2021 NHL Entry Draft: Dallas Stars Thoughts And Observations

With the most total picks in a draft since 2004, the Stars were able to check off a lot of different boxes

Heading into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, there was a certain calmness surrounding the Dallas Stars.

A number of hits with different draft picks going back to 2015 has given the organization a nice, young core of NHLers, including Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, Denis Gurianov and Jake Oettinger. They also have Thomas Harley, Ty Dellandrea and Mavrik Bourque waiting in the wings, and a number of interesting support pieces in Rhett Gardner, Nick Caamano, Riley Damiani, Adam Mascherin, Fredrik Karlström, Oskar Bäck, Jacob Peterson and others.

With a future that was already shaping up to look deep and balanced, the Stars entered the 2021 draft without any glaring needs, giving the organization some flexibility with how they wanted to operate.

And while it’s still incredibly early afterwards — certainly way too early to properly analyze just how well Dallas did, to declare them a winner or a loser as some pundits like to do immediate post-draft — Stars fans should get pretty excited about what transpired over the past two days.

The Stars entered draft weekend with eight picks at their disposal and went straight to work. First, they traded down from 15th overall to 23rd in a deal with Detroit in the middle of the opening round on Friday night, picking up 48th and 138th overall in the process. A short time later they selected budding two-way center Wyatt Johnston 23rd with the former Red Wings pick.

But it was on Day 2 of the draft where things got really interesting. With a whopping nine picks remaining the Stars decided to take things in a number of different directions: they drafted forwards and defensemen; they selected offensive specialists and defensive specialists; they grabbed one of the consensus best players available in a few spots, and made some homerun swings in others; they picked one prospect who played in three different leagues and one international tournament in 2020-21, and one prospect who didn’t dress for a single game; they added one prospect as big as 6-foot-3, and one as short as 5-foot-8.

What was I saying, again, about the Stars’s future looking deep and balanced? It’s impossible to know exactly which of these picks will work out and which ones won’t, but Dallas covered their bases well with the variety of directions that they went.

The Johnston pick was obviously the biggest of them all, which means it needs the most analysis. And boy, is there a lot to analyze.

There was a lot of confusion and skepticism among Stars fans when the pick came in, and it’s understandable as to why, to a degree. According to non-NHL draft lists, which saw him more as a 2nd-rounder or 3rd-rounder, the Stars went off the board with the pick. I have messaged with some other scouts, during draft weekend and before, who genuinely considered him a 1st-round talent, but that was a minority opinion, not a majority one. But let’s unpack this selection a little.

The only hockey that the Toronto native played this season was seven games for Canada at the IIHF U18 tournament in Texas, picking up four points in seven games en route to his team winning a gold medal. I watched every Canada game in that tournament and came away very impressed with Johnston, who didn’t look rusty at all after a year away from competitive hockey. He was effective and consistent in all three zones, playing a nice shutdown game as Canada’s third-line center while also pushing the play up ice in transition and getting some nice looks in the offensive zone.

However, it’s important to remember that the Stars’s scouting staff also watched a lot of him back in 2019-20 before COVID-19 shuttered leagues all across the world. That includes Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell, who is based in Ontario. That U18 tournament was far from the only time that Stars scouts would have seen or gotten to know Johnston, especially when you remember that the Stars were keeping close tabs on former draft pick Curtis Douglas, who played with Johnston on the Windsor Spitfires.

Despite playing on a Spitfires team with a lot of older forwards in 2019-20, Johnston still managed to put up 30 points in 53 games, and had gone on a pretty nice scoring tear not long before everything shut down. I’ve seen some comments projecting Johnston as a third-line center or Bottom 6 center, and I don’t necessarily agree with that. Just because a prospect can play in that role doesn’t mean that it’s the only place he can play. 16-year-old rookies in major junior usually slot in the bottom of a team’s lineup in their freshman season. The pandemic denied us the ability to see what Johnston could have actually done in his sophomore OHL campaign, with a little more experience and comfort under his belt.

While there is undoubtedly some risk to the Johnston pick, a nice long-term reward is very possible as well if he has a high development curve that is currently a little behind those who actually got to play this season. Trying to project anything too definitively one way or the other, especially after a scouting year like that, is a fool’s errand.

In a funny twist, one of the players that many Stars fans were hoping would hear his name get called at 23rd was Kamloops Blazers forward Logan Stankoven — who Dallas actually grabbed in the 2nd round, 47th overall. I don’t think any Stars fans would have been upset with their team’s first two picks if the order of them had been swapped. And despite what I just wrote in the paragraph above about the uncertainty of this draft and not trying to predict the future too intently, I certainly won’t fault anyone who is thrilled about this pick for Dallas, because I sure am.

Stankoven is an incredibly gifted goal-scorer, which is the main reason why he was considered a consensus 1st-round pick by independent outlets. The results undeniably speak for themselves: 29 goals as a 16-year-old in the WHL, and then seven goals in his short six-game stint this season. There was widespread bewilderment on Twitter as the picks started coming through late on Friday and early into Saturday as Stankoven kept sliding, followed by widespread acclaim for the Stars when his name was finally called.

I have to wonder how many NHL scouts closely watched Cole Caufield’s magical playoff run with Montreal to let Stankoven go that long without being picked. I am absolutely not saying that Stankoven is on the same level is Caufield, because he isn’t, but the similarities are pretty striking. I mean, just look at how he scores goals:

Between Hintz, Robertson, Harley, Bourque and now Stankoven, the Dallas powerplay has the potential be downright silly in five to 10 years from now.

The Johnston selection wasn’t the only one where the Stars relied primarily on 2019-20 scouting reports to inform their decision, as the prospect they picked 48th overall, Artyom Grushnikov, also did not play any games in 2020-21 — or did he? McDonnell said in a video posted on the team’s official website that Grushnikov, apparently, played some games in Belarus under a different name, just to get some action in. So, there’s that.

Either way, Grushnikov’s earlier play was still what the Stars went off of the most, and what they and what other scouts saw (a lot of outlets had the Russian defender as a top-100 pick) is a defensman who projects nicely as a modern-day shutdown defender, someone who not only has size and physicality and a high degree of positional understanding, but also someone who has the skating ability to keep up with speedy opponents. While there wasn’t anything that the Stars needed too urgently coming into the draft, one particular area that was noted was defensemen with shutdown potential, to help complement Heiskanen and Harley. They came out of this weekend with three of those, in Grushnikov, Jack Bar and finally Jacob Holmes (more on them below).

The Stankoven pick wasn’t the only one that had the Stars earning rave reviews from the scouting community, as 3rd-rounder Ayrton Martino was someone that a lot of birddogs became enamored with after he produced 56 points in 38 games for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL. Even though he was a bit older for this draft class, as a 2002 birthday, his production is quite impressive considering he was a USHL rookie and that he didn’t have a lot of offensive support around him. He was the guy in Omaha. Given his speed, his hands and his well-rounded game (he killed penalties for the Lancers, even though he was their top offensive weapon), it was very surprising to see him still available at 73rd. There are some concerns about his skinny frame and a bit of softness, but he’ll have up to four years with Clarkson in the NCAA to improve his strength and conditioning.

Some quick-hit analysis on the remaining picks that the Stars made:

  • Justin Ertel, left wing, 79th overall: One of the luxuries that NHL scouts have that independent scouts don’t is time, since most of them they do this as their full-time career. That allows them to dig into prospects on lesser-known teams in lessor-known leagues, such as left winger Justin Ertel, who played for the Summerside Capitals in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League. While this pick might seem way out of left field on paper based off of independent rankings, how much did people actually watch this kid play, if at all? Over at FCHockey, an outlet that I scout for, we only had one single viewing of him — and that scout loved what he saw. That was enough for us to rank Ertel 272nd, but after watching his highlight reel now and seeing the combination of size, mobility, shooting and playmaking that he possesses, I’m kicking myself that we weren’t tipped off to him sooner and didn’t get  more looks at him. He’s headed to Cornell in the NCAA, and I’m going to be keeping very close tabs moving forward.
  • Conner Roullette, left wing, 111th overall: This is another pick that looks pretty good on paper. Roulette averaged a point per game on a pretty weak Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL team, and then joined Johnston and Stankoven on Canada’s roster at the U18s, where the team’s unsurprising depth pushed him down the lineup. He was widely ranked a lot higher than where Dallas picked him, including 55th on Bob McKenzie’s annual list (which is built using feedback from NHL scouts). He’s not very big and his skating definitely needs to improve, but he thinks the offensive side of the game well and has some skill with his puck control, shot and playmaking. Seattle will be a young team next season, which will help Roulette get a lot of ice time and more opportunities tweak his game.
  • Jack Bar, defense, 138th overall: Yet another selection where the Stars landed a player way, way below where he was ranked by scouting outlets, as high as 37th overall by McKeen’s. Personally, I think this is a major coup by Dallas, and one of my favorite late-round picks by any team. Bar is a big defender who moves really well and can occasionally pull off something amazing with the puck. The USHL’s Chicago Steel have become one of the best and biggest development factories in the junior hockey world, and Bar was a member of their 2021 championship team. It’s easy to get a little extra excited about prospects who come out of that program. He was also teammates with Ertel the year before at St. Andrew’s College, a private boarding school in Ontario with a history of athletic success. His next stop will be Harvard in the ECAC, where he’ll get to play against Ertel and Martino quite a bit.
  • Jacob Holmes, defense, 143rd overall: Holmes did not play this season, though he did get ranked by McKeen’s and NHL Central Scouting based off of his 2019-20 body of work. He’s a member of a pretty strong OHL organization in the Soo Greyhounds, which has recently helped produce NHL 1st-round defense prospect Rasmus Sandin and 2nd-round defense prospect Ryan O’Rourke. Holmes was the 18th overall selection in the 2019 OHL draft and the captain of his minor midget team, so there is some pedigree to him.
  • Francesco Arcuri, center/wing, 175th overall: Unlike Johnston and Holmes, Arcuri was able to find hockey this season after the OHL was not able to resume action, heading to a team in Austria (where, coincidentally, the aforementioned Douglas also got some games, and they played on the same line). He’ll play back in Kingston in the fall, on the same team as Shane Wright, the projected 1st-overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft (and Arcuri’s former minor midget teammate). The Stars will be hoping he picks up a few extra tips and tricks from his exceptional teammate. Arcuri is a big body who thinks the game well and has a pretty nice shot, but needs to get quicker and more agile to open things up for himself.
  • Albert Sjöberg, right wing, 207th overall: Given some of their picks in earlier rounds, it was only fitting that Dallas wrapped things up by grabbing one more prospect who was a lot higher on independent lists in Sjöberg. He was 87th at McKeen’s and 108th at FCHockey, and I’m not sure why he slid this far, because he had a pretty solid showing for Sweden at the U18s as they won the bronze. He might not possess a whole lot of offensive upside, but he is effective as a Bottom 6 forward who can kill penalties, pressure opponents on the forecheck and use his speed and power to help transition pucks up ice. The Stars had selected a Swede in every draft since 2016 (seven in total), so keeping the streak alive was probably to be expected./