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Heading in the right direction

Stars prospect Riley Tufte looking to build on freshman season in college

by Mark Stepneski @StarsInsideEdge / Inside Edge

You can't read a lot into what you see on the ice at Dallas Stars development camp. Players aren't there to be evaluated but to get acclimated to the organization, work on some skills, learn how to train and soak in what it takes to be a pro hockey player. But it was hard not to notice forward Riley Tufte at this year's camp.

Tufte, who is listed at 6-6, 210 pounds, was one of the biggest guys on the ice. And he stood out in drills with his skating, his ability to control the puck and being able to dominate along the boards with his size and strength. If you had seen him one year ago at camp, the growth in his development was evident.

And growth is what the Stars saw from Tufte, the team's first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, over the course of his freshman season at the University of Minnesota Duluth. After a slow start due to missing time with a wrist injury, the big left wing finished the season with 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 37 games.

"Big step for him," said Stars GM Jim Nill. "What really excited us is the last half of the season is he really took off. He was a dominant force in the playoffs. We are looking for great things from him this season back in Duluth."

Tufte missed the first four games of the season due to the injury, which he suffered during the offseason, but finished strong, registering all 16 points in his final 23 games.  

"I went the first [14 games] without scoring or getting a point. Everything after that just kind of fell into place, after Christmas break," Tufte said. "It was awesome. I felt healthy. I felt I was playing well the first half, but it just didn't go my way points-wise. If anyone was there watching they wouldn't say I was playing bad."

Among his 16 points were one goal and two assists in four NCAA tournament games as the Bulldogs advanced to the Frozen Four and then the national championship game, where they lost 3-2 to the University of Denver.

"Not too many people get to play in a national championship game when you are a freshman," he said. "We had a really good team last year, and now I know what it takes to make it to a national championship."

One of the big challenges for Tufte coming out of high school, where he dominated, was the stiffer competition in college hockey where many of the players are in their 20s.

"It was a little different from high school," Tufte said. "Guys are a little bigger, stronger and faster. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it's good now."

He took advantage of the routine of college hockey where games are played mostly on weekends, and then the rest of the week is for practice and time in the gym. Tufte was able to work on bulking up and adding strength.

"I've put on ten pounds since last year," Tufte said. "I've noticed it on the ice. I am faster and knocking guys off the puck. It's been a good process so far."

And the first year of being a college student was good as well. Living life on his own was a new experience, but with the help of some of his more experienced teammates, Tufte settled in there.

The Stars drafted Tufte in the first round (25th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft out of Blaine High School in Minnesota, where he won the 2016 Mr. Hockey Award as the top senior high school hockey player in Minnesota after putting up 78 points (47 goals, 31 assists) in just 25 games. He also played for Fargo in the United States Hockey League, scoring ten goals and adding four assists in 27 games.

Tufte was projected to go somewhere in the 20-range during the first round of the draft, but Red Line Report, an independent scouting service, had him ranked 15th overall.

"Exceptional physical tools," Red Line said in its 2016 Draft Guide. "Big horse is a freight train gathering speed as he barrels down the wing. Has a really dynamic combination of size, speed, and puckhandling ability."

"An exceptional prospect," said Joe McDonnell, Stars director of amateur scouting.

Tufte was on the radar for a roster spot with the USA's 2017 World Junior team, landing an invitation to the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, New York last August. But he broke his wrist in a game against Sweden at the camp, sidelining him until mid-October and contributing to that slow start in his freshman campaign at Minnesota Duluth.

Tufte has a shot at the World Juniors again in 2018. He'll attend the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in late July with hopes of cracking the roster for the 2018 tournament, which will be played in Buffalo.

"I am excited for it," he said. "We'll see how things go, but I think I have a good chance of making it. I just have to go there and prove myself."

Tufte's showing in camp will be one factor and so will the start to his sophomore season at Minnesota Duluth. After a strong second half last season, he's in a good spot.

"I am going in the right direction," Tufte said. "Getting a year under my belt was huge for me. Going in there and knowing what I need to do. I think it will be a good season and I think I am going to play a bigger role this year. I am excited for that."

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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