool just got a lot more fun to follow, and it’s going to be very fascinating to see if going smaller will end up paying big dividends down the road.