Dallas Stars Roster & Prospect Ramblings: Call 'Em Up vs. Sit 'Em Down
With the pre-season coming to an end, the Dallas Stars find themselves in the enviable position of having a number of prospects knocking on the door. Who should stay, who should go? Let's take a look at five of the biggest cuts.
Yesterday, the Dallas Stars elected to send six players to their AHL Affiliate: Radek Faksa, Julius Honka, John Klingberg, Curtis McKenzie, Justin Dowling, and Brendan Ranford. Brett Ritchie stuck around an extra game, but will also be starting his season with the Texas Stars. Depending on your philosophical bent, these are either another set of stellar decisions by GM Jim Nill, long may he reign, or a woeful mismanagement of assets by a Manchurian Candidate sent from Detroit to torpedo the Benn/Seguin Era before it can properly take root.
Due respect to Mr. Dowling and Mr. Ranford, who contributed mightily to last season’s AHL champion Texas Stars, this is really a story about the other five players. Honka, Faksa, Klingberg, McKenzie, and Ritchie; five young men, a mix of big tickets and long-shot prospects, each caught up in the enthusiastic surge behind Dallas’ recent return to post-season play. Furthermore, each has, at some point, been object of roster-fawning speculation.
In their own way, each player perfectly solves one of the remaining holes on Dallas’ roster. They allow us, the fans, to think past our whipping-boy du jour and imagine brighter days. We’ve got a diligent, 200-foot center, a winger tailor-made for top line service, an actual right-handed defenseman, and the zippiest offensive d-man since Sergei Zubov. All of which makes sending any of them down a catastrophic mistake. Right?
Actually, maybe not right. What if there aren’t enough minutes with the big club and development is stunted? How about the impact of a longer season against more physically developed players? To what degree do we value things like experience, or confidence? What we find is that the decision to keep or drop a promising young player is highly nuanced, the cost of failure is high. Dallas, keep in mind, is locked in the crucible of the NHL’s toughest division.
Which brings us back to our quintet of the future. Nill and company have already made their decisions. Were they the right decisions? Let’s take a quick look.
Pedigree: Another Dallas draft pick. The left winger was selected in the 6th round of the 2009 Entry Draft. McKenzie went on to play a full 4 years at Miami University (the hockey one, in Ohio), where he exhibited a fairly modest offensive touch (80 points in 158 games). Then 2013-14 came along, and the kid went off. By the time the dust had settled, McKenzie had set a career high with 65 points in 75 games (27 goals, 38 assists), won the Calder Cup, and secured Rookie of the Year honors.
He stays because Dallas' highest scoring winger (Non-Jamie Benn Category) last season had 35 points, and is no longer with the team. That's anemic. Dallas then sacrificed that same winger, Alex Chiasson, to secure the services of Jason Spezza. For a single season. Throw in the Central Division boogeyman, and McKenzie is an awfully tantalizing fit for a spot in Dallas' top six.
Drop him if you're worried about a marked decrease in scoring after February. Eight points in October, nine in November, 12 each in December, January and February. Then, suddenly, half as many in both March and April. March, by the way, was the month Colton Sceviour joined Dallas for good.
My verdict? Another good call. The Sceviour thing bugs me a little bit. Travis Morin had 88 points in 66 games, Sceviour had 63 points in 54 games prior to his call up. If McKenzie had a serious scoring background I might roll the dice, but he doesn't. He needs to be given the best possible chance to succeed, and right now, that chance is in Austin.
Pedigree: A classic project defensemen, the now-slick Swede was selected in the 5th round (131st overall) of the 2010 Entry Draft. Since then, he’s steadily filled out, and rounded out an impressive skillset. Overseas, he played for a champion (Skelleftea), and led a team in defensive scoring (Frolunda). He finally made it to Texas last season, and played in 3 games for the AHL Stars.
He stays because he’s a right-handed defensemen that projects to be a better-than-average distributor of the puck. That makes him a freaking unicorn as far as the Dallas system is concerned. He’s also impressed with his poise and puck distribution during training camp and the pre-season. Even without Brendan Dillon’s contract situation, Dallas’ defense projects to be an area of need. With Dillon’s contract situation, the need could be acute.
Drop him if you believe in the significant adjustment between European and North American hockey. I can also see value in having him spend an entire season under the direct guidance of the Stars’ organization prior to being thrown into the fire. Finally, Dallas is already contemplating expanded roles for a couple of recent prospects (Patrik Nemeth and Kevin Connauton). Maybe it’s wise to wait.
My verdict? Give him a shot. Dillon’s situation has created an interesting opportunity along Dallas’ backline. Of course Brendan will be back at some point, so why not use what looks like an early season absence as an opportunity to evaluate Klingberg?
Pedigree: Dallas grabbed Brett Ritchie with the 44th pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, one year before they landed Faksa. Ritchie split time in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting and Niagara IceDogs, and improved his offensive production each season. Most notably, he exploded in 2012-13 with 76 points in 53 games (41 goals, 35 assists).
He stays because he scored 4 goals on Mike Modano Night in Austin. Total baller move. Ritchie also demonstrated value when it mattered most by registering 11 points (7 goals, 4 assists) in 13 playoff games. Finally, the departure of Chiasson means the Stars could use another large-bodied forward with scoring touch. At 6’4", 215 lbs, Ritchie ably fits the bill.
Drop him if the fact he wore down towards the end of the season (only played 13 of 21 playoff games) gives you cause for concern, or if you consider 48 points in 68 AHL games (6th place on the squad) not quite good enough for immediate promotion to prime time. Maybe he needs one more year to truly break out.
My verdict? I say he stays down, but you could talk me out of it. He’s probably the closest of Dallas’ prospects to making an NHL-impact. Ritchie passed the eye test last season in a big way. His point totals were also consistent, between 5 and 9 points each month of the regular season. That’s important, because it means his season wasn’t skewed by a handful of big (read: unlikely to repeat) outbursts. He’s also improved, year-after-year, at every level. By a whisker, I say let’s see if he can take another step forward in the AHL.
Pedigree: There’s a certain mystique to a first round pick. These are the guys expected to come up quickly, and make an instant impact. From that perspective, the 13th overall pick from the 2012 Entry Draft has taken a bit of a winding road. Three full seasons with Kitchener, a fourth with Sudbury, and two sips of coffee with the Texas Stars, the second of which yielded a Calder Cup.
He stays because he’s used the past four seasons to turn himself into a coach’s dream. Point-per-game? Just about. Faksa has 150 points in his last 168 games. Defensively responsible? It's a bit more anecdotal, but after a 6 game cameo, Faksa played in 21 AHL playoff games for a championship-or-bust squad. That's an impressive leap of faith in a 19 year old without a full professional season under his belt. Well, that 19 year old is now 20, he's also 6'3" and weighs 210 pounds. That's a big boy frame, a first round pedigree, and a winner. Good NHL teams need players like that.
Drop him if Cody Eakin re-signs. Which he did, which sort of puts the nail in the Faksa-to-Dallas noise for the moment. It's also worth checking, I think, to see if Faksa's offense comes along. The team asked him to develop the defensive side of his game, which he did in spades. Why not ask him, now, to bring the same attentiveness to one of Texas' scoring lines?
My verdict? The team got this one absolutely right. Faksa needs minutes, responsibility, and a larger sample size. He could help now, sure, but with a bit more seasoning he could help even more later. It would also be nice to prove the youngster is truly past a flurry of early-career injuries. Everyone involved benefits for putting Faksa into an important role with the Texas Stars.
Pedigree: Honka is this year’s shiny penny. The precocious 18-year old was selected 14th overall in this summer’s draft after a 56 point (in 62 games) season with Swift Current in the WHL. By all reports, Honka has been excellent this summer during training camp.
He stays because Dallas management closes their eyes and imagines the kid having a Torey Krug-esque impact on last season’s moribund power play. Clever coaching, the thinking goes, should be able to find enough specialist, sheltered minutes to allow the young dynamo to have a positive effect at the NHL level. Also, the right-handed thing, and the fact Dallas’ backline isn’t exactly an elite club at the moment.
Drop him if you don’t think a 5’11" 18-year old is ready to play 82 games next season. Honka might also go down if you think some of the other talent in the pipeline is closer to ready, or if you want him to develop more broadly than as an offensive specialist.
My verdict? Let’s all take a deep breath, and give the kid another year to develop. The AHL is still a hyper-competitive league, and the Texas Stars project to be a very good team. Honka will get meaningful playing time, and the opportunity to learn how to be a professional hockey player. If he plays as well as the optimists claim, I’m sure there will be ample opportunities to call him up later in the season anyways.