The Dallas Stars are building a formidable prospect pipeline, thanks to the Detroit Red Wings.
Between 1990 and 2017, the Red Wings qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs an amazing 25 consecutive seasons. Key to that run was the ability to consistently identify and draft NHL-caliber talent, whether near the bottom of the first round (where the successful Wings usually landed) or in later rounds.
Stars General Manager Jim Nill worked in the Red Wings front office from 1994 to 2013. One of his duties was overseeing the club’s amateur scouting department. Together, Nill and Joe McDonnell (the Stars’ Director of Amateur Scouting, he held the same title with the Red Wings 2003-13) pulled off such coups as the sixth-round selection of Pavel Datsyuk in 1998 and the seventh-round steal of Henrik Zetterberg the following year, among others.
Since the summer of 2013, Nill and McDonnell have plied their trade for the Stars. Their efforts are beginning to pay off in quality, if not quantity, of prospects.
Julius Honka, taken 14th overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, is a small (5-foot-10), scrappy and smooth-skating defenseman. He’s also the Stars’ top prospect.
The indomitable Finn spent his draft year playing in North America, on loan from his club back home to the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. In 62 games with the Broncos, Honka racked up 16 goals and 40 assists, tops among defenseman on his team and 11th in the league.
The technicality of Honka’s “on loan” status allowed the Stars to place their first-round pick in the American Hockey League at age 18, rather than keeping him in Major Junior for two more years. Playing against professionals didn’t faze the Finn, who posted 31 and 44 points in his first two seasons with the Texas Stars. In 2016-17, his AHL point total dropped back to 31 in 50 games, due largely to time spent in the NHL.
Honka played 16 games with the Dallas Stars last season, recording an assist in his NHL debut against the Minnesota Wild on November 21. His first multi-point game came one week later, a two-assist effort against the St. Louis Blues. Honka scored his first NHL goal on his third call-up of 2016-17. The overtime beauty was a bright spot at the end of a long, disappointing season for the Stars.
Honka’s blend of hockey sense, grit and scoring touch will be on display in Dallas full-time in 2017-18, and some scribes are already speculating the youngster could have a higher ceiling than John Klingberg.
The 2015 NHL Entry Draft is widely regarded as the deepest, talent-wise, since 2003. Forward Roope Hintz, taken 49th overall by the Stars, is proof of that depth.
Hintz is a prototypical Nill/McDonnell draftee: smart, skilled, energetic. His Elite Prospects scouting report checks off all the boxes:
A highly intelligent Finn who can play the role of scorer or playmaker; has killer instincts and a keen eye for scoring opportunities. Very high hockey-IQ and has incredible awareness on the ice; is able to play the puck creatively, all the while creating space for his adjoining teammates…All-in-all, a prolific scoring threat that continuously plays with jump and provides energy for teammates.
Aside from a brief (22-game) foray to North America in the 2012-13 season, Hintz has developed his game in his homeland. Playing in Finland’s Liiga last season, he posted 19 goals and 30 points in 44 regular-season games, good for second on his team. In the playoffs, his 14 points were tops in the Liiga.
Roope Hintz at Day 2 of Dallas Stars Development Camp. pic.twitter.com/cQnhlL7Jlv
— Amanda (@ShatteredLensTX) July 11, 2017
Hintz will bring his NHL-sized (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) frame back to North America this fall. While he’s expected to spend 2017-18 in the AHL, playing center for the Texas Stars, the smart, skilled Finn will be near the head of the injury call-up line.
Jim Nill entertained offers for the third pick in the 2017 draft; keeping that pick could turn out to be his smartest move yet.
The Stars took Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen third overall back in June, and his stock continues to rise. Widely regarded as the top blueliner in the draft, Heiskanen, who turns 18 on July 18, was a teammate of Hintz’ with HIFK last season, tallying 10 points in 37 games.
The 17-year-old was assessed just four minutes in penalties last season. For some players, that’s an indicator of timidity, of a reluctance to engage in physical play. Though slight of build (6-foot-0, 170 pounds), Heiskanen is anything but timid, as he demonstrated at the Stars’ recent development camp: During a three-on-two drill, Hintz parked, or tried to park, himself in front of the net. Heiskanen mauled the larger forward, knocking him off balance and driving him away from the crease, and did so in a manner unlikely to draw attention from a referee.
Elite Prospects called Heiskanen, “An elite two-way defenseman in the making,” and they’re right. The Stars won’t rush him, but Heiskanen’s skill and maturity will likely dictate an early NHL arrival. The youngster received a vote of confidence from the club on July 8, in the form of a three-year, entry-level contract.
Right now, Nill plans to give the young Finn a good look at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and at training camp before sending him back to Finland for one more season. Whether Heiskanen starts the 2018-19 campaign in Dallas or Cedar Park will be determined by his performance over the coming year.
The Stars went big with their top pick of 2016, plucking 6-foot-5 left wing Riley Tufte from the Minnesota high school ranks. Minnesota’s “Mr. Hockey 2016” has only grown since, adding an inch in height and, as Tufte said at development camp, about 10 pounds of muscle.
Tufte, who plays for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, had a rocky start to his college career. After breaking his wrist last August, the big winger missed the first four contests of the season and didn’t register a point until his 15th game.
Once he started scoring, Tufte didn’t stop, registering nine goals and 16 points in the final 23 games of the season, including a goal in the NCAA Championship game, a 3-2 loss to Denver University. Next season, the sophomore will benefit from added responsibility and ice time.
Tufte is expected to spend the next two years at UMD before turning pro, though a year more or less isn’t out of the question. At the end of July, he’ll attend the USA Hockey 2017 World Junior Summer Showcase as an invitee. A spot on the Team USA roster for the World Junior Championship in December would signal a step forward in Tufte’s development and could speed his arrival in the professional ranks.