Thoughts And Observations On the Dallas Stars’ 2018 Draft

On one of the biggest weekends in franchise history, the Stars came out on top.

When it comes to the world of hockey scouting, information is everything.

That might sound like a statement so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be said, but the reality of the matter is a lot more complex and comprehensive than it seems at first glance.

That realization is my biggest personal takeaway from my trip to Dallas this past weekend, where I attended the NHL Entry Draft for the first time.

Over the past few years I’ve steadily focused more and more of my writing on scouting and the draft, and have reached a new level of information-gathering commitment this season. I watched more games and highlights, read more scouting reports, crunched more numbers, talked to more other scouts and — most importantly, by far — gained media credentials for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, allowing me better access to some of the things listed above, while also giving me the new opportunity of talking to many of the WHL’s top prospects up close and in person.

I was diligent. Maybe even a little bit obsessive at times. Heading into the draft, I felt pretty confident about what I knew and all the information I had gathered over the year leading up to the big weekend.

Overall, I still do, but it only took a few hours after my plane touched down on Thursday for me to fully get an idea of just how much I still didn’t know.

That, too, may sound like an obvious statement. I live in southern Alberta, so I don’t have access to the same information that Quebec scouts do, that European scouts do, etc. I can watch games on TV and online and digitally chat with scouts from all over the world, but those methods have limitations. I knew full well there were holes and gaps in the information I had gathered.

Behind the scenes of the draft this past weekend, I spent as much of that time as I could talking to other people in the community, swapping stories and opinions, and it was eye-opening to discover just how many tidbits of intel stay securely outside of the public eye.

More importantly, however, I realized just how much quality of information outweighs quantity of information.

A perfect example of this comes from one of the biggest surprises on the the draft’ opening night on Friday: Joe Veleno.

I followed Veleno as closely as I could all season long, thinking his style of game could be a great fit for the Dallas Stars. From afar, I watched him play at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, the IIHF U18s, and a couple other times in between, while also watching hours of highlights and reading every report on him I could get my hands on. He had weaknesses in his game that I was aware of, but I still liked the information I had gathered, so I ranked him 11th on my own personal pre-draft rankings, which can be found here.

Then Friday night happened. The 11th pick came and went, and Veleno was still available. Then the 13th pick, which belonged to Dallas, but they didn’t take him either. Then the 15th. Then the 20th. It wasn’t until 30th overall when his name was finally called by the Detroit Red Wings, stopping the most notable slide of the opening round.

I would have been surprised by this, had it not been for a conversation I had with a well-informed member of an independent scouting service right before the opening round started, who informed me that a lot of Quebec-based scouts, scouts who had watched Veleno closer than most others, were not high on him. Some didn’t even consider him a first-round talent whatsoever.

Suddenly I had new information, of a higher quality than what I had gathered before. It was information that, apparently, a lot of NHL teams had, but a lot of outside sources didn’t, which might help explain why Veleno fell so far below where he was listed in almost all rankings.

I still think, overall, that Veleno is a good player with good upside, and I don’t fully know the extent of why he fell as far as he did (for the record, I didn’t hear anything controversial or critical of him as a person, or any red flags, so I don’t want any rumors of that kind to start by me saying what I just did about him).

Where I’m going with all of this, in a roundabout way, is to say that NHL teams and their scouting staffs have a higher quality of information on prospects than pretty much anyone on the outside. There’s still a lot of value in public rankings and what non-NHL-affiliated scouts observe, and no team is perfect in their drafting decisions, but when it comes to quality of information, there’s a sizable gap here that exists and always need to be taken into consideration.

All of that being said, it’s in this light that I want to offer some thoughts and opinions on the Stars specifically and why I’m a big, big fan of how their 2018 draft unfolded, even if it might look disappointing to some fans at first glance.

The Ty Dellandrea pick isn’t nearly as much of a reach as it may seem

When the Dallas Stars stepped up to the podium on Friday night, in front of their own home fans at the American Airlines Center, and announced Ty Dellandrea was their pick with the 13th overall selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, it was a move that was met with a lot of surprise.

Well, surprise on the good end of the spectrum. The reaction on the bad end of the spectrum, especially on Twitter, was less rosy than “surprised.”

On one hand, it’s entirely understandable as to why. It only takes a few seconds to go online and search for easily-accessible draft rankings, of which there are many. Most of these rankings had Dellandrea as a first-round talent, some didn’t, but seemingly most concerning is that none of them ranked him as high as 13th. The highest public spot was from The Hockey News, who put him 16th.

(For what it’s worth, I had him 17th on my pre-draft list, in the same tier as Veleno, Ty Smith, and Joel Farabee, among others).

All of a sudden, thoughts of the 2015 draft came flooding back to Stars fans.

But despite some similarities, 2018 is not 2015, and the Dellandrea pick deserves to be evaluated on its own merit.

So, why should Stars fans like this pick? There are actually a lot of different reasons.

First of all, there’s a lot to love about who Dellandrea is and what he brings to the table. His low scoring totals this season seem low for a first rounder, but they are quite misleading. His Flint Firebirds team had a young roster with very little talent at forward, especially after the team shipped out veterans before the OHL trade deadline, leaving a 17-year-old Dellandrea with little scoring support around him, which made him the prime defensive focus of other teams’ top shutdown players. Despite this, there were many nights where he was still a significant offensive contributor for Flint, including multiple multi-point games.

When he actually did get to play with other talented players, however, Dellandrea was dynamic. He stole the show at the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, setting a record for the two fastest goals in the event’s history, and then capped off his season with a stellar performance at the IIHF U18s, where he was one of the best players on the Canadian team, scoring five points in five games.

Going beyond just offense, Dellandrea is the complete package. His work ethic, character, and dedication to getting better are all elite, while all his other skills and traits — skating, shooting, puck control, playmaking, hockey sense, creativity, defensive play, face-off acumen, leadership — are all very good as well.

Dellandrea said on Friday night that he models his game after Jonathan Toews. In terms of an NHL comparable, he’s always reminded me a lot of Logan Couture — a legitimate second-line center, but also a guy with incredible defensive abilities whom coaches can trust in all situations.

Secondly, as announced on Sportsnet’s broadcast on Friday, in October Dellandrea made a huge discovery — the young forward had Celiac disease. One of the biggest symptoms  of the illness is fatigue, and for a hockey player fatigue can be devastating. Luckily for the young center, the discovery was made and Dellandrea was able to change his diet to one that is gluten-free.

Did the change in diet help? It’s hard to draw a straight line with these sorts of things, but Dellandrea’s play took huge strides as the season went along, so that might have been part of the reason why.

Last but not least, and to tie this back in with how I started the article, the Stars had a lot of really high-quality information about Dellandrea; not just what he brings on the ice, but who he is off of it as well. This has been reported in depth already in a few separate articles, such as this one by Sean Shapiro, but GM Jim Nill, Director of Amateur Scouting Joe McDonnell, and Player Development Coordinator Rich Peverley all had connections to the Firebirds. Dellandrea was a player who the Stars had a fantastic, detailed read on, perhaps better than any other NHL club, and it only made them like him more and more.

Could the Stars have traded down and still have picked Dellandrea? It’s a possibility, but according to McDonnell, Dallas wasn’t the only team who was highly interested in him.

“You see some lists and things like that, but with Dellandrea I had two teams come up to me this morning and say ‘We were trying our hardest to trade up to get him,’” he said on Saturday afternoon.

You never really, truly know who the “best player available” for any given pick actually was until years later. Two things we do know for sure right now though, is that the Stars did a ton of homework on Dellandrea, and that McDonell said at one point during the weekend that he and his staff do look back when necessary and try to learn what they can from prior draft decisions. Regardless of how it might look upon first glance, this is definitely a pick that could be a huge win for the Stars down the road and is one that at least deserves a fair chance to see how it unfolds.

The Stars did a fantastic job on Day Two of the draft

One of the questions Nill was asked during a media scrum on Saturday was what he considered to be a successful draft for his club.

“If you can get two to three players every year, you’re doing a good job,” Nill answered. “I know that doesn’t sound like good odds, but those are facts. If you can get two or three players and keep doing it every year, you’re setting yourself up pretty good.”

The Stars took eight players in this year’s draft, and as crazy as this may sound, don’t be surprised in the future if a lot more than three of these players (perhaps as many as five) end up becoming regular NHLers. I’m that optimistic and pleased with how well Dallas did with all of their picks, more optimistic than I’ve been immediately following any Stars draft since I started closely following prospects five years ago.

From rounds two all the way to seven (and twice in round four), the Stars made great pick after great pick, covering a few different bases.

In terms of players with high upside, the Stars nabbed Albin Eriksson in the second round and Adam Mascherin in the fourth. The Stars came out and said on Saturday that they had the explosive Eriksson as a first rounder on their board (and there are reports that there was at least one other team that did as well, if not more), while Mascherin was a second rounder to the Florida Panthers in 2016 who couldn’t come to terms with the Panthers and re-entered the draft. If Mascherin develops into the player the Panthers (and many others) thought he would become back in 2016 then that could be an incredible value pick for Dallas at spot No. 100.

The Stars went the safer route a couple times as well, taking Swede Oskar Bäck (a big, smart, responsible center with some pro-level experience) in the third round and Jamaican-born, Canadian-raised Jermaine Loewen (a late-blooming power forward who took his game to another offensive level this past season and has the potential to carve out a bottom six role in the NHL) in the seventh.

Riley Damiani (fifth round, 137th overall) and Dawson Barteaux (sixth round, 168th overall) are two players who fit a little bit into both of the two prior categories: guys with low enough floors to be considered safe, smart picks, but who also possess intriguing upside. Interestingly, there were multiple non-NHL-affiliated people embedded in the OHL scouting community who absolutely loved Damiani, while Barteaux was also thought highly of in some WHL circles.

The biggest wildcard of this year’s group for me, however, is the gargantuan Curtis Douglas, who Dallas grabbed in the fourth at pick No. 106. I had him 77th on my personal pre-draft list.

The 6’9”, 245-pound Douglas raised some eyebrows on Saturday when talking to the media, saying that he models his game after Brian Boyle and Ryan Reaves, an honest kind of assessment that is pretty rare among most young prospects. (Douglas could have said he models his game after Connor McDavid, but who would he be fooling?) Don’t let his size and his comments mislead you though; Douglas is a guy who can really play the game with skill. He picked up 46 points in 66 games this past season and will be a top six player for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires for the next two years.

“You guys, you won’t believe — I don’t know if there’s video out there or anything — but you won’t believe how well he can move for his size and how good of hands he has,” McDonnell said about Douglas on Saturday.

I liked Douglas a lot before the weekend, but getting to meet him in person, to see his personality and enthusiasm up close, only made me like this pick more for the Stars. He’s a player with a stealthy amount of upside. If he develops according to plan and all of the elements come together he could become a prospect who teams really kick themselves later for missing out on.

“It’s a smaller draft for sure, and there’s a lot of defensemen with quick foot speed and really good agility and quickness, and I think that’s a big focus for me for the next couple years is that foot speed and getting faster,” Douglas said. “I think I can bring my size and speed and skill as a big guy to the club, I just really need to work, and I’m going to really work, in getting better and bringing my skill set towards the Dallas Stars hockey organization.”

Doubling back once again to the idea I started this article with, the Stars relied on the quality of their intel in the later rounds. McDonnell lives in Kitchener, Ontario, where both Mascherin and Damiani played for the Kitchener Rangers (“I happen to be from the city where he plays, so I have some connections there,” McDonnell said of Mascherin. “I work with his fitness guy, the GM there, the coach there. There were no red flags.”). Loewen plays for the Kamloops Blazers, the WHL team owned by Stars owner Tom Gaglardi, so there are more connections there.

It’s also worth mentioning that all of the prospects whom the Stars selected were ranked by NHL Central Scouting and multiple independent scouting services. None of these players were off-the-board, out-of-left-field kinds of picks. Quality of information is still better than quantity, but I think it’s a really good sign that there seems to be a lot of consensus about the potential of the players that Dallas chose.

Don’t look now, but that’s three promising drafts in a row for the Stars

As everyone knows, it’s impossible to fully analyze and evaluate the results of a draft until a few years down the road. Prospect development is incredibly difficult, and a lot of different things need to align just right for a player to make it to the NHL.

That being said, however, the picture slowly begins transforming from blurry to clear at a gradual pace, starting just months after a draft occurs.

The pictures of the 2016 and 2017 drafts are still not fully in focus yet, but upon closer examination, what we are starting to see now looks very promising.

One of the periodic articles I write here at Defending Big D is the Prospect Rankings, which usually runs a few times per year. The last edition of these rankings came out in March, and can be found here.

Look closely and you’ll notice that all of the Stars’ remaining picks from both 2016 and 2017 made the cut (one of the 2017 selections, goalie Dylan Ferguson, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights).

The same can’t be said for the 2014 draft (Julius Honka already graduated to the Stars, and the only other prospect still in the system is John Nyberg) and the 2015 draft (three prospects made the list, two did not).

What this shows me is a clear pattern of improvement. In both 2016 and 2017, the Stars seemingly hit on their high picks (Miro Heiskanen, Jason Robertson, Riley Tufte, and Jake Oettinger) while also finding some really promising prospects later on in the draft (Colton Point, Nick Caamano, Jakob Stenqvist, Brett Davis, Jacob Peterson). My initial impression of the 2018 group, based on all the work I conducted throughout the year, is that we’ll start to see the same results happen in the near future.

Again, it’s too early to jump to any final conclusions because so much development is still to come and so much can change, but from where I’m standing, it certainly looks like the Stars have learned from prior mistakes and exorcised some of the old draft demons that had haunted the organization for years.

Is a new, more fruitful era of Dallas Stars hockey just around the corner?