What Each First Round Pick of the Nill Era Tells Us About the Stars (Part 1)

Management’s inability to properly draft and develop has kept the Stars from becoming anything more than a playoff bubble team.

Last Thursday, the Dallas Stars managed to lose a home game against one of the worst teams in the league, the Los Angeles Kings. That always hurts, but what especially stung was that the Kings were backstopped by former Stars’ first rounder Jack Campbell.

As of writing this, Campbell has played 16 games this season and currently leads the NHL in save percentage with a .932%. With Jonathan Quick starting to succumb to injuries and “old age,” Campbell could very well be the future starting goaltender for the Kings.

Maybe Campbell is yet another goaltender to look better than he is by playing behind the Kings’ blue line. Or maybe he’s just another example of the Stars’ inability to properly draft and develop top talent.

That’s a problem that should have been fixed when GM Jim Nill took the reigns in 2013. Instead, the Stars continue to have little success in the first round, which in turn has directly hindered their ability to be anything more than a perennial playoff bubble team.

So we’re going to take a look at each first round pick of the Nill era, both the good and the bad, and see what they can tell us about the Stars. Instead of blasting you with a giant wall of text, we’ll cover the first four today and tackle the past four next week.

Valeri Nichushkin
Drafted: 10th overall, 2013
Position: Right Wing
NHL Stats: 203 games played, 23 goals, 48 assists, 71 points

Nichushkin is a classic case of how picking the “right” player isn’t enough, and that development matters just as much.

Heading into the 2013 draft, Nichushkin was considered a top five talent. The fact that he fell all the way to No. 10 was likely due to the “Russian factor,” i.e. the temptation of playing in his home country in the KHL. There were also rumors that Nichushkin was going to refuse to play in the AHL, but the truth was that he could only opt-out of his contract with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL if it was to play in the NHL. Minor league hockey in North America simply wasn’t an option.

Regardless, the Stars got a top talent in Nichushkin, who went on to score 34 points in 79 games his rookie year as an 18-year-old. Those aren’t exactly Connor McDavid numbers, but the young Russian still looked great. In fact, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr claimed he would be the “best in the world one day.”

Sadly, Nichushkin missed most of his sophomore season due to injury. He scored 29 points in 79 games his third season, and after that he returned to Russia to play for CSKA Moskva in the KHL for two years before returning to Dallas this season.

We could talk for hours about why Nichushkin went back to Russia, but the important part is that leaving Dallas was ultimately not good for his development. In 37 games this year for Dallas, Nichushkin has failed to score a goal and has only seven assists, and the young forward has often found himself in the press box as a healthy scratch.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize the Stars if they truly had no control over Nichushkin heading back to Russia. Still, Nill’s first draft pick is now looking like a reclamation project at best, just like Jack Campbell once was.

Jason Dickinson
Drafted: 29th overall, 2013
Position: Center
NHL Stats: 78 games played, 8 goals, 8 assists, 16 points

Dickinson is an example of why Nill’s philosophy of “over-marinating” prospects simply doesn’t work.

While his career numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, Dickinson has actually been very good this season, serving as a solid two-way forward for Dallas with 11 points in 35 games. His stats also require a little context, since last season Dickinson played 27 games under former head coach Ken Hitchcock yet averaged an ice time of only 8:32, most of it on the fourth line with less than stellar talent.

That’s strange, since given his success in the Stars’ own zone this year, you’d imagine Dickinson would have been very successful under Hitchcock last year. But before you pile on Hitchcock for “not trusting rookies,” consider that Nill more or less blocked Dickinson from getting a roster spot that — based on his play with the Texas Stars — he was more than ready for. The Stars signed Tyler Pitlick and Martin Hanzal in 2017 offseason, and did the same this past summer by signing Blake Comeau and bringing back Nichushkin.

Those signings are just a small sample size of an ongoing problem for Dallas: the Stars try to fill out their bottom six with free agents — who are almost always overpaid — instead of bringing up prospects already in the system. That philosophy likely kept Dickinson from making an NHL impact sooner in his career, and has also hindered the development of another first round pick...

Julius Honka
Drafted: 14th overall, 2014
Position: Defense
NHL Stats: 87 games played, 2 goals, 11 assists, 13 points

Like Dickinson, Honka is yet another prospect who was kept in the AHL too long. But he’s also an example of how the Stars are unwilling to trade their prospects, and how that can come back to bite them.

After tearing up the AHL with Texas yet being blocked from an NHL roster spot by “lower tier” defenseman such as Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth, and Greg Pateryn, Honka was supposed to take the NHL by storm as a rookie in the 2017-18 season. Instead, Honka and Hitchcock were a bad match, with Honka struggling to adapt to Hitchcock’s system and the head coach failing to let the rookie defenseman play to his strengths and make mistakes.

When Hitchcock “retired” at the end of the season and new head coach Jim Montgomery was hired, Stars fans rejoiced as Honka was “freed.” His rookie season could be considered a wash, and like Dickinson, he would have a chance to blossom under Montgomery.

But that didn’t happen either. Honka was a healthy scratch in the Stars’ first game, and when John Klingberg went down due to injury, Honka failed to step up and fill the hole, instead finding himself in the press box in favor of AHL players like Ben Gleason and Joel Hanley.

As our own Wes Lawrence wrote about a couple weeks ago, Honka is no longer a “prospect” and wouldn’t return much in a trade. And that’s the biggest takeaway from all of this. Once upon a time, Honka could have been the center piece of a big trade for a top six forward, instead of fetching maybe a mid-to-late round pick. And while hindsight is 20/20, the truth is that Nill should have pulled the trigger on such a trade as soon as he realized that Honka and Hitchock were a bad match.

Instead, Honka is, like Nichushkin, in need of a fresh start away from Dallas. And those players don’t get much on the trade market.

Denis Gurianov
Drafted: 12th overall, 2015
Position: Right Wing
NHL Stats: 12 games played, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points

Gurianov is a textbook example of how sometimes, it’s simply best to go with the consensus pick instead of over-valuing your own scouts.

I really wanted to end this piece with a positive note, one that contrasted the plights of Dickinson and Honka by preaching how patience can pay off in the end. After all, Gurianov has gone from a “bust” as a healthy scratch in the Calder Cup Playoffs to an AHL All-Star in less than a year. And this isn’t a case of Stars fans overvaluing their own prospects: Gurianov rocketed up to 28th overall in Corey Pronman’s latest prospect rankings.

But in the end, Gurianov will always be tied to two players who came shortly after him: New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal and Winnipeg Jets winger Kyle Connor. Unlike most “What If” scenarios when it comes to the NHL Draft, this isn’t a case of picking someone else in hindsight. At the time, Barzal and Connor were considered the best talent on the board at No. 12, while Gurianov was considered to be a late first by most experts. The only thing more confusing than Dallas passing up on both forwards was that the Boston Bruins did the same thing after them. Three times.

How has that worked out for Dallas? While fans are finally hopeful that Gurianov can maybe become a top six winger, Kyle Connor arguably already is. The Jets forward has 51 goals and 48 assists in just 143 NHL games, for a total of 99 points thus far. Thirty-seven of those come from 47  games this year, which would put him third on the Stars’ own scoring list.

If you think that’s good, wait till you see Barzal’s numbers. The reigning Calder Trophy winner had 85 points in 82 games last season and has 44 in 47 games this year. If you exclude his two pointless games in the 2016-17 season, then he has scored 129 points in 129 games, exactly one point per game. And he’s only 21 years old.

So yes, you should be optimistic about Gurianov — I myself am a big fan — and his future as a Dallas Star. But when it comes to evaluating the front office in general — not just their drafting and development — picking Gurianov instead of Barzal or Connor is easily their biggest mistake.

That’ll be it for today. Tune in next week when we talk about the more recent first round picks, including one that was actually pretty good...