Traverse City wrap: Thoughts on some prospects

Here are some thoughts on a week spent watching Dallas Stars prospects play in Traverse City. I am not going to run down all the players on the roster, but just pick out a few guys who stood out and touch on a few others. If I don’t mention someone it doesn’t mean he was bad. Some guys played all four games while several of the junior players like Mike Winther, Troy Vance and others played in only two.  Anyway, here are some rambling thoughts. No particular order, other than forwards first, defensemen and then goaltenders.

Let’s start with Valeri Nichushkin, the Stars first round pick (10th overall) in 2013. He was as advertised and more. He’s highly skilled and there were times he looked like a man among boys out there. He was explosive at times and his puck possession skills are impressive. Is he perfect and polished? No. He’s only 18 and he’s going to have his ups and downs adjusting to the NHL. He still has a lot to learn, including the details of the game as one Stars official mentioned. You can nitpick stuff. He tried to do too much at times, like trying to stickhandle through three guys. The positives far outweighed any blips here and there. He has all the tools to be a really good player. From what I heard he has a great attitude, a sense of humor and and a strong work ethic. Bottom line: there’s a lot to like about him, but let’s keep early expectations realistic.

Right wing Alex Chiasson, second round pick (38th overall) in 2009, had a solid tournament playing on a line with Nichushkin and Radek Faksa. I think expectations are a little too high for Chiasson because of the six goals in seven games with Dallas last year. He’s going to be a good player, but let’s tap the brakes on the goal scoring expectations. Still, there’s a lot to like here: great size, moves well, goes to those tough scoring areas and he has a good shot. All that was on display in Traverse City. He did a little bit of everything at the tournament. He played on the power play, killed penalties and took faceoffs. It was a good tournament for him.

I mentioned this in development camp and I’ll mention it again – center Radek Faksa, Dallas’ first round pick (13th overall) in 2012, has taken big strides over the last year. Sure, last season was a rough one with illness and injury issues, but if you compare where he is physically this year compared to last year the difference is noticeable.  It reminds me of the strides that Brett Ritchie made from 2011 to 2012. Not saying that Faksa is going to put up the numbers that Ritchie did in juniors last season, but I expect Faksa to have a big year with Kitchener of the OHL. He has size, skill and is always coming up with the puck. He’s got NHL written all over him.

I consider Brett Ritchie, second round pick (44th overall) in 2011, one of the Stars’ top prospects. I thought he was pretty good in this tournament. He was on what you’d consider the second line in Traverse City and the second power play unit. He ended up with three points (one goal and two assists) in four games. His 13 shots on goal ranked second on the team to the 16 put on net by Nichushkin. If you saw his five-on-three power play goal against Columbus, you know why this guy is so highly regarded. He has a heck of a shot. He’s another guy with all the tools – size, mobility, shot and he knows how to get to the prime scoring areas. This will be his first full year of pro hockey, so he’ll need some time before he is NHL ready. I suspect he’ll start the season with the Texas stars.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the guy who scored the Stars’ only hat trick of the tournament. Left wing Curtis McKenzie, sixth round (159th overall) in 2009, was pretty noticeable in the tournament, and not just because of the goals. He was physical, he created some chances, he got moved up the lineup when the Stars needed a jump, he killed penalties and he got in a scrap. McKenzie’s a guy who will bring some energy to the lineup. He’s a bit of an agitator. He played four years at Miami University in Ohio. He played a little with the Texas Stars last season, and did well. Don’t get too caught up in the goals at the tournament. I’m not sure that will be his role in the pros. I think he’s going to be a lower line guy who brings energy, scraps now and then and drives the opposition nuts. Good guy to have around. This will be his first full pro season. Should start it with the Texas Stars.

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, first round pick (14th overall) in 2011, was excellent in Traverse City. It’s fun to watch a guy who is 6-7, 250 pounds move so well. He was strong defensively, jumped up on things offensively, scored a couple of goals and he got in a couple of scraps. He registered a Gordie Howe Hat Trick in the final game of the tournament. What more could you ask. He’s a tough guy to get around if you are an opposing puck carrier. He uses his size and reach really well. The Stars are deep on defense as far as the NHL roster, but he should really be pushing for NHL time this season.

Defenseman John Klingberg, fifth round pick (131st) overall in 2010, has sort of fallen off the radar among some people, but he’s still a promising prospect. The Stars are still high on the slick skating Swede. It’s easy to see why. He’s a gifted offensive defenseman and those skills were evident in Traverse City. Granted, he had an advantage since he had been playing in the European Trophy tournament in Europe before coming over for this tournament, but that shouldn’t take away from how good he was at times. He had a beautiful pass to spring Nichushkin on a breakaway in Monday’s game against Columbus. He made a great move to skate the puck out of the Stars’ zone while killing a penalty on Monday as well. He does a nice job running a power play. He’d improved defensively and does a nice job with positioning and his stick, but he’s not a big guy and he’s not going to overpower anybody. His development has taken a hit the past couple of years, but he should be poised for a good season in Sweden and then be ready to make the jump to North America.

I think one of the nice surprises of the tournament was Finnish defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka, seventh round pick (195th overall) in 2011. Just about every person with the Stars I talked to mentioned Jokipakka as a guy who stood out at the tournament. This was Jokipakka’s first time playing in North America and it didn’t look like he needed time to adjust. Jokipakka moves really well, has some nice offensive attributes and plays a solid defensive game. He has some nice size as well. He’s listed at 6-3, 205 pounds. He should play with the Texas Stars this season.

Patrik Nemeth, second round pick (41st overall) in 2010, was pretty solid in the tournament. He’s a good defender and he plays with a nasty edge. I think he ticked off a few opposition players over the course of four games. He’s another defenseman with excellent size –  6-4, 233 pounds. This will be the big Swede’s second year in North America. He was playing really well with the Texas Stars last season before a concussion sidelined him in the middle of February. He’ll be back with Texas this season, but I don’t think he’s that far from the NHL.

The Stars’ goaltending in this tournament was really good. Jack Campbell, first round pick (11th overall) in 2010, was rock solid in his two starts. He won both, posting a 1.50 goals against average and stopping 45 of 48 shots for a .938 save percentage. You can see how much Campbell has settled down. He’s much calmer in net. He’s not scrambling all over the place, trying to do more than he has to. He’s letting the puck come to him and it’s paying off. He’s really matured. He was one of the better goaltenders in the tournament. This will be a big year for him with the Texas Stars of the AHL.

Here are some other guys I liked.

C Taylor Peters: Free agent signing out of Portland (Western Hockey League). He’s a defensive forward and faceoff specialist. He had several different linemates during the tournament, but I though any line he was on usually was effective. He’s not going to be a big points guy, but he does a lot of little things that help teams win. First full pro season this year and should play with the Texas Stars.

C Gemel Smith: Fourth round pick (104th overall) in 2012. He made things happen when he was out on the ice. He’s quick and is a relentless forechecker. He told me he wants to shoot more and pass less this season with Owen Sound of the OHL. He had 23 goals in 61 games last season, so will see how he does this season.

LW Remi Elie: Second round pick (40th overall) in 2013. He played in only two games at the tournament, but I thought he was effective when he did play. He has a nice skill set and can really move out there. Didn’t get much of an opportunity on a deep London (OHL) team last season. He’ll get a bigger role this season, so it will be interesting to see what he can do.

RW Matej Paulovic: Fifth round pick (149th overall) in 2013. He’s from Slovakia, played in Sweden last season and will play for Peterborough of the OHL this season. He played in only two games in the tournament, but picked up one goal and one assist. He has some size, hands, skill and was around things. The more he played the better he played. We’ll see what he does in his first season in North America.

Goaltenders Philippe Desrosiers (second round/54th overall in 2013) and Max Lagace (free agent signing in 2012) both played well in their starts. As I mentioned when talking about Campbell, the Stars’ goaltending at the tournament was really good. Both Desrosiers and Lagace will play in the QMJHL this season.

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