Deep prospect pool gives Stars options for next season and beyond
After finding success in the AHL this past season, players like Damiani, Mascherin and Harley could be knocking on the door for a roster spot with the Starsby Mike Heika @MikeHeika / Senior Staff Writer
Jim Nill doesn't see 2021-22 as an all-or-nothing season.
In fact, the Stars' general manager has always seen his job as a juggling act between now, the near future, and the long-term success of the club.
"It's definitely not just `try to win it all and then you go away'," said Nill. "We want to be a contender every year, we want to make the playoffs on a consistent basis -- six, seven, eight years in a row, that's what our goal is."
So, while contracts say the team needs to be all-in next season, it doesn't mean that's at the cost of long-term success. Yes, Joe Pavelski, Alexander Radulov and John Klingberg can become unrestricted free agents after next season, and, yes, Ben Bishop, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are getting older. But if this year has taught us anything, it's that young players can step up and become key components in the core of the team.
Jason Robertson, 21, was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year, but then finished with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in 51 games and is a legitimate candidate for rookie of the year. Jake Oettinger, meanwhile, posted an 11-8-7 record with a 2.36 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. The 22-year-old netminder looked like a calm veteran for much of the year.
Robertson and Oettinger, along with Stars prospect defenseman Ryan Shea, are competing in the 2021 IIHF Men's World Championship in Riga, Latvia. Robertson co-leads Team USA is scoring with four points (two goals, two assists) while Oettinger is 1-0 after a 26-save performance in a relief appearance against Canada. You can follow Oettinger, Robertson and Shea's quest for gold at Worlds here.
So as Nill looks at some tough decisions this summer, he has the option of trusting the youth. There is plenty there, it seems, in the form of some very good prospects who excelled in the AHL and might be ready to take the next step.
"I think we're in a good position, because we have the flexibility to add or we have the flexibility to stay within and give the opportunity to the younger players," Nill said.
With the NHL facing a "flat cap" situation for a few years because of the economic levers that were triggered by the pandemic, there's a chance that top players will get their raises causing role players to be more affordable in free agency. Because of that, Nill said he can't really comment on what the Stars will do until he sees the players and the possible contracts.
"It all depends on situations around the league," Nill said. "We have a flat cap, and that's going to force teams and players to make tough decisions. We have an expansion draft to get through, and that'll change situations for all teams. So then you look at the summer and there could be trades or free agents that are more viable because of the economics. Honestly, I'm really interested to see what the free-agent pool is going to be and what the cost will be for free agents. When we get to that point, it could change the thinking for a lot of teams."
Many fans fear that acquiring more veterans will block the way for younger players, but Nill said he doesn't look at it that way. Robertson, for example, earned more minutes and respect from the coaching staff with his play. He said others like Riley Damiani or Adam Mascherin can do the same thing.
"It won't block them," Nill said. "I think we saw with Robertson this year, if you step up and you force your way in, there's room there. And I think we have that same situation with the Damianis or the Mascherins. If they play well, they will get their chances."
Damiani is at the top of the list of prospects to watch for next season. Selected in the fifth round (137th overall) in 2018, the skilled center has put together three consistent scoring campaigns. Damiani had a breakout year with Kitchener in the OHL in 2018-19 with 85 points (30 goals, 55 assists) in 58 games. He followed that with 78 points (28 goals, 50 assists) for Kitchener in 2019-20. Then, he led all Texas Stars scorers with 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 36 games during the shortened 2020-21 season and was named to AHL All-Rookie Team on May 25.
Damiani is listed at 5-10, 170, so he lacks in NHL size, but he's shown he can make an impact on the game.
"He's got great hockey sense and he's very competitive," Nill said. "His stature physically is not big, but his heart is very big. He doesn't back down from anything, and he's a dangerous player."
The other thing Damiani has is good two-way habits. Like fellow 2018 pick Ty Dellandrea (13th overall), Damiani could work his way in on a third or fourth line and not look out of place. That could give the Stars more of an offensive element throughout the lineup.
"There's a lot of things we have to teach in terms of position and structure," Texas Stars coach Neil Graham said of Damiani. "He understands that stuff so well that he has very good special awareness, both offensively and defensively. Where do I go to create time and space offensively? Where should I be to limit time and space from the other team? As a [centerman], those are characteristics that can take you a long way."
Mascherin is more of a pure goal-scorer, but the Stars could definitely use some of that at the NHL level. Mascherin had 18 goals among 34 points in 37 games last season after missing much of the 2019-20 season due to shoulder surgery.
"He took advantage of the pandemic and had a great season," Nill said. "He's got a great shot and is good around the net. He's got a goal-scorer's mentality. He helped himself a lot this year."
Mascherin, 22, worked hard after the surgery, and took the next step. Graham said he can get even better.
"He has to make plays moving his feet, and I think it's important he embraces all the positive changes he made, getting lighter, getting faster," Graham said. "Those things are all great. Now he has to stay the course with that. That'll help his consistency moving forward as you look at the next level and Dallas camp coming up."
Thomas Harley, meanwhile, played in the AHL at 19 and ranked second in scoring among AHL defensemen with 25 points (8 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games. He also benefitted from the pandemic, as it shut down the OHL and allowed Harley to play up a league.
"For Thomas to have the opportunity to play in the American Hockey League, I think, was huge for his development," Nill said. "He's another guy who took advantage of the situation brought about by the pandemic, and I think it was really the best thing for him."
Harley, Damiani, Mascherin and Dellandrea clearly will be in the mix to make the NHL roster next season, but Nill added that even he's not sure what changes will be made until this summer. He said there will be a fresh crop of new AHLers coming in, a group from overseas, and there could be new veterans, as well. It's all part of trying to be competitive every season.
No matter what changes are made after next season, the Stars still have a young core in players like Robertson, 21, Oettinger, 22, Miro Heiskanen, 21, Roope Hintz, 24 and Denis Gurianov, 23. Add to that the group that is pushing to bust through in September, and Nill's plan of tending to both the present and the future seems quite viable.
"If you look at the league, it doesn't take long for these younger players to start making a difference," Nill said of the trend toward younger players taking a bigger bite earlier in their respective careers. "Now, everyone is different and you have to prove you belong, but you're definitely seeing players like Robertson and Oettinger step in and make a difference. And now players like Heiskanen and Hintz, guys who came in a few years ago, they're part of the core of the team. I really do believe we're positioned well to be competitive for years to come."
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.
Additional photo credit: Texas Stars